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Hungarians in Hollywood: Close Encounters with Vilmos Zsigmond

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Film has lots of unsung heroes. Most of the laurels and almost all the publicity go to promoting stars and star directors. But behind every film there are crew and highly creative people using the height of their genius to make the brand names look good. This is perhaps most true for the cinematographer. There is a reason why great directors will work with the same cinematographer again and again, and that's because they can be credited with so much of the technique and artistry behind the look and mood of a film. And in recent history, there has been no greater credit to the craft than Hungarian born Vilmos Zsigmond, whose life was explored in the 2016 documentary Close Encounters with Vilmos Zsigmond.

 Born in Hungary in 1930, Zsigmond moved to the United States in 1958. As a political refugee, he didn't show up in American empty handed, but with excerpts cut from 35,000 feet of film shot of the 1956 Revolution, which he and fellow cinematographer László Kovács shot surreptitiously in Budapest. He and Kovács, sold the footage to news legend Walter Cronkite, and were able to relocate to Los Angeles. There, Zsigmond got his start working on educational and independent films (occasionally using the more American-friendly name Billy Zigi) while he tried to get a break with the studios. Kovács experienced Hollywood success first, working on Peter Fonda's iconic film Easy Rider, and was able to recommend Zsigmond to Fonda for The Hired Hand, which eventually led to him working with Robert Altman on the classic McCabe & Mrs. Miller. From that point on, Zsigmond became a talent very high in demand.

 Zsigmond soon became identified with the American New Wave. His filmography as a cinematographer is unrivaled, having worked with the biggest names in the business, including Spielberg, De Palma, and Woody Allen, on films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, Deliverance, and The Witches of Eastwick, winning an Emmy, a BAFTA award, a National Film Critics award, and of course an Academy Award for Close Encounters.

Close Encounters with Vilmos Zsigmond, the documentary made by by French director Pierre Filmon (trailor above) had its premier at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, not long after Zsigmond's death earlier in that year. On Zsigmond's genius, Daily Variety has this to say in its review of the documentary: "it’s amazing, when you look at it now, to see how much of that film’s poetic sci-fi techno splendor came directly from Zsigmond: the oversaturated heat of those orange alien headlights — and, more than that, the whole soft-edged glow of the mothership. Sure, it was a special-effects coup, but when you look at how the images were shot, they’re a direct cousin to the misty melting landscapes of 'McCabe.' It was Zsigmond who made the awesomeness of alien spacecraft romantic."

Maybe some behind the scenes heroes get their share of glory after all.

Photo credit: Peter Novak via Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Peter Novak via Wikipedia Commons

Flatpack Films has many years of experience dedicated to offering expert servicing. It has brought the best of Hungary to countless brands, agencies, and production companies through its unique locations, exceptionally skilled crews, top of the line equipment and technical solutions. Backed by an impeccable track record, Flatpack Films has worked with world-class clients including Samsung, Samsonite, Toyota, Braun, Chivas Regal and many more - bringing their projects to life through a highly bespoke approach.