Understanding the Cinematography of Sven Nykvist

Sven Nykvist is one of the greatest cinematographers ever, without a doubt. I go through some of his cinematography lighting and camera techniques to help you understand his unique style.

Just to be clear: Sven Nykvist changed his style to suit the movies he shot. The goal of this video and article is to drum up enthusiasm and a yearning to learn more.

Warning: I do not claim this knowledge is 100% accurate. Just think of it as an endorsement of his work. If you want accuracy, look someplace else.

Here’s the video illuminating the cinematography style and life of Sven Nykvist:

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*The story about the interview with the ASC goes both ways, 17 with Bergman and 70 overall, and 18 with Bergman and 80 overall. I was only able to count about 15, so who knows what’s accurate. But it’s a good story!

The four “Eras” of Sven Nykvist

I have taken the liberty to divide his career into four eras:

  • The formative years
  • The Bergman era
  • The ‘simplicity’ era
  • The Hollywood era

Please don’t take these literally or assume they are historically accurate or pedantically relevant. They have been divided so only for my convenience.

How he lights faces

He is the supreme master of lighting faces. He has done so in every conceivable ‘style’, and towards the end of his career it came as easily as drinking water. If you want to study the movie that started it all, watch Persona.

He prefers soft light, so he needs large bounce or diffusion sources. He used tungsten sources with wax/grease paper, and has preferred this technique ever since Winter Light.

As far as contrast ratio is concerned, he lit by eye, and never stuck to one ratio. With Bergman, he preferred a shallow depth of field aesthetic, but he has done every other kind as well.

Terms and equipment mentioned in the video

Wax or Grease paper is basically baking paper. It shouldn’t catch fire.

The camera he wanted to buy was an 8mm Keystone K8, but on an auction site they claimed his first 8mm possession was a Zeiss Ikon Movicon.

He did use Kodak Wratten filters and Scheibe ND filters earlier, but later on tended to use less and less filtration.

His legacy and influence

It is immeasurable. Everybody has been directly or indirectly influenced by Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist. They transcended tools and techniques to pure storytelling. That’s what it’s all about.

One curious thing you might have noticed is Sven often breaks his own rules or words. But that isn’t a negative, in fact, it’s the very opposite! He changed his style in deference to the director’s wishes, but was bold enough to stand his ground when he needed to.

Resources

There are a lot of places you can find more information about Sven Nykvist’s cinematography. Here’s a brief list:

  • The Special edition DVDs/Blu-rays of Fanny and Alexander and The Sacrifice.
  • Documentaries – most of them are on Youtube. Let it be a treasure hunt.
  • His books in English – can’t find them online. Good hunting!
  • A few detailed interviews online – Google for them, please.
  • Early editions from the American Cinematographer magazine (you’ll need to buy these from the ASC directly).

I hope you’ve found this video useful. If I’ve stoked your interest in Sven Nykvist’s work, and you are really serious in learning about him, then you must take the effort to find these resources and watch his movies until your eyes bleed.

When they have recovered, you’ll see light in a new way.

One reply on “Understanding the Cinematography of Sven Nykvist”

  1. Nikvist always worked with availabil light and he has tried to control that light but not manipulate it.you may consider his astounding work in sacrifice or many of his movies which is done just with the natural light.my sugestion is to study better and deeper and then try to talk about the technique

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