From Rock Star to Dreamer: The Cinematography of Harris Savides

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A look at the style and techniques of one of the most accomplished DP’s in the field.

Harris Savides is one of those rare people who traded success for artistic fulfillment, and for his sacrifice found even greater success. Savides started out as a cinematographer for commercials and music videos, and he was great at it. He shot some of the most iconic videos of the 90s ‐ without question the peak of the medium ‐ including Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” and Madonna’s “Rain” (all for director Mark Romanek), R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” as well as The Rolling Stones’ cover of “Like a Rolling Stone” directed by Michel Gondry. He’s the only cinematographer in the history of the MTV Music Video Awards to have won Best Cinematography three times, and the only to win consecutively (for the R.E.M. and Madonna videos). On top of all that, he also shot one of the decade’s best-selling workout videos, from supermodel Cindy Crawford. He was top of his field and had his choice of projects, but in the mid-90s he left these worlds largely behind for film.

His first gig in features came via another veteran of music videos, director David Fincher, who hired Savides as a camera operator for Se7en, then promoted him to director of photography for his next feature, The Game. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back and catapulted Savides onto the cinematography A-list, from which he was plucked by an array of renowned directors including Fincher again (Zodiac), Wong Kar-Wai (short The Follow), Martin Scorsese (short The Key to Reserva), Jonathan Glazer (Birth), Woody Allen (Whatever Works), Ridley Scott (American Gangster), and multiple films for Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg), Sofia Coppola (Somewhere, The Bling Ring) and Gus Van Sant, his most frequent collaborator, for whom he shot six films: Finding Forrester, Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, Milk, and Restless.

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In the following video from Sareesh Sudhakaran for wolfcrow, the cinematic style and techniques of Savides are analyzed, particularly in regards to the transformation they underwent as he shifted from the bright, blaring, in-your-face world of music videos to the more natural, more subtle, dreamlike kind of features he chose.

Savides died from brain cancer in 2012 shortly after completing work on The Bling Ring. He was a week or so shy of his 55th birthday and arguably at the peak of his career. Though he was never Oscar-nominated ‐ I don’t know why, Milk, American Gangster, or Zodiac would have been easy nods ‐ he remains even posthumously one of the most respected DPs in the field, and the reach of his influence is yet to be defined. What is certain is that his work survives and will continue to inspire, entertain and captivate for decades to come.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist