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Zsigmond describes The Rose, also directed by Rydell, as "basically a light show. We wanted to re-create an era of rock 'n' roll concerts. The picture looked like documentaries of Janis Joplin concerts. We wanted the audience to see everything; nothing was hidden. That's how we made it intimate. The singer [Bette Midler] was vulnerable. That's why the audience loved her."

In The Witches of Eastwick, Zsigmond used colors to create a romantic and slightly surrealistic look. Jack Nicholson portrays the devil, who sets up house with three beautiful witches. Zsigmond manipulated color temperatures with the use of gels to bathe the devil in reddish tones, which were always motivated by identifiable sources. He contrasted those tones with cool, blue lighting that provided a visual signature for the witches.

In The Deer Hunter (AC Oct. '78), Zsigmond mixed smoke with hot, red light (motivated by steelmill furnaces) to create a hazy environment that made the characters seem heroic. He explains that director Michael Cimino wanted the men in the story to seem both manly and believable. "You can see in the close-ups that it was hard, hot work, but the mill wasn't depicted as a dehumanizing environment," Zsigmond says. "If Michael improvised in staging, I picked it up and took his ideas a little bit further. Ideas bounced back and forth between us. It was like playing jazz music together. I love working with directors who see things visually and tell stories with images. I don't want to discount literary values — that's important — but first, I think, the visual part has to be there. If you want dialogue, you should read a book."

Zsigmond traces his interest in photography to a childhood illness. When he was 17 years old, Zsigmond was confined to bed for three months, and he read a book called The Art of Light by Eugene Dulovits. Zsigmond was fascinated by the concepts it presented, particularly the use of diffusion to alter the quality of light.

Although it wasn't apparent at the time, the book became the first step of a long journey. Zsigmond wanted to study engineering, but he was denied that opportunity because his family was considered bourgeois. His father coached a soccer team, and his mother managed a pub. In communist Hungary, people who owned anything were considered exploiters.

Zsigmond was disappointed, but not defeated. He saved enough money to buy a still camera, and taught himself how to take pictures. Soon thereafter, he organized a camera club and taught other workers how to take pictures. That impressed local authorities, who decided to send Zsigmond to the Academy for Theater and Film Art in Budapest to study cinematography. "The understanding was that after graduation, I would return to the factory to teach the other workers how to make movies," he recalls.

Zsigmond spent four years at film school, putting in many 14-hour days and six-day weeks. While he deplored living under the tyranny of the communist government, he learned some great truths from the head of the department, György Illes, and other faculty members. "They taught us that a movie is only art if it has something important to say," Zsigmond recalls. "It should be more than entertainment. It should have social value." After completing his formal education, Zsigmond spent the year 1955 working as an assistant cameraman and operator at the state's film studio in Budapest.

In 1956, a popular uprising swept through the streets of the city. For a while, it looked as if the reformers would succeed in installing a more democratic government. Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, also a student at the film school, witnessed the conflict and decided it wasn't right to be bystanders. After borrowing a motion picture camera and a generous supply of film from the school, they hid the camera in a shopping bag and documented acts of bravery and desperation, including civilians attacking tanks with their bare hands and homemade weapons.

When the Soviet army crushed the revolt, Kovacs and Zsigmond holed up in an apartment waiting to see what would happen. Within a couple of days, Illes warned them that intellectuals were being arrested. Zsigmond and Kovacs decided it was time to leave. "The Russians were saying that the revolt was influenced by foreigners and staged by counter-revolutionaries," Zsigmond says. "We wanted the truth to come out."

The two friends made a run for the Austrian border, carrying laundry bags stuffed with some 30,000 feet of film. They finally reached a village near the border, where Hungary was separated from Austria by a river. A Soviet patrol was in the village, and Zsigmond and Kovacs decided that the danger of being found by the soldiers was too great. They hid the film in a stack of corn in a field and walked into the village, pretending to be local peasants. The Soviet soldiers searched and questioned everyone, but none of the villagers gave away the fugitives' true identities. The young men from Budapest soon found themselves facing a wall with their hands stretched high above them, waiting for the colonel who was heading the interrogation.

Suddenly, Kovacs remembered that he had hidden still pictures of the uprising in his boot. To this day, Zsigmond and Kovacs don't know if the soldier overlooked the photos or simply decided to let them go. Later than night, they retrieved the film from the field, and a Hungarian border guard rowed them across the river to Austria.

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© 1999 ASC