On January 1, 2016, cinematographer Vilmos Zsimond died at the age of 86. Over the course of his career, he worked in a variety of mediums, specifically in documentary and feature films. Among his most noteworthy collaborators are Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, and Woody Allen. In 1977, he received the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He was an endorser of the Tiffen filters method and helped to turn such classic films such as The Deer Hunter and McCabe & Mrs. Miller into gorgeous films. Along with his impressive legacy on screen, he is considered by many, including the International Cinematographers Guild, to be one of the most influential cinematographers in history.
Zsigmond was born in Szeged, Hungary to a father that was a celebrated soccer player and coach. He studied film at The Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest, where he received an MA in cinematography. After working five years with the Budapest feature film studio as a director of photography, he started collaborating with Laszlo Kovacs. This included chronicling the 1956 Hungarian revolution. With over 30,000 feet of film, he would escape to Austria and eventually have his footage appear in a PBS documentary.
By 1962, he was an American citizen and was still trying to make his way into Hollywood. Sometimes billed as "William Zsigmond," he worked on such films as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies. This B-Movie has held a reputation as one of the worst movies ever made; though has the honorary title of being the first literal monster musical in history - beating The Horror Party Beach by a mere month. His first American film was in 1963 with the exploitation film The Sadist.
It wasn't until the 70's that things began to turn around for Zsigmond, and his dream of working in Hollywood was starting to pay off. His first major film was for director Robert Altman called McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The film is considered to be one of the best westerns of the 70's and features Altman's familiar surrealism and snow that itself looks grainy and abstract. Things would only continue to get interesting from there, as he went on to work on Deliverance and The Long Goodbye.
In 1977, he worked for the second time with Steven Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While the film inspired the popularity of alien culture, it was also a breakthrough for sci-fi film and the first of many for Spielberg. Still, Szigmond's cinematography helped to capture the awe-inspiring visuals of an alien landing on Earth, creating some of the most iconic images in Spielberg's early career. It was no wonder then that he would receive the award for Best Cinematography that following year at The Oscars. With the award presented by Jon Voight and Goldie Hawn, he gave a small but humble speech.
His career would continue to be fruitful for the next few decades. Following his win, he worked on director Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter - which went on to win Best Picture. He would also work on Cimino's notorious box office bomb Heaven's Gate. However, he remained busy and collaborated with a variety of directors including Brian De Palma (Blow Out), Richard Donner (Maverick), Woody Allen (Cassandra's Dream), and Kevin Smith (Jersey Girl). His talent was never restricted to a genre or style.
Zsigmond was also a prime endorser of Tiffen filters, which would consist of exposing film negatives to a specific amount of light in order to create a muted color pallet. This was often referenced as flashing and pre-fogging. In 2010, he collaborated with Yuri Neyman to create the Global Cinematography Institute in Los Angeles, California with intent to educate cinematographers. Along with his Best Cinematography win, he was nominated an additional three times in the category at The Oscars, most recently in 2006 for The Black Dahlia.
With an impressive career and a lot of iconic films to his credit, Zgismond leaves behind a legacy that is rich with amazing images. Having the enviable gift to work with several great directors, he helped to maintain the art of cinematography while exploring its potential various uses. He wasn't reduced to a style or a director, choosing to work freely on whatever project he felt passionate about. What he leaves behind is an enviable body of work that is unlike any other that likely influenced the generations to follow.