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Sven Nykvist

…because he taught us how to film the human face. Nykvist’s minimal use of lighting and naturalistic style made him the ideal cinematographer for Ingmar Bergman's later work. A true professional, Nykvist’s career spanned nearly 60 years and over 120 films. While he is mostly known for his work on Bergman’s dark, intimate dramas, Nykvist’s other credits include "Sleepless in Seattle" – Nora Ephron’s definitive “meet cute” romantic comedy.



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Sven Nykvist's Cinematography and Work with Ingmar Bergmnan

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Rare 7-minute Interview with Sven Nykvist (1986)

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Understanding the Cinematography of Sven Nykvist

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Nykvist’s signature is his minimalist use of light, which he approached like a philosopher in terms of how it affected the viewer. He preferred natural light whenever possible; if forced to use artificial lighting, he would often try to use a single source. Nykvist would even err on the side of underexposing the film, preferring the darkness to any unintended saturation or glare. The overall impact led to a groundbreaking cinematic realism in which the images could also be expressive as well as natural. His early work with Ingmar Bergman was mostly filmed in black and white, yet he managed the transition to color film with ease. In fact, Nykvist was also a pioneer in the use of color levels to complement the emotional resonance of a scene. In particular, his work on "Cries and Whispers" and "Fanny and Alexander" (he won the Academy Award for both) demonstrate his ability to balance light and color with his minimalist palette, while his work on "Sleepless in Seattle" added depth to the material. However, his black-and-white cinematography still remains some of his most iconic work. Woody Allen even reverted to black-and-white filming when he hired Nykvist to shoot "Celebrity" for him in 1998, which perhaps fittingly turned out to be one of Nykvist’s last credits.

While he collaborated with filmmakers like Louis Malle, Bob Fosse, Woody Allen and Nora Ephron, Nykvis’ts work with Ingmar Bergman more or less defined him as a cinematographer. However, Nykvist was perhaps as important to the second half of Bergman’s career as any other individual. Bergman’s earlier films such as "The Seventh Seal" – an allegorical medieval epic – had employed Gunnar Fischer as the cinematographer, whose high contrast imagery relied on heavy backlighting to create a surreal effect on the landscape. While this style worked for Bergman’s more baroque and dramatic stories, his interests as a filmmaker turned towards intimate chamber dramas with a humanist emphasis on individuals. Nykvist’s more naturalistic style provided the perfect artistic counterpart for Bergman in films like "Through a Glass Darkly" and "Persona," which focused on the inner struggles of characters as opposed to presenting them as emblematic representations of the human condition. In the history of cinema, there are few other partnerships as prolific and well-matched. Their work demonstrates the benefits of finding the right people to work with in any creative endeavor.

Nykvist’s major breakthrough as a cinematographer was his ability to film the human face. At least that’s what Ingmar Bergman believed, but we are willing to go out on a limb and trust one of cinema’s greatest auteurs. While earlier films had relied on an exaggerated style of acting to convey emotions, the advances in film stock that coincided with the start of Nykvist’s career required a more natural approach. Instead of broad expressions, cinematic storytellers shifted to subtle facial movements and realistic human emotions. Nykvist may have been in the right place (Sweden) at the right time (Bergman’s creative renaissance), but he still pioneered the way cinematographers could film close shots of a performer’s face without it being, well, in your face. His ability to frame his actors faces in a way that allowed them to convincingly explore the inner lives of their characters is basically unprecedented in the history of cinema. In fact, one of Bergman and Nykvist’s most iconic shots, a young boy reaching his hand out to a woman’s projected face on a screen in "Persona," essentially serves as a mission statement for their creative collaboration, allowing the audience to literally connect with characters on screen in ways never imagined.

Resources

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Article

Sven Nykvist’s Lighting Process on ‘The Sacrifice’

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Article

Lighting “Persona”

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Documentary

Light Keeps Me Company – Documentary

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Article

Willis explains his approach to managing a set

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webpage

The American Society of Cinematographers

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Article

Gordon Willis: Shining a light on Hollywood’s ‘Prince of Darkness’

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Book

Becoming the Reel Deal: How to Launch Your Film Career in the Camera Department

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Book

GoPro: How To Use The GoPro Hero 4 Black

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Book

Lighting for Cinematography: A Practical Guide to the Art and Craft of Lighting for the Moving Image

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Book

Cinematography: Theory and Practice: Image Making for Cinematographers and Directors

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Video

Explore The Subtleties Of David Fincher’s Direction In This Cinematic Breakdown

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Book

The Five C’s of Cinematography

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Cinematography 101: Breaking Down the Script with Jim Denault

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Book

Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers

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Book

Making Pictures : A Century of European Cinematography

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Video

Creating Depth With Light and Shadow

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