Legendary Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond Dies

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Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the ten most influential cinematographers in history according to the 2003 International Cinematographers Guild survey, has died at the age of 85.

Zsigmond was born and raised in Hungary where he studied cinema at the renowned Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest and where he earned his MA in cinematography. For five years, he worked at a feature film studio in the same city, slowly but steadily turning into a bona fide director of photography.

While still in Hungary, he and his good friend Laszlo Kovacs, who also happened to be the DP on Easy Rider, chronicled the events surrounding the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, shooting over 30,000 feet of film. This period of Zsigmond’s life was part of a PDS Independent Lens feature called No Subitiles Necessary: Laszlo & Vimos.

In 1962, Zsigmond became a U.S. citizen, and settled in Los Angeles where he worked as a photographer and technician in various photo labs. During the 60s, he started working in the film industry, albeit on educational and low-budget independent features. His first American movie was The Sadist and he also worked on a classic horror movie (with a fantastic title, as well) – The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.

By 1970, he got noticed by Robert Altman who hired Zsigmond to work with him on one of the most underrated movies of all time, McCabe & Mrs. Miller with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. Zsigmond decided to “color” the entire movie in sepia and give it a timeless charm that is still so very special. A year later, he worked on another cult movie, Deliverance by John Boorman. In 1973, he once again worked with Atlman, on The Long Goodbye, another underappreciated gem from the 1970s and in that same year, he worked on Scarecrow, a Jerry Schatzberg movie starring Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.

In 1974, Steven Spielberg hired Zsigmond to be the director of photography on his feature film debut The Sugarland Express. Their collaboration reached its peak in 1977 when they worked together on the Close Encounters of the Third Kind for which Zsigmond won the Academy Award. In 1978, Zsigmond worked on another classic, The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino.

In 1980, Zsigmond and Cimino joined forces once again, this time with much poorer results, on a movie Heaven’s Gate. The movie is still considered one of the worst of all time, a massive box office flop and a movie that many people think put an end to the 1970s Golden Age of Hollywood.

This didn’t slow down Zsigmond any, as he continued to work with such renowned directors like Brian De Palma, George Miller, Richard Donner, Kevin Smith and Woody Allen.

Zsigmond passed away last Friday in Big Sur, California, at the age of 85. His death was confirmed by his long-time business partner Yuri Neyman.

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