Hungarian-born director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, one of Hollywood’s most distinctive cinematographers, died at the age of 85 on Jan. 1 in Los Angeles. He won an Academy Award for best cinematography for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the sci-fi blockbuster directed by Steven Spielberg. He was also nominated another three times for The Deer Hunter, The River and The Black Dahlia.
Zsigmond was known for his use of natural light, the beauty of his imagery and his versatility. It has been said that no two of the films he lensed looked the same. In 2003, a survey conducted by the International Cinematographers Guild placed Zsigmond on a list of the 10 most influential cinematographers in history. Another great on the same list, Haskell Wexler, died last week at the age of 93.
“The cinematography world lost a great talent today,” said ICG president Steven Poster. “Vilmos’ genius was not only in his images, but in his sense of duty to honest storytelling. There is not a member at the ICG 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.”
The DP was known for his collaborations with directors Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Goodbye Look) and Brian de Palma (Obsession, Blow Out, Black Dahlia). He also worked with a litany of top directors like John Boorman (Deliverance), Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra’s Dream), Martin Scorsese (The Last Waltz) and Mark Rydell (The Rose). He also shot Spielberg’s first feature, The Sugarland Express.
Zsigmond was born in Szeged, Hungary in 1930. He studied cinema at the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest. Together with his friend László Kovács, the two shot footage chronicling the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, but when the Soviet Union sent in tanks and crushed the revolt, both fled first to Austria and eventually, they came to the United States. Kovács, who passed away in 2007, also became a successful and highly regarded cinematographer with credits including What’s Up Doc, New York, New York and Ghostbusters. PBS did a bio-documentary of both their stories, No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos.