The soft-spoken and humble Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” also nominated for “The Deer Hunter,” “The River,” and “The Black Dahlia”) sat down this past summer to answer questions about his impressive career as part of Toronto International Film Festival’s Higher Learning program. (As a quick aside to our Canadian readers, we encourage you to check out TIFF’s Post-Secondary Programmes: “Higher Learning is a free ongoing programme that provides Canadian college and university students and faculty a forum in which to examine film, television, video, new media and gaming from a wide range of cultural, social, historical, political and technological approaches and disciplines.”) TIFF just published the talk and we think it’s worth a watch.
Over the course of the discussion, Zsigmond talks about the importance of film, modern versus historical cinema, and even how he made his transition from the athletically ambitious son of a famous Hungarian soccer goalkeeper to an Academy Award-winning cinematographer. As a young man, Zsigmond worked in a factory. Not content with his status in life, he began teaching photography to his coworkers through a club. The burgeoning cinematographer parlayed that into film school.
He talks about his collaboration with the heavily improvisational Robert Altman. At around the ten-minute mark, he claims, “Everybody was asking me, I did three films with Robert Altman—what happened after that? Why didn’t I work more with Robert?” According to Zsigmond, it wasn’t really his choice. He claims he would have spent the rest of his life working with Altman, had it been up to him. Despite the relatively brief partnership (which included “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Images,” and “The Long Goodbye”), Zsigmond said he learned invaluable lessons about filmmaking from Altman and the myriad actors who passed through his productions.
One of the most interesting sound bites comes a little later, though, at around the 19-minute mark, where Zsigmond talks about black and white film versus special effects. “Black and white is like an abstract form, because we don’t see the world in black and white. Some people maybe do see—lucky people—but really, it is an abstraction of real life. It’s not real. Sometimes it’s more real than reality. That’s the beauty of it. It’s an art form, and unfortunately we are losing that. Today, we are losing it, because we think now that special effects, we can do everything, and I don’t know what’s happening basically… The effects are overtaking everything.” Zsigmond continues, that we’ve lost sight of the fact that movies should be about images and human stories, both of which are lost to a dependence on special effects.
Be sure to watch the entire 70-minute interview below.