Three directors who have worked closely with DP Newton Thomas Sigel, Variety’s latest Billion Dollar Cinematographer, speak of their experiences with him.

Nicolas Winding Refn

When Danish director and screenwriter Refn first talked to Sigel via Skype about possibly shooting his retro-noir thriller “Drive” (pictured above), he quickly realized he’d found the ideal DP for the job. “He told me he’d shot a lot of car commercials with cameras in every possible place in a car, so I just went with my instinct that he’d be very experimental and creative in how we’d shoot it — especially as I had this idea for shooting the whole opening sequence from inside a car,” the helmer says. “It was also a personality thing. I just loved his wacky behavior. He’s a bit like Charlie Brown on speed, which makes me Snoopy, I guess, so we were a great fit.”

Refn reports that Sigel’s “guerrilla-style” approach to the shoot was “another major asset, as I kept changing the script all the time. But that didn’t freak him. He was very adaptable and open to any new ideas I suddenly came up with.” The director adds that Sigel’s fast, anything-goes workstyle was “a big help in terms of our budget and schedule. We didn’t have a lot of money, and we shot the whole film in just over six weeks — car chases and everything, so I really needed a DP who was as visually ambitious as I was. Basically he took what I wanted, ran with it and always tried to exceed my expectations — and succeeded every time.”

Yuen Woo-ping

“We teamed up on ‘Crouching Tiger 2,’ which was a very challenging project,” says the renowned Hong Kong director and martial-arts choreographer. “The biggest challenge was the never-ending interference from the studio. New script pages would come in overnight from New York for our morning call time in New Zealand. It’s not easy to shoot a period Chinese film in New Zealand, but we were there for the tax rebate. Although it was Tom’s first Chinese period film, he adapted to that style of filmmaking very quickly.”

Yuen recalls one fight scene that was supposed to take place in the dark. “The studio kept cutting the days for that scene and we kept reimagining it,” he says. “This went on right up to the day of the shoot and I thought the sequence was doomed. Tom had designed this wonderful lighting using beam projectors bouncing into strategically placed mirrors on the ground, so the room looked dark but you’d get these shafts of light that felt like leaked through window. That sequence was probably one of the most memorable of the whole film. Among all the chaos, Tom was always offering solutions. He’s a producer, editor, vfx supervisor and cinematographer all rolled into one. Tom isn’t just a cinematographer, he’s a filmmaker.”

Reginald Hudlin

“Tom and I met at the beginning of our careers, about some project that didn’t happen, but we clicked right away,” recalls Hudlin. “His intelligence, his sense of humor, and his childhood in Detroit all made him my kind of guy. We would run into each other as the years went by and I was blown away by the scale and quality of his work.”

On “Marshall,” says Hudlin, “I rehearsed with the actors on Saturdays, then sat with him and went over the week’s work on Sunday. We talked through the meaning of the scene, and what the best way of expressing that was. That way we knew exactly what we wanted to do so we could move quickly. In fact, there was no choice: we had a 140-page script and 30 days to shoot it. Tom made that happen and it still looked fantastic!”

Hudlin cites the scene in which Kate Hudson’s character jumps off the bridge. “It’s in a rural part of town, so there’s basically no light. We were shooting in Buffalo and Tom got every huge light available and made the water and surrounding woods just come alive. He gave them beauty and depth.”

Adds the helmer: “Tom is easygoing, professional, and works incredibility fast. He makes beautiful images and is a masterful storyteller.”