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DP Newton Thomas Sigel Has Emerged as a Master of Multiple Styles and Genres

Few DPs have created work that ranges over such a wide range of movies, TV shows and documentaries

Cinematographer Tom Sigel
Alex Bailey

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel has spent more than 35 years delivering extraordinarily stylish and diverse images for both the big and small screen. He’s likely best known for his recurring work with director Bryan Singer, having collaborated on projects including “The Usual Suspects, the “X-Men” franchise, “Superman Returns,” the pilot for “House” and this fall’s Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The DP has proven his abilities on both blockbuster tentpoles and smaller, more intimate fare and, because of his distinct body of work, he’s become a name that directors rely upon to deliver thrilling pictorial results.

Starting his career shooting politically oriented documentaries such “We Are the Guinea Pigs,” “El Salvador: Another Vietnam,” “When the Mountains Tremble” and “In Our Hands,” he then turned to his first feature effort, “Latino,” directed by a fellow DP, the late Haskell Wexler. The film focused on the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

But the multitalented Sigel extended his range to far-flung corners of cinema — famously shooting the pilot episode for the ambitious yet short-lived television series “Cop Rock,” from Steven Bochco and William Finkelstein. That program combined the grittiness of the televised cop genre with an exuberant musical component, resulting in an eclectic tonal mix that feels thematically and esthetically tethered to Sigel’s overall filmography.

Early feature credits include Bob Rafelson’s underrated and moody drama “Blood & Wine,” which allowed Sigel to explore film noir in a modern setting, while his propulsive and muscular shooting style was used to great effect in David Koepp’s black-out thriller “The Trigger Effect,” which contains some breathtaking Steadicam shots. He also brought a visually haunting look to Gregory Hoblit and Denzel Washington’s supernatural horror thriller “Fallen,” bathing the film in deep reds and expressive shadows that heightened nearly every scene.

Some of Sigel’s best work can be seen in David O. Russell’s 1999 Iraq war satire “Three Kings,” where his camera famously travelled inside the bodies of soldiers who have been shot, in an effort to visually convey the internal damage a bullet can do to vital organs. Lensed with a ton of grain and with a bleached-out color palette, which would become extremely influential in the following years, the film became both a critical and box-office success. Writing at the time for Variety, Todd McCarthy called Sigel’s work on the picture “undeniably striking.”

The DP’s artistic side was also in full-effect on George Clooney’s directorial debut “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” which helped to strengthen the already bizarre and paranoid narrative. Sigel also memorably shot Nicolas Winding Refn’s modern cult classic “Drive,” which evoked Michael Mann’s “Thief” and William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” in its primal and sinewy coverage of Los Angeles, with reflective neon and pastel tones giving way to sinister nocturnal ambience.

But it’s his work with Singer that allowed Sigel to operate on a massive visual canvas, incorporating extensive visual-effects work without sacrificing tangible atmosphere and action. The “X-Men” franchise stresses the importance of story and thematic content, which afforded Sigel the chance to indulge his more flamboyant sensibilities while still putting across something with honest integrity.