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Cinematographer Harris Savides dies

Shot Van Sant, Baumbach films, 'American Gangster'

Harris Savides, the innovative director of photography best known for his work with Gus Van Sant and David Fincher, died Thursday at the age of 55. Cause of death could not be confirmed, but Stephen Lighthill, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, told Variety that Savides had been engaged in a prolonged battle with cancer.

Savides, a five-time Independent Spirit Awards nominee and a native New Yorker, started out as a still photographer on fashion shoots before segueing to commercials and musicvideos for the likes of Madonna and R.E.M., for which he won MTV Video Awards. He first collaborated with Fincher on “Seven” as an additional photographer and graduated to d.p. on Fincher’s “The Game.”

His work with Van Sant as a d.p. began with “Finding Forrester” (2000), and he continued to work with the director on such films as “Gerry” (2002); “Elephant” (2003), for which he won the New York Film Critics Circle award for cinematography; “Last Days” (2005); “Milk” (2008); and “Restless” (2011).

His stature as a d.p. on low-budget indie films grew to such a degree that attracted the attention of some of the medium’s more demanding visual stylists, such as Jonathan Glazer (“Birth”), Ridley Scott (“American Gangster”) and Sophia Coppola, who broke with her usual d.p., Lance Accord, to work with Savides on “Somewhere” and “The Bling Ring,” Savides’ last project, which will be released next year. Other credits included Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” and “Greenberg.”

“Melancholia” d.p. Manuel Alberto Claro, named one of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch in February, cited Savides as a role model.

“I like to keep things natural and real and respect the script,” Savides told interviewer Kahlil Joseph at the Chateau Marmont while he was shooting “Somewhere.”

One of Savides’ innovations, said Lighthill, was “to light the environment rather than the actors. It’s a pretty unusual approach. Most of us want the environment to look right, but we kind of consider that background, with the actors (as the focus) in the foreground. But Harris felt more comfortable lighting the environment and then seeing how the actors worked in that.”

Lighthill also noted Savides’ ability to work more with less. Savides “wasn’t somebody who was worried that if he didn’t have 40-footers (trucks) that he would somehow be failing,” Lighthill said. “He was willing to scale the production to have the look that served the story. He was someone who was always story-focused. If you look overall at his body of work, you would never say there was a Harris Savides look.”

Lighthill described Savides’ lensing of Fincher’s “Zodiac” as “on the bleeding edge of digital,” when “the 4K cameras that are out now (such as the Red camera and the Sony F65) were more in the planning stages.” Savides used a Viper camera on that film, the first time a major studio feature was shot and produced digitally without the use of videotape or compression, according to Creative Planet Network.

“(On ‘Zodiac’) he used not just digital but he used digital projection in a very clever way to do the night shots and create reflections on cars,” Lighthill said. “He was very innovative in that way.”

Added Naida Albright, a producer and awards season consultant who co-founded and was co-publisher on industry trade magazine Below the Line, “Harris was eager to understand the best way to carry his images through the digital chain without losing image quality. It was about the final look for him.”

Calls to Savides’ rep at the Skouras Agency were not returned by press time.

Savides lived in Manhattan with his wife, Medine, and daughter, Sophie.

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