The American Society of Cinematographers honors Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC with their 1998 Lifetime Achievement Award.

by Bob Fisher

A fine-art gallery in Los Angeles recently featured an extraordinary display of still photographs taken by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (see "Still Lives, Distant Vistas," AC December 1998). The shots included a compelling self-portrait taken nearly 50 years ago in an empty field near Szeged, Hungary, where Zsigmond was born and raised during the Nazi and Soviet occupations of his homeland. Five decades later, he explains his pensive stare: "A gypsy [fortune-teller] told me I was destined to sail on a ship across a great ocean to a big city, where I'd become an important artist."

It was a tantalizing prediction, because fortune-tellers were taken seriously in Szeged, but the notion puzzled Zsigmond, who had no experience with freedom. He couldn't even visit the next village without permission from the commissars, so Zsigmond didn't understand how he could sail across a great ocean and become an "important artist."

Yet within a few years, Zsigmond did cross the Atlantic Ocean and eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where he overcame seemingly impossible odds to become an influential cinematographer in the evolving art of filmmaking. His body of work currently consists of nearly 60 features, including such diverse pictures as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Cinderella Liberty, The Long Goodbye, The Sugarland Express, The Witches of Eastwick, Maverick, The Rose, and The Ghost and the Darkness.

Considering this, it is no surprise that Zsigmond will become the 12th recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers' Lifetime Achievement Award, which will be presented to him at the Society's 13th annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards program, to be held at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City on February 21.

However, this is not the first time that the cameraman has been recognized for his fine work. In 1977, Zsigmond earned an Academy Award for his stellar photography in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and was later nominated for both The Deer Hunter (1978, for which he also won the BAFTA Award) and The River (1984). He earned an Emmy and an ASC Award in 1992 for his extraordinary camera-work on the HBO miniseries Stalin (AC May '93). Zsigmond was then presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at CamerImage '97, the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography, held annually in Torun, Poland (AC April '98). Despite these an many other accolades, however, he is quick to maintain that the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award represents the pinnacle of his career, because the tribute comes from his peers and recognizes his entire body of work.

An innovator in his field, Zsigmond has frequently abandoned conventional thinking in favor of exploring unmapped territory. In McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1970), he "pre-flashed" the camera film to alter the contrast ratio, achieving what would become a widely emulated period look.

While filming Deliverance (AC Aug. 1971), Zsigmond and director John Boorman discussed whether they should shoot an important scene of the villains arriving in a canoe with a static or mobile camera. They decided that a camera on a tripod with a long lens made the tension more tactile. Zsigmond put a fluid head on the tripod and covered the camera with a plastic bag. The lens was only three or four inches above water level, recording the scene from a chillingly subjective perspective. The images provoked a premonition of primal terror; no dialogue was needed to announce that danger was approaching.

When Zsigmond was filming The Sugarland Express (AC May '73) with director Steven Spielberg, he convinced Panavision founder Robert Gottschalk to personally deliver the first Panaflex camera to him on location in Texas. Zsigmond immediately put the camera on his shoulder and got into the back seat of a car. He pulled the audience deeper into the story by showing breathtaking action from the perspective of a passenger. "Steven wanted to direct sound in conjunction with the images," Zsigmond says. "I needed a portable sound camera with reflex viewing that I could put on my shoulder."

The River (AC Nov. '84) opens with a nearly four-minute scene, which starts with a drop of rain that turns into a sprinkle and finally a torrent. The camera discovers the Garvey family in a desperate struggle to save their farm and, ultimately, their lives. Before a word of dialogue is spoken, the audience gains deep insights into the main characters. "I was lucky," Zsigmond says. "I was working with a visually oriented director, Mark Rydell, who believed in telling stories with images. Dialogue should be like music. You should be able to follow the story even if it is turned down."

Later in the film, there is a powerful scene in which an ominous shadow crawls across the floor of a barn where Mae Garvey (Sissy Spacek) is desperately nursing a dying calf. The shadow is motivated by rays of light from the setting sun poking through spaces in the wall. The moving shadow defines the mood, acting as a silent witness to a harsh reality.

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© 1999 ASC