|John Savage stars as Steven in The Deer Hunter’s “Russian
Ask any cinematographer about The Deer Hunter. Nearly
all of them have vivid memories of how they were personally touched by the
film. It doesn’t
matter whether they saw it in a cinema when it opened 25 years ago, or on a
DVD last week. Ask them about the Russian roulette scene in particular, and
they invariably recollect a painterly ambience that amplified performances
and pulled them deep into the emotional drama of a terrifying sequence.
tropical sun motivated the light in the hut where this scene played out.
The film’s cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC,
relied on real sunlight augmented by a few gelled HMIs for key light, using
fill light from behind the camera. But how would other cinematographers
choose to light and shoot that same scene today with the advantages of
contemporary imaging technology? Could a director create anywhere near
the same emotional impact today by putting a DV camera on his or her
own shoulder and just pointing and shooting in available light?
Bill Butler, ASC (Jaws; Grease; Frailty)
as excited as anyone else about the possibilities of electronic cameras.
What I’m against are the people selling the idea that ‘you no longer
have to be an artist.’ It’s a different curve with electronic cameras,
which imposes some limits, but you still have to know how to balance
light so you get whites and blacks and gray tones.”
We asked John Bailey, ASC (Ordinary People; The Big Chill; How
to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) that same question. Bailey attracted
media attention several years ago when he photographed The Anniversary
Party in DV format. He explained that the decision to shoot digital
was motivated by a few Dogme-style movies produced in available light. “I
convinced [co-director/star] Jennifer Jason Leigh that film-style lighting
was needed to create a sense of time and place, and to amplify the
drama,” he says.
Bailey tested three different digital cameras before
settling on the Sony DSR-500. “We felt that the 24p HD cameras were too cumbersome,” he
How did shooting in a digital format affect his job?
Was he able to work with a smaller crew and less light? “The choice of media doesn’t
affect your role as a cinematographer,” he comments. “Every digital format
has its own imaging characteristics. You have to think of it as a different
film stock. You have to shoot tests and take each camera through its
paces until you intuitively know exactly what it can do. I had the same
[size] crew, including gaffers, grips and assistants, and even an extra
person—a video engineer. The dynamic range and color palette were more
limited than film.”
|Top to Bottom: Cinematographers Rodrigo Prieto
(with Curtis Hanson on the 8 Mile set), John Bailey, Brian Reynolds
in on what it would take to recreate that scene today, utilizing
Michael Hofstein was Bailey’s camera operator during
the 1980s. He has subsequently spent several years in China shooting
commercials, and has
compiled 10 independent feature credits, including The Ice Planet and The
Learning Curve. Hofstein was cast in the dual role of producer/cinematographer
during the recent production of The Seventh Lie in France. The
independent feature was produced in DV with a Sony PAL DSR-500 camera,
a decision dictated by budget. Hofstein says that lighting requirements
were more exacting than film because of the differences in imaging characteristics.
There were subtle shifts in colors and the ability to record details
in facial expressions as characters moved through scenes.
Brian J. Reynolds has compiled eight nominations during the past dozen
years in the annual American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding
Achievement Awards competition. He was nominated in 2002 for American
Family, which was produced in 24p HD, and this year for American
Dreams, a 35mm production. Reynolds refined his technique for using
a dimmer board to control lighting on the American Family set.
He learned the technique by watching Vittorio Storaro, AIC, shoot Warren
Beatty’s Bulworth on an adjacent stage while he was filming NYPD
Blue some years ago.
“The dimmer board gave me the freedom to interactively adjust the angle
and character of light on moving shots,” he said. “One of the biggest
differences in lighting for HD is the need for more fill light, because
otherwise the issues/50/images flatten out really quickly. It also doesn’t have
the same latitude as film in either over- or under-exposure situations.
It’s my job to work with the production designer, costumer and hairdresser
to create the reality the director wants, whether I am lighting for film
or video cameras.
“I remember a lighting seminar conducted by Michel Hugo during the 1970s.
He told us that if we wanted to become cinematographers, we had to learn
how to trust our eyes and our instincts. We had to pay attention to everything,
every second we were on the set. We had to watch the actors and how they
were moving. Watch the light and where the director was standing because
that was probably where he wanted the camera, and we’d have to light
for that perspective.”
The bottom line is that Reynolds, Bailey and Hofstein all believe that
lighting the same Russian roulette scene that Zsigmond filmed 25 years
ago would require more attention to fill light and produce less satisfying
results if it were produced in DV or HD.
Modern technology provides another alternative. Films ranging from Frida to The
Pianist were converted to digital format and timed in digital suites
last year. In a Los Angeles Times article, journalist Lynn Smith quoted
a “colorist” at a digital timing facility who explained how he “re-lit” scenes
in a recent popular sci-fi film. Smith also quoted seven cinematographers,
including Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, Christopher Doyle and Zsigmond, who
told her that digital mastering is likely to eventually become a commonplace
extension of cinematography, but that they didn’t think it would replace
the need for artful lighting with actors on the set or in practical
“You can put a window around anything in a frame and isolate it,” said
Prieto. “You can make it darker or brighter, alter contrast and colors.
In 8 Mile, there are scenes where I asked the colorist to isolate
parts of the sky in certain exteriors and make it lighter or darker for
continuity. In Frida, we made the color saturation deeper in parts
of some scenes. But actors respond to light and I don’t see that changing.”
How about today’s faster films and anamorphic lenses?
Would Zsigmond do it differently today with an 800-speed film in the
and a Primo lens?
The answer is that today’s more sensitive films and
faster lenses probe deeper into both the shadow and highlight areas.
Hofstein explains that
this means he can work with smaller lighting units, but he still has
to control the angle, color and intensity of light, and it still has
to be orchestrated with the movements of characters and cameras.
“I can close my eyes and recall seeing The Deer Hunter on
a movie screen when I was a film student,” says richard crudo (Outside Providence; American
Pie) who was recently elected president of the American Society of
Cinematographers. “I remember how connected I felt to the characters.
The Russian roulette scene was brilliant in the way everything came together—the
script, the actors, the production design and Vilmos’ sensitive cinematography.
It is stuck in my memory forever. I can’t imagine how you could do it
any better today.”
Kees Van Oostrum, ASC (Gods and Generals; Gettysburg)
was born and raised in Holland, where he studied moviemaking. The Dutch
government funded a scholarship for Van Oostrum to continue his education
at the American Film Institute. That’s where he saw The Deer Hunter for
the first time. It made an indelible impression.
“It was the film that showed me how the war affected ordinary Americans,” he
recalls. “Vilmos created issues/50/images that were metaphors for the emotions
the characters were feeling. There are meanings embedded in the light.
Later, I shot a documentary in a steel mill town in Pennsylvania. Plumbs
of smoke blotted out the sun and created a gray environment. I felt like
I was walking into a scene from The Deer Hunter.
“It was one of the most powerful films of its time and it still stands
up today. One of the fallacies is that you don’t have to light with digital
cameras. The truth is that you don’t have to light to expose issues/50/images with
today’s fast films either, because they see the world pretty much the
way the human eye does. You use light or the absence of light as a form
of expression about the meanings and the sense of time and place in stories.
No one ever did that better than Vilmos Zsigmond in The Deer Hunter.”
|Director Michael Cimino on the set of his 1978 epic, The
Daryn Okada, ASC (Cradle 2 the Grave; Lake Placid)
has deep roots in low-budget moviemaking. During his teens, he went
door to door offering to make 8mm movies of his neighbors’ pets. He began
his career shooting industrial films before progressing to low-budget
features and only recently migrated into the mainstream. “I remember
seeing a 70mm print of The Deer Hunter with stereo sound in a
movie theater in Westwood,” he says. “There was an early scene with trucks
driving through the streets of the town. There was a texture created
by the darkness, rain and wet road reflecting light; it was beautiful
and real at the same time. I was in the moment in that world. I felt
like the characters were my friends. The Russian roulette and other Vietnam
scenes were a vision of hell. When two of the characters escaped, I felt
like I was coming home with them. It was the longest movie I had ever
seen, but I was never conscious of the time. Vilmos found ways to use
light like he was painting a picture.”
In a retrospective interview about Rosemary’s
Baby, which he
shot in 1968, William Fraker, ASC (Bullitt; Looking for Mr.
Goodbar) was asked if he would do it differently if given another
chance today. His response: “If you ask 10 cinematographers how they
would light any scene, presuming that everything else was the same—the
director and actors, the same script and set—chances are you’ll get 10
Fraker contends that no two cinematographers would
light the Russian roulette scene exactly the same way. “How many cinematographers
would have had the guts to go to a remote location with HMI lights?
new and there were some questions. Chances are that even Vilmos would
do it differently today, because he has new experiences to draw on. Or
maybe the sunlight would be falling differently, or the actors would
be responding differently. Maybe the director would have a different
idea. None of this is in a textbook. You have to trust your instincts.”
Charles B. Lang, Jr. compiled some 160 feature film
18 Academy Award nominations—during a career that stretched over 50 years.
He won an Oscar in 1933 for Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms.
When Lang received an ASC Lifetime Achievement Award from his peers in
1960, he explained that he kept shooting for so many years because he
was never totally satisfied with his work on any film. “I always felt
if I did one more film I would get it right,” he stated.
That’s what makes cinematography an art. No one does
it the same way twice. Would different be better? The answer to that
question is subjective,
but it is hard to imagine how The Deer Hunter or the Russian roulette
scene could be any more powerful. As Crudo mentioned, those issues/50/images made
an enduring impression. Few would disagree. MM