The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents February 2015 Return to Table of Contents
Presidents Desk
Q and A with Bradford Young
Sundance 2015
ASC Close-Up
Attila Szalay

Attila Szalay, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?

The first film I saw in a movie theater was the musical Oliver! I was 7 years old and just learning to speak English, but the visuals and the music were spectacular.

Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?

Vilmos Zsigmond [ASC]; I sneaked into the theater to see McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and it blew my mind. Néstor Almendros [ASC]; his work is an inspiration to this day. Caleb Deschanel [ASC] paints with light; his work on The Black Stallion and The Right Stuff drove my desire to learn. My mentor, Laszlo George [CSC, HSC], showed me that ‘It’s not the light you add, it’s the light you take away’; he taught me everything I know.

What sparked your interest in photography?

I am forever grateful to my seventh-grade math teacher, Boris Ganchev, who showed me his Chinon camera. Later that year, our school purchased a Sony black-and-white video camera with a half-inch reel-to-reel recorder. I spent countless hours learning how to use it.

Where did you train and/or study?

Sheridan College of Technology and Advanced Learning in Oakville, Ontario, which gave me a great basis for getting started.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?

My college professors Jim Cox (basic lighting), Jeffrey Paull (photography) and Richard J. Hancox (16mm production). Director Bruce Pittman taught me to be assertive and never stop networking.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

Caravaggio, for his unbelievable use of light and shadow; photographer Gyula Halász, better known as Brassaï; and film-noir master cinematographers Gregg Toland [ASC] and John Alton [ASC].

How did you get your first break in the business?

I got hired as a camera PA for Alar Kivilo [ASC, CSC], who then took me under his wing as a first assistant on several music videos. Mark Irwin [ASC, CSC] also hired me as his assistant on numerous National Film Board projects.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

As cinematographer on the 2009 miniseries The Pillars of the Earth, I was back in Hungary, in the middle of a huge set, with countless stuntmen fighting on horseback, a burning village and 300 extras. I looked at director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan and producer Ridley Scott, and thought, ‘This is my dream come true.’

Have you made any memorable blunders?

On the series The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, I lit a big scene in the police station with hard shafts of ‘sunlight’ beaming through the Venetian blinds. Looked pretty good, I thought, until the next day, when I was told it was scripted as a night scene. I looked at the call sheet, and sure enough, they were right. I’ve never made that mistake again.

What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

In 1992, I sat across from Geörgy Illés, who was then president of the Hungarian Society of Cinematographers. He leaned forward and said, ‘Do you want to know the secret of success in this business? As a freelancer, you’re like a call girl; never stop selling yourself.’ I pass this advice along to students whenever I get the chance.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell; The Dude and the Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman; Life of Pi, the book by Yann Martel and the movie directed by Ang Lee, with cinematography by Claudio Miranda [ASC].

Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?

I always enjoy period pieces. On The Pillars of the Earth, it was challenging to keep the audience interested for eight hours with three light sources: sunlight, moonlight and firelight.

If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?

Computers and the speed of technological advancement fascinate me; I would perhaps be a software designer. I also enjoy teaching.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Glen MacPherson, Alar Kivilo, Steven Poster, Vilmos Zsigmond.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

I discovered the ASC more than 40 years ago and have followed and learned from its esteemed members ever since. It gives me a great sense of pride and pleasure to finally belong, and to be able to give back or pay forward in whatever way I can. I feel truly blessed.


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