Review: ‘Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography’

Cleverly structured and compiled, this fascinating documentary brings audiences face to face with 26 leading cinematographers who talk about their work and that of others combined with well-chosen excerpts from famous films.

Cleverly structured and compiled, this fascinating documentary brings audiences face to face with 26 leading cinematographers who talk about their work and that of others combined with well-chosen excerpts from famous films.

At a time when the public is showing more interest than ever in the way films are made– witness the number of dox on “the making of …”–this revealing study of what cinematographers have done when it comes to putting images on film is constantly absorbing and frequently exciting.

The lensers have pertinent observations to make about how and why they photographed certain films and how past cinematographers’ works have influenced them.

The film excerpts encompass a history of mostly American movies, from Billy Bitzer’s “Birth of a Nation” to Gregg Toland’s “Citizen Kane” to “Godfather III” shot by Gordon Willis (referred to as “The Prince of Darkness” by Conrad Hall, and who does admit that “sometimes I overdid it”). The excerpts are truly impressive.

From beautiful close-ups to sweeping crane shots, one comes to a new appreciation of that overworked phrase “the magic of the movies.”

The interviews, naturally set, carefully lit and relaxed, were shot on HDTV and are never too long between excerpts. The latter are from 35mm prints, most in perfect condition, and respect all their different aspect ratios.

There is no annoying off-screen voice asking questions. Shown at Cannes on HDTV, it will be released as a 35mm print for specialized exhibition.

Among the many conclusions to be drawn from the achievements and experiences of those interviewed, it becomes clear from their ideas and those of their predecessors that what could be done with their cameras was always ahead of technology.

Their improvisations became the new advances in forthcoming models. For example, tribute is paid to Robert Surtees, who at 65 was still experimenting while shooting “The Graduate.”

With the AFI being a co-producer, this documentary confines itself largely to American cinematographers and those Europeans who have worked on American films.

As always with compilations, there are missing favorites due probably to clip rights and availability of other cinematographers. Sequels would be in order because these are interesting artists whom viewers seldom meet.

For example, Allen Daviau (“E.T.,””Empire of the Sun”) relates his knowledge of the past with enthusiasm and authority. Other memorable segments are William Fraker’s funny anecdote about shooting “Rosemary’s Baby,” the discussion of a “New York style” of cinematography and Conrad Hall’s comments on how he and his contemporaries helped to make “mistakes” (i.e., camera flair) acceptable to studio heads.

Apart from this doc’s appeal to movie buffs and general audiences, this is a work with a long life in the teaching of film.

It illustrates in 90 minutes what an instructor could never hope to achieve in months. Arnold Glassman, Stuart Samuels, Todd McCarthy and their colleagues have produced an insightful chronicle proving once again the American film at its best is truly an art.

Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography



An American Film Institute-NHK/Japan Broadcasting co-production. Produced by Stuart Samuels. Executive producers, Terry Lawler, Yoshiki Nishimura. Co-producer, Arnold Glassman. Directed by Glassman, Todd McCarthy, Samuels. Written by McCarthy.


Camera (color/B&W/High Definition TV) Nancy Schreiber; editor, Glassman; associate executive producer, Mariko Jane Hirai. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (non-competing), May 14, 1992. Running time: 90 min.


Nestor Almendros, John Alonzo, John Bailey, Michael Ballhaus, Stephen Burum, Bill Butler, Michael Chapman, Allan Daviau, Caleb Deschanel, Ernest Dickerson, Frederick Elmes, William Fraker, Conrad Hall, James Wong Howe, Victor Kemper, Lazslo Kovacs, Charles Lang, Sven Nykvist, Lisa Rinzler, Owen Roizman, Charles Rosher, Jr., Sandi Sissel, Vittorio Storaro, Haskell Wexler, Robert Wise , Gordon Willis, Vilmos Zsigmond.

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