A golden age of Hollywood cinematography is slowly drawing to a close. Haskell Wexler, the director of photography who worked with everyone that mattered in the 1970s — Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Terence Malick, Milos Forman, Mike Nichols — passed away on Dec. 27. Vilmos Zsigmond, an equally important cinematographer who shot “The Deer Hunter,” “Deliverance,” “The Long Goodbye” and a bunch of Woody Allen’s films shuttered his lens a few days later on Jan. 1. Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor”) is arguably the last man standing from that generation of giants. Their legacy lay in the notion that the cameraman was an artist, not just a craftsman — an idea that sometimes even got them fired.
So, who else is left? As busy as ever in their 60s are maestros such as Roger Deakins, who shot most of the Coen brothers’ movies; Robert Richardson, known for his frequent work with Tarantino and Scorsese; and Robert Elswit, the collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson. Then there’s the generation of cinematographers that grew up watching Zsigmond and Wexler, such as Jeff Cronenweth and Wally Pfister, right-hand men to David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, respectively. But the biggest name out there today might be Emmanuel Lubezki, who won back-to-back Oscars for “Gravity” and “Birdman,” and may win one again for “The Revenant.”
The burden placed on this generation of cameramen is huge, as they are overseeing the transition from shooting on film to digital, and making sure we don’t lose anything vital in the process.