R.I.P. Cinematographer Harris Savides (1957-2012)

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by Kevin Jagernauth
October 11, 2012 1:30 PM
16 Comments
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"I light a room and let the people inhabit it, as opposed to lighting the people," cinematographer Harris Savides told the Village Voice in 2004. "It's more organic. You want to protect the people you're working with, and there's a constant battle between the best light for their face and the best light for the story. You don't want to get to the point where the audience notices the light."

And while audiences may not have ever noticed the light or known the name of Harris Savides, devoted cinephiles did. And it's with heavy hearts that we report that representatives from the Skouras Agency have confirmed that cinematographer Harris Savides has passed away today at the age of 55.

Like so many, Savides got his start in the commercials and music video world before transitioning to feature film work, and while his CV in that arena may not be as extensive as his contemporaries, it's stacked with top tier directors who recognized how invaluable his approach was. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what made Savides so distinct, but his ease in capturing projects as wildly different as David Fincher's "Zodiac" and Gus Van Sant's "Elephant" (among a handful of helmers he worked with more than once), likely endeared him to the visionary talents he would work with. That, along with a creative spirit that remained restless in trying to be as natural and anonymous behind the camera as possible. "When I was younger, I liked movies that were very strongly lit, like 'Blade Runner.' But now I just want things to be more natural. I don't know why that is," he told Interview in 2008. "I think that people can't go to a movie and see something that's lit...It's too photographic. I don't think you can ever make a movie that looks amazing when you're trying to make it look amazing."

And while he was never nominated for an Oscar, his skills were so recognized that big name filmmakers even enlisted him for commerical work, including Wong Kar-Wai, Martin Scorsese and John Hillcoat. He also dipped his toes into music videos too, working with Mark Romanek on a number of his acclaimed spots including "Closer" for Nine Inch Nails, "Criminal" for Fiona Apple and "Bedtime Stories" for Madonna.

Viewing his work through the years, one can see a paring down in his approach and an attempt to keep things simpler, perhaps more real and authentic. And this dedication seems to have stemmed for a very early influence. "You know, another movie I wanted to talk about that was important to me was the opening shot of 'Nostalghia.' It was a very simple shot. It's a wide shot of a car in a field. It's a foggy morning; I can't tell what time it is. You hear a car engine start. The car trundles across a field and it goes from camera left to camera right, clears frame and comes back in camera left, much closer. And there's something about that that just resonated with me. I thought, how come I've never seen this before?," he told the Museum of the Moving Image. "...My growth as a person has just been cause and effect or accident. It's never been a study. It's been this growth, I'll call it. And that scene and movie have been a big one for me. It's really easy and descriptive."

But there are no easy words for the loss of Harris Savides. He will be greatly missed. His last work was on Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring," and for anyone looking for advice from Savides, here's what he had to impart on up-and-coming cinematographers from the book "New Cinematographers": "Shoot as much as you can, don't be afraid and don't be cocky. Just shoot, learn and expose film. Shoot still film, that's how I learnt as an assistant, I was always processing film so I knew how to make film. Don't get too involved in the technical stuff, learn it and then throw it away."

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16 Comments

  • G. | October 13, 2012 8:18 AMReply

    I dunno know this dude.

  • Kurskij | October 12, 2012 12:35 PMReply

    Not to sound pretentious, but Savides+Malick would've been magnificent.

    "Zodiac" is a masterpiece of direction, cinematography and the use of visual effects.

    And, yes, Heaven's Prisoners might be a so-so thriller, but when I first saw it at age 10 (or about it) - what stood out most was the cinematography.

    John Toll, Emmanuel Lubezki, Conrad Hall, Rodriego, Roger Deakins and Harris Savides paint with light - and Savides is up there with Hall.

    One of the few cinematographers on whose name alone I would watch the movie.

    Rest in peace.

  • d | October 13, 2012 10:10 AM

    Doesn't sound pretentious to me. That does sound awesome.

  • Glass | October 12, 2012 12:26 AMReply

    I just remembered, he's the guy in the bathroom stall with his pants around his ankles in The Game. Michael Douglas said he sneaked a camcorder above the stall and got a shot of him as a joke. He had such a unique speaking voice, too.

  • DG | October 11, 2012 10:08 PMReply

    This is really sad, I love this mans work, especially Last Days and Somewhere (am I like the only person on this sight who thinks Somewhere is a great movie?). He will be missed.

  • Jason | October 11, 2012 7:34 PMReply

    He was a giant among cinematographers, what an amazing body of work... He will be missed.

  • Vincent Mata | October 11, 2012 7:16 PMReply

    I'm so sad to hear this news. I worked with Harris on his first feature film, "Heaven's Prisoner".
    .
    He would come around to our camera on Friday and tell us what restaurant we would eat at on Sat. night. This was in New Orleans. GREAT guy, he will be missed !!

  • cosmo vitelli | October 11, 2012 5:01 PMReply

    i was an extra on Milk and was more excited to watch Harris work than I was to be standing next to Sean Penn. so sad for his family and really unfortunate for anyone in love with the image.

  • hank | October 11, 2012 3:54 PMReply

    one of the all time great image makers. what a tragedy.

  • callumQ | October 11, 2012 2:54 PMReply

    A real tragedy! Of all the deaths this year, this one may have struck the hardest (alongside Tony Scott). Savides work on Birth and The Game will stick with me for a long time.

  • paul | October 11, 2012 2:49 PMReply

    I have very fond memories of Harris Savides from my early music video days of late 80's and the early 90's, a time when a small group of people were in the process of changing the way generations to come would see and look at moving pictures. Harris was one of those people, and a very important one at that. His exceptional kindness could be seen in his work, really. Very best to his family, RIP HS.

  • Eli | October 12, 2012 5:05 AM

    He was a nice guy, very funny.

  • jon | October 11, 2012 2:13 PMReply

    Genius. His work will live on until the end of time.

  • Red | October 11, 2012 2:05 PMReply

    I realize this is an utter cliche, but this is a true loss for us, for cinema. Harris Savides created and captured many of the great filmic images of the past few decades. He elevated every picture he ever worked on -- making the occasional bad ones better (i.e. Somewhere) and the (very) good ones great (i.e. Zodiac, Last Days, Greenberg, The Yards, etc.). To think of a world that will no longer be blessed with Savides' brilliant vision is a dark and dreary thought.

  • Andrew S | October 11, 2012 1:40 PMReply

    Wow - he was one of my favorite cinematographers and I dreamed of one day working with him. My condolences to his family, friends, and collaborators. Does anyone know what happened? He was so young.

  • Donald | October 11, 2012 3:58 PM

    Brain cancer I believe. Just so sad...what a loss.

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