By Bob Fisher
Billy Bitzer, Jordan Cronenweth, ASC, Conrad L. Hall, ASC, James Wong Howe, ASC, Sven Nykvist, ASC, Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC, Gregg Toland, ASC, Haskell Wexler, ASC, Gordon Willis, ASC, Freddie Young, BSC, and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC topped an eclectic list of “most influential” cinematographers in a survey of International Cinematographers Guild members.
“We didn’t ask members to select the most talented cinematographers, because that would be like asking artists to choose between Dali and Rembrandt,” says ICG National President George Spiro Dibie, ASC. “We invited them to choose the cinematographers who have done the most to influence the art form. More than 300 cinematographers received votes.”
The list of the top 11 includes cinematographers whose work spans the history of the industry. Bitzer, Howe, Toland and Young were in the first and second generation of cinematographers who literally invented a new visual language. Cronenweth, Hall, Nykvist, Storaro, Wexler, Willis, and Zsigmond were in the front ranks of a new wave of cinematographers who brought diverse backgrounds and different ways of thinking to mainstream filmmaking during the 1950s, ‘60s and 70s.
ICG released the names in alphabetical order, noting that there are 11 names because of a tie for the 10th spot. The Guild also announced names of other 19 cinematographers who ranked in the top 30. They are Nestor Almendros, ASC, Stanley Cortez, ASC, Allen Daviau, ASC, Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, Caleb Deschanel, ASC, George Spiro Dibie, ASC, William Fraker, ASC, Karl Freund, ASC, Janusz Kaminski, ASC, Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC, Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, Arthur Miller, ASC, Robert Richardson, ASC, Owen Roizman, ASC, Leon Shamroy, ASC, Dante Spinotti, ASC, Harry Stradling, ASC, Robert Surtees, ASC, and John Toll, ASC.
The 11 most influential are profiled below.
Billy Bitzer, ASC
Billy Bitzer, ASC began his career during the 1890s. He invented such innovative techniques as the close-up, soft focus, fade-outs and backlighting as components of the grammar of visual storytelling. Bitzer also pioneered selective focus techniques for unobtrusively drawing attention to an actor or action in a scene. In 1906, Bitzer teamed up with an ordinary actor named D.W. Griffith, who became a legendary director. Their collaboration continued for nearly 20 years, resulting in such classic motion pictures as Broken Blossoms, Intolerance and Birth of a Nation. Griffith is still revered by movie fans and critics around the world, while the memory of Bitzer has dimmed. ICG President George Spiro Dibie, ASC observes that the reason cinematographers don’t get the credit they deserve is that their work is meant to be transparent to audiences.
Jordan Cronenweth, ASC
Jordan Cronenweth, ASC was born and raised in Los Angeles, where his father was a studio portrait photographer. He studied his father’s techniques for using light and shadows to interpret faces and began his career in the still lab at Columbia Pictures. Cronenweth said that’s where he learned to take “one picture at a time.” He seized an opportunity to work as an assistant cameraman on a crew led by Conrad L. Hall. Cronenweth worked with Hall on Hell in the Pacific, Harper, In Cold Blood and other films. He earned his first cinematography credit in 1970 for Brewster McCloud. Cronenweth’s credits include Zandy’s Bride, The Front Page, Cutter’s Way, Altered States, Gardens of Stone and Peggy Sue Got Married, for which he received an Oscar nomination. His artful and interpretive rendering of images in the 1982 classic Blade Runner is considered a milestone in the evolution of filmmaking.
“Blade Runner called for extremes (in lighting),” he said. “It’s naturally a wonderful vehicle for this kind of lighting. It’s theatrical, but it will be very real on the screen. In this film, I think you will just accept it … it transcends theatricality.”
The cinematographer’s career was sadly affected and shortened by a long bout with Parkinson’s disease, which was diagnosed in 1978. While he did some of his best work after that diagnosis, including a memorable music video concert, U2: Rattle and Hum, the disease took his life in 1996 at the age of 61.
Conrad L. Hall, ASC
Conrad L. Hall, ASC was born and raised in a literary environment in Tahiti, where his father, James Norman Hall, co-authored Mutiny on the Bounty and other classic novels. He studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California, and spent the first decade of his career shooting commercials, industrial films and pick-up shots until he finally penetrated the Hollywood mainstream. Hall earned ten Oscar nominations during a career that spanned five decades. He took top honors for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition. His other nominations were for Morituri, The Professionals, In Cold Blood, Day of the Locust, Tequila Sunrise, Searching for Bobby Fischer and A Civil Action.
The word “fearless” inevitably comes up when other cinematographers speak about Hall. During a rehearsal for a jailhouse scene on In Cold Blood, he noticed that raindrops rolling down a window cast shadows that looked like tears on a killer’s face. Hall showed director Richard Brooks what was happening, and they agreed to shoot the scene that way. Hall called it a “happy accident,” a frequent occurrence in his films.
James Wong Howe, ASC
James Wong Howe, ASC was an immigrant from China who was brought to the United States by his father and stepmother at the age of five. He began his career at 17 as a janitor at Lasky Studios in Hollywood, when motion pictures were still silent and black and white, and cameras were hand cranked. Howe perfected such counterculture filmmaking techniques as low-key lighting, handheld cameras and deep focus. Todd Rainsberger quoted the cinematographer in his book James Wong Howe Cinematographer, “We (cameramen) had to find our own way, find our own methods. … There wasn’t much technique in those days; we just experimented.” Howe had to overcome racial prejudices that barred him from becoming a citizen of the United States. He became one of the defining filmmakers in the history of the industry, earning Oscars for his cinematography on The Rose Tattoo and Hud, and nominations for such classic films as Algiers, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Kings Row, The North Star, Air Force, The Old Man and the Sea, Seconds and Funny Lady.
Sven Nykvist, ASC
Sven Nykvist was born in Switzerland in 1922. He studied portrait photography and worked as a focus puller in Rome during the mid-1940s. Nykvist filmed documentaries during the beginning of his career. He collaborated with Ingmar Bergman for the first time in 1961 on Through a Glass Darkly. They made some 20 films together, including Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander, which won Oscars for cinematography. Nykvist photographed some 80 other motion pictures with other directors, including such memorable films as Agnes of God, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which earned him another Oscar nomination.
“The truth is always in a character’s eyes,” Nykvist said. “It is very important to light so the audience can see what’s behind each character’s eyes. … Everything comes down to lighting. There are so many types of light … gentle light and dream-like light, dead light, which is very flat with no shadows, and clear light which has more contrast, but not too much. There are many other types of light, and the differences are subtle.”
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC
Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC was born and raised in Rome, where his father was a projectionist at a film studio. He began studying photography at a technical school at the age of 11 and continued his education at the state film school in Rome. Storaro earned one of his first cinematography credits for The Conformist (Il Conformista), the beginning of his fruitful collaborations with director Bernardo Bertolucci. Storaro’s subsequent body of work includes three Oscars for Apocalypse Now, Reds and The Last Emperor. He earned an additional nomination for Dick Tracy. His credits also include 1900, Taxi, Tango, Tucker: A Man and His Dreams and Little Buddha. He also won an Emmy Award for his cinematography on the miniseries Dune.
About 15 years ago, while mentoring students at the American Film Institute, he offered simple and eloquent advice, “…human beings need to evolve … if we stood still we would still be painting graffiti on the walls of caves … we have a lot more freedom today to express ourselves … films are so sensitive we can come very close to achieving what we see in our minds…”
Gregg Toland, ASC
Gregg Toland, ASC was born in Illinois in 1904. He began his filmmaking career as an office boy at the age of 15 and advanced to assistant cameraman the following year. His experiments with lighting and lenses were revolutionary during the 1920s and ‘30s, a time when cinematographers were inventing a new language. Toland pioneered the use of deep focus and complex composition as techniques for visually punctuating dramatic scenes. At a time when most successful cinematographers were working under contract to major studios, he preferred collaborating with independent filmmakers, including Samuel Goldwyn. Toland’s credits include Citizen Kane, The Long Voyage Home, Intermezzo, Dean End and Les Miserables, for which he earned Oscar nominations. He took home the Academy Award for Wuthering Heights. His career was prematurely ended in 1948 when a fatal heart disease claimed his life at the age of 44.
Haskell Wexler, ASC
Haskell Wexler, ASC was born and raised in Chicago. He joined the U.S. Merchant Marines while he was still in his teens, because he felt it was his patriotic duty to participate in the battle against the Nazis. After the war, Wexler worked on documentaries and industrial films in Chicago. His early credits include such landmark independent features as Hoodlum Priest and America, America. That led to an opportunity to film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which earned an Oscar for cinematography. His subsequent film Bound For Glory also took top honors at the Academy Awards, and his other Oscar-nominated works include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Blaze and Matewan. Wexler is currently shooting Silver City directed by John Sayles.
Wexler said at an early point in his career, “People in this industry speak with a louder voice than the average person. We can make people laugh or cry. We can make them feel passion, love or hate. Because of the potency of our voice, we can’t separate the content of the movies we make from the art … that’s how history will judge us.”
Gordon Willis, ASC
Gordon Willis, ASC was the son of a make-up man at Warner Bros. Studio in Brooklyn during the 1930s. Willis tried his hand at acting in summer stock theaters, but his interest soon shifted to stage lighting and still photography. He spent four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War working on the production of training films. After the war, Willis was an assistant cameraman on documentaries and commercials. He earned his first narrative credit as a cinematographer for End of the Road in 1970. His credits include such classic films as Klute, The Godfather, The Paper Chase, The Godfather: Part II, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig and The Godfather: Part III. He earned Oscar nominations for the latter two. Willis was considered a maverick during most of his career because he routinely bent and broke the rules. He created a visual metaphor for a period look in The Godfather, and explored new ground by using shadows on Marlon Brando’s eyes to conceal what was in the godfather’s heart. Those innovative tactics sound routine today, but that’s because so many others have followed paths that Willis blazed.
Freddie Young, ASC
Freddie Young, ASC was born in England in 1902, just seven years after the first movie theater opened. He went to work as a lab technician at Gaumont Studios at the age of 14. Young once observed, “My family was concerned that I had chosen a precarious profession that could disappear at any moment.” He earned his first credit in 1926 for Victory 1918. His subsequent credits include such classic epics as Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and Ryan’s Daughter, which won Academy Awards for cinematography. He was also Oscar-nominated for his work on Ivanhoe and Nicholas and Alexandra. When you think about these films, chances are you don’t remember the words, but who can forget the images of Lawrence in the searing desert with the sun, a huge red ball, sitting on the edge of an endless horizon? Who will ever forget Zhivago trudging through the frigid wasteland of Siberia, and the emotions the images evoked?
Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC
Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC was born and raised in rural Hungary during the German Nazi and Russian communist occupations of his native land. Shortly after he graduated from the national film school in Budapest, Zsigmond and fellow cinematographer and friend Laszlo Kovacs, ASC filmed a spontaneous uprising against the communist regime and its brutal suppression. They carried the documentary footage out of the country and defected to the United States. Zsigmond worked in still and x-ray film labs, shot portraits, and made 16mm industrial, medical and student films for about a dozen years. In 1971, he got an opportunity to film an independent feature, The Hired Hand. His body of work includes such classics as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, The Rose and The Ghost and the Darkness. He earned Oscar nominations for The Deer Hunter and The River, and took home the Academy Award for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Zsigmond has routinely experimented and expanded the visual vocabulary used by cinematographers. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller he “pre-flashed” the negative before it was exposed, creating a desaturated patina that helped to define a sense of time and place. Studio executives wanted to fire him, but director Robert Altman conjured up a “white lie” and blamed the desaturated look on the film lab. Zsigmond is currently collaborating with director Woody Allen on an untitled project.
By Bob Fisher