20 septembre 2006

Sven Nykvist - la simplicité avant tout

A l'occasion de la remise de l'ASC Lifetime Achievement Award à Sven Nykvist en 1996, l'Amercian Society of Cinematographers avait publié un article qui synthétise bien l'apport unique de ce "maître de la lumière".
Sven s'est éteint dix ans plus tard, le 20 septembre 2006. Ses propos sur la lumière sont ceux d'un vieux sage. L'article est long, mais il vaut la peine d'être lu - et retenu.

Sven Nykvist, ASC received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers at their 10th annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards gala. He said he was “surprised but happy” when ASC president Victor Kemper called with the news. His response was typically modest and understated. Nykvist has earned Oscars for Cries and Whispers (1973) and Fanny and Alexander (1983), and a third nomination for The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). His body of work includes around 120 films, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Nykvist was preparing to shoot a film in Scandinavia when Kemper called, and he will shoot a film based on a new Bergman script in August.

Nykvist’s name is routinely coupled with Ingmar Bergman, one of the masters of modern cinema. Their collaboration stretched over much of three decades. It includes such classics as Persona, The Magic Flute, The Hour of the Wolf, Scenes From a Marriage, Winter Light, Cries and Whispers, Blue Moon, and Fanny and Alexander.

But his Bergman films comprise just a small part of his life’s work. Nykvist has compiled around 100 other credits with many other visually oriented directors, including Louis Malle, Paul Mazursky, Allan Pakula, Roman Polanski, Norman Jewison, Phil Kauffman, Lasse Hallstrom and Woody Allen. His work with these and other directors includes Agnes of God, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Pretty Baby, Willie and Phil, Cannery Row, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sleepless in Seattle, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, With Honors, Something to Talk About and Kristin Lavransdatter.

Last year (1995), Nykvist marked his 50th anniversary as a cinematographer. His career, so far, spans half of the history of the cinema. Nykvist shot his first narrative film in Stockholm, Sweden in 1945, when he was 23. The title was 13 Chairs. His work has played a large role in redefining the art of contemporary cinematography.

“I was fortunate to work with Ingmar, particularly at that early stage of my career,” he says. “One of the things we (he and Bergman) believed was that a picture shouldn’t look lit. Whenever possible, I lit with one source, and avoided creating double shadows, because that pointed to the photography.”

That could be any number of cinematographers talking today. But Nykvist came to those conclusions some 30 to 35 years ago, when he was blazing trails that many other cinematographers would subsequently follow. He says his inspiration came from Bergman, and also from studying paintings at fine art galleries and museums.

“A motion picture doesn’t have to look absolutely realistic,” he says. “It can be beautiful and realistic at the same time. I am not interested in beautiful photography. I am interested in telling stories about human beings, how they act and why they act that way.”

The previous ASC Lifetime Achievement recipients were Gordon Willis, ASC, Conrad Hall, ASC, Haskell Wexler, ASC, Phil Lathrop, ASC, Stanley Cortez, ASC, Charles Lang, Jr., ASC, Joe Biroc, ASC and George Folsey, ASC. All of them are Americans. Nykvist is the first exception to that rule.

“Sven is a talented filmmaker, who has made unique and enduring contributions to the advancement of the art of cinematography,“ says Kemper. “He has created an extraordinary body of memorable work which grows larger and more impressive every year. This award is meant to recognize and encourage artistic excellence and foster an appreciation of the art of cinematography wherever movies are produced and seen.”

Nykvist was born in Stockholm in 1922. His parents were missionaries, who built a hospital in the Belgian Congo He was a cinema buff as a youth and studied at the Stockholm Municipal School for Photographers. In 1941, Nykvist went to work at Sandrews Studios, in Stockholm as an assistant cameraman.

There were only two people on film crews in Sweden in those days, the cinematographer and the focus puller, who was also responsible for still pictures.

Nykvist spent some time during the mid-1940s working in Italy as a focus puller. That broadened his outlook. After returning to Sweden, Nykvist started shooting film for second unit crews. He also photographed, directed, wrote, edited and recorded sound for many documentary films. In 1952, Nykvist was the co-director, co-writer and co-cinematographer of Under the Southern Cross, a narrative film produced in the Belgian Congo, based on an experience his parents had with a witch doctor. Around the same time, Nykvist shot a documentary about Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa..

In 1953, Nykvist was responsible for photographing The Naked Night (a.k.a. Sawdust and Tinsel). It was his first experience working on a film directed by Ingmar Bergman. Another cinematographer (Göran Strindberg) was scheduled to shoot that film with Bergman. He decided to go to Hollywood instead to film a Cinemascope movie with a much bigger budget.

Nykvist recalls that during those days, Bergman was making films for $100,000 with a crew of eight to 10 people and four or five actors.

“That was a very nice way to work,” he says. “Everyone did everything. Everyone helped everyone else. It was like a family. Even Cries and Whispers was produced on a $300,000 to $400,000 budget. I learned so much about composition, staging and the infinite varieties of light from Ingmar.”

Nykvist and Bergman nurtured a natural style of visual story-telling reminiscent of silent movies. Faces of beautiful woman were the heart and soul of many of Bergman’s films. Liv Ullman played a leading role in Bergman’s films

“The truth always lies in the character’s eyes,” Nykvist says. “It is very important to light so the audience can see what’s behind each character’s eyes.”

Nykvist says that in the beginning of his relationship with Bergman, he focused on a seminal idea. “I learned that there are types of lighting you can use to create an ambiance, “he says. “There’s a single sentence in The Magic Lantern (Bergman’s book) which expresses that concept: ‘Light: the gentle, bare, dreamlike, living, dead, clear, misty, hot, violent, sudden, dark, spring-like, falling, straight, slanting, sensual, subdued, limited, poisonous, calming pale light. Light.’ There are so many ways you can use light to tell a story. I think anyone who wants to understand light should read this book.”

When you talk with Nykvist, he emphasizes simplicity and aesthetic values over imaging technology. Don’t let that fool you. He is a meticulous master of the craft as well as the art. Here’s one example: When Nykvist was preparing to shoot The Unbearable Lightness of Being with Kauffman, they studied black and white documentary footage of what it looked and felt like when the Russian army poured into Prague and crushed a civilian revolt. Nykvist replicated that ambiance by shooting those scenes for the movie in 16 mm black and white. That made the images a little grainy. Next, he made a duplicate negative which closely matched the contrast of the actual documentary film. It was only a few minutes of film on the screen, but when the editor wove it into the fabric of the dramatic story, it gave the audience an emotional sense of place and time.

There are subtleties that the audience feels rather than sees in every Nykvist film. In the Unbearable Lightness of Being, for example, he used the architecture of the buildings in Prague as more than background. They were like silent characters -- almost like works of art, while the city was being violated.

But it inevitably comes down to faces and eyes, and that holds true whether Nykvist is shooting a serious drama directed by Bergman, or more light hearted entertainment. There is always a story to tell, and its heart and soul resides in the characters and how they relate. Nykvist notes that it takes time for a cinematographer to really learn a face, and to interpolate what is happening behind the character’s eyes.

“That’s a problem today,” he says. “You are always working with new actors. You can’t always tell immediately how their faces will take light. The truth of the character is in their eyes. That’s how the audience gets to know them as human beings. It opens up their souls. When I was working with Ingmar and Liv Ullman, there were a few other actors who were always in his films. I can see it looking back on those movies now. I knew everything about photographing them. I learned to know their faces.”

Nykvist also talks about the importance of consistency. He says that his preference during staging is to plan for very long six to eight minute takes because that way you don’t breakup the actors’ performances. It’s more natural, he says.

“Good actors will react to the lighting,” he says. “When you do complex staging, you have remember that you aren’t lighting for exposure. You are creating an ambiance, and you have to figure out how you are going to get light into the actor’s eyes, or when appropriate, mask them. I have no preference for hard or soft light or any other style or technique. You should use the light that’s right.”

That could be one of any number of cinematographers talking today. Keep in mind though, Nykvist developed and mastered this way of thinking during the 1960s and ‘70s, starting with black and white film, and the special challenges that genre imposed.

Nykvist points out that there is never any one path to follow which is suitable for everyone in all situations. He tends not to concern himself with such niceties as the symbolic use of color as an element in visual story-telling, but he also doesn’t deride it.

“I worry less about being symbolic than some other cinematographers,” he says. “Everyone has their own way of thinking. My tendency is to use bounce or indirect light. Harsher light can distort the story that’s written on the actor’s face.”

En 1986 Nykvist éclairait "Le Sacrifice" de Andrei Tarkovsky.
Photos du tournage.

Nykvist has a tendency to use smaller lighting units, whenever possible. Why? “It feels cleaner,” he says. “Smaller units give you more control. You can create more precise moods and atmosphere. this is something I learned. When I shot my first feature in 1945, we used lots of lights. Sometimes I spent a whole day lighting. I wanted to shoot a beautiful picture, but every scene looked the same. Now, when I see some of my old pictures on television, I can see everything I did wrong. I’m interested in film about people, how they behave and why. What motivates them.”

Nykvist says that advances in imaging technology provide some creative latitude. “If you are shooting a night interior scene, there might be a lot of sources,” he says. But, if you are shooting a daylight exterior, there is only one source, the sun. The question is usually how much should I fill, so it doesn’t get too dark in the shadows.

We asked Nykvist to verbally dissect Bergman’s eloquent statement about the variable nature of light in layman terms. He responded, “Gentle light is what you might use if you were photographing a woman, and you wanted her to look very beautiful and soft. Dream-like light is also very soft. I achieve this with light rather than low-contrast filters. But that’s just my preference. Living light has more contrast and vitality, while dead light is very flat with no shadows. Clear light is more contrasty, but not too much.”

How much is too much? Nykvist shrugs as if to say there is no answer. It is a matter of individual taste. That’s what makes cinematography an art. There is an instinctive ability and a learned capacity for choosing the right type of light.

Nykvist continues, “Misty light could involve the use of smoke or fog filters. Violent light is more contrasty than living. It is a subtle distinction that influences how the audience perceives and reacts to the images on the screen. Spring-like light is a little warmer, and falling light is when the angle is very low and you get elongated shadows. Sensual light is for love scenes... it is difficult to put it into words, because film is a visual language. That’s the role I play as a cinematographer in understanding the script and the director’s intentions, and translating it into images that express the ideas.”

Nykvist generally knew exactly what Bergman had mind without having to parse the script page by page. He says that unless the director of photography understands the artistic intentions of the director, there is no way he or she can perform their mission.

“I need to understand their intentions,” he says, “because every picture defines its own look, and that definition begins with the director’s intentions for the script. Some directors have their own ideas about staging, lighting and composition. Others are mainly interested in the actors. You must be able to form a relationship with both types of directors, and also establish a feeling of trust between the cast and crew. I always tell the actors what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”

With some 120 picture and 50 years of cinematography behind him, Nykvist says that every new film is still a learning experience. He says that he learns from the directors, actors and crew he works with, and that’s a two-way street.

“If I am open to hearing and discussing their ideas, they are more likely to listen to me,” he says. “That’s human nature.”

Another interesting observation is that with all of the international boundaries that Nykvist has crossed making movies, he has never experienced unsolvable language or other communications barriers. His approach to pre-visualizing is traditional. He reads the script, thinks about it and develops some ideas.

“I like to watch rehearsals without the camera,” he says. “I watch what happens. Sometimes an actor feels that he has to move when they say a line. You discuss this with the director, and ask if he or she wants us to follow the move or track in the opposite direction. There are so many ways you can cover the same move with tracks, on a crane, and all of them affect the pace of the action. There are always choices regarding light, movement and focal length. Those decisions come from inside.”

Then, he looks through the lens and places his lights. “I put up one light and see if it feels right,” he says. “Sometimes you have to say to yourself, I made a mistake and try something else. There are so many different people, the producer, director, art director and, of course, the cast involved in making a movie. When you take too long to light, you can feel their eyes in your back. Everything is different everyday, even your own moods. Some days everything is right. Other days everything is impossible.”

Nykvist claims that he isn’t technically oriented. He reduces his approach to shooting to a few basic principals. He trusts his eye and his instincts. He looks through the lens, and if it looks right, he shoots. If not, he adds more light.

“It’s an unusual occupation,” he says. “It’s both an art and a craft. Every time I start a picture, the first day is like I am starting all over again. I love it. You can always learn something new. Sometimes it is about manipulating light. Other times it is about finding another angle into the human soul. That’s what keeps this work so interesting. Until I find something I like better, I’ll probably do this work forever.”

Portrait NB © Bengt Wanselius