Thursday, October 11, 2012

Harris Savides: A Tribute

One of the great cinematographers to emerge in the 1990s, Harris Savides is known for his evocative approach to lighting and photography has died on October 11, 2012. His death marks a huge loss to the art of photography as he is definitely adored by cinephiles and filmmakers alike for his unique work. From his work with filmmakers such as David Fincher and Gus Van Sant and other filmmakers in the art of film and music videos. There is definitely no one like him.

Among his great work in the world of music videos includes videos for such artists such as Madonna, R.E.M., Chris Isaak, Nine Inch Nails, Tom Waits, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones, and many others where his unconventional approach to lighting made these videos stand out. Among the filmmakers he worked with in those videos included Mark Romanek and Michel Gondry. The videos he did with Romanek such as Fiona Apple’s Criminal, Madonna’s Rain and Bedtime Story, Nine Inch Nails’ Closer, and Michael and Janet Jackson’s Scream are definitely some of the best videos out there when music videos were really an art form.

For NIN fans, Closer is easily regarded as the best video made by NIN and Romanek in terms of being so off-the-wall, so controversial, and really engrossing. While a lot of the work is made by Romanek, it’s the way the video looks that makes it stand out as it’s very grainy, not a lot of exposed light. The candle lights add to the look that seems very de-saturated and there’s lots of spots in the grainy film. It’s truly the work of a genius.

Fiona Apple’s Criminal is another classic video as it plays to the furor of the teenage Calvin Klein ads of the mid-90s that really got people up in storm. The lighting schemes in that video are incredible because it doesn’t emphasize on being flashy. It’s just direct and to the point where there isn’t a lot of lights around these rooms or Apple as she’s lip-syncing the song. It’s truly an unforgettable video.

Savides’ work in the art of film is where he really shines where he does a lot in the art of cinematography. While he, like fellow cinematographer Wally Pfister, started off in the world of 90s softcore porn films. For anyone who watched those films and enjoyed it will definitely admit that those films did look pretty good. What Savides did in Zalman King’s Lake Consequences might not be highly regarded but that sex scene between Joan Severance and Billy Zane in the golden grass was well-lit and had a sense of atmosphere that makes it more fun to watch.

Of the collaborations he made in film, it’s his work with David Fincher that should be worth noting as it began with 1995’s Se7en where he did the film’s grainy opening credits sequence that is accompanied by a remix of NIN’s Closer. Then there’s 1997’s The Game which is a definitely one of Fincher’s great films in the way San Francisco is shot as well as some of the exteriors. Notably the scene where Michael Douglas’ Nicholas Van Orton enters this strange room where array of colorful lights carry a mood that is unsettling. Savides’ best work with Fincher is Zodiac where it’s a real landmark in the art of digital photography. The sense of undercurrent in those nighttime exterior and interior settings just adds to the suspense including that horrific scene where Ione Skye meets the Zodiac killer and is running in terror about what she might’ve seen. Other moments of Savides’ groundbreaking work is the way the overhead shots of cars following another with these low-key lighting set-ups that adds to the brooding tone of the film.

If there’s one filmmaker who definitely embraced Savides’ work in photography, it’s Gus Van Sant. The six films they did together is definitely among one of the great director-cinematographer collaborations. In lesser-known works like Finding Forrester and their last collaboration in 2010’s Restless, there is a beauty to the way Savides shoot exteriors that could’ve been more polished if done in a conventional manner. Since he and Van Sant favor low coverage, it adds to the beauty of the film. In 2008’s Milk, the array of colors that Van Sant wanted to capture the energy of the 1970s plays to the sense of heightened beauty in those daytime exteriors as well as the scenes inside city hall during the day time.

Their best collaboration and what is easily Savides’ greatest work of his career is in the Death Trilogy of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. These three films are essentially pure forms in the art of filmmaking. While Gerry is obviously inspired by the works of Bela Tarr, Van Sant and Savides definitely aimed for something that harkened back to the age of epic cinema. The scene of the two Gerrys walking through the desert slowly is truly one of the most exquisite moments in film from the use of low-lighting schemes and having to shoot while the sun is rising. It is clearly the work of someone who understands lighting without needing to overexpose or in need to polish a scene.

Elephant is much starker in terms of its imagery from the way the grass looks on a rainy day to the sense of dread in the darken hallways. It’s part of the suspense that Van Sant and Savides wanted to carry as it leads to the climatic shooting where doesn’t go for anything that is bright and flashy. Last Days featured a similar scheme except that it’s much more grim in look and tone. Particularly in the locations where Michael Pitt’s Blake treks around the forest near his home where there’s an understated beauty to the look as it surrounds the despair the character is feeling.

Other works that Savides did with filmmakers like Ridley Scott and Jonathan Glazer showcase his unique visual style such as Scott’s 2007 film American Gangster where he captures the environment of the New York City drug culture with an array of low-key colors. In Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 film Birth, Savides maintain that low-key lighting style in some of the film’s interiors such as the bathing scene to play up the mood of loss that occurs. Then there’s the short Savides shot for Wong Kar-Wai in The Hire series called The Follow starring Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Forest Whitaker and Adriana Lima which employs a more vibrant style akin to Kar-Wai’s visual style yet Savides manages to create a dream-like feel in those driving scenes including the scenes at night.

Savides’ recent collaboration with Noah Baumbach are definitely highlights as it helped broadened Baumbach’s outlook as a filmmaker. Margot at the Wedding featured a look that played to the grayness of the locations where it emphasized less on color but rather on the film’s dour mood. In Greenberg, the look is far more colorful as it’s set in Los Angeles where it plays to the vibrant world that involve Greta Gerwig’s character as she befriends the melancholic Greenberg (Ben Stiller) as he is definitely lost. The sense of graininess that Savides brings in that low-key visual style is among one of the film’s highlights.

Another collaboration that is recent is the work Savides is doing with Sofia Coppola in her films Somewhere and the upcoming 2013 The Bling Ring where the latter is the last film Savides worked on. Savides’ work on Somewhere is truly a work of art in terms of the tightened look of the hallways at the Chateau Marmont to the dream-like nighttime exteriors of Los Angeles. The look of the daytime Californian locations have this air of beauty but also something that is akin to a visual style reminiscent of European art films as it is definitely gorgeous to look at.

The Top 10 Essential Works of Harris Savides

1. Gerry

2. Zodiac

3. Somewhere

4. Last Days

5. Nine Inch Nails-Closer

6. Elephant

7. Fiona Apple-Criminal

8. Milk

9. Madonna-Bedtime Story

10. The Game

The passing of Harris Savides is a huge loss to the world of cinema and the art of cinematography. Yet, Savides’ work will live on through the film and videos that are made as his work is definitely going to influence countless artists in the years to come. He truly was a visionary in terms of what he wanted to bring in these images. There will never be another like him.

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

© thevoid99 2012


Alex Withrow said...

Very worthy tribute to one of the finest eyes we had working in cinema. Such a tragic loss.

thevoid99 said...

Yeah, I'm still bummed out about it. I just hope he can get some recognition soon enough as I'm also eager to see his work in The Bling Ring.