Photo by Marina Svinina [1994]

               

SACHA VIERNY

Born: 10 August 1919, Bois-le-Roi, France, as son of Russian immigrants.

Died: 15 May 2001, Paris, France.

Education: l'IDHEC, Paris, France.

Career: Became intern with dir Roger Leenhardt and asst with dir Louis Daquin. Ph news doc's in Africa.

Awards: 'César' Award nom [1981] for 'Mon oncle d'Amérique'; 'César' Award nom [1985] for 'L'amour à mort'; Camerimage 'Golden Frog' nom [1993] for 'The Baby of Mâcon'; Camerimage 'Golden Frog' nom [1996] & Art FF 'Golden Key' [1997] for 'The Pillow Book'.


> Go to FEATURE FILMS

> Go to SHORTS & DOCUMENTARIES


Photo by Marina Svinina [1994]

·····

France in the 1960s became the cradle of innovative cinematography as faster film stocks, lighter cameras, and a directorial community unafraid to bend or occasionally discard forever the old rules, leveled the Hollywood formalism that ruled post-war film. Among the great French lighting cameramen of that generation, Sacha Vierny has cut his own path. Never in sympathy with the shoot-and-see guerilla tactics of Raoul Coutard, unwilling to follow Jean Rabier into his world of gaudy primaries, more adventurous than the formal Henri Decaë, Vierny has worked so closely with directors, notably Alain Resnais and Peter Greenaway, that he is less a technician than their collaborator.

In the 1950s, with French cinema closed to new talent, Vierny, Resnais, and their colleagues made documentaries under the government grant scheme. Vierny lit Resnais's last short, 'Le chant du styrène', a sponsored film about plastics manufacture turned on its head by his dazzling visuals and a Raymond Queneau commentary written in alexandrines.

Resnais had meanwhile found funding to film Marguerite Duras's script of 'Hiroshima, mon amour', of which Vierny shot the French sections. Vierny's style is already apparent in this film, with its painterly taste for darkness and texture, wide ranges of contrast between scenes, and considerable courage in working with low light sources. At first viewing, the film seemed to many critics disorganized, lacking formal photographic style, even carelessly underlit. Only later did its unifying intelligence become clear.

Vierny went on to shoot 'L'année dernière à Marienbad' in 1961. The photography was no less chancy than on 'Hiroshima, mon amour', but Vierny is philosophical about its technical drawbacks. "The fact that there are diffused images, that we sometimes shot on sound stock, that we are not really satisfied, that we think it's a little hasty, a little botched; is that important?" Resnais had showed the cameraman old newspapers and silent films as examples of the effects he was aiming at. "That the whites flared and the blacks were limpid," said Vierny. "That's what Resnais asked of me."

Vierny did not enter into another long-term relationship with any director until his films with Peter Greenaway. Fascinated with painting and anxious to instill some of the same values into his films as he finds in artists like Vermeer, Greenaway is a challenging collaborator for any lighting cameraman, particularly one like Vierny who shares his taste for saturated colors and low light. Indeed, throughout the 1990s Vierny more than ably served as Greenaway's house cinematographer. His images in 'The Baby of Mâcon' and 'The Pillow Book' are especially resplendent; viewing the latter (the story of a young Japanese woman who develops an appetite for having her body painted) is equal to watching a moving canvas.

Vierny, however, rejects photographic richness for its own sake. "My satisfaction is that the photography is not remarked on too much for itself," he has said. To underline his preference for atmosphere over formal perfection Vierny boasts that he uses neither viewfinder nor light meter. The light meter, he says, is "an instrument that measures essentially the quantities of light, and that doesn't correspond to the feelings I have about my work. What is the use of measuring? The meter will only verify that it's right." Such confidence would be arrogant in any lighting cameraman who had not proved, as Vierny has, his absolute mastery of the art. [From article written by John Baxter, updated by Rob Edelman, on the Film Reference website.]

With dir Alain Resnais [right]

Alain Resnais: 'My earliest memories of Sacha Vierny go back more than half a century, to our first meeting in 1948 or 1949. I had shot a few 16mm films in Kodachrome, one of the first monopack color processes, which combined three ultra thin emulsion layers on a single strip of film [this was before Eastmancolor]. So Vierny introduced himself with: "We won't have Kodachrome in professional 35mm for several months. I'd like to talk with you about the ups and downs of your experience with color film." He was exaggerating - my knowledge was empirical but limited - and I was truly flattered that someone in the business wanted to talk shop with me.

We hit it off right away. When I made some short films a few years later with the great cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, Vierny served as his assistant. Then I asked him to shoot 'Le chant du styrène' in color Dyaliscope. I even asked him to appear in a scene, as the only human being you really see. He was very photogenic.

I won't get into an exhaustive recap of all our films, but I must mention that next we embarked on the adventure of 'Hiroshima mon amour'. Together we checked out the locations that had been scouted in Nevers and its surroundings. I was obsessed with dusk, that moment when the sun disappears over the countryside. Was it really impossible to capture that on film? The two of us tried to find a way. Vierny was only shooting the French part of the film and had accepted the gamble of only finding out what Japanese cinematographer Michio Takahashi had shot in Tokyo after the film was edited. For a cinematographer, it was torture to know his images would be combined with those of a colleague without being able to see them ahead of time. But Vierny was stimulated by the challenge.

He never tried to make a secret of the tricks of his trade. I'd met other cameramen and it was quite a secretive milieu; everyone kept his methods to himself. It was totally different with Vierny. We were constantly talking about the relationship between the film stock and light, the aperture, depth of field, sensitometry, and the potential of the photoelectric cell. All these discussions contributed to a very strong, nearly familial relationship.

Here was a cinematographer who was interested not only in the look of the film but in its overall quality. We knew each other so well that, when we were on set, he could tell the frame and lens I was going to choose just by the way I looked through the viewfinder and moved up or down. He would start setting up the lights before I even told him what I wanted.

You could count on Vierny's support no matter what. That explains some of the on-set run-ins he had with our production managers. He was often criticized for always taking the director's side. We were criticized for forming a rock-solid unit, impermeable to outside influence. When I was starting out, I found my abilities so poor that I might have quit if it wasn't for Vierny, [camera operator Philippe] Brun, and my script supervisor, Sylvette Baudrot. When I made 'L'année dernière à Marienbad', for instance, I was in a constant mood of terror and anxiety, only alleviated by my collaborators' skill and commitment. Even today, I remain astounded at the confidence they put in a director of short films, shooting his first features by special dispensation [I didn't meet the French film administration's criteria]. Those three were the pillars that allowed me to construct my mise-en-scène and editing, like the roof supports of a Greek temple.

Vierny was an aristocrat of the cinematographer's trade. On first meeting, he could be very imposing. Actors sometimes mistook his demeanor for coldness, but they always came to love him. He was incredibly good at speaking to actors and had great respect for their work, considering their contribution to the film to be possibly the most important of all. He was conscious that the way the set was lit needed to be coordinated with the acting, and that a poorly lit set could destroy an actor's work. He believed that everything should be done to make the actor feel entirely free - a relatively rare point of view when we got started in the business. He wasn't looking for a predetermined aesthetic composition into which the actor had to wedge himself. After a take, rather than complaining that an actor hadn't hit his marks, he'd reposition some of the lights so that the actor could repeat the same movements. He was irreproachable. I have no idea how one could fault him.

He was as naturally elegant as his cinematography. 'Stavisky...' was a film in the 'Vierny style'. He liked things to shine in the darkness. To make the darkness palpable, he would add a spot of light in an unusual place. He liked the key light [main light source] to be clear, without having to compensate with the myriad little light sources used by forties and fifties cinematographers. He liked it when the picture needed to look a little solemn. He was fascinated by the aesthetic adventure of 'L'année dernière à Marienbad', which required a kind of hieratic wax museum quality, like an animated statue. I remember how interested he was in using auxiliary lenses to get more depth of field than would have otherwise been possible. And choosing to shoot matching shots and countershots twenty or sixty miles apart implied a complex game for the cinematographer. But he was also ready and willing to shoot neutral, nearly 'dirty' images for 'La guerre est finie'. After going to talk with Spanish refugees and communist activists, most of whom lived in the Paris suburbs, I wanted to reproduce the light I'd seen inside their homes. Vierny always liked to do the opposite of what we'd done in the previous film; he was a tireless experimenter. Every time I think about him, I want to borrow one of his favorite expressions: "Quelle merveille!" [How marvelous!]' [This tribute to Sacha Vierny by Alain Resnais was published in the October 2001 issue of 'Positif'. It is based on an interview conducted by François Thomas and was translated for The Criterion Collection website by Nicholas Elliott.]



 FEATURE FILMS

1958

Le bel âge/Love Is When You Make It! [Pierre Kast] b&w; cph: Ghislain Cloquet

1958

Hiroshima mon amour [Alain Resnais] b&w; ph Japan seq: Takahashi Michio

1959

La main chaude/The Itchy Palm [Gérard Oury] b&w; cph: André Villard

1959

Merci Natercia! [Pierre Kast] b&w

1960

La morte saison des amours/The Season for Love [Pierre Kast] b&w

1961

L'année dernière à Marienbad/Last Year at Marienbad [Alain Resnais] ds/b&w

1961

Climats/Climates of Love [Stellio Lorenzi] ds/b&w

1962

Portrait Robot [Paul Paviot] b&w; cph: André Villard

1962

Muriel, ou Le temps d'un retour [Alain Resnais] c

1964

Aimez-vous les femmes?/A Taste for Women [Jean Léon] cs/b&w

1965

La guerre est finie [Alain Resnais] b&w-c

1965

De dans van de reiger/The Dance of the Heron [Fons Rademakers] scope/b&w

1966

La musica [Paul Seban & Marguerite Duras] b&w

1966

Belle de jour [Luis Buñuel] c

1967

Caroline chérie [Denys de La Patellière] fs/c

1967

La nuit bulgare [Michel Mitrani] c

1968

Le tatoué [Denys de La Patellière] fs/c

1969

La main [Henri Glaeser] c

1970

Bof - Anatomie d'un livreur [Claude Faraldo] c

1971

La vocation suspendue [Raúl Ruiz] 16mm/b&w-c; cph: Maurice Perrimond; b&w footage shot in 1942

1972

Le moine [Ado Kyrou] c

1972

La sainte famille [Pierre Koralnik] c

1972

Les granges brûlées/Suspect of Murder/Suspicion of Murder/The Investigator [Jean Chapot & (uncred) Alain Delon] c

1973

Stavisky... [Alain Resnais] c

1976

Baxter, Vera Baxter [Marguerite Duras] c

1976

Le diable dans la boîte [Pierre Lary] c

1977

L'hypothèse du tableau volé/The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting [Raúl Ruiz] b&w; 67m

1978

Éclipse sur un ancien chemin vers Compostelle [Bernard Férié] ?

1978

Le fils puni [Philippe Collin] c

1979

Le chemin perdu/The Lost Way [Patricia Moraz] c

1979

Le rose et le blanc [Robert Pansard-Besson] c; cph: Jean-Paul Meurisse

1979

Mon oncle d'Amérique [Alain Resnais] c; 2uc: François Catonné

1980

BEAU PERE/Beau père [Bertrand Blier] scope/c

1982

Les trois couronnes du matelot/Three Crowns of the Sailor [Raúl Ruiz] b&w-c

1983

Clash/The Clash [Raphaël Delpard] b&w-c

1983

Le femme publique [Andrzej Zulawski] c

1984

L'amour à mort/Love Unto Death [Alain Resnais] p/c

1984

Flügel und Fesseln/L'avenir d'Émilie/The Future of Emily [Helma Sanders-Brahms] c

1985

[ZOO -] A Zed & Two Noughts [Peter Greenaway] c; addph: Mike Coles

1987

The Belly of an Architect [Peter Greenaway] c

1987

Drowning by Numbers [Peter Greenaway] c

1989

The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover [Peter Greenaway] tvi/c

1990

Prospero's Books [Peter Greenaway] HD-to-35mm/c

1992

The Baby of Mâcon [Peter Greenaway] p/c

1995

The Pillow Book [Peter Greenaway] s35/c; spec lighting efx: Reinier van Brummelen

1997

Dormez, je le veux! [Irène Jouannet] c

1998

8½ Women [Peter Greenaway] c; cph: Reinier van Brummelen (+ lighting design)

1999

The Man Who Cried [Sally Potter] b&w-c


 SHORTS & DOCUMENTARIES

1953

Das Lied der Ströme/Song of the Rivers [Joris Ivens, Robert Ménégoz, Ruy Santos & Joop Huisken] b&w; doc/90m; cph: Erich Nitzschman, Anatoli Kloschin, Maximilian Scheer, a.o.

1954

Bonnes vacances [Pierre Neurisse & Jacques Nahum] ?; ?/?m; cph: André Dumaître

1954

Le devoir de Zouzou [Jean Vidal] b&w; short/38m; cph (?): Henri Martin

1954

Les chemins qui marchent [Pierre Lary] ?

1954

Neiges [Jean-Jacques Languépin] c; short/20m; cph: Ghislain Cloquet, Georges Strouvé & André Dumaître

1955

Nuit et brouillard/Night and Fog [Alain Resnais] 16mm-35bu/b&w-c; doc/32m; (cph or c.asst ?); cph: Ghislain Cloquet

1956

Fourrages verts [P. Vetusto] ?; cph: Quinto Albicocco & Félix Forestier

1956

Tu enfanteras sans douleur [Henri Fabiani] b&w; ?/?m

1956

Un mauvais rêve: cancer [Pierre Neurisse & Fabiënne Forgue] ?; cph: Jean Penzer

1957

Le mystère de l'atelier quinze [Alain Resnais & André Heinrich] b&w; short/18m; cph: Ghislain Cloquet

1957

Élèves-maîtres [?] ?; doc/22m

1957

Lettre de Sibérie/Letter from Siberia [Chris Marker] b&w/c; doc/62m

1957

Le chant du styrène [Alain Resnais] ds/c; doc/14m; + small part

1958

L'opéra - - mouffe [Agnès Varda] 16mm/b&w; short/17m; uncred cph: A. Varda

1958

16h.40 - Destination Rio [Jean-Pierre Decourt] ?

1958

Le champion [Jean-Pierre Decourt] c; short/23m

1958

Pablo Picasso de 1900 à 1914 [Fabiënne Tzanck-Forgue] 16mm/c; doc/13m

1959

Le cercle [Arie Mambouch (Arie Ambash), M. Bloch & Nina Mayo (Yael Ambash)] c; anim/12m

1959

Une question d'assurance [Pierre Kast] b&w; ?/520mtr

1959

Paris la belle [Pierre Prévert & Marcel Duhamel] sepia & c; doc/24m; ph footage in sepia (1928): Man Ray , Henri Grignon & Jacques-André Boiffard

1959

Ceux de l'acier [André Vétusto] c; doc/22m

1959

La femme et l'enfant [Pierre Lary] ?

195?

Neuf mois en quelques minutes [?] ?

1960

Bébé prend le départ [Pierre Lary] ?

1960

Une naissance entre toutes [Pierre Lary] ?

1961

Un Paris pour chacun [Chris Marker] ?; ?/600mtr; cph: Pierre Lhomme

1961

Diamètres [Philippe Condroyer] c; doc/27m

1962

Structures [Philippe Condroyer] c; doc/18m

1962

Alpha-bêta-gamma [André Vétusto] c; doc/21m; cph: Claude Lecomte

1962

Conte de neige et de sable [Jean-Jacques Sirkis] ?; short/18m

1963

Quinze mille voisins [Pierre Lary] c; doc/24m

1963

Un mal qui répand la terreur [Pierre Neurisse] ?

1963

Le chapeau de Fortunatus [S. Arié Mambouch & Nina Mayo] b&w-c; short/16m

1964

Un coin sans importance [Pierre Sarry] ?; short/?m

1964

Paris-Balzac - L'envers d'une histoire [André Charpak] ?; doc/10m

1964

Et si c'était une sirène [Jean Schmidt] ?; short/24m

1964

Mayeux le bossu [André Charpak] c; doc/11m

1965

Nur der Nebel ist grau [Robert Ménégoz] cs/c; doc/25m

1966

Aujourd'hui Paris... et demain [André Heinrich] c; doc/?m; cph: Pierre Lhomme, Guy Durban & Yann Le Masson

196?

La chaise longue [Sacha Vierny] ?

1969

L'art roman [Sacha Vierny] ?

1969

Photo couleur [Sacha Vierny] ?

1970

Elle est la qui t'attend [Pierre Lary] c; short/360mtr

1971

On n'échappe jamais [Pierre Lary] c; short/450mtr

1971

L'animal en question [André Pozner] b&w-c; doc/420mtr; cph: Pierre Lhomme

1971

Versailles reçoit Elisabeth Schwarzkopf [Pierre Jourdan] ?; doc/?m

1971

Le fusil à lunette [Jean Chapot] 16mm/c; short/14m

1976

500 grammes de foie de veau [Henri Glaeser] b&w; short/15m

1977

Le conseiller Crespel [Robert Pansard-Besson] c; short/20m

1979

L'état des lieux [François Caillat] c; short/13m

1983

Sans fausse note [Luc Pierre Trouvé] c; comm doc/13m; prod for the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer français)

1983

Réouverture [Luc Pierre Trouvé] ?

1987

Fear of Drowning [Vanni Corbellini & Peter Greenaway] 16mm/c; short/26m

1989

Final [Irène Jouannet] b&w; short/14m

1991

L'autre Célia [Irène Jouannet] c; short/22m

1992

Rosa [Peter Greenaway] scope/b&w; dance film/15m

1995

Autoreverse [Mathias Pulleu-Benguigui] ?; short/11m


 TELEVISION

1964

Le petit Claus et le grand Claus [Pierre Prévert & Paul Grimault] tvm

1967

La bien-aimée [Jacques Doniol-Valcroze] tvm

1991

A Walk Through Prospero's Library [Peter Greenaway] exp doc/23m/v

1991

Not Mozart/M Is for Man, Music, Mozart/M. Aural and Visual Variations on a Conundrum of the Apotheosis of the Spirit of Mozart [Peter Greenaway] mus exp tvm/29m/16mm; 3 seg: 'M Is for Man', 'M Is for Music' & 'M Is for Mozart'; ep 6-part series 'Not Mozart'


 MISCELLANEOUS

1947

Les dernières vacances/The Last Vacation [Roger Leenhardt] intern; ph: Philippe Agostini

1948

Le point du jour [Louis Daquin] co-asst dir; ph: André Bac

1953

Statues d'épouvante/Le cubisme/L'école de Paris [Robert Hessens; doc] c.asst; ph: Ghislain Cloquet

1954

Pantomimes [Paul Paviot; short] c.asst; ph: Ghislain Cloquet

1954

Tout chante autour de moi [Pierre Gout] c.asst; ph: Georges Delaunay