Vilmos Zsigmond, 'Close Encounters' Cinematographer, Dies at 85

Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP
Vilmos Zsigmond

A master of cinematography, he contributed to films by Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Michael Cimino and Woody Allen.

Vilmos Zsigmond, one of Hollywood's highly influential cinematographers who won an Oscar for his lensing of the alien visittions in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, has died at 85, The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed. 

Zsigmond also received Oscar nominations for his work on The Deer Hunter (1978), The River (1984) and, more recently, The Black Dahlia (2006).

During a long, prolific career, he shot a wide array of films for top directors: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (2002) for Robert Altman; Blow Out and The Bonfire of the Vanities (Brian De Palma); The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino); Maverick and Assassins (Richard Donner); Deliverance (John Boorman); The Sugarland Express and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg); Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra’s Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen); and The River (Mark Rydell).

The Hungarian-born Zsigmond was taught in the European style of cinematography with particular appreciation for light gradations and color tone, Zsigmond’s work was noted for its use of natural light and often subdued palette, as visible in such films as McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). To attain this look, he utilized a photographic technique known as “flashing,” exposing the negative to a small amount of light before lensing. The procedure would ultimately mute the colors.

Zsigmond was born on June 16, 1930, in Szeged, Hungary. His father, a legendary Hungarian soccer player, encouraged his childhood interest in film. Zsigmond attended the Budapest Film School where he formed a friendship with fellow student Laszlo Kovacs, who also went on to become one of Hollywood's most influential directors of photography. 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 recorded the conflict. The pair then embarked 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. He and Kovacs culled their footage into a documentary, Hungary Aflame. Later, CBS bought it for a network documentary on the Hungarian Revolution narrated by Walter Cronkite. 

Zgigmond gained his U.S. citizenship in 1962. He went on to leave his mark on the American New Wave of the late '60s and early '70s.

The director of photography received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1999 as well as Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. He also won the ASC Award for the Movie-of-the-Week Stalin. He received two other nominations from the professional organization for The Ghost and the Darkness and The Black Dahlia.

The cinematographer won a BAFTA Film Award for The Deer Hunter as well as nominations for McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Images, Deliverance and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He won a National Society of Film Critics Award for Robert Altman’s updating of Raymond Chandler’s detective novel The Long Goodbye (1973).

In television, Zsigmond also won an Emmy for his photography of Stalin and received a nomination for The Mists of Avalon (2001). He had recently served as cinematographer on The Mindy Project.

Zsigmond's death closely follows that of another master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who died on Dec. 27. "A second giant has left us within the same week," said American Society of Cinematographers president Richard Crudo. "Vilmos Zsigmond was one of the rare cinematographers who helped redefine not just the way movies look, but the way we look at them as well. Every member and associate of the ASC loved and respected him...and we will always miss him."

International Cinematographers Guild president Steve Poster noted that in 2003 Zsigmond was voted by guild members as one of the top 10 influential cinematographers of all time. Zsigmond was a mentor to Poster who worked on some of his films. 

"As one of our most esteemed members, Vilmos was an inspiration and mentor to many of us in the International Cinematographers Guild," said Poster. "I was privileged to work as his 2nd unit DP on three of his movies. We all knew what a giant he was as an artist at the time. But working up close with him, I also learned about perseverance and an obligation to the story from the master."

Read Poster's full statement below. 

The cinematography world lost a great talent today. Vilmos’ genius was not only in his images, but in his sense of duty to honest storytelling.

As one of our most esteemed members, Vilmos was an inspiration and mentor to many of us in the International Cinematographers Guild. In 2003, our members voted him one of the top 10 influential cinematographers of all time. I was privileged to work as his 2nd unit DP on three of his movies. We all knew what a giant he was as an artist at the time. But working up close with him, I also learned about perseverance and an obligation to the story from the master.

There is not a member at the International Cinematographers Guild who has not been impacted by his brilliant photography and his personal story. His brave beginnings providing footage from the Hungarian revolution will always be an important part of his legacy and to future generations of cinematographers and film students. He made a difference.

He will continue to be an inspiration to cinematographers everywhere.

Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report. 

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