10 Cinematographers Who Turned Science Fiction Movies into Great Art

We have tons of love for great directors — but often, when you're marveling at an especially lovely shot, you're partly admiring the work of the cinematographer who lit it and shot it. Often, the same cinematographer has worked on many of your favorite movies. Here are 10 great painters of science fiction films.

Note: We tried to credit people only for films where they were listed as the sole cinematographer or Director of Photography. Apologies if we accidentally credited someone with a film that had multiple cinematographers.


1. Peter Suchitzky (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, all of David Cronenberg's recent films, Mars Attacks!, Red Planet, After Earth)

On lighting the Luke/Vader lightsaber fight: " There was another set in which a sword fight was to take place between two of the characters. When I looked at that set it struck me as being rather like a model for a stage set. In other words, it looked unfinished. It certainly had no walls at all; it was a series of ramps and discs and blackness. I was extremely concerned about that set and I thought about it a lot, about how I was going to make it work and look believable and look dramatic. Then I decided to light the whole thing from underneath, as the floors had been made translucent. In the black areas I placed Brutes and had shafts of light penetrating the darkness. Then the whole set was filled with steam, which made it photographically very impressive, but physically very uncomfortable, since it was like working in a Turkish bath. We were quite high up in the stage and we all suffered for quite a number of weeks, but it was one of those sets which made me fell uneasy before I entered into the shooting of it because it looked so unreal, so unworldly and unlike anything I had ever done before. I was concerned about it looking dull, in fact, because although there seemed to be plenty of material in the set, it was all either on the floor or on the ceiling. The fact is that unless one goes for extreme angles (and you usually can't do that right through a long sequence), the camera is pointing straight ahead and not up or down. There was nothing for the eye to look at straight ahead except blackness, because all the set elements were on the floor or the ceiling. I was concerned about the scene looking interesting and about the eye having something to look at—but, in the end, I think we succeeded in overcoming those problems—all of us working together."

2. Douglas Slocombe (Rollerball, the Indiana Jones original trilogy)

The great Ealing Studios cinematographer recently turned 100. He shot the India sequences of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and then was rehired to work on the first three Indiana Jones movies. Harrison Ford recently recalled that Slocombe "never used a light meter – he just held up his hand and observed the shadow his thumb made on the palm."


3. Roger Pratt (Brazil, Batman, Twelve Monkeys, two Harry Potter films)

Says Pratt, "Terry Gilliam is one of the most creative people that I’ve ever met. Although he’s not a normal person in some ways! To work with him is an education in what’s possible and what the possibilities are to create something really beautiful and interesting."


4. Gilbert Taylor (Dr. Strangelove, Star Wars, The Omen, Flash Gordon)

He wasn't George Lucas' first choice for Star Wars cinematographer, but he arguably did a lot to make those effects-heavy sequences work so well. Not to mention the Tunisia sequences. Here he is talking about lighting the attack on the Death Star. On the Tunisia filming, he told an interviewer that the filming was hampered by the first rain Tunisia had seen in three years: "You couldn’t really see where the land ended and the sky began... It was all a gray mess, and the robots were just a blur. I thought the look of the film should be absolutely clean; also, I was mindful that there was an enormous amount of process work to be done in America after we finished shooting in England, and I knew a crisp result would help." He clashed with Lucas over how crisply to light the scenes, but the studio wound up backing Taylor. He adds, "I wanted to give [Star Wars] a unique visual style that would distinguish it from other films in the science-fiction genre"


5. Guillermo Navarro (All of Guillermo del Toro's movies, I Am Number Four, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Night at the Museum)

The Oscar-winning cinematographer told an interviewer a while back: "I want to design and create images as opposed to working on a contemporary piece where realities exist right outside your window and all you have to do is register them... I believe in [Guillermo del Toro] as a filmmaker. He is a very visual director and someone that understands the contribution that cinematographers offer is important not only for the creative process, but as a film language."


6. Claudio Miranda (Oblivion, Life of Pi, Tron Legacy, Curious Case of Benjamin Button)

On why he was hired for Life of Pi, the movie he won an Oscar for: "I believe I was hired because Ang [Lee] liked Tron and Benjamin Button. It’s a combination of those two films that he wanted to instill Life of Pi with: the 3D of Tron and digital not-looking-so-electronic on Benjamin Button." And read this interview where he talks about how they lit Oblivion using pure projection in many shots, and avoided the problem of excessive bluescreen on sets.


7. Wally Pfister (All of Christopher Nolan's films, plus the underrated Scotland, PA)

Pfister is soon to be directing his first movie, Transcendence, but he's best known for working on all of Christopher Nolan's movies. Talking about his collaborations with Nolan to Moviefone, he said: "You analyze the script and what's going on in that scene, what the actors are doing, and you say, "Okay, what is the best way to bring forth this emotion in what I'm doing?" You know, is it with lighting? Is it with camera movement? And then it becomes discussions with the director, and Chris and I have fantastic conversations about 'what does it mean to be moving in? What does it mean to be moving left or right? What does it mean to be completely static with the camera? Should we go long lens? What does that mean?' So that's where it is my turn to get involved in the storytelling in visual terms, and that's what they pay me for, really, at this level is, to be the visual translator of the film, of the director's vision."


8. Dariusz Wolski (The Crow, Dark City, Prometheus, Pirates of the Caribbean)

He got his start with the Bangles' "Eternal Flame" music video, and went on to create moody, distinctive, dark visuals. On his collaboration with Ridley Scott, he said: "The more you get into the visual effects world, people rely on it but in the wrong way. They put up a green screen and say they'll make their minds up later. Any time something requires more thinking, building a set, they say let's just throw up a green screen. Then they're stuck with shots that just look artificial. Also, because you can, you sometimes go to the point where it's unbelievable - you can create some impossible stuff behind them. Ridley still comes from 'whatever I can see, that's what I photograph'. That's inspiring, because no matter how good the visual effects are, the creative process is basically castrated because you're doign half of the job and the rest is being done later. If you're making a film in a real set, in real places, there's a certain logic to it, you can put a light in a certain place. There's a lot you don't see, and that's what beautiful about it."


9. Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, I Am Legend, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Last Airbender, Babe)

On the differences between the first two Lord of the Rings movies: "For The Fellowship of the Ring, I was very conscious of modeling with light, applying a black-and-white philosophy in using the tonal scale to create separation, rather than [doing so] through color. For The Two Towers, I decided that the light should be less controlled. I was able to follow the travails of each group and decide what was appropriate for the mood at any particular moment. Middle-Earth is descending into a very dark time, and the characters are battling to find light at the end of the tunnel, so the film needed to be more realistic and aggressive than The Fellowship of the Ring. The overall feel is less magical, and the story has become fractured and splintered."


10. Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey, Zardoz, Superman and Superman II)

Unsworth was the man George Lucas actually wanted to hire for Star Wars, but he wasn't available. Those sweeping camera shots in the first Superman movie? Those are totally Unsworth's creations. In 2001, Unsworth and Kubrick developed a system of studying the gray tones of black and white polaroids to figure out the right lighting for each scene.


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