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Spreading the gospel of lighting

Lenser teaches younger generation of filmmakers

As a young man in war-torn Poland, cinematographer Witold Sobocinski heard American jazz music on the radio and fell in love with it. “Jazz taught me to make films by feeling them,” he says. “I could never get jazz out of my head, and it informs all the images I’ve photographed over the years.”

It’s this combination of the intellectual and the emotional, the calculated and the improvised that has distinguished Sobocinki’s work with a generation of directors that came out of the National Film, Television and Theatre School at Lodz, including such filmmakers as Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski.

“Witold has given the entire world of cinematography invaluable lessons about the nature of cinematography,” says Oscar-nominated cinematographer Slawomir Idziak (“Black Hawk Down”). “He was among the first to advance the idea that the cinematographer is the most important collaborator after the director.”

Sobocinski’s more notable works include Wajda’s “Ziemia obiecana” (The Promised Land), and Polanski’s “Pirates” and “Frantic.”

As the latest recipient of the American Society of Cinematographers’ Intl. Achievement Award, the dean of Polish cinematographers follows in the footsteps of such d.p.s as French New Wave icon Raoul Coutard, Fellini collaborator Giuseppe Totunno and Mexican master Gabriel Figueroa. And while Sobocinski’s credits might not be as well-known as his predecessors, his extracurricular activity within the ranks of his profession is considered as important as his work.

Sobocinski has dedicated most of his time and energy over the past two decades to passing on his expertise to younger generations of filmmakers, having taught more than 500 students over the past two decades.

He has also been one of the primary movers and shakers behind Camerimage, the Intl. Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography — the first major fest to focus on cinematography as a global art form. As president of the Polish Society of Cinematographers, he played a crucial role in helping the idea become a reality.

“It’s wonderful to receive this award from the ASC,” says Sobocinski, whose most recent film, 1999’s “Wrota Europy” (The Gateway of Europe), earned the best cinematography award at the Polish Film Festival. “The biggest recognition I could receive would be to have my colleagues in Hollywood and the West see my work, and know that my work helped change the American way of filmmaking.”

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