Harris Savides, one of the most gifted and influential cinematographers in film history, has passed away at the age of fifty-five. He collaborated with several of the most brilliant visual stylists of our time, and exploded the potential of digital filmmaking with his work on David Fincher's ZODIAC. What he accomplished on that film may well be his most important contribution to the medium, but the painterly precision with which he shot on film is just as impressive.
Savides's control and versatility were apparent early on in Mark Romanek's videos for artists like Nine Inch Nails, Michael Jackson and Fiona Apple. The dingy, damaged look of "Closer" couldn't be more different from the sleek, space-age sheen of "Scream". This was a remarkably fertile period for music videos, what with directors like Romanek, Fincher, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and many others thriving, but it was all a high-paying means to an end. Ultimately, these guys wanted to make movies.
When Savides made the leap to film (with Phil Joanou's underrated HEAVEN'S PRISONERS), he initially favored a moody, underexposed aesthetic that tended to emphasize browns and yellows. I remember listening to James Gray's audio commentary for THE YARDS, and being blown away as he identified the subtle shadings of sienna and ochre. What would've been visually drab in a lesser cinematographer's hands was wondrously deep and distinct. No one was doing anything like this. It was clear then that Savides was a master.
With Gus Van Sant's GERRY in 2002, Savides headed to Utah for some of the most visually arresting long takes of actors wandering aimlessly in the desert. It was a bright, spatially expansive shift from the dim claustrophobia of THE GAME and THE YARDS; I love how the vast beauty of the landscape becomes quietly terrifying as the characters' situation grows increasingly hopeless. GERRY may be a demanding sit, but if you can cut off the umbilical to the outside world for two hours, I think you'll be captivated. (I also recommend checking out the DVD featurette "Salt Lake Van Sant", which finds Savides operating on one of the longest dolly tracks I've ever seen.)
After GERRY, Savides belonged to that very short list of what Drew McWeeny calls "rock star cinematographers". When you went to see BIRTH, AMERICAN GANGSTER or GREENBERG, you were as excited to see Savides's work as you were the actual movie. Judging from the below interview with the Criterion Collection, I get the feeling Savides might've discouraged such exaltation. In discussing the masterful opening sequence of Krzysztof Kieslowski's BLUE, Savides reveals a reverence for concise visual storytelling. For him, filmmaking was about engaging the viewer by elegantly depicting only the essential details.
And that was Savides's genius: though his images were never less than indelible, they always served the story. We'll get to witness this genius one last time when Sofia Coppola's THE BLING RING comes out next year. It's depressing to consider the future of film (and digital) without Savides helping to guide it, but I'm grateful he brought us this far. He will be missed.
Our condolences to his family and friends.
I love that he singles out Edward Yang's YI YI. It's heartbreaking to realize that both of these amazing artists are gone.