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Shooting With Ingmar Bergman: A Conversation with Sven Nykvist
Interview at the American Film Institute 1984

In an AFI seminar held in 1984, the cinematographer Sven Nykvist talked about working with Bergman and the art of simplicity.

he whole crew meets two months before shooting to read the whole script, then we start to make tests. We build sets, and when everyone--the costume designer, the production designer, the makeup artist--is there, we make tests for the whole picture so we will never be surprised when we start shooting. We are already halfway through a picture when we start to shoot it, and that is psychologically very important for all the people because everyone, including the grips and electricians, feels that he or she is as important as all the others. We had a group that had been working together for 20 years; we didn't really have to speak to each other because we always knew the answer.

On operating the camera and using zoom lenses

When you are operating the camera, you forget all about the other people around you. You just see this little scene and you live in that and you feel it. For me, operating the camera is a sport and it helps me do better lighting sometimes.

When we started Cries and Whispers, Ingmar and I promised each other never to use the zoom lens. I suggested we bring one just to help us find out which fixed-focal-length lens we should have in each situation, but, of course, I found this was a wonderful toy. My left hand would come up and I would start to change the focal length on the zoom, and after a while I found I was neglecting to tell Ingmar I was using the zoom lens. I found that if I zoomed during camera movements and in the same rhythm as the camera movements, then it really didn't show up very obviously.

And then Ingmar said, "It's strange--I can't remember that we were tracking at all."

I didn't tell him about using the zoom, but it started to work so well that he finally noticed my hands constantly working the lens, and he said, "Now I know how it comes. You are using a zoom that we have not discussed."

I said, "It seems to work because you are always asking if we were tracking or not."

Sometimes you have to use the tricks you can.

On the most important thing learned over the years

It has taken me 30 years to come to simplicity. Earlier, I made a lot of what I thought were beautiful shots with much backlighting and many effects, absolutely none of which were motivated by anything in the film at all. As soon as we had a painting on the wall, we thought it should have a glow around it. It was terrible and I can hardly stand to see my own films on television anymore. I look for two minutes and then I thank God that there is a word called simplicity. I prefer to shoot on location because in the studio you have too many possibilities--too many lights to destroy your whole picture.

Lightflex is a special light at the head of the camera with a mirror. I think it's a wonderful invention, but when I first looked at it I thought I would never learn how to use it. I had always been very suspicious of it--I think cinematographers may have too many possibilities available.

Swann in Love (1984), from a Marcel Proust story, had very, very wide shots. We were shooting in the biggest park--the Tuileries--and the Louvre and the other buildings were at least 100 meters away; we had to stop half the traffic in Paris. That's very far away and I didn't know how I would get the light.

I started to use Lightflex and I could not believe it. To my eyes it was pitch-dark in the background, but by using Lightflex I could see structure in the buildings. I used a blue filter and it picked up the sky, which was absolutely dark. Even if the buildings were a little blue, I said when they asked me, "That's the moonlight. Don't you remember that we had moonlight?"

On the softly-lit quality Nykvist is renowned for

When Ingmar and I made Winter Light (1963), which takes place in a church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided we should not see any shadow in it at all because there would be no logical shadow in that setting.

I said, "Oh, that will be an easy picture for me because the light doesn't change in three hours."

Ingmar said, "That's what you think. Let's go to the churches in the north of Sweden." And there we sat for weeks, looking at the light during the three hours between eleven and two o'clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods.

I asked the production designer to build a ceiling in the church so I wouldn't have any possibility of putting up lights or backlighting. I had to start with bounced light and then after that I think I made every picture with bounced light--I really feel ill when I see a direct light coming into faces with its big nose shadow.

Then we found that that kind of lighting was very good for color: this soft light didn't get such bright colors but a nice pastel tone. The only critical thing I have to say about my color is that it is too nice. It's too pretty.