Interview with Director of Photography and GCI Co-Founder Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (Instructor: Lighting for Feature Films)


At Global Cinematography Institute, our instructors are innovators in their respective fields. Few individuals are more qualified to discuss the artistic and creative role of the cinematographer through techniques in camera and lighting, than Oscar-winning GCI Co-Founder Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC.


A world-known cinematographer due to his use of innovative visual techniques and dynamic mood lighting, Vilmos is one of the most recognizable and established cinematographers in the industry. From his innovative early work with Director Robert Altman on "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", to his Oscar-winning collaboration with Steven Spielberg on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", and to his later films such as "The Black Dahlia" with Director Brian DePalma - Vilmos' work has spanned over six decades.


Global Cinematography Institute: What are your thoughts on the Digital Era?


Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC: The problem with all these big changes is that we are turning away from film. When in those days we had more say on the overall look of the film, and we had a role through all stages of production. But now, in a digital era where its hard to view a reliable image from the sensor on camera, and monitors around set are more and more available; everyone can see the lighting progress, and everyone has an opinion thinking they can be a cinematographer; then standards change.


Cinematographers have a trained eye for visual story telling and help the story guiding the audience’s eye. This flood of opinions and “acceptable images” at early stages of lighting end up being more counter productive for the movie.


It’s a matter of looking back at the History of Cinema and evaluating how important the visuals are to tell a story. We can clearly see this in the Silent Era, when it was all about visuals; then the sound era came along and we still needed great images to create mood. And then came color…  some people thought that was it, but they still realized we needed good cinematography to enhance the story. This took about two years.


I think it will be the same with digital, but it is also taking some time. This only makes our job harder and harder, and they want us to move faster when time is of value for quality lighting. It is just a draining thing to have to “teach” or explain to people why we need the proper tools and time for lighting to do our job right, and we should not have to.


For institutions and people from my generation, the responsibility to show and teach about older films is very important. It is clear we need to promote the classic movies, foreign cinema, and good cinema to try to save the technique and the artistry of creating emotionally strong images. That is what we want to do at GCI. Because we can still shoot good movies on digital, we just need to know how, and have the right priorities.


What was your relationship like with the VFX department in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?


Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC: We worked close together. Douglas Trumbull (SFX Supervisor) is a genius, he also worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and he did a great job on every project. We had to work very close so that optical tricks would always match; it is the same as today almost… Except today I feel like effects are “too good”, too sharp in a way. We need to find a balance between then and now.


Do you think VFX and Digital Intermediate brings new aesthetic possibilites to film?


Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC: Well it does help us, but mainly fixing the images. Before we could not be perfect even though sometimes we wanted to, and now we come closer. But back then we did much more on set, and respected matching images much more too.


But it is dangerous sometimes when we are not involved because images are changed from the intended outcome, and that defeats the purpose for me. It feels like its more a stage now where people want to “play” with the footage, but they don’t involve us because they don’t want to have to pay us. It is a double-edged sword.


Do you think it is better now than when DI started more than a decade ago?


Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC: The same for me. It is still a battle of interests and big studios rather make a more expensive movie that will have money for advertising and a better chance to recover, compared to a small good quality film. DI or no DI. Attendances in movie theaters are shrinking. And productions are worried about making investments back. Independent movies or Low budget are some of the only ones doing artistic photography nowadays because they are not thinking about selling.


Interview conducted by recent GCI Alumnus Clara Bianchi, as part of her on-going thesis examination of the changing role of the cinematographer.