Thank You, Vilmos

A personal tribute to my friend Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC.

Benjamin B

The world of cinema lost two great masters in the past few weeks: Haskell Wexler, ASC, and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC.

I extend my heartfelt condolences to their families and friends, with a special thought and prayer for Susan Roether Zsigmond.

Both Haskell and Vilmos merit the many tributes they have received. I recommend reading John Bailey’s tribute to Haskell, and I have listed links to many of the tributes to Vilmos below.

I knew Vilmos for almost 30 years, and our friendship grew in Hungary, Poland and France over the past two decades.

This is for you, Vilmos, mon ami.

3 frames from Close Encounters of the Third Kind cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond
Three frames from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond.


Vilmos, you were always so alive

that I never imagined you leaving us;

then the news of your departure fell upon me hard, bringing warm tears

and a swirl of images from your stories and your movies,

all mixed together, because the stories of your life were like movies.


In 1956, during the Hungarian uprising,

you and Laszlo Kovacs shot back at the Soviet army

with a film-school camera hidden in a shopping bag.

You escaped to the West with the film cans in potato sacks.

Thank God your father convinced you to go to Hollywood

instead of Australia.

You and Laszlo Kovacs were true brothers in exile,

sharing everything from your early twenties on.

In America, Laszlo told me once, the two of you “followed that dream,”

trying for 10 years to break into the closed film business,

shooting anything and everything,

industrials, stills, documentaries, working in a film lab.


Then you and Laszlo got a chance to show Hollywood

that two talented, resourceful Hungarians

could shoot no-budget B movies

with only a station wagon full of equipment,

lighting scenes with reflectors and voltage-boosted 300-watt bulbs.

And all for a hundred dollars a day.

You called yourself William Zsigmond

when you made all those “trashy movies with bad scripts,”

like The Incredibly Strange Creatures

Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?

One day in 1971, you were finally ready to write Vilmos in the credits,

on Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand.


Then you became a brilliant cinema revolutionary,

shooting masterpieces of the American New Wave in the 1970s.

You were a key cinematographer of that glorious decade,

shooting for pioneering filmmakers Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg,

Brian De Palma, Michael Cimino, Mark Rydell.

And that was how I first met you, without knowing you,

blown away by your beautiful, innovative images

in these great American movies.

The range of your work was extraordinary,

but there was always the truth of realism

and always the truth of poetry.

Thank you, Vilmos, for re-inventing the Western

with Robert Altman in McCabe and Mrs Miller.

Pauline Kael called it “a beautiful pipe dream of a movie”;

you laughed and told me:

“I did everything I could to destroy the image,”

using smoke and Double Fog filters,

flashing and pushing the negative

to create a dreamy masterpiece.

Then you did the opposite on Deliverance,

with its dangerous clarity.

You weren’t afraid to risk the negative

with flashing and pushing.

You always had guts, and you were always a pioneer,

always trying out the new technologies of cinema.

You shot with the Panaflex camera on its trial run

on The Sugarland Express in 1974.

You liked to use zooms to work faster.

You shot anamorphic for the bigger negative.

Thank you, Vilmos, for favoring Fresnel lights,

Thank you for sometimes being seven stops over.

Thank you, Vilmos, for the dazzling, colorful, luminous beings

in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Your lighting became a character, the mask of the invisible aliens.

The producers wanted to fire you, but when they called around

no DP would take your place.

How ironic that you won an Oscar for that film,

running up from the back of the auditorium

and climbing on stage to give your brief acceptance speech in 1978.

You thanked “the American people who gave me a second life,”

and “my old masters in the Hungarian film school,

Illés György, Bolykovszki Béla and Badal János.”

How proud you made your teachers and your countrymen

in that moment of generous gratitude.


You shot almost a hundred features,

with so many memorable scenes.

Thank you, Vimos, for all those beautiful moments:

Bette Midler singing her soul out on stage in The Rose,

the fireworks climax of Blow Out,

the indoor skating rink in Heaven’s Gate,

the beautiful portraits of Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon

in The Witches of Eastwick,

the Steadicam one-shot that begins The Bonfire of the Vanities,

your cameo as an artist in Maverick,

the dangerous nights of The Ghost and the Darkness,

the “film blanc” look of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,

the crane shot of the cadaver discovery in Black Dahlia...

Thank you, Vilmos, for your favorite masterpiece,

The Deer Hunter, an epic portrait of America,

where you painted a joyful wedding celebration,

a hunting party, friends drinking in a bar, a secret love,

wartime savagery and heroism, a bleak VA hospital,

the chaotic evacuation of the Saigon embassy,

deadly nocturnal games of Russian roulette,

and a funeral brunch with an American hymn.

Thank you, Vilmos, for being a great artist

who changed cinema.


Thank you, Vilmos, for your third life as a master teacher.

Starting in 1993 with the Budapest Cinematography Master Class,

with the help of György Illés and Tibor Vagyóczky from the Hungarian Film School,

and the leadership of George Karpaty, and later Janos Xantus.

It was a real honor to be an instructor helping you in Budapest,

and to organize panels and a master class with you at Camerimage.

Thank you, Vilmos, for inspiring students

from all over Europe and the world, who will never forget

your gentle supervision and suggestions

as they set up their lighting and their shots.

Thank you for twisting the light meter around

until it showed you the 4/5.6 split

that you wanted to shoot all along.

Everywhere I went with you, you inspired awe and honor

with young and not-so-young cinematographers and filmmakers.

Thank you for screening The Third Man

to show students that lighting starts with black and white tones.

Thank you, Vilmos, for continuing to teach and speak with students

with Yuri Neyman at your Global Cinematography Institute.

Thank you for always defending the importance of lighting

in an age of less lighting.

Thank you for reminding us about Fresnels in an age of PARs,

for reminding us about hard light in an age of soft boxes.


Thank you, Vilmos, for your friendship,

for being like my Hungarian uncle.

We both had two languages, and two cultures.

Thank you for showing me your hometown.

Thank you for our breakfasts at the old-fashioned Gellert hotel,

for our discussions about cinema in the majestic thermal baths,

Thank you for taking me to have goulash

in that dive near the soccer stadium.

Köszönöm for suddenly speaking to me in Hungarian

in the heat of a conversation.

Thank you for your distinctive voice, with its rasp and squeaks,

Thank you for pronouncing Ws like Vs,

Thank you for “Vy ve vait” instead of “Why we wait.”

Thank you for your gentleness, even when you were firm.

Thank you for showing me time and again

how to be kind and generous

to those less fortunate.

Thank you for sharing your infectious laughter

to break the ice, to warm the moment,

or to remind us of the irony of the situation.

Thank you, Vilmos, for your humanity.

May God bless your soul.




TRIBUTES TO VILMOS ZSIGMOND In Memoriam: Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC, 1930-2016 by Jean Oppenheimer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, 1930 - 2016 - Remembering the Genius by Yuri Neyman Vilmos Zsigmond, 1930 – 2016 Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC 1930-2016 by Jon Fauer Vilmos Zsigmond: the cinematographer who transformed how films look Vilmos Zsigmond, 'Close Encounters' Cinematographer, Dies at 85 Hungarian-born Hollywood cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond is dead at 85 Remembering Vilmos Zsigmond in 9 Essential Shots R.I.P. Vilmos Zsigmond (1930-2016) RIP Legendary Master of Light Vilmos Zsigmond Two Legends Leave the Stage: a Personal Farewell to Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond by Bob Fisher Vilmos Zsigmond, Cinematographer, Dies at 85; Gave Hollywood Films a New Look Vilmos Zsigmond, Oscar-Winning Cinematographer, Dies at 85 Iconic Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) Dies at 85 Vilmos Zsigmond: Painter of Light by Brad Jones RIP Vilmos Zsigmond, Woody Allen Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the lighting wizard behind ‘Close Encounters,’ dies at 85



thefilmbook: Zsigmond Zooms


DPs and Gaffers featuring Vilmos Zsigmond

thefilmbook: DPs and Gaffers - 1. Who Does What

thefilmbook: DPs and Gaffers - 2. The Lighting List

thefilmbook: DPs and Gaffers - 3. The Rag List

thefilmbook: DPs and Gaffers - 4. Digital

thefilmbook: DPs and Gaffers - 5. Hard Light - Fresnel vs PAR


John's Bailiwick: Vilmos Zsigmond and The Rose by John Bailey

Parallax View: Zsigmond Exhibit Inspires McDonough by David Heuring

Parallax View: Chressanthis Recalls Travels with Vilmos and Shooting Super 8 by David Heuring Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC shares some thoughts about the art and craft of motion-picture lighting. by Jon Silberg The Deer Hunter Deliverance The Sugarland Express The Long Goodbye


Subscribe Today

Act now to receive 12 issues of the award-winning AC magazine — the world’s finest cinematography resource.

March 2024 AC Magazine Cover
February 2024 AC Magazine Cover
January 2024 AC Magazine Cover