Welcome to “Art of the Craft.” My name is Michael Goldman and I’m not a cinematographer. Rather, I’m a guy who constantly talks to cinematographers in my role as a longtime industry trade journalist (see my bio or visit my website listed therein for more on my background).
Why am I launching a new column here on the American Cinematographer website? It happened at the invitation of publisher Martha Winterhalter and editor Stephen Pizzello. They suggested that since I’ve dedicated my career to building relationships with many of the world’s greatest cinematographers and their filmmaking colleagues—directors, editors, designers, visual effects people, and many others—that I might as well bring visitors here insight behind those collaborations, and the industry trends and issues driving them. Translating the collaborative process from an ethereal concept into a meaningful description for peers and cinephiles to learn from has long been my stock in trade, and so, you can view this column as a conduit for doing just that each month. I welcome your input and suggestions—email me any time at email@example.com.
Meanwhile, to get things started, I managed to chat not long ago with two well-known legends that recently hooked up for the third time on a feature film project—Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, and director Woody Allen.
Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, and Woody Allen blend so well together that they understand each other perfectly, even when they have different aesthetic approaches. The two legends worked together last year in London for the third time as they made Allen’s newest movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger—currently in limited release around the country and coming on the heels of past collaborations Melinda and Melinda (2004) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007).
The production went smoothly, largely because Allen, according to Zsigmond, knows exactly what he wants and pursues it doggedly. That’s not to say they always agreed on creative questions, particularly regarding color palette. But Zsigmond views his job as executing Allen’s vision above all else, and Allen raves about Zsigmond’s ability to do just that.
“(Woody) knows how he wants his movies to look,” says Zsigmond. “He likes a sepia sort of tone, he avoids cooler colors, like blue, he prefers an overcast sky to a sunny day, and goes for softness in lighting. I might try to talk him into working in backlit situations that I love, and he will always listen to me. But in the end, he’ll do things the way he likes them, and I accept that. I call him an auteur. He’s basically a writer, which makes his stories always interesting. Because of that, he likes simple things, and therefore, not too much technique is needed in his movies. He doesn’t use many wide-angle shots, he doesn’t use the crane much, or anything else that might remind the audience that we are shooting a movie. He’s just telling a natural story.”
Allen concedes he prefers a warmer palette, adding that Zsigmond isn’t the first cameraman to suggest he cool things down a bit.
“The only thing that I’m after is a certain kind of warmth, and far apart from the compositions, which are dictated by the scenes, but Vilmos is able to understand the kind of lighting that I like, and gives it to me,” the director explains. “That is so in terms of my preference, and all the cameramen I work with, including Vilmos, try to talk me out of the excessive warmth that I push for. Sven Nykvist [ASC] used to say, ‘but their faces are like tomatoes.’ I had a number of debates with Vilmos, and sometimes I convinced him, and sometimes he would convince me. But fundamentally, when the warmth I like is achieved, I’m happier than when the cameraman has either failed to achieve it, or has argued so persuasively against it that I’ve conceded and regretted it later. I’ve had no more frequent discussions (about these things) with Vilmos than any other cameraman. But he is a great master, and I’ve always known there are things that I can learn from him.”
Allen explains that, by the time he first worked with Zsigmond on Melinda Melinda, “I was well into my sixties and pretty set, although Vilmos is such a creative cameraman that you can always learn from him.” Indeed, Zsigmond and Allen say they have, in fact, been educating each other in recent years.
“For example,” says Allen, “he’s much more adventurous with the use of equipment than I am. He loves his cranes and various pieces of equipment to create unusual shots—shots the viewer takes for granted. And he gives the audience angles and perspectives that a less knowledgeable cameraman would not come up with.”
Similarly, Zsigmond calls working with Allen a constant education due to the director’s staging wizardry. For instance, in the case of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the strategic use of Steadicam was essential in a film that is largely an ongoing, romantic, dialogue piece. Long, sweeping takes captured by Steadicam operator Peter Cavaciuti as he followed Allen’s actors around, in fact, make up significant portions of the movie.
“Staging was much improved by using the Steadicam,” says Zsigmond. “It became more natural because we followed actors as they went from room to room and back again. It’s an interesting way to tell the story, often in one shot. Many scenes were one shot—no closeups. This is not American-style comedy in that sense. These days, if you have a shot over 30 seconds, some directors get too cutty, rock-video style. But Woody does the opposite. He prefers one shot whenever he can. It’s more like being in a theater, watching a performance—everything in one shot, like on a stage. This lets you see the acting more, and that is what’s most important to Woody.”
Through post, Allen remained happily set in his ways, declining Zsigmond’s suggestion that they perform a digital intermediate on the movie. Since then, however, Allen did finally, reluctantly, dip into the DI process.
“I can only say that I’m slow to change, and I’ve just now made a digital intermediate on my last picture [Midnight in Paris, a 2011 release] for the first time—a film I shot with Darius Khondji [ASC],” Allen says. “I know how to work the old way, and you can make some pretty lovely looking pictures that way, so I’m waiting to see now if working this new way adds anything, subtracts, or is a wash. Don’t forget, my films rarely have any special effects in them, or other kinds of stories that profit from the magic that digital work can do, and I personally have never seen the need to move forward. But it may turn out that the positives of going digital will prove beneficial, even to me.”
Whether Allen evolves his method or not, however, he’s open to working once again with Zsigmond—something Zsigmond says he would enjoy since he has no intention whatsoever of slowing down.
“Why should I? I want to keep going as long as I can walk, as long as I can think, as long as I can keep coming up with ideas,” he chuckles. “If people still want me to do movies, I’ll keep doing them.”
All photos by Keith Hamshere © 2010 Mediapro & Gravier Productions, Inc., Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.