Lighting: Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC
Shedding Light on Filming
A wide-ranging discussion with Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, on his techniques for lighting films.
Vilmos Zsigmond may not be a household name but within the industry, he is a highly honored practitioner of the filming arts. His filmography includes masterworks such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, and The Sugarland Express.
Known for his use of natural light where possible, Zsigmond has many tricks up his sleeve and shares some of them with us.
“I try to be very honest with lighting,” he begins. “I always want to see the sources for the light in the room. I want them to be real for the location and what’s there, and I don’t want to work against it. People will realize they are not seeing the ‘real thing.’ On the other hand, I like to design and place those light sources myself, to follow up the mood of the scene with my style of lighting. I would say it is a little bit better than just simply real, but it’s still real.”
Zsigmond admits to being influenced by master artists — the kind who used oil paints, not film — in his work. “Painters have a choice of how to paint their creations. They can select their light sources, like the Dutch Masters or French painter Georges de La Tour, who liked to play with candles or shafts of lights to do the lighting-centered painting that he is known for.”
As a director of photography, Zsigmond has a long relationship with the medium of film. Today, so much of the industry has converted to digital imaging that “old-school” cinematographers might be excused if they long for the old ways. How will artists of light like Zsigmond change to adapt to digital? “I don’t think it will make a difference to what I am doing. A digital camera is just a tool. I can’t understand why people are so afraid of digital cameras. Still, some younger or newer cinematographers, working with digital cameras, may not have experience in lighting. We were trained to create the mood of a scene, mainly with lighting. I shot a digital film, a dance film, and I lit it the same way I would light a film movie. I don’t think anybody could tell that I shot it on digital because that’s the way I approached it.”
Digital cinematography can be considered a good thing or a bad thing. “The good thing is that you can easily get a digital camera and practice doing low-budget movies,” acknowledges Zsigmond. “You can even do a personal movie with a small cast in an inexpensive way. It is good that students can get ahold of these cameras. But the bad thing is that in order to become a great cinematographer you have to know about lighting. Too many digital cinematographers today don’t pay attention to lighting. Lighting does make the difference. A good movie, if it’s lit right, creates the mood in every scene.”
He adds, “You have to accept the idea that for a good feature film, the lighting has to fit the mood of the story. Those who start out learning cinematography digitally can have a problem. You turn the camera on and you already have an image, even when the scene isn’t lit right. So it’s easy for a producer, looking at the monitor, to say, ‘Let’s shoot, I really like what I see.’ As a cinematographer, you might have a hard time convincing people that it would be better if you lit the scene properly. That’s a big problem, to learn to do the right lighting for each scene.”
The basic challenge in cinematography has always been the use of light to create or enhance a scene. The ability to “paint with light” differentiates the master from the acolyte. “Correct!” exclaims Zsigmond. “This is also true for digital movies like Slumdog Millionaire or 127 Hours by Anthony Dod Mantle. I like his use of lighting, which looks more natural than mine. His close ups are really marvelous. His use of a tiny digital camera is important. He uses cameras that he can put into small spaces very close to the actor’s face.”
Lighting has been a point of contention between studios, directors, and DPs. Zsigmond recalls one “close encounter” he had with a studio. “Steven Spielberg was always in charge on his films. Close Encounters was really disturbing to the studio because we started with a budget around $10 million and we ended up spending around $30 million. But the dailies were incredibly successful. That’s why everybody said we didn’t have a choice; we had to go on and on and on until it was done.”
The studio, however, felt that a different DP might keep costs down better than Zsigmond was doing. “They contacted many DP’s who had previous experience in special effects movies to come in and take over, but they wouldn’t,” he remembers. “A lot of lights were required because many locations were found late and they required an amount of lighting that wasn’t in the original budget.”
He continues, “The first day we went into the big hanger where the landing spot scene was about to shoot, and I asked Steven when we were going to pre-light the set. He replied, ‘Well, it’s lit.’ I looked around and said, ‘I don’t see anything lit, except those four stadium lights in the corner of the set, and they are lighting up the hanger. I don’t see any lights coming from the doors or windows of the buildings, or on the landing field.’ Doug Trumball was the special effects designer — he also worked with Stanley Kubrik on 2001: A Space Odyssey — and he said, ‘I’m sorry to say, but I think Vilmos is right. This is a classy picture. This is a different kind of picture. This is bigger than life.’ So the budget went up incredibly, and they said that was all my fault because I didn’t tell them what we needed beforehand. But if I would have told them that before we started shooting, we probably couldn’t have gotten what we wanted.”
The problem was in the planning. “It was not discussed properly in pre-production,” Zsigmond notes. “It was not planned to make this a big movie. So it was basically a production issue. The proper discussion would have added another week of filming and they were not up for making this movie a big movie.”
One of the memorable scenes in Close Encounters was when the aliens descended from their spaceship. As in so many situations, the end result is more emotional because of the lighting. Zsigmond: “I had to change the lighting that was done by the rigging crew before I even walked onto the set. 1,000 1K Quartz lights were hanging from the ceiling. It seemed like this would be a tremendous amount of light coming from the ship. But it wasn’t the quantity of the light; it was the quality that we needed. When we turned on the smoke generator and all the lights, the effect was not working; there was no magic.”
And if nothing else, films like Close Encounters have to provide that magic. “I realized we should have used HMI spot lights instead of so many bulbs,” says Zsigmond. “So we replaced the bulbs with spotlights, and the shafts of light still did not appear. We had already placed a huge mirror at a 30-degree angle on the floor of the spacecraft exit, but the shafts were still not appearing.”
All smoke and mirrors, the set was still in trouble. “We probably should have used about 1,000 small mirrors instead of one large mirror in order to break up the light,” thought Zsigmond. “My key grip was listening and said, ‘Did you consider breaking that big mirror into 1,000 smaller pieces?’ So we took some hammers and did what we had to do; we broke up the large mirror. That’s what actually created the different angles and broke up the light.”
In post-production, Trumball added the alien ships flying over the landing area and they all had spotlights. Zsigmond explains, “We had to have very bright spot lights that simulated these lights. Because our set was so big, we bunched three 10K Fresnel lights together in a spot position and panned with them like it was one big spotlight. We also used colored gels on the lights. All these extra lights, generators, and electricians that we ordered increased the budget tremendously.”
Zsigmond has a special fondness for one film he worked on, The Deer Hunter. “It is a complete film and I like everything about it. I like the cast; I like what the actors did; I like the directing. It was a great collaborative effort. I remember how happy I was when doing that film because I had a great time with Michael Cimino, a talented director with many good ideas. He lets the people around him be collaborators and I had 100 percent input in that movie. Michael didn’t always tell me how to set up the light or set up the camera, he left it up to me most of the time. Sometimes we did it together, and sometimes he just let me do it. He gave me a lot of freedom in that sense.”
Freedom like that is earned the hard way, by learning the trade and showing your capability over many films. Zsigmond has been nominated four times for an Academy Award — he won the Best Cinematography Award for Close Encounters — and twice for primetime Emmy Awards, winning once for Stalin. He’s brought home many other awards, including the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.
Throughout his career, which started in 1956 covertly filming the revolution in his native Hungary, Zsigmond has studied and practiced the art of lighting. Taking his inspiration from the classic artists, he cautions new cinematographers, “You have to remember all the time there is a big difference between a guy painting the wall in a room with a roller and an actual painter doing a painting like Rembrandt using a brush.”
Vilmos Zsigmond presents special classes at the Global Cinematography Institute in Hollywood where students and experienced DPs alike can learn even more from a master of light on how to use that “brush” to best effect.
This article contains excerpts from an interview with Vilmos Zsigmond , ASC conducted by Yuri Neyman, ASC, both well-known directors of photography and founders of Global Cinematography Institute, and published in the Gamma and Density Journal http://gammadensity.com/journal/GD-JOURNAL-MAR-2011.pdf.