What Does Winning an Oscar Really Mean to a Filmmaker's Career?

Published on website: February 05, 2010
Categories: Awards , Bob Fisher , The StoryBoard Blog

Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC and Guillermo Navarro, ASC, AMC sat down to share memories about their respective Oscar-winning endeavors, which came nearly three decades apart, for International Cinematographer Guild magazine last year. Zsigmond took top honors for Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1978. Navarro won for El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) in 2007, just the second time in Academy history that a cinematographer won an Oscar for a foreign language film.

Both men followed career paths that could be plucked straight from a Hollywood script. Zsigmond was born and raised in Szeged, Hungary, during the Nazi occupation and subsequent imposition of a communist regime by Russia. He made a perilous journey across the Austrian border in the wake of an uprising that was brutally suppressed by the Soviet Army. With no knowledge of English and zero connections in the film industry, Zsigmond migrated to the United States in 1956 as a political refugee. He worked at odd jobs, and shot free films for students and industrial movies for $2.50 an hour until he launched his narrative film career in 1963 with an ultra-low budget film titled The Sadist. Navarro was born in Mexico City, where he started taking still pictures when he was 13 years old. His sister got him a job as a photographer on a film when he was 14. Navarro eventually purchased a 16 mm camera, and began shooting documentaries.

Bob Fisher, industry publicist, recorded the lively discussion between the two venerable cinematographers. Below are some excerpts from the conversation:

NAVARRO: When did Steven Spielberg first speak with you about Close Encounters?

ZSIGMOND: Steven had told me about his ideas for producing a film about UFOs visiting Earth several years before we started working on Close Encountersof the Third Kind. I was intrigued and tried to imagine what UFOs and aliens looked like. After he finished Jaws, we spoke again about the alien film, and shot tests in the desert to show the studio his vision. They gave him a green light, and we started shooting a couple of months later. The studio was very edgy about the budget, which got higher and higher while we were in production. There was constant pressure to cut costs. The studio was blaming me because I ordered lights and generators that weren’t budgeted, especially for the 30-minute scene at the end when the spaceship lands and the aliens come out.

NAVARRO: That is an incredible scene that no one who has seen the film will ever forget. I have always wondered how you did it.

ZSIGMOND: We looked all over the United States to find a big enough interior space to build the set. We finally found a hangar in Mobile, Alabama, and extended it another 600 feet with tenting. That was a good choice as we could shoot during both day and night, but it wasn’t easy. We always had to worry about storms since it was hurricane season. We worked under miserable conditions because there was no air conditioning and it was the middle of the summer. Sometimes it was 125 degrees inside the hangar!

NAVARRO: What were your lighting options at the time?
ZSIGMOND: I have always been conscious about keeping costs down, but I knew that last scene had to be a light show. There were only 10Ks and HMIs in those days. Steven kept telling the studio that they had to give me what I needed. Maybe they thought we could create that effect in postproduction, but that wasn’t possible if we wanted the right look when the spaceship lands and we meet the aliens. Towards the end of the picture, the studio wanted to replace me but Steven was loyal. Cinematographers whom they approached also wouldn’t take the job because it wasn’t the right thing to do. (Visual Effects Supervisor) Doug Trumbull was also on my side. Eventually, people at the studio started to blame Steven. They put him under a lot of pressure but he never compromised.

ZSIGMOND: Now let me ask you, how did you decide how to shoot Pan’s Labyrinth?

NAVARRO: Del Toro and I always pay a lot of attention to the prep. We both come from the same country and culture, and have grown together in how we express ourselves. … Pan’s Labyrinth takes place during the consolidation of fascism in Spain in the early 1940s. Scenes that take place in the military world have cool blue and green colors. The palette is warmer when the women of the house are present, and at the rebel’s camp. Also, some of the fantasy scenes are warmer with deep crimson and gold hues. The different colors in the two worlds become bridges to tell the story.

ZSIGMOND: Why did you choose to frame the images in 1.85:1 (aspect ratio), rather than with anamorphic lenses with all the backgrounds and action in so many scenes?

NAVARRO: We shot in that format, mainly with a single camera, because that format has a human scale; that’s how the human eye sees the world. Once we started shooting, the film took on a life of its own. I underexposed the film three and four stops while we were shooting day-for-night scenes in natural light. We timed the film in DI (digital intermediate), where we dealt with colors and made windows to control the sky lighter or darker in different scenes.

ZSIGMOND: When I used a DI on The Black Dahlia, I shot the film in three-perf Super 35 format, and the producers agreed to a 4K scan. We did a test comparing film-outs made from 2K and 4 K scans. The 4K looked much better. I used the DI to make shadows a little blacker in some shots. I made light reflecting on a wall in a background of a dinner scene a little darker, and the candlelight a little less saturated. But I’ve always felt that for the most part if a scene needed another light, we took the time to do it right rather than trying to fix it in post.

NAVARRO: Do you think DI technology is changing the DP’s role?

ZSIGMOND: It can be part of our role as cinematographers, like deciding what are the right lenses or film stocks to use. But it’s certainly not a new idea. We have been using the same technology to time films for television and for DVDs. I remember screening The Deer Hunter at a festival in Denver and a young filmmaker asked me if I would shoot it differently today. My answer was: Why? Didn’t you like the movie? 

NAVARRO [laughing]: Well, we used a DI on Pan’s Labyrinth, partially because we knew that we would be compositing digital characters into some scenes. But, I agree that it all starts with the images you get on the negative. Getting back to the Oscars: Were you as surprised as I was when your name was called?

ZSIGMOND: The film was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Steven. I was happy that I was nominated and completely unprepared when they called my name. I remember walking up the steps thinking that 80 million people were watching on television! I was panicking since I didn’t prepare a speech, and very nervous when I got on the stage. Then Goldie Hawn and Jon Voight hugged me, and all I could think to say was thank you to America for giving me a chance to live my dream. I also thanked my teachers in Hungary. I forgot to thank Steven, the producers or Doug Trumbull! That was terrible not thanking them and the actors, although it wasn’t intentional. When I got back to my seat, I realized my mistake. Did you have a similar reaction?

NAVARRO: I was surprised that I won an Oscar because it was a Spanish-language movie produced for less than a $20 million budget. I had won the Golden Frog Award at Camerimage in Poland, the New York Film Critics Award, and was also nominated for a British Academy Award. Emmanuel Lubezki (ASC) was also nominated for Children of Men. It was only the second time that two Mexicans were nominated for cinematography in the same year! (Lubezki and Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC were both nominated in 2006 for The New World and Brokeback Mountain, respectively.) We were seated sort of in the middle of the theater pretty far from the aisle. I remember Emmanuel turning to me and saying, ‘Take it easy. Don’t worry about it.’

When our category came up, they showed little clips of each of us (the nominees). Then, Gwyneth Paltrow opened the envelope and said my name. When I was on stage, she handed me the award, and congratulated me in perfect Spanish, which was completely unexpected. I felt like I was hallucinating. Fortunately, I had won the Independent Spirit Award for cinematography in a laid-back ceremony the day before. I just walked up to the Oscar podium and congratulated my fellow nominees straight from my heart, and said that it was recognition for a collective effort to support the vision of the genius of Guillermo del Toro. Of course, no one talks about what happens after you win the Oscar! Did winning for Close Encounters change your career?

ZSIGMOND: Well, I actually did not get another movie for quite a while after winning the Oscar. I think people assumed I would have a big head and be too expensive, because I had won an Oscar. Other cinematographers have told me the same thing happened to them after they won. But, it was a wonderful experience that I will always treasure and it eventually made other things possible. What happened for you after winning?

NAVARRO: I had already been hired to shoot Hellboy II before the Oscars, and I went to work prepping that film a few months after I won, and worked on the film for eight months. I also was a cinematography consultant for DreamWorks Animation on Madagascar II that year. I was offered a few movies later but they all fell apart because of the writer’s strike. One of the things that did happen is that I’ve been asked to teach master classes at film festivals and schools. That’s an experience I have tremendously enjoyed. I tell people in my seminars of what I went through coming from Mexico to Hollywood; it seemed like I was chasing an impossible dream. Winning an Oscar seemed completely out of the question – it was a miracle.

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