Vilmos Zsigmond, Oscar-Winning Cinematographer, Dead at 85

Hungarian-born director of photography worked on 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' 'The Deer Hunter,' and 'McCabe & Mrs. Miller'

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Vilmos Zsigmond, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' passed away at 85 George Rose/Hulton Archive

Vilmos Zsigmond, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as films like The Deer Hunter, Deliverance and Heaven's Gate, passed away Friday, his business partner Yuri Neyman confirmed to Variety. Zsigmond was 85.

The Hungarian-born Zsigmond – who filmed the Hungarian Revolution alongside his friend and fellow cinematographer László Kovács before they both relocated to Los Angeles – began his Hollywood career as a director of photography on low-budget exploitation and horror films and TV movies before he was hired by director Robert Altman – another veteran of made-for-TV features – to serve as cinematographer on 1971's McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Together, Altman and Zsigmond implemented that Western's unique use of zoom shots – a technique that wasn't frequently employed in big screen filmmaking – as well as "flashing" the filmed footage to give McCabe & Mrs. Miller its old-time look. (At the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, Zsigmond admitted that the studio wanted to fire him but Altman protected the cinematographer, blaming the underexposed footage on the processing lab.)

Soon after McCabe & Mrs. Miller – which earned a BAFTA nomination for its cinematography – Zsigmond established himself as one of Hollywood's preeminent cinematographers, working with directors like Altman (The Long Goodbye, Images), Steven Spielberg (Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate), Brian De Palma (Blow Out, Obsession), Martin Scorsese (camera operator on The Last Waltz) and Woody Allen (Melinda & Melinda, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger).

"A cinematographer can only be as good as the director," Zsigmond told Rolling Stone in a 1980 interview on the set of Heaven's Gate. "The story is the main thing, and the director knows the story and the characters better than anyone. I like to be on a picture at least four weeks before it starts, talking to the director, watching rehearsals, thinking. Then I can come up with ideas — how to light it, what kind of a mood I want to build. The most important thing for a cameraman to know is the kind of story the director wants to tell.

In that 1980 interview, Cimino said of his frequent collaborator, "What distinguishes Vilmos Zsigmond from other cinematographers is of course talent but, more, physical stamina. You just can't be great without it. On a movie, you often work fourteen-, sixteen-hour days, six days a week, for six months. It is so easy to let up because of fatigue. Vilmos will always say, 'We know it's good; is there a way to make it better?'"

A four-time Academy Award nominee, Zsigmond won the Best Cinematography Oscar in 1978 for Close Encounters of the Third Kind; he was also nominated for 1978's The Deer Hunter, 1984's The River and 2006's The Black Dahlia. In 2014, the Cannes Film Festival gave Zsigmond a Lifetime Achievement Award.

"Lighting is where the cameraman can become an artist," Zsigmond sums up. "The uses of lenses, the composition, many times come from the director. But with the lighting I can come in and create the mood. That's my job," Zsigmond told Rolling Stone in 1980. "I want the audience to look at my film and say, 'Hey, that guy didn't use any lights at all.'"

Zsigmond's death comes just a week after Haskell Wexler, another Oscar-winning cinematographer, passed away at 93.

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