'Close Encounters' Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond Remembered at Memorial Service

“He revealed the magnificent light that lives in the human spirit,” camera operator Joe Urbanczyk said during the ceremony.
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Vilmos Zsigmond

Vilmos Zsigmond was remembered as a brave hero, a generous teacher and individual and a master talent who changed the art of cinematography during a memorial service held Saturday at the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) Clubhouse in Hollywood.

One of the world’s most influential cinematographers, Zsigmond passed away Jan. 1 at the age of 85. He won an Oscar in 1978 for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and earned additional nominations for The Deer Hunter (1978), The River (1984) and The Black Dahlia (2006). Zsigmond received the 1999 ASC Lifetime Achievement Award, and his credits also included McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990).

The estimated 150 who came out to honor Zsigmond at the memorial service were fellow ASC Lifetime Achievement honorees Owen Roizman (The French Connection), Stephen Burum (Hoffa) and John Bailey (The Big Chill), along with string of ASC member cinematographers, friends, family, and those representing his native Hungary.

The Hungarian-born Zsigmond was taught in the European style of cinematography with particular appreciation for light gradations and color tone. While a student at Budapest Film School, he formed a friendship with fellow student Laszlo Kovacs (Easy Rider), who also went on to become one of Hollywood's most influential directors of photography.

As their famous story goes, in 1956 when the Soviet Union rolled its tanks into Budapest, Zsigmond and Kovacs borrowed film and a camera from their school, hid the camera in a paper bag with a hole for the lens and photographed the conflict. The pair then risked their lives on a dangerous journey during which they carried 30,000 feet of documentary film across the border into Austria. They entered the U.S. as political refugees in 1957, and the footage was later aired on CBS for a documentary about the conflict, narrated by Walter Cronkite. Zsigmond gained his U.S. citizenship in 1962, and went on to leave his mark on the American New Wave of the late '60s and early '70s.

“If you want to see his impact look around,” said ASC president Richard Crudo, who presided over the service. “My generation looked up to him in awe. Everything we see today on screens big and small are in some way related to the originality of his work.”

“My years work with Vilmos were the best and hardest of my career, “ said Michael Gershman, who had served as Zsigmond’s first assistant and camera operator for many years. “His only rule were there were no rules. He challenged everyone to be better at their jobs. He would see things that nobody else would see.

“He taught me about light, camera movement and composition — and about wine. He liked to start with wine as a way to say ‘let’s make a nice movie,’ ” he added.

“None of these memories or history would be possible if not for one word — and this word isn’t political, it’s philosophical — immigration,” remarked ASC past president Woody Omens. “Without immigration, it would have been a great loss for the country not to have had Vilmos … and a great loss for Hollywood, for the film industry, for the ASC. It would have been a great loss for (his wife) Susan, not to meet the love of her life. And it would have been a great loss of all of his students.”

Director and cinematographer James Chressanthis, who made the  2008 documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos,  recalled that Zsigmond once said of teaching, "When you are successful, you help the next person.' He was so humble and sharing of his knowledge. ... And when he was awarded the Oscar, he said 'I want to thank the American people for giving me a second life, and he also thanked his Hungarian mentors. He never forgot where he came from and neither should we.”

“If he had nothing else but Hungary, his place in film history would be secure. But he did so much more,” said camera operator Joe Urbanczyk. "He was a man in perpetual search for perfection. ... and he brought out the best in everyone who worked with him. He taught us the delicate balance between light and shadows, not just in film, but in our own lives. He revealed the magnificent light that lives in the human spirit.”

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