The Beautiful Cinematography of Harris Savides, 1957-2012

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 11 2012 5:14 PM

The Beautiful Cinematography of Harris Savides

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Cinematographer Harris Savides

Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images

Harris Savides, a cinematographer known for the naturalistic approach he brought to films like Zodiac, Greenberg, and Milk, has passed away at age 55. His work, as David Schwartz put it in an interview with Savides a couple years ago, reflects “a nuanced, organic understanding of a wide range of influences, from cinema and photography to painting … his images are pure, not flamboyant.”

Such attention to craft is evident across all of his work, which has an understated beauty. His cinematography, he said, was “always in the service of keeping it natural and simple and not over-glamorizing it.” While watching the horrific scene from Zodiac below, for instance, most viewers might not pause to note how gorgeously Savides has captured the golden sunlight and the shadows cast by small trees. But the idyllic scene that Savides helped to paint contrasts stunningly with the killer cloaked in black, visually conveying the story Fincher wanted to tell about grisly murders that haunted the Bay Area in the 1970s.

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Savides also had a way with dark, muted tones and lighting. When speaking about his work on Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, Savides said that the director was looking to evoke an “ominous” feeling throughout the film. The expansive apartment with its evergreen walls and dull lighting helps lend a disturbing bleakness to the tale of a woman who believes her dead husband has been reincarnated in the body of a young boy. And a nearly two-minute, uninterrupted close-up of Nicole Kidman’s face shows how Savides used lighting to help convey character. The soft light that falls upon the center of Kidman’s face perfectly illuminates the dark emotions evoked by the actress.

In his work with Gus Van Sant, Savides often used long, steadicam tracking shots. Perhaps the most extreme example of his use of this technique is Elephant, which follows several students around a fictional high school based on Columbine. As we accompany the students in real-time, we experience, along with them, some of their last moments alive.

An even more striking sequence crafted by Savides and Vant Sant is the opening scene of Gerry, which rides alongside two young hiking companions as they drive out at sunrise to the desert. The cinematography is as gorgeously minimal as the music and the script. There’s no dialogue, and we’re left to enjoy the scenery, Arvo Pärt’s gorgeous Spiegel im Spiegel, and the quiet bond between two friends.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.