The Sunday Conversation: Vilmos Zsigmond’s technique comes into focus


At 83 on June 16, Vilmos Zsigmond — regarded as one of the 10 most influential cinematographers by the International Cinematographers Guild — still has a full plate. The Big Sur-based cinematographer for such classic ‘70s films as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Deer Hunter” has a new movie coming out June 21 — “Compulsion,” a psychological thriller about two women who live next door to each other.

What did you do to make “Compulsion” sing in a big theater?

We shot it the way we used to make movies in Hollywood and Europe. And mostly I would think about the ‘50s and ‘60s.


That really came across. I know that you’re known for bright colors, but “Compulsion” really evoked Technicolor for me. Was that your intent?

No; actually it was, partly. The character [played by] Heather Graham, she really wants to become a TV cook, and we decided we were going to have a hyper-real, interesting [look], almost like a dream kind of a thing. The other character, played by Carrie-Ann Moss, is actually darker. We saturated the colors, like a film noir kind of a style. When we are dealing with her youth, then we actually kept some color [on Moss’ character], dominating the feel of mostly a black-and-white look.

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How did you do that?

It’s easier when you shoot digital. You eliminate the color and select the color you have to put back. I did the same thing in “Black Dahlia.” I like to play with saturation, depending on the story.

We [Zsigmond and “Compulsion” director Egidio Coccimiglio] were working together so well. The first time we got together, he flew up to Big Sur and we talked about how the movie should look. The movies we like were almost identical. We love movies of Polanski, Bergman, Antonioni, Hitchcock, mostly black-and-white photography, film noir. And we talked about black-and-white still photography. A Hungarian still photographer I learned a lot from was Eugene Dulovits.

I wanted to ask you whether you borrowed from Hitchcock when you shot “Compulsion.”

Absolutely, I did. Hitchcock was making these kinds of movies, and I learned a lot from him. I thought a lot about that revolution in the movies, that suspenseful kind of storytelling. It also showed in the lighting. One of the apartments we kept dark for the [character] who doesn’t like light.

And I learned a lot from Woody Allen because I did three movies with him and he loves long-lasting shots. He’d start with a wide-angle shot, and then the camera dolly would move closer and closer and he doesn’t cut away. With modern movies, you’re shaking your head because there are so many cuts.

Sections of the film are separated by city images that are edited really fast. Does fast editing change the way you shoot?

Yes, actually it does. In modern editing, which basically borrows a lot from music videos, they go on for three seconds and there’s a cut and another cut and another cut. I feel like it disturbs the ambience. I don’t think good storytelling is done with fast cuts. And also, I hate hand-held shots.

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The film opens with a candlelit scene. How is the way you shot it different from the way you would have shot a candlelit scene for film?

I never really shot differently. Maybe the light. In [the past] three years, I shot three digital movies in my style. I didn’t change my style. I still use a light meter. For me, it’s faster to read the light with a light meter and not depend on the [camera] screen. So I didn’t change much because a film shot with a digital camera should not look any different than if you were shooting it on film.

But do you have to use different lighting to achieve that?

No. The only thing is maybe you can use less light because a digital technique in still photography is very sensitive. That’s why it’s very difficult to light a digital film because you get lazy. You light everywhere and get too much light. I practically eliminate all the available light because even at night, you have too much light. In film, we had to light everything and we were telling the story in light and shadow. The shadows are more important than the light itself.

Do you miss shooting film at all?

I actually miss the simplicity of the film camera, not so much the electronics involved, not looking at the lighting on a screen. Not where the lighting is done to everybody’s standard — the producer, the director, the editor, other people who are there all comment. I firmly believe that cinematographers keep learning until they die. New movies should look different from the old ones. So I think I’m an expert in lighting, and when too many people start knowing a lot about it, or they think they know a lot, that can be a problem.

You learned about lighting in part from Dutch painters. What did you learn from them?

Those were really the early cinematographers. Many times it was so dark in the studio that they had to use candles and all kinds of artificial light and they became masters of lighting their paintings.

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When you first came to the U.S., you used the first name William. When did you become comfortable using your Hungarian name?

I didn’t really care much what my name was, but Peter Fonda became a director and he hired me for his first movie, “The Hired Hand” [1971]. And he said, “You don’t look like a William. You have a Hungarian accent. What was your name in Hungary?” “Well, it was Vilmos.” “What a beautiful name.” And he gave me my first credit in the movies as Vilmos Zsigmond.

You still teach a two-week seminar in Hungary every two years?

Yes, I do that and also we started a new school in Los Angeles called the Global Cinematography Institute. We are trying to teach the new digital cinematographers to go back and watch old classics. And I try to teach lighting, because they start forgetting that digital photography has to be lit as well. I like to be the bridge between old times and new times. I feel that it’s a must for me to give back to the young generation. We’re now in the second year, and we’re getting students from all over the world.