Ballhaus, who shot some of Martin Scorsese's best films, was nominated for three Oscars
Martin Scorsese and Michael Ballhaus
Credit: Andrew Cooper/ Warner Bros

Longtime Martin Scorsese collaborator Michael Ballhaus — who framed Hollywood stars like Robert De Niro, Cameron Diaz, Meryl Streep, and Leonardo DiCaprio (and the queen of pop, Madonna) — has died at age 81.

A representative for the prolific cinematographer confirmed the news to EW, though the circumstances surrounding his death were not immediately available.

Across a 57-year career behind the camera, Ballhaus — born Aug. 5, 1935, in Berlin — was nominated for three Oscars; his first nomination was bestowed for his work on James L. Brooks’ 1987 classic Broadcast News, followed by additional nods for 1989’s The Fabulous Baker Boys and 2002’s Gangs of New York. In the interim, he shot an array of pop culture staples, including Working Girl (1988), Postcards from the Edge (1990), Quiz Show (1994), Air Force One (1997), and Wild Wild West (1999).

But it’s his work with Scorsese that stands out. In addition to Gangs of New York, Ballhaus worked with Scorsese on six other projects: After Hours (1985), The Color of Money (1986), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Goodfellas (1990), The Age of Innocence (1993), and the American auteur’s only best picture winner to date, 2006’s The Departed.

In a statement, Scorsese called his 20-year working relationship with Ballhaus a “real creative partnership and a very close and enduring friendship” and credited the cinematographer with helping him through a rough career patch in the 1980s.

“By the time we met, he had already made film history with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and I revered him. He was a lovely human being, and he always had a warm smile for even the toughest situations — anyone who knew him will remember his smile,” Scorsese said. “We started working together in the 80s, during a low ebb in my career. And it was Michael who really gave me back my sense of excitement in making movies. For him, nothing was impossible. If I asked him for something difficult, he would approach it with enthusiasm: he never told me we couldn’t do something, and he loved to be challenged. If we were running out of time and light, he would figure out a way to work faster. And if we were behind schedule and getting into a situation where we had to eliminate set-ups, he would sit down with me calmly and we would work it out together: instead of getting frustrated about what was being taken away, he would always think in terms of what we had. Really, he gave me an education, and he changed my way of thinking about what it is to make a film. He was a great artist. He was also a precious and irreplaceable friend, and this is a great loss for me.”

Ballhaus created a number of enduring images with Scorsese, including the famed Copacabana Steadicam shot in Goodfellas, which influenced numerous filmmakers in the years since the film’s 1990 debut (among them, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Doug Liman).

Before breaking out with major studio productions, Ballhaus cut his teeth with renowned German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder on more than a dozen pictures released between 1971-1981.

“It helped a lot because he was not an easy director. He was very hard on me and he was very pushy,” Ballhaus told Variety of working with Fassbinder in an interview published in February 2016. “He always cracked the whip to be fast and not to spend too much time. So I learned to be fast and still tried to be good. That was a big help later when I started shooting in the States. It was also a big help because he was so temperamental that from then on I knew I could handle every director in the world.”

Outside of his contributions to film, Ballhaus also served as DP on several episodes of various German television shows throughout the 1970s, and would later go on to shoot two Madonna music videos: “Papa Don’t Preach” and “True Blue.” His final screen credit is listed as the 2013 drama 3096 Days.

Ballhaus is survived by two children, Sebastian and Florian Ballhaus — the latter of whom followed in his father’s footsteps, having filmed movies like The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Red (2010).

Gangs of New York
  • Movie
  • 165 minutes