A higher learning experience with Vilmos Zsigmond

TIFF Master Class. Image 1
Geoffrey Gunn, Courtesy of TIFF

There were tears, laughter and inspirational stories August 8 as Hungarian-American cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond led a Toronto International Film Festival Higher Learning Master Class.

Zsigmond got his start in the American film industry in the 1970s by working alongside director Robert Altman. From then on his career progressed and he was able to work with many other talented directors, such as Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Kevin Smith.

As a cinematographer, Zsigmond worked closely with Altman on McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

“My beginning was with a director who was different than others,” he recounted.

It was quite clear he was an inspiration as the room filled with aspiring and professional filmmakers, students and fans who came to listen about his achievements and the classic movies he took part in creating, many of which that came eager with questions.

When asked how he got his start with film school and the film industry, Zsigmond laughed and said “I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”

Zsigmond claimed he wanted to follow his father’s path in sports, but because he was unable to attend school,he got a job in a factory. While working there he learned the art of photography and from then on his passion grew.

“How about I start a photography club in the factory?” Zsigmond recalled.

From there he pursued his passion, which led to him attending film school later on.

“Film school was the best in Europe” he said.

Zsigmond’s passion was very notable as he spoke: “It’s like poetry,” he said of his experience creating films. “Everybody is working together to create something new.”

With a long and successful career, Zsigmond has been able to work with many talented filmmakers and has inspired others to pursue a life in the film world. His talk emphasized that with passion and hard work, aspiring filmmakers can achieve great things.

Before the Master Class, staff writer Kristen Lambie was able to sneak an interview with Vilmos Zsigmond.

What are some of the traits a person needs to have in order to succeed in the film industry? What advice can you offer students who want to get into the film or entertainment industry?


Well my advice is that you really have to like what you do. And the only time you can succeed is if you really love to do and you can sacrifice everything else basically for a while to learn everything…and it’s a full time job. It’s not a 8 to 5 job. Its like you know you have to spend a lot of time to educate yourself, see a lot of movies, learn from other people and then you really have to be very strong about that. If that’s really what you want to do for the rest of your life. Because otherwise it’s very difficult. There’s not enough movies for the many many people who are learning to make movies. Like I don’t know how many hundreds of universities, for example the United States, are teaching film. A lot of people graduate from film schools…and how many people can really be absorbed by this film industry? It’s very difficult to get in … You have to be really very strong and wanting to be there and don’t expect that you are going to be where you would like to be unless you spend ten years on developing yourself and try to get in there. And once you are there you may be successful, but maybe you wont make enough money. I mean in North America you know, they’re a lot of people basically whose dream is to make a lot of money. This is not…right now, this is not the place, you know where you really can make a lot of money as a cinematographer…as a producer maybe yes, or director is already a difficult thing because directors have a really hard time to get financing for any subject. Very very difficult. But if you really work very hard you will succeed.


What is your favorite thing about working in the film industry?


You know I personally like the photography side of this business … I try to direct myself … But I didn’t really like the idea to deal with producers, with writers and actors. I don’t feel like it’s my job. I love to work with cameras, I love to work with lighting. The lighting is the most important thing, I think in filmmaking. The light decides the mood of a scene and I am also cinematographer. I only take pictures when the light is right. If it’s not right, I do the lighting myself to make it right. And that’s the fun part for me in the whole film industry… is the cinematography.






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