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Harris Savides, Cinematographer for Woody Allen, David Fincher and Gus Van Sant, Dead at 55

Harris Savides, Woody Allen
Sony Pictures Classics

Few cinematographers have name recognition. You have to be cinematically literate to recognize names like Gregg Toland, James Wong Howe, Gordon Willis, and Robert Richardson, but knowing they shot a movie usually means that at least the visuals won’t be drab. Among these greats is Harris Savides, who died today at 55.

Like many young directors of photography, he started in still work and climbed the ropes by doing at least one workout video (with Cindy Crawford), and then moved on to music videos. But in that way he was at the right place and time, as he worked with directors like Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek, and David Fincher. In the 1980′s, MTV was blamed for quick cut editing and flashy looking visuals, but MTV is never thanked for allowing these filmmakers time to hone their craft on some of the most visually spectacular short films of all time.

He made his feature film debut as a cinematographer on ‘Heaven Prisoners,’ which was directed by Phil Joanou, and then worked with David Fincher on 1998′s ‘The Game,’ which is Fincher’s most underrated film (though now included in The Criterion Collection). Savides found a good partnership with Gus Van Sant, and was his DP on ‘Finding Forrester,’ ‘Gerry,’ ‘Elephant,’ ‘Last Days,’ ‘Milk,’ and ‘Restless.’ Regardless of how much you appreciate Van Sant doing studio work, or his more experimental films, it’s hard to argue that all those films aren’t gorgeous.

One of the easiest ways to tell Savides was a genius is that Woody Allen worked with him. Allen has spent the last couple decades bouncing from cinematographer to cinematographer, but loves working with the greats. It’s then unfortunate that their pairing is the mostly miserable ‘Whatever Works.’ Savides also had a good working relationship with Sofia Coppola and Noah Baumbach, with two films with the former (‘Somewhere’ and the upcoming ‘The Bling Ring’) and the later (‘Margot at the Wedding,’ ‘Greenberg’).

He returned – after nearly a decade – to work with David Fincher on 2007′s ‘Zodiac,’ and what may the saddest part of Savides’ early death is that ‘Zodiac’ was shot digitally, and it was ‘Zodiac’ that was one of the first movies to show how great digital could look. Before ‘Zodiac’ most digital films looked blurry and bit-centric, but Savides was able to invest the film with a distinct and moody look. He was genius. Here’s a good chat with the man about the films he loves while in the Criterion closet:

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