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A master of natural lighting, Swedish cameraman Sven Nykvist found his artistic soul mate in Ingmar Bergman, collaborating with the great writer-director on more than 20 projects. Nykvist's parents, Lutheran missionaries in the Congo, had left him and his siblings to be raised by relatives in Stockholm, and the sense of detachment created by their long absences helped prepare him for his long association with Bergman and the themes of alienation and isolation that captivated them both. Deciding early on a career as a cinematographer, Nykvist attended a photography school (there were no Swedish film schools then) and began working at Sandrews studios as a camera assistant in 1941, hoping to emulate the great Swedish cameramen Julius Jaenzon, Goran Strindberg and Gunnar Fischer. He graduated to director of photography on "13 Chairs" (1945), helmed the documentary "Reverence for Life" (1952, about Albert Schweitzer) and even co-directed and co-scripted "Under the Southern Cross" (also 1952), based on an experience his parents had with a witch doctor, before teaming with Bergman (himself the son of a Lutheran minister) for the first time.Nykvist shared credit for the cinematography of Bergman's...
A master of natural lighting, Swedish cameraman Sven Nykvist found his artistic soul mate in Ingmar Bergman, collaborating with the great writer-director on more than 20 projects. Nykvist's parents, Lutheran missionaries in the Congo, had left him and his siblings to be raised by relatives in Stockholm, and the sense of detachment created by their long absences helped prepare him for his long association with Bergman and the themes of alienation and isolation that captivated them both. Deciding early on a career as a cinematographer, Nykvist attended a photography school (there were no Swedish film schools then) and began working at Sandrews studios as a camera assistant in 1941, hoping to emulate the great Swedish cameramen Julius Jaenzon, Goran Strindberg and Gunnar Fischer. He graduated to director of photography on "13 Chairs" (1945), helmed the documentary "Reverence for Life" (1952, about Albert Schweitzer) and even co-directed and co-scripted "Under the Southern Cross" (also 1952), based on an experience his parents had with a witch doctor, before teaming with Bergman (himself the son of a Lutheran minister) for the first time.
Nykvist shared credit for the cinematography of Bergman's "Gycklarnas Afton/Sawdust and Tinsel" (1953) with his former teacher, Hilding Bladf, who assigned him the difficult interior shots as a final test of his skill. Six years later when the director's regular cinematographer Gunnar Fischer went to Northern Sweden to work on a Walt Disney production, Bergman chose Nykvist to light and shoot "The Virgin Spring" (1960), a stark medieval allegory for which he made virtuoso use of the luminous Nordic light at dawn and dusk. The first of Bergman's films to receive the Oscar as Best Foreign Film, it established Nykvist on the international scene, and the two subsequently cemented their partnership on the director's "metaphysical" trilogy ("Through a Glass Darkly" 1961, "Winter Light" 1963, "The Silence" 1963). Shot on the remote island of Faro in the Baltic, where Bergman had moved in the early 60s, these intimate "chamber" films possessed a unity of action, place and time. In each a few people in a main setting interacted chiefly during one day, and Nykvist, seizing on the special quality of the landscape and continuing his exploration of twilight ("the magic hour"), realized Bergman's psychological moods in his camerawork.
Nurturing a storytelling style reminiscent of silent films, Nykvist and Bergman relied on images rather than words, with Nykvist pioneering the use of minimal, soft light and non-intrusive camerawork, "taking away all the distracting things and being close to the actors. There is nothing more beautiful than faces in a very simple room." (Daily Variety, February 23, 1996) Always striving for simplicity led to the long static takes of "Winter Light", and the two would continue to expand on this technique in movies like "Scenes from a Marriage" (1974), with some of the uninterrupted shots lasting 10 minutes. Together with Bergman, he redefined how the human face is observed in movies, favoring a soft "bounce" lighting to contour and flatter an actor's face and making sure "the audience can see what's behind each character's eyes." Their groundbreaking use of gigantic close-ups in the haunting, poetic "Persona" (1966) added another level of complexity to the remarkable performances of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson as two characters who ultimately exchange minds and personalities. The director and cinematographer would feature such close-ups again, perhaps most notably in the acclaimed "Cries and Whispers" (1972), which set a new standard, even among that period's almost yearly innovations in natural lighting.
Although Nykvist's black-and-white work with Bergman may seem more compelling, he did come to master color in his later years, despite having a bad experience the first time out on Bergman's "All These Women" (1963). Prior to shooting, Nykvist exposed 18,000 feet of Eastmancolor stock in order to get a handle on the new technology, but both were dissatisfied with the final outcome, citing a lack of atmosphere and excessive lighting. Plunging into color again, they worked with very little light on "En Passion/The Passion of Anna" (1969), achieving the minimum color saturation and muted tones which would become a Nykvist trademark. Throughout his collaboration with Bergman, he continued to light the sets and work the camera himself, always opting to manipulate the light itself or choose the exact hour of the day to shoot rather than relying on laboratory filters and lenses. In the prologue to "Cries and Whispers", his camera gazes at various parkland vistas in a misty dawn, but to achieve the desired look required many reshoots before the morning light was just right. Such attention to detail helped earn him his first Oscar for the cinematography of that film, distinguished by its incredible variations on a single color--red.
When Swedish TV commissioned Bergman to make a six-part drama series, "Scenes From a Marriage", Nykvist shot in 16mm, never expecting the subsequent demand for a theatrical version blown up to 35mm. The resulting grainy, intimate quality worked well for that picture, but in their future small screen work, he had the difficult task of planning for the different ratios of the various formats (1:33 for TV; 1:66 for European cinema, 1:85 in America). Deciding to prioritize the film version, he lighted for film and allowed a little more contrast, then worked more on the print for television, a compromise he didn't enjoy, preferring to shoot for a specific medium. Remaining loyal to Bergman during the dark years of his friend's exile in Munich, following a taxation scandal, Nykvist shot "The Serpent's Egg" (1977), which reflected the director's turmoil in its nightmarish atmosphere of Germany in 1923; "Autumn Sonata" (1978), a "chamber" film starring Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman; and "From the Life of the Marionettes" (1980), filmed primarily in black and white. For Bergman's announced swan song (he would subsequently direct the Swedish TV production "After the Rehearsal" in 1984), Nykvist was equal to the task, winning his second Oscar for the exuberant color cinematography of "Fanny and Alexander" (1982), an autobiographical look at turn-of-the-century Sweden through the eyes of a young boy.
While Nykvist is most often connected with Bergman, he worked with other Scandinavian directors such as Arne Mattsson and Gunnar Hellstrom in the 1950s and Vilgot Sjoman, Mai Zetterling and Jorn Donner in the 60s. In the 70s and 80s, Nykvist shot films for a variety of international directors, including Roman Polanski ("The Tenant" 1976), Louis Malle ("Black Moon" 1975; "Pretty Baby" 1978), Volker Schlondorff ("Summer Lightning" 1972; "Swann in Love" 1984) and Andrei Tarkovsky ("The Sacrifice" 1986 for which he won a prize at Cannes). He began collaborating regularly with American filmmakers in the late 1970s and by the mid-80s was filming more in Hollywood than abroad. As usual, directors called for encores, and he reteamed with the likes of Alan Pakula ("Starting Over" 1979; "Dream Lover" 1986), Norman Jewison ("Agnes of God" 1985; "Just in Time" 1994) and Nora Ephron ("Sleepless in Seattle" 1993; "Mixed Nuts" 1994). Arguably his greatest work outside the Bergman canon came on Philip Kaufman's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (1986), which earned him a third Oscar nomination while employing frequent Bergman players Lena Olin and Erland Josephson. In addition to his trademark muted colors, Nykvist contributed memorably to the black-and-white recreation of the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, matching it to the actual newsreel footage and amazing Kaufman by shooting 74 setups on one day.
Profoundly influenced by Bergman's work, Woody Allen tapped Nykvist for the Bergmanesque "Another Woman" (1988) and also worked with him on "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and the "Oedipus Wrecks" segment of "New York Stories" (both 1989). The cinematographer began returning more frequently to Scandinavia in the 90s, teaming with Danish filmmaker Bille August on the Bergman-scripted "Best Intentions" and helming his second feature the Oscar-nominated "The Ox" (both 1991). Where his first solo effort, "The Vine Bridge" (1965), had drawn from elements of his life as a child of missionaries, he now depicted a period from his native Sweden's past, receiving international acclaim for the somber but potent drama about a man who betrays his community during a time of famine. Nykvist combined a bit of both worlds when he worked with Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom on Hollywood's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993) and the follow-up "Something to Talk About" (1995). Back in Norway that year for Liv Ullmann's "Kristin Lavransdatter", he later reteamed with her on "Private Confessions" (1997), also scripted by Bergman.
After shooting "Celebrity" (1998) for Allen, Nykvist discovered he had a progressive form of dementia including aphasia, an inability to use words in their correct order, which forced him into early retirement. His influence on contemporary filmmaking is immense, and the documentary "Light Keeps Me Company" (2000), a multi-layered portrait of the legendary director of photography by his filmmaker son Carl-Gustav Nykvist, is essential viewing for anyone interested in the making of quality films. The film consists of interviews with people with whom Nykvist worked and clips and stills from his films, accompanied by quotes from Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha", a major influence on his life (he vividly lensed the film version in 1972). It also possessed added potency as the tale of a son reaching out to the father who abandoned him in favor of working abroad. Whether transforming Bergman's grim Nordic nightmares into classic films noted for their compositions and subtle lighting or creating the very American look of Ephron's "Sleepless in Seattle", Nykvist was never showy or idiosyncratic. One of his unerring signatures remained his ability to serve the material.
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In April 1991, he was given the Ingmar Bergman Award from the American-Scandinavian Foundation in recognition of "the enduring cultural legacy that the five Nordic countries have given the United States".
Regarding his working method with Ingmar Bergman: "We make a lot of tests before we start to shoot. We begin by meeting and discussing the script. Everything is tested; if a man appears with a tie which has a color we haven't seen, we don't use it. The test period on 'The Magic Flute' involved using twice the film we used in shooting the whole picture. It took two months. It's very good, because when you start to shoot you know how it comes out, and you don't have any bad surprises. It also helps the actual shooting of the film go faster. We used to prepare for two months; now I start about a month before the film actually begins." --Sven Nykvist to Robert Avrech and Larry Gross in Millimeter, July-August 1976.
On his collaborations with Nykvist: "We work very well together. He's sweet, calm, quiet and very fast--and I don't mean that in any sense of compromise. He worked well for me because I'm spontaneous and he's spontaneous. He can suddenly see something, adapt and get it done beautifully.
"I regret never getting the chance to work in black and white with Sven. But I wouldn't necessarily limit working with him to a certain type of subject matter. The most fun I had with him was 'Another Woman'. 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' was photographically realistic. And 'Oedipus Wrecks' was, of course, a cartoon. 'Another Woman' was not realism, but poetry--and that's hitting Sven where he lives." --Woody Allen to Gregory Solman in Daily Variety, February 23, 1996. [Editor's note: Allen did get to work with Nykvist in black and white on the cinematographer's final film, 1998's "Celebrity"]
"The most important task of the cinematographer is to create an atmosphere. To interpret the mood and feeling the director wants to convey. I mostly perform this task by using very little light and very little color. There is a saying that a good script tells you what is being done and what is being said, but not what someone thinks or feels, and there is some truth in that. Images, not words, capture feelings in faces and atmospheres and I have realized that there is nothing that can ruin the atmosphere as easily as too much light. My striving for simplicity derives from my striving for the local light, the true light." --Nykvist to MovieMaker, June-July, 1998
"It was with 'Through a Glass Darkly' in 1961, that our collaboration started for real. I don't miss making films, but I miss the collaboration with Sven." --Ingmar Bergman quoted in the documentary "Light Keeps Me Company"
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