Zsigmond, Vilmos

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Cinematographer. Nationality: Hungarian. Born: Szeged, 16 June 1930; credited as William Zsigmond on early films. Education: Attended Budapest Film School, graduated 1956. Career: 1956—escaped to Austria during Hungarian Revolution with the cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, then to the United States, 1957; worked as still photographer, laboratory technician, and camera assistant; 1963—first film as cinematographer; TV work includes The Protectors series, 1969–70, and the mini-series Flesh and Blood, 1979. Awards: Academy Award, for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977; British Academy Award, for The Deer Hunter, 1978.

Films as Cinematographer:


Hungarn in Flammen (Revolt in Hungary) (Erdelyi—doc) (co)


The Sadist (Profile of Terror) (James Landis); Living between Two Worlds (Johnson)


What's up Front (Wehling); The Time Travelers (Melchior); The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Crazy Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (Steckler) (co)


Rat Fink (My Soul Runs Naked) (James Landis); The Nasty Rabbit (Spies A-Go-Go) (James Landis); Deadwood '76 (James Landis); Tales of a Salesman (Russell); A Hot Summer Game (Bruner); Psycho A-Go-Go! (Adamson—revised version, The Fiend with the Electronic Brain)


Road to Nashville (Zens)


Mondo Mod (Perry—doc) (co)


The Name of the Game Is Kill! (The Female Trap) (Hellstrom); Jennie, Wife/Child (James Landis and Cohen)


The Monitors (Shea); Hot Rod Action (McCabe); Five Bloody Graves (Gun Riders) (Adamson); Futz! (O'Horgan); The Picasso Summer (Bourguignon)


Horror of the Blood Monsters (Vampire Men of the Lost Planet) (Adamson) (co)


Red Sky at Morning (Goldstone); The Ski Bum (Clark); McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman); The Hired Hand (Fonda)


Images (Altman); Deliverance (Boorman)


The Long Goodbye (Altman); Scarecrow (Schatzberg); Cinderella Liberty (Rydell)


The Sugarland Express (Spielberg); The Girl from Petrovka (Miller)


Sweet Revenge (Schatzberg); Obsession (De Palma)


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg) (co)


The Last Waltz (Scorsese) (co); The Rose (Rydell); The Deer Hunter (Cimino)


Winter Kills (Richert)


Heaven's Gate (Cimino)


Blow Out (De Palma)


Jinxed (Siegel); The Border (Richardson) (co)


Table for Five (Lieberman)


The River (Rydell); No Small Affair (Schatzberg)


Real Genius (Coolidge)


The Witches of Eastwick (Miller)


Journey to Spirit Island (L. Pal)


Fat Man and Little Boy (Joffé)


The Two Jakes (Nicholson); The Bonfire of the Vanities (De Palma)


Sliver (Noyce)


Maverick (R. Donner); Intersection (Rydell)


The Crossing Guard (S. Penn); Assassins (R. Donner)


The Ghost and the Darkness (Hopkins)


Illegal Music (Zidel); Playing by Heart (Carroll)


The Argument (Cammell)

Films as Director:


The Long Shadow


By ZSIGMOND: articles—

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1974.

Dialogue on Film (Beverly Hills, California), July 1974.

Dialogue on Film (Beverly Hills, California), October 1974.

Film Heritage (Dayton, Ohio), Spring 1977.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1978.

On The Deer Hunter in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1978.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), June 1979.

On Heaven's Gate in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1980.

On Heaven's Gate in Millimeter (New York), January 1981.

Films and Filming (London), September 1982.

In Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers, by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, Berkeley, California, 1984.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1987.

Filmkultura (Budapest), vol. 25, no. 6, 1989.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1989.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1990.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1990.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1990.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1991.

On ZSIGMOND: articles—

Lightman, Herb A., on Deliverance in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1971.

Focus on Film (London), Autumn 1972, corrections in no. 13, 1973.

Lipnick, Edward, on The Long Goodbye in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1973.

Gosnold, H. G., in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1977.

Take One (Montreal), no. 2, 1978.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1978.

Carcassonne, P., and J. Fieschi, in Cinématographe (Paris), March 1979.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1979.

Lyman, D., in Filmmakers Monthly (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), June 1979.

Vallely, J., in Rolling Stone (New York), 21 February 1980.

Films and Filming (London), May 1980.

McCarthy, T., in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1984.

Patterson, Richard, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1984.

Betro, A., "Reaching Out to Europe," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1992.

Lueker, Rob, "At the Master's Feet," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1996.

Williams, D. E., "Night of the Hunters," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1996.

* * *

Arriving in the United States in 1956 after escaping from Hungary with fellow cameraman and sometime collaborator Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond toiled in the low-budget exploitation field throughout the 1960s, and then emerged as a major director of photography in the 1970s and 1980s, working with the directors Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Michael Cimino, Jerry Schatzberg, John Boorman, Mark Rydell and, most often, Robert Altman. Like Kovacs, Zsigmond established himself with a few intriguing lower-case credits, making his debut—credited as William Zsigmond—as a cinematographer on The Sadist, a high-energy black-and-white psycho picture based on the incident that inspired Badlands. Zsigmond went on to work with the incredibly strange Ray Dennis Steckler on The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Crazy Mixed-Up Zombies!!? which has moments so awful they could pass for surreal. After such oddities as the documentary Mondo Mod, the psychotic desert picture The Name of the Game Is Kill!, the improvisational science-fiction comedy The Monitors, and the off-Broadway adaption Futz!, Zsigmond fell in with Al Adamson—a poverty-stricken auteur who made Ray Dennis Steckler look talented—for Five Bloody Graves and Horror of the Blood Monsters, the former a horror Western narrated by Death, the latter a patchwork of tinted Filipino science-fiction footage with John Carradine explaining the plot.

Something about the deserts of The Sadist, The Name of the Game Is Kill!, and Five Bloody Graves must have registered, for Zsigmond's breakthrough from the blood monsters and psycho-a-go-go girls came with a series of Western or Western-flavored movies in 1970, commencing with James Goldstone's coming-of-age drama set in New Mexico during World War II, Red Sky at Morning and taking in Peter Fonda's rugged, ragged "acid Western" The Hired Hand. The most important of these films was Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, in which Zsigmond captured the magic of the muddy small town and caught Altman's stranded characters in the uncharacteristic snowy wastes of the film's western Canada setting. For Altman, Zsigmond then tackled the seductive but hollow post-Chandler Los Angeles of The Long Goodbye, which also includes a side-trip to a lushly corrupt Mexico; the pristine Scots autumn backdrop to Susannah York's nervous breakdown in Images; and the teeming canvas of the over-populated but glowing A Wedding. Meanwhile, he also established relationships with Steven Spielberg, transferring from the Altmanesque road movieness of The Sugarland Express to the Oscar-winning lightshow of Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Jerry Schatzberg, also on the road in Scarecrow and homing in for the miscalculated Sweet Revenge and No Small Affair; Mark Rydell, from the grubby Cinderella Liberty through the showbiz sleaze of The Rose to the nouveau Western of The River; Brian De Palma, at his iciest and most intriguingly Hitchcock-cum-Antonioniesque in Obsession and Blow Out (prompting Zsigmond to far more whirling effects than Spielberg's aliens did); and Michael Cimino, stepping from the un-Altmanesque ethnic marriages and rat-trap horrors of The Deer Hunter to the expansive western crowds and massacres of Heaven's Gate. That a career could encompass Five Bloody Graves and Heaven's Gate is bizarre enough, but even stranger is the continuity between the cheap disaster and the super-produced disaster, both of which are marked by Zsigmond's daring look. Daring, because it can sometimes seem pretty—pretty enough to win an Oscar—but more often gets accused of being muddy, fuzzy, foggy, and indistinct, even ugly. It could be argued, however, that Zsigmond's contribution to the Western and the western-set road movie—including, besides the films cited above, Tony Richardson's draggy The Border and John Boorman's backwoods Deliverance—was crucial to the evolution, even the death, of the form in the 1970s and 1980s, imposing a countercultural hairiness on the straight-arrow Americanism of the genre. Certainly, as a Hungarian, Zsigmond has been involved in a succession of almost archetypal American movies—the Eastern European heritage touched on only in The Deer Hunter and The Girl from Petrovka—that have taken him into the most prized American genre forms—horror, Western, private eye, family weepie (Table for Five), rock 'n' roll concert (The Last Waltz)—and even, in Winter Kills, near the White House. He has a sometimes-exercised gift for fantasy that dates back to the Incredibly Strange Creatures days and is undaunted by the special effects of Close Encounters or The Witches of Eastwick. He has been somewhat in eclipse in the late 1980s and 1990s, but he is well-enough established as a proficient craftsman as well as an unimpeachable artist, to still land the plum assignments. His penchant for being attached to famous disasters persists with The Bonfire o the Vanities, for which De Palma steered Zsigmond through a memorably redundant tour-de-force opening shot. He has turned out a few entirely anonymous but slick jobs (Sliver, Maverick, and Assassins) between ambitious oddments (Fat Man and Little Boy and The Crossing Guard). In the late 1990s, Zsigmond continued to turn in creditable efforts. The pleasant clarity of his images and lighting in Playing by Heart provide a warm and reassuring setting for the light melodrama and comedy of this updated woman's picture. The Ghost and the Darkness called for a substantially different approach. This true story of man-eating African lions demanded just the combination of National Geographic photographic painting and expressionistic stylization that Zsigmond employs. As in an unfortunately large number of the projects he has worked on in his career, his cinematography is the most successfully conceived and executed element in an otherwise very ordinary and forgettable production.

—Kim Newman, updated by R. Barton Palmer

Zsigmond, Vilmos 1930–

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ZSIGMOND, Vilmos 1930–

(William Zsigmond)


Name is pronounced "Vilmosh Gigmond"; born June 16, 1930, in Szeged, Hungary; immigrated to the United States, 1957; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1962; son of Vilmo (a soccer goalie and coach) and Bozena (an administrator; maiden name, Illichman) Zsigmond; married Elizabeth Fuzes (divorced); children: Julia, Susi. Education: State Academy of Motion Picture and Theatre Arts (Budapest), M.A., cinematography, 1956.

Addresses: Agent—Feinstein & Shorr, 16133 Ventura Blvd., Suite 800, Encino, CA 91436; Innovative Artists, 15805 10th St., Santa Monica, CA 90401; The Mack Agency, 4705 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Ste. 204, Valley Village, CA 91607.

Career: Cinematographer and actor. Cinematic Directions, founder, 1985; director of television commercials with Cinematic Directions and Filmfair; cinematographer of television documentaries for Wolper Productions; also worked as still photographer, laboratory technician, and camera assistant.

Member: American Society of Cinematographers, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (Local #659), Directors Guild of America.

Awards, Honors: National Society of Film Critics Award, best cinematography, 1973, for The Long Goodbye; Film Award nomination, best cinematography, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1973, for McCabe & Mrs. Miller; Film Award nomination, best cinematography, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1973, for Deliverance; Film Award nomination, best cinematography, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1973, for Images; Academy Award, best cinematography, 1977, Film Award nomination, best cinematography, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1979, both for Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Academy Award nomination, best cinematography, 1978, Film Award, best cinematography, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1979, both for The Deer Hunter; Academy Award nomination, best cinematography, 1984, for The River; ASC Award, outstanding achievement in cinematography in movies of the week/pilots, American Society of Cinematographers, 1993, ACE Award, Emmy Award, all for Stalin; ASC Award nomination, outstanding achievement in cinematography in theatrical releases, 1997, for The Ghost and the Darkness; Golden Frog Award, lifetime achievement, Camerimage, 1997; Lifetime Achievement Award, Worldfest, 1998; Lifetime Achievement Award, American Society of Cinematographers, 1999; Maverick Tribute Award, Cinequest San Jose Film Festival, 1999; Emmy Award nomination, outstanding cinematography for a miniseries, 2002, for The Mists of Avalon; Best Film Adaptation of an Opera (with Csaba Kael), Camerimage, 2002, for Bank Ban.


Film Cinematographer:

Hajnal eloett, 1955.

(With others), Hungarn in flammen (documentary; also known as Revolt in Hungary), 1957.

(As William Zsigmond; second unit) Wild Guitar, 1962.

(As William Zsigmond) Living between Two Worlds, Empire, 1963.

(As William Zsigmond) The Sadist (also known as Profile of Terror and Sweet Baby Charlie), Fairway International, 1963.

(As William Zsigmond) The Nasty Rabbit (also known as Spies A Go–Go), Fairway International, 1964.

(As William Zsigmond) The Time Travelers (also known as Depths of the Unknown, The Return of the TimeTraveler, The Return of the Time Travelers, This Time Tomorrow, and Time Trap), American International, 1964.

(As William Zsigmond) What's Up Front (also known as The Fall Guy and A Fourth for Marriage), Fairway International, 1964.

Psycho A Go–Go! (also known as Blood of Ghastly Horror, The Fiend with the Electric Brain, Echo of Terror, and Man with the Synthetic Brain), Hemisphere/American General, 1965.

(As William Zsigmond) Deadwood '76, Fairway International, 1965.

(As William Zsigmond) The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Crazy Mixed–Up Zombies (also known as Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary, The Incredibly Strange Creature: Or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed–Up Zombie, Diabolical Mr. Voodoo, and The Incredibly Mixed Up Zombie), Hollywood Star, 1965.

(As William Zsigmond) Rat Fink (also known as Wild and Willing, My Soul Runs Naked, and The Swinging Fink), Genesis/Cinema, 1965.

(As William Zsigmond) A Hot Summer Game (also known as It's All in the Game and Summer Children), European Producers International, 1965.

(As William Zsigmond) Tales of a Salesman (also known as Tales of a Traveling Salesman), Rossmore, 1965.

(As William Zsigmond) Road to Nashville, Crown International, 1966.

(As William Zsigmond; with Laszlo Kovacs) Mondo Mod (documentary), Timely Motion Pictures, 1967.

(As William Zsigmond) The Name of the Game Is Kill (also known as Lovers in Limbo and The Female Trap), Fanfare, 1968.

(As William Zsigmond; with Robert Carl Cohen) Jennie, Wife/Child, Emerson Film Enterprises, 1968.

(As William Zsigmond) The Monitors, Commonwealth United Entertainment, 1969.

(As William Zsigmond; with Vilis Lapenieks and Mario Tosi) Hot Rod Action (documentary), Cinerama, 1969.

Futz!, Commonwealth United International, 1969.

The Gun Riders (also known as Five Bloody Graves, Lonely Man, and Five Bloody Days to Tombstone), Independent International, 1969.

(Uncredited) Satan's Sadists (also known as Nightmare Bloodbath), 1969.

(With others) Picasso Summer, 1970.

(As William Zsigmond) The Horror of the Blood Monsters (also known as Blood Monster, Creatures of the Prehistoric Planet, Horror Creatures of the Red Planet, Flesh Creatures of the Red Planet, The Flesh Creatures, Space Mission of the Lost Planet, Horror Creatures of the Lost Planet, Horror Creatures of the Prehistoric Planet, Space Mission of the Prehistoric Planet, Space Mission to the Lost Planet, and Vampire Men of the Lost Planet), Independent International, 1970.

The Hired Hand, Universal, 1971.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Warner Bros., 1971.

Red Sky at Morning, Universal, 1971.

The Ski Bum (also known as Point Zero), AVCO–Embassy, 1971.

Deliverance, Warner Bros., 1972.

Images, Columbia, 1972.

Blood of Ghastly Horror (also known as Echo of Terror, The Fiend with the Atomic Bomb, Fiend with the Electronic Brain, The Love Maniac, The Man with the Synthetic Brain, and Psycho A Go–Go), 1972.

Cinderella Liberty, Twentieth Century–Fox, 1973.

The Long Goodbye, United Artists, 1973.

Scarecrow, Warner Bros., 1973.

The Girl from Petrovka, Universal, 1974.

The Sugarland Express, Universal, 1974.

Dandy, the All–American Girl (also known as Sweet Revenge), Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer/United Artists, 1976.

Death Riders, Crown International, 1976.

Obsession, Columbia, 1976.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Columbia, 1977.

The Last Waltz, United Artists, 1978.

The Deer Hunter, Universal, 1978.

The Rose, Twentieth Century–Fox, 1979.

Winter Kills, AVCO–Embassy, 1979.

Heaven's Gate (also known as Johnson County Wars), United Artists, 1980.

Blow Out, Filmways, 1981.

Jinxed!, Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer/United Artists, 1982.

Table for Five, Warner Bros., 1983.

No Small Affair, Columbia, 1984.

The River, Universal, 1984.

Real Genius, TriStar, 1985.

The Witches of Eastwick, Warner Bros., 1987.

Journey to Spirit Island, World Wide Releasing, 1988.

Fat Man and Little Boy (also known as Shadowmakers), Paramount, 1989.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Warner Bros., 1990.

The Two Jakes, Paramount, 1990.

Scared of Guns, 1990.

(With Michael A. Benson and Kovacs) Sliver, Paramount, 1993.

Intersection, Paramount, 1994.

Maverick, Warner Bros., 1994.

Assassins (also known as Day of Reckoning), Warner Bros., 1995.

The Crossing Guard, Miramax, 1995.

The Ghost and the Darkness, Paramount, 1996.

Playing by Heart (also known as Intermedia), Miramax, 1998.

Illegal Music, 1998.

Mr. Hughes, 2000.

Ljuset haaller mig saellskap (also known as Light Keeps Me Company), First Run, 2000.

The Body, TriStar, 2001.

Life as a House, New Line Cinema, 2001.

Bank Ban, 2001.

(Second unit) Timeline, 2003.

Jersey Girl, Miramax, 2004.

Melinda and Melinda, Fox, 2004.

Film Work:

Additional photography, The Border, Universal, 1981.

Director, The Long Shadow, Israfilm/Prolitera/Novo Film, 1992.

Film Appearances:

Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography (documentary), American Film Institute, 1993.

Albert Bierstadt, Maverick, Warner Bros., 1994.

Ljuset haaller mig saellskap (also known as Light Keeps Me Company), First Run, 2000.

The Making of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," New Line Home Video, 2001.

Character Building: Inside "Life as a House," 2001.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Cactus Three, 2003.

Television Cinematographer; Movies:

(As William Zsigmond) The Market, 1965.

Stalin, HBO, 1992.

Television Cinematographer; Series:

The Protectors, NBC, 1969–1970.

Television Cinematographer; Miniseries:

Flesh and Blood, CBS, 1979.

The Mists of Avalon (also known as Die Nebel von Avalon), TNT, 2001.

Television Appearances; Specials:

The 50th Annual Academy Awards, 1978.

Big Guns Talk: The Story of the Western, TNT, 1997.

Final Cut: The Making of "Heaven's Gate" and the Unmaking of a Studio (documentary), TRIO Network, 2004.



International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, St. James Press, 1996.


American Film, November, 1990, p. 20.

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