Tech Support: 'American Gangster,' 'Milk' and 'Zodiac' lenser Harris Savides dies at 55

Posted by · 10:12 am · October 11th, 2012

Talk about having a ton of bricks dropped on your head. I hadn’t heard that cinematographer Harris Savides had been ill, certainly hadn’t known that he was on the ropes, but he has apparently passed away at the far-too-young age of 55. I don’t know the cause of death but I know this one’s a big blow to the industry.

Savides most often collaborated with filmmaker Gus Van Sant. He shot films like “Finding Forrester,” “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days” and “Milk” for the director. But he also worked with David Fincher from time to time (“The Game,” “Zodiac”), as well as Noah Baumbach (“Margot at the Wedding,” “Greenberg”). His final work will be seen in Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” which releases next year.

Savides always brought a delicate touch to his work. There was no blatant thumbprint because that wasn’t his style. Yet the work was by no means anonymous. Quite the opposite, in fact, and the aesthetic Van Sant developed in his “Death Trilogy” (“Elephant,” “Gerry” and “Last Days”) is very much owed to Savides’s work.

Somehow Savides never received an Oscar nomination. He was certainly in the conversation for films like “American Gangster” and “Zodiac,” and he racked up five Independent Spirit Award nods along the way. But that pretty much just goes to show the irrelevance of accolades, because his was one of the brightest talents behind the camera. Indeed, the only prize he ever took home was a New York Film Critics Circle award for his work on “Elephant” and “Gerry.”

My favorite from his filmography was probably Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth.” The imagery in that film is just so lush and striking. When I think of it, I often think of Savides before I do Glazer or Nicole Kidman.

A pity this happened on the very same day we launched our “Tech Support” season of craft category coverage with analysis of the Best Cinematography category. As we forecast a new crop of awards hopefuls in the field, one of the art form’s best passes on.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Savides once upon a time, very briefly. His work had popped up two years in a row on our annual “top 10 shots of the year” column and we were discussing a frame from “Milk.” He was gentle, thoughtful, just a joy to speak with. And now, somehow, he’s gone.

The film industry is worse for it.

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