Are you concerned about motivating sources and making the lighting believable, or is it entirely about feeling?

Zsigmond: You want the audience to believe what they’re seeing is real — you don’t want them to be aware it’s lit. You enhance the reality of the scene for mood and to tell the story. But I want my lighting to look like it could be what you  would see if you were really in that place in the story. I do think it’s important to have light sources to justify where the light is coming from, and also to establish the mood of the location.

It’s like great painting. A painter is free to have the l ight source be anything, but if you look at the works of Dutch painters — and anybody who wants to learn about lighting can learn a lot from them — you’ll see that they always establish the light source in the frame and light the subjects from that source.  I try to establish the light sources on any set. Production designers all know that I love a lot of light sources — table lights, overhead lights, windows. I like to have plenty of light sources that I can turn on or off to motivate the light in any situa tion.

In addition to lighting the area, you always have to remember that actors have to be lit, so I try to avoid situations where I have to depend on one light source. Let’s say I’m using daylight from a window to motivate the lighting in the room, but my actors might not look good in that light. I then motivate the light with a bounce from a wall or maybe turn a lamp on nearby. That’s one reason I love to shoot scenes set in the early morning or late afternoon: you have mixed lighting. You can use ambie nt light from windows, but you may also have lights on in the room.

How do you plan out how you will light a scene? Do you figure it all out before you show up on the set?

Zsigmond: I would say no. I can’t do that until I see the location, and until I se e what’s happening with the director and the actors. It’s when you see a rehearsal that you really get a good idea of what a scene is about. My work is almost like improvising. I’ve found that most good directors like to improvise, and I usually wait until  the director starts improvising before I start lighting. That’s why I like gaffers who own their own equipment; we can bring a lot of lights and then be flexible. The producer usually gets a better deal that way, too. It’s very important to be able to imp rovise and do it quickly. I have the ability to see an idea and create it fast.

But surely on a big production, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, everything had to be preconceived in great detail?

Zsigmond: It’s funny you say that! On Close Encounters,  we started with the concept that the whole movie should look like a documentary. The area where the big spaceship arrives was built inside a hangar that was 100 feet long, 100 feet wide and 120 feet high. It was set up to look like a sports stadiu m, and it had the kind of lights you’d see in that setting. When I got there, I asked Steven [Spielberg], ‘When are we going to get the lights?’ and he said, ‘It’s lit.’ He wanted the scene to be lit up by those stadium lights; that was the concept he was working from.

I said I thought we needed a lot more lights for the spaceships — the mother ship and all those flying saucers. I said I thought we should create something almost like a light show. Well, Steven realized this could be much more effective tha n his original concept — he’s no dummy, you know! — and he asked me, ‘What do you need in order to do that?’ And I said, ‘I need a lot of light, 10Ks, HMIs, all kinds of big lights.’ So Steven said, ‘Vilmos needs lights!’ And then many, many lights started  to arrive, along with more and more generators to power them.

That beautiful 30-minute segment of the movie eventually got me an Academy Award! Unfortunately, the film didn’t get any other awards. I really never understood that. But even on that pictur e, the [lighting] concept didn’t come into being until we were all at the location. That’s why I don’t like to have a concept for lighting until I’m in an environment.

Do you try to allow actors flexibility to improvise once the light is set, or do you t end to give them very specific marks?

Zsigmond: I always try to let the actors move around. I hate to force an actor into one spot. You have to give actors freedom. I tell them, ‘The marks are there for us to know where you are so we can keep you in focus .’ They shouldn’t have to look for their marks. If I can, I try to give them something like a chair or a table to use as a mark, because they can relate to that object the way they would in the theater. When I shot The Long Goodbye,  the great actor Sterlin g Hayden told me he’d always had a fear of missing his marks, and The Long Goodbye was the first time he didn’t have to think about it. And he said it made his performance better.

How did you learn how to light?

Zsigmond: The best thing I did was to stud y at a film school in Hungary that had a good lighting workshop. Our teachers were lighting cameramen, and they taught us how to light by showing us.

The first thing we learned was what different instruments do — we’d turn on a baby spot or a 10K and see  how each one looked. We learned about directional light and shadows. We’d see how hard light made harsh shadows and soft light did not. We really got to see how the light looked on a set. Then we would shoot the scene, develop the film, and project it ons creen, where it could look very different! That way, we trained our minds to know what all the different kinds of lighting would look like to an audience.

Today, young people can see what they’re shooting right away on a monitor. They can experiment and s ee what happens to the image if this or that shadow in the background changes. Of course, a monitor doesn’t show you exactly what a scene will look like on film, but it certainly provides more information than you have when you’re trying to visualize somet hing in your mind. It’s a different kind of learning. I won’t say it’s bad to learn that way, but it’s different.  

You teach lighting to a lot of aspiring cinematographers. What advice do you give people who want to pursue the profession?

Zsigmond: I like to see people become cinematographers because they have an artistic sense and a desire to really create something through lighting, not because they just want to try to make money. You have to be an artist and technician at the same time. I think it’s important to study classic movies and understand how cinematographers have used lighting over the years.

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.