Vilmos Zsigmond, a Hungarian refugee turned Hollywood cinematographer who won an Academy Award for his spectacular “light show” UFO effects on Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi drama “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and who was widely regarded as one of the most influential virtuosos of his craft, died Jan. 1 in Big Sur, Calif. He was 85.
His business partner, Yuri Neyman, announced the death but did not cite a cause.
As a student studying cinema in Budapest, he began his career documenting the Hungarian revolution of 1956. He and fellow classmate Laszlo Kovacs, who later distinguished himself as the cinematographer on the counterculture classic “Easy Rider” (1969), hid a borrowed 35-millimeter camera from their school in a shopping bag with a hole cut out for the lens and shot footage of the Soviet invasion.
Armed with about 30,000 feet of film hidden in potato sacks, Kovacs and Mr. Zsigmond fled across the Austria-Hungary border, which was patrolled by Russian soldiers. They arrived in the United States as political refugees in early 1957 and sold the footage to CBS for a network documentary on the revolution narrated by Walter Cronkite.
In the United States, Mr. Zsigmond toiled for years on films such as “Psycho à Go-Go” and “Five Bloody Graves” — projects where his inventive solutions for zero-budget productions earned him a reputation for technical savvy and prodigious work habits.
A cinematographer helps set the visual tone for filmmakers, and Mr. Zsigmond was much in demand by some of the leading directors of the 1970s, including Spielberg, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma, Mark Rydell and Michael Cimino.
Mr. Zsigmond became known for his versatility and wizardry with lighting. For Altman, he was able to achieve a “washed out” look reminiscent of daguerreotypes for the western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971) as well as a noir-soaked pastel palette for “The Long Goodbye” (1973).
On other major projects, from John Boorman’s backwoods drama “Deliverance” (1972) to Cimino’s masterful Vietnam War drama “The Deer Hunter” (1978), Mr. Zsigmond proved capable of grittily realistic camerawork.
Among directors, he won plaudits for his daring. On “Deliverance,” a film insurance companies were loath to underwrite because of its many scenes set in raging rapids, Mr. Zsigmond waded with a movie camera into the charging water.
Boorman recalled to Post Script, a film and humanities journal: “There was no shot Vilmos wouldn’t go for. Vilmos is such a tough, wiry guy and I thought, ‘Someone who’s been shot at and chased out of his own country is not going to be phased by a river.’
“For one take, the canoes [with the actors] are coming down and we wanted a low angle in the water,” Boorman continued. “We were having great difficulties getting the tripod to stay put because of the force of the river. Finally Vilmos said, ‘Give me the camera.’ He just jumped into the rubberraft [facing] the two canoes and said, ‘Let me go.’ So there he went, lying in the rubber raft with the camera on the cushion, flying down the rapids with his back to the rocks and no idea where he was going.
“It was all very tough,” Boorman said, “but whatever shot we needed, Vilmos made it work. A marvelous improvisor.”
After working with Spielberg on “The Sugarland Express” (1974), a prison escape and road picture starring Goldie Hawn, Mr. Zsigmond also collaborated with the director on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Mr. Zsigmond told the Los Angeles Times that making “Close Encounters” was difficult because “we were breaking new ground” because of the technical challenges.
Part of the process involved managing Spielberg’s requests for bigger lighting effects: “He kept always telling me, ‘I want to see an incredible amount of light coming out of the spaceship.’ So we had to figure out a way to do that,” especially for the powerful, almost blinding landing lights of the “mother ship.”
He worked closely with Douglas Trumbull, who was in charge of special photographic effects, to “make the audience believe the unbelievable,” he told the trade publication Variety.
“We experimented and decided it was the quality and not the amount of light that counted,” Mr. Zsigmond added. “We tried using mirrors to reflect the light. . . . It still didn’t work. Then, Joe Alves, the production designer, suggested that we break the mirrors into pieces, so they reflected random shafts of light. It was beautiful. We also over-exposed the film and processed it a certain way to get that look.”
“Close Encounters,” a massive commercial and critical hit, became one of the films that established Spielberg as a major force on the film landscape.
Vilmos Zsigmond was born in Szeged, Hungary, on June 16, 1930. He traced his interest in camerawork to childhood, when an uncle gave him a book of luscious black-and-white photographs taken by Eugene Dulovits.
Mr. Zsigmond intended to pursue a career in engineering, but the Soviet-influenced government considered his parents — his father was a soccer coach, and his mother ran a pub — too bourgeois and denied their son’s request to enroll at engineering school.
Instead, he became a factory laborer and studied photography and optics on his own, eventually organizing a photo club among the workers. He won the respect of local commissars, who helped him win a spot at a widely revered academy of drama and film arts in Budapest to study cinematography.
Mr. Zsigmond then worked for a Budapest film studio until fleeing the country with his friend Kovacs.
His marriage to Elizabeth Fuzes ended in divorce. Survivors include his second wife, Susan Roether, and two children from his first marriage.
Mr. Zsigmond’s credits included many films for De Palma, including “Obsession” (1976), “Blow Out” (1981), “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) and “The Black Dahlia” (2006). For Rydell, he worked on “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), “The Rose” (1979) and “The River” (1984).
Mr. Zsigmond received Oscar nominations for his work on “The Deer Hunter,” “The River” and “The Black Dahlia.” In recent years, he collaborated with Woody Allen on “Melinda and Melinda” (2004), “Cassandra’s Dream” (2007) and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” (2010).