After shooting Kickstart Theft, Zsigmond believes Sony's F65 is a huge step forward in digital camera design
Rated as one of the 10 most influential cinematographers in history, Vilmos Zsigmond ASC has a filmography that includes some of the most famous movies of all time. A protégé of director Robert Altman, Zsigmond crafted Altman classics such as McCabe & Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye and went on to work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood including Brian De Palma, Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter), Stephen Spielberg and Woody Allen. Oscar-nominated three times for best cinematography, Zsigmond won the Academy Award in 1977 for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Born in Hungary in 1930, Zsigmond’s route to success in the film industry started when he formed a photographic club for his fellow factory workers. After gaining an MA in cinematography, one of his earliest film productions was to chronicle the events of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, when the populace rose up against communist rule. He fled Hungary shortly afterwards and arrived in the USA as a political refugee, working on low-budget indie films as he tried to break into the mainstream. With 50 years of filmmaking experience under his belt, Zsigmond’s view is that despite the recent rapid advances in digital film camera technology there will always be a place for film which has been ‘producing beautiful images for over 70 years.’
“I don’t think film is about to become obsolete. It will still have its place, underlined by the fact that Eastman Kodak has said it will continue to supply film to people who still want to work with it. But I do think that digital projection will probably make up 100% of the market in 10 years time as people won’t make film prints any more.”
For Zsigmond, advances in digital cinematography is all about the quality of the image that you are able to produce at the end of the day rather than camera ergonomics. Which is why he rates the F65 so highly, after road testing it on short film Kickstart Theft. “At the moment the F65 is the best digital cinematography camera available. It’s a big step forward from other digital cameras because it has a huge sensor and offers better colour resolution with little or no compression.” As with all digital cameras Zsigmond stresses that pairing the camera with the right lens is important to control the sharpness of the images that digital cameras generate. “If I had the choice I would use the F65 with Leica lenses as we did with Kickstart because they work wonderfully together to produce a filmic look. The Leica lens has a built in softness, which makes the F65 images look even better. I love the way it makes people’s faces look.”
Images of this quality, resulting from the combination of the lenses and the quality of the F65 sensor, give you more options in post, adds Zsigmond. “You can blow up the images by 50% and not see any pixels.”
It was a useful feature which Zsigmond and director Frederic Goodich ASC were able to exploit on Kickstart.
Lighting and composition is key
Zsigmond stresses that whether shooting on digital or film, the cinematographers’ skill in lighting and composing shots is key. Zsigmond recalls that it took him over a decade to feel comfortable with his art but now it has become second nature. “When you first go to a location you have to decide what is the best angle for the sun and background and what you have to include in the shot, but you have to have an image in your mind. This is something which cinematographers do. If you are not born with it you have to learn it – how to create images.”
“You have to go through a learning process by going to museums, studying paintings, studying photographer’s work. We are basically following something in culture which goes way back across thousands of years of painting and photography. Putting a person in the right side you have to balance it on the left side, and balance the lighting in the composition so it’s a complicated thing and that’s what many people don’t understand – why cinematographers are so important to a movie.”
“It took me a very long time to learn, but now after 50 years the whole thing has come together. Many people don’t understand how I do it. In fact I don’t really understand it myself.”
The making of Kickstart Theft
Kickstart Theft is a short film created, written and directed by award-winning director/cinematographer and educator Frederic Goodich ASC with cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. The story, inspired by Vittorio de Sica’s Italian neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves, “focuses on the theft of a motorcycle and the need for the poverty-stricken, rightful owner to find it,” explains Goodich, who cinematography credits include G.I. Jesus (CineVegas Grand Jury Prize) and Board & Care (Academy Award Dramatic Short).
“The story takes place in an urban environment of homelessness. To emphasize the Los Angeles cityscape and its streets, we chose locations with powerful architectural form and texture. The work of Caravaggio and Edward Hopper inspired my vision for Kickstart – isolated emotional moments, lit dramatically. Both Vilmos and I like the feel of single source lighting and chiaroscuro, composing for light and shadow to give a sense of three-dimensionality to the space and objects within the space.”
Goodich recalls: “The F65 delivered! When shooting, the latitude and dynamic range of the F65 as seen on the monitor seemed as close to what our eyes saw in front of the camera, whether in full sunlight, tunnel darkness or night street light. Under extreme low light, however, there were times when the camera saw more than our own eyes. Vilmos and I were amazed at what the external monitor displayed. One shot in the late afternoon was blown up by 38% in post: a high angle of the bikers in the LA river basin with sunlight kicking off the pooled water. No artifacting or banding was evident, nor any loss of detail.”
“One value of these cameras is they have a great range, compared to the early days of HD where if you underexposed too much you’d lose it and never get it back,” says Goodich. “Cameras such as the F65 free you up to work intuitively, which is what many of us cinematographers want. Ultimately, it’s not about algorithms and the jungle of gear; it’s about the final image. I choose a film stock for its look and sensitivity and compose, light and meter each shot accordingly. With the F65 and its extended color gamut and high dynamic range – as implemented through the ACES workflow – I can work in the film-style mode I’m accustomed to and feel confident that in digital the desired image will be there. It ignites discovery, artistry, my imagination!”
Kickstart’s F65 workflow
Recorded to SRMemory cards using the RAW SQ codec, when each day wrapped the data wrangler and F65 expert would back up onto two separate drives, recalls Goodich. Once the shoot wrapped the dailies colourist did a one-light grade of all the RAW files on Resolve before transcoding to DNxHD 115 files which were sent to editor Gib Jaffe. Once the edit was approved, a drive containing the Avid ‘bin’ with the DNxHD files was sent to the post house with the metadata automatically referencing the original RAW files for conform. Graded by Corinne Bogdanowicz in ACES using Baselight, contrast, colour saturation, deep blacks still retaining detail captured in the shadows and excellent highlight detail were added.