[Today being the 7th anniversary of Sven Nykvist's death, I'm republishing this earlier post on the great man's work.]
Ingmar Bergman: Most of all I miss working with Sven Nykvist, perhaps because we are both utterly captivated by the problems of light, the gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, living, dead, clear, misty, hot, violent, bare, sudden, dark, springlike, falling, straight, slanting, sensual, subdued, limited, poisonous, calming, pale light. Light.
“A motion picture doesn’t have to look absolutely realistic,” Nykvist says. “It can be beautiful and realistic at the same time. I am not interested in beautiful photography. I am interested in telling stories about human beings, how they act and why they act that way.”
The world lost one of its masters of imagery on September 20, 2006, as Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist died after a long illness. What needs to be known about this man and hisformidable filmography (2 oscars, 121 films) has been aptly explicated in these NY Times and L.A. Times pieces, and there's lots of good technical/spiritual talk from Sven himself in this article written when he became the first European to get a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers, eg.:
"Spring-like light is a little warmer, and falling light is when the angle is very low and you get elongated shadows. Sensual light is for love scenes... it is difficult to put it into words, because film is a visual language. That’s the role I play as a cinematographer in understanding the script and the director’s intentions, and translating it into images that express the ideas.”
I often tell student screenwriters to be a director of photography when they're writing a draft. See the movie in your head -- and then, while not writing every indulgent thing down, put the essence of those images on the page. One thing you can learn from Nykvist is to look for the one striking visual idea that will pin a given scene to the screen.
"He's been an inspiration for introducing a natural, simple style of lighting to film," said Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, who worked with Nykvist on What's Eating Gilbert Grape. "His camera helped to tell stories that were true to the world and real characters that helped create something alive. And he wasn't afraid of simplicity."
A look at Grape reveals "real characters" sometimes glimpsed, however, through a peculiarly mundane but dramatic prism -- like this shot of taumatized lover Mary Steenburgen taken between the shelves of the grocery store.
"For Sven, it was a matter of simplifying," Variety critic Todd McCarthy said, "using an innate sense of taste and editing things out."
“The truth always lies in the character’s eyes,” Nykvist says. “It is very important to light so the audience can see what’s behind each character’s eyes. That’s how the audience gets to know them as human beings. It opens up their souls."
Oh, let's say it out loud one time, because isn't the name also beautiful? Sven Nykvist. In a 1973 review of Bergman's Cries and Whispers, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote: "The incomparable cinematographer Sven Nykvist achieves the look of the paintings of the Norwegian Edvard Munch, as if the neurotic and the unconscious had become real enough to be photographed."
This speaks to the truly masterful range of Nykvist's oeuvre: he could do it rapturously expressionist, whether in late-career color, and in his earlier Bergman black and whites...
...Or he could go quotidian casual, all natural light and documentary-like in a seemingly "realistic" mode. But how far are the two worlds straddled by Crimes and Misdemeanors protagonist Martin Landau --
-- from the more stylized contrast between dueling realities in Persona? The basic thematic intent in the two film's lighting concepts is fundamentally identical, while light years apart in execution.
While Sven is justly famous for the 22 films he made with Bergman, he shot for visionaries as disparate as Polanksi --
-- and Woody Allen (who was, in a sense, trying to borrow Bergman) and Phil Kaufman, who again employed Nykvist's ability to create distinctively disparate visual worlds for different characters to inhabit:
"In addition to being one of the greatest cinematographers, he was also one of the fastest," Nora Ephron said, "because he worked with Bergman and they never had any money."
One of the reasons her preposterous movie works is that it looks so damn good. No-dummy Nora knew what she was doing when she got Sven for Sleepless, as this still attests; in the film proper the scene's much darker, suffused with a deep blue-purple romantic night-in-the-car glow, subliminally imbuing the beautifully modulated cute meet over the radio (she in a car, he on a porch thousands of miles away) with exactly the fantastical-in-real-life feeling that this crucial moment of the movie needs.
Said former Nykvist apprentice, Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson: "He maintained a style that appeared to be effortless. His work was extremely subtle. But it altered the perspective toward lighting. It blurred a line between documentaries and features that you see often today. It was all in the way he shaped light... His work was fundamental to cinematography."
“It’s an unusual occupation,” Nykvist says. “It’s both an art and a craft. Every time I start a picture, the first day is like I am starting all over again. I love it. You can always learn something new. Sometimes it is about manipulating light. Other times it is about finding another angle into thehuman soul. That’s what keeps this work so interesting. Until I find something I like better, I’ll probably do this work forever.”