Cinematography award: Vilmos Zsigmond

Hollywood Movie honoree

When Vilmos Zsigmond accepts the Hollywood Award for cinematography tonight, it will mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, when the people of Budapest rebelled against the ruling Communist forces in the country.

Unofficially, it was Zsigmond’s first job in cinema in his homeland, one in which the film-school grad visually chronicled the horrors and triumphs of the short revolt.

“We had to walk 20 miles to get to the border, carrying the film. When we saw the Russian troops with machine guns, we hid the film in a cornfield. The troops took us back to camp and we bribed them to let us go. Later, we retrieved the print,” Zsigmond recalls. The footage eventually made its way into the feature documentary “Hungary Aflame,” which CBS aired five years after the revolution.

Adapting to the situation at hand is a necessary trait for any cinematographer, especially one who has enjoyed a 43-year career. While Zsigmond’s style is often marked by a naturally lit, smoky palette, the d.p. credits some of his best moves to directors. For example, it was Robert Altman’s idea to give “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” an old sepia photograph look.

The effect shows up again in Zsigmond’s work on “The Black Dahlia.” With the use of a digital intermediate, Brian De Palma and Zsigmond strove to heighten the film’s noir tone by desaturating the print’s colors. Better yet, says the cinematographer, was De Palma’s ability to tell a story with one long master shot.

“The whole scene ultimately looks as though one is sitting in a theater,” Zsigmond remarks.

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