GREAT CINEMATOGRAPHERS


#1: From the doc "Cinematographer Style"

#3: "The Godfather" [1971]

 

   


GORDON WILLIS

 

Born: 28 May 1931, Queens, New York City, N.Y., USA. His father was a make-up man at the Warner Bros. Studio in Brooklyn, New York, during the 1930's.

Died: 18 May 2014, North Falmouth, Massachusetts, USA.

Career: 'My father was a make-up man at Warner Brothers during the depression. I sort of grew up around show business; my father and mother were dancers in the theater before he settled down at Warner... lucky break, during the depression. At any rate, I wanted to be an actor as a kid. I grew out of it, got interested in stage design and lighting [summer stock and all that] but never really got into it before I got the photo bug, which cost my father a lot of money. I knew a few young models when we lived in the Village in New York; I'd shoot pictures of them so they had something to put on a composite. I was going to be a fashion photographer! I didn't know shit, [I was] dumber than dirt, as they say. No money, no jobs etc. Meanwhile my father had some friends that got me some jobs as a go-fer on some movies that were passing through.'

During the Korean War, he spent four years in the Air Force on a motion picture unit photographing instructional films. After the war, in 1956, Willis returned to New York, where he worked as a freelance assistant cameraman. The TV industry was undergoing vigorous growth, and New York was a creative focal point for commercial production. There was also much creative work being done in the documentary genre. 'In those days, you could cross back and forth between operating on commercials and shooting documentaries, and in my opinion there was no better way to learn,' Willis says. [From the ASC website.]

Retired in the late 1990s: "You don't want to keep breathing the same air. As for the business in general, I got tired of trying to get actors out of trailers, and standing in the rain. I shoot stills for my own pleasure. I've lectured on occasion, and did teach some classes. I always enjoy a good movie. My eyesight, however, is now failing. Ironic, I guess. I just have to watch out for fireplugs and telephone poles on the street."

Ph commercials.

Was a member of the ASC since 1975.

His son, Gordon Willis Jr., is a dir/ph of commercials.

Appeared in the doc's 'Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography' [1991], 'To Woody Allen, From Europe with Love' [1980, André Delvaux; ph: Walther Vanden Ende & Michel Baudour], 'The Godfather Family: A Look Inside' [1991, Jeff Werner; 73m], 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood' [2002, Kenneth Bowser; ph: Paul Mailman; 119m] & 'Cinematographer Style' [2005, Jon Fauer; ph: J. Fauer, Jeff Laszlo, Brian Heller & David Morgan].

Awards: As doph: NSFC Award [1975] for 'The Godfather, Part II'; NSFC Award [1975] for 'The Parallax View'; BAFTA Film Award nom [1977] for 'All the President's Men'; BAFTA Film Award nom [1980] for 'Manhattan'; NSFC Award [1982] and BSFC Award [1982] for 'Pennies from Heaven'; NYFCC Award [1983], 'Oscar' AA nom [1984] and BAFTA Film Award nom [1984] for 'Zelig'; 'Oscar' AA nom [1991] and ASC Award nom [1991] for 'The Godfather, Part III'; ASC Lifetime Achievement Award [1995]; AMPAS Governors Award - Honorary 'Oscar' [2009].

As dir: 'Razzie Award Worst Director' nom [1981] for 'Windows'.



GO TO FILMS

Gordon Willis was on the leading edge of a New Wave of cinematographers who were changing the art form in radical ways. In 'The Godfather', he selectively masked Marlon Brando's eyes to conceal his thoughts from the audience. "I still can't believe the reactions," he says. "People said, 'You can't see his eyes [Brando's].' Well, you didn't see his eyes in 10 percent of the movie, and there was a reason why. I remember asking, 'Why do you have to see his eyes in that scene? Based on what?' Do you know what the answer was? 'That's the way it was done in Hollywood.' That's not a good enough reason. There were times when we didn't want the audience to see what was going on in there [Brando's eyes], and then suddenly, you let them see into his soul for a while." Willis was different in other ways. He was an outsider who lived on the East Coast, and did most of his best work there. He was also was an outspoken advocate for the creative role that cinematographers play in the collaborative art of filmmaking at a time when most of his peers believed it was prudent to stay in the background. One veteran cinematographer from that period candidly admits, "I would have been fired if I lit the way Gordon did. The studios wanted to always see the actor's eyes, and they didn't want windows blown out, or flaring lights." [From the ASC website.]

 

#2: With dir Woody Allen [right]

 

At a time in film history when cinematographers are receiving an unprecedented amount of attention and credit for their contributions to the art of filmmaking, Gordon Willis has emerged as one of the screen's most gifted and creative cameramen. Working closely with his directors, Willis manages in film after film to create a visual style that is uniquely suited to the story's thematic intentions. His work on such widely varied films as 'The Godfather', 'Annie Hall', 'All the President's Men', and 'Zelig' has helped establish him as a cinematographer able to translate a director's vision into a physical reality while still planting his own particular stamp on a film's visual style.

The son of a Hollywood makeup man, Willis initially considered a career as an actor before an early interest in photography and the theater led him into behind-the-scenes jobs involving scenery and stage lighting. After a brief stint working on documentaries and television commercials, Willis began his career as a cinematographer on feature films with 'End of the Road', and was soon earning critical acclaim for his work on such films as 'Klute', 'All the President's Men' and the first two 'Godfather' films. In each of these pictures, the photography takes its cue from the mood of the story.

'Klute', a hard-edged psychological thriller, has a chilly, dark, claustrophobic style, while 'All the President's Men' shifts between the bright fluorescent lights of the Washington Post newsroom to the shadowy settings of Woodward and Bernstein's meetings with the informant known as 'Deep Throat'. The 'Godfather' films make use of muted colors, richly photographed and darkly lit, to evoke the secretive, somber atmosphere of the criminal underworld. 'The Godfather, Part II' contrasts this style with the sunny scenes of Vito Corleone's childhood in Sicily and the golden and sepia tones of his days as a young immigrant in New York City.

Willis was not nominated for a cinematography 'Oscar' until 'Zelig' in 1984. It is an oversight that has been a source of great controversy, with Willis's admirers maintaining that his resolutely east coast-based career has led the Hollywood establishment to snub him as an outsider. [Willis: "The studio system was beginning to buckle, but I think it’s more like 'A Man For All Seasons'. All of us came along at the right time and did what we wanted to do. And it wasn't easy - management, and many in the old school hated us, me especially (since) I didn't live in California."]

'Annie Hall' began Willis's long and mutually profitable collaboration with Woody Allen, who has utilized the cinematographer's talents on eight films so far. The pair's most remarkable collaborative achievement is 'Zelig', Allen's fictional mock-documentary. Imitating the style and tone of early newsreels, Allen and Willis 'aged' their own film stock by scratching and marking its surface, matching their footage seamlessly with actual newsreels from the 1920s and 1930s. In several astonishing shots, Willis superimposes Allen's character, Leonard Zelig, onto the older footage, creating the impression that Zelig is actually a part of the newsreels and is conversing with well-known historical figures.

Willis has directed a film of his own, 'Windows', which drew mixed notices, but his true talents lie in his ability to translate a director's concepts into precise and compelling visual terms. He has stated that his job is to "make movies with directors . . . ultimately it's their idea that I'm executing." In Willis's case, however, the execution is often one of the most creative aspects of the film itself. [From article by Janet Lorenz, updated by David Levine.]


Obituary: With great risk often comes great reward. That's what the filmmakers behind such classics as 'Citizen Kane', 'The French Connection' and 'The Godfather' - three movies that challenged established modes of lighting, framing and perspective - learned the hard way.

The notoriously gruff cinematographer Gordon Willis, who died May 18 at age 82 from cancer, certainly didn't make it any easier on 'Godfather' director Francis Ford Coppola, who didn't have the support of Paramount brass from the beginning and found himself continually at odds with his director of photography. And those early rushes on the film only exacerbated the matter.

"[Willis] was trying something new," explains Peter Bart, VP in charge of production at the time and studio chief Robert Evans' right-hand man. "Many of the takes were too dark and couldn't be used. So there was a ruckus about it and part of it was caused by me because neither Gordon nor Francis were of the sort who communicated. Francis was paranoid and hated Bob Evans so much that he did not confide in him. And Gordon Willis sure as hell wasn't going to explain himself; his attitude was 'Fuck you guys.'"

The film - characterized by its oft-imitated sepia tones, shadowy interiors and overhead lighting so severe it would often conceal the eyes of its title character, played by Marlon Brando - would end up having a transformative effect on the director and d.p.'s career, and helped advance the language of cinema.

"It's common knowledge among his peers, film critics and cinephiles that [Willis] stands beside Griffith, Welles and Ford as one of the great originators," said Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers. "Just as those men did before him, he not only changed the way movies look, he changed the way we look at movies."

Or, as d.p. Michael Chapman, his camera operator on a half dozen films told Variety: "Cinematography could be looked at in two ways: Before Gordy and after Gordy - he changed everything."

Like Coppola and Alan Pakula before him, Woody Allen would be taken more seriously as a filmmaker once Willis gave his movies an added dimension of mood and texture.

Despite the reverence for Willis held by his peers, he represented the shock of the New Hollywood in the '70s, and the industry's old guard would deprive him of an Oscar nomination until Allen's 1983 film 'Zelig'.

Willis might have been dubbed 'The Prince of Darkness' but it's not a rep for which he wanted to be known. "I suppose I have a reputation for not using a lot of light," he said in 2006, "but a lot of times I've used quite a bit of light. I try to make the punishment fit the crime. I'm not a formula thinker." [From obituary by Steve Chagollan in 'Variety', May 27, 2014.]


Obituary: The cinematographer Gordon Willis will always be associated with one decade, the 1970s, and three directors, Alan Pakula, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen. Willis was the director of photography of all three men's breakthrough movies: 'Klute' [1970], 'The Godfather' [1971] and 'Annie Hall' [1976] respectively.

He was a favourite of Allen, who used him on eight pictures, and of Pakula, for whom he made six films. His relationship with Coppola, with whom he shot only the three 'Godfather' movies, for the sake of aesthetic consistency, was less cordial.

Willis walked off the set more than once on the first 'Godfather' picture, in protest at what he saw as Coppola's incompetence. He maintained that he and Coppola had agreed that it should be a tableau movie, with the actors moving in and out of frame, giving it the feel of a 40s picture. "Francis wasn't well-schooled in that kind of movie-making," Willis said. "You can't shoot a classic movie like video theatre." Coppola commented: "The whole visual style was set out before we shot one foot of film. We talked about the contrast between good and evil, light and dark. How we'd really use darkness, how we'd start out with a black sheet of paper and paint in the light." This was to become a defining feature of Willis's camerawork, and earned him the nickname 'The Prince of Darkness'.

In 1968, the maverick film-maker Aram Avakian chose Willis to work as director of photography on the counterculture black comedy 'End of the Road'. But it was the shadowy effects of 'Klute' - a film noir in muted colour - which set Willis on the road to fame, and prompted Coppola to hire him for 'The Godfather'.

In ['The Godfather'], Willis developed his style of lighting from above, leaving dark patches, but avoiding a muddy look, distinguishing black from even the darkest brown. Yet, Willis insisted that his cinematography was always dictated by the story.

The cinematographer's relationship with [Woody] Allen started with 'the sun-spangled vivacity that Willis brought to 'Annie Hall'' [said the critic Pauline Kael], continuing with the richly textured black-and-white of 'Manhattan' [1978] to the mockumentary 'Zelig' [1981], for which Willis 'aged' the film stock by scratching and marking its surface, and matched footage seamlessly with newsreels from the 1920s and 30s, and finally 'The Purple Rose of Cairo' [1983], its Depression-era setting being evoked by the film's subdued tones.

Willis's last film was 'The Devil's Own' [1996], which was also Pakula's final film before his death in 1998 in a car accident. Of his decision to retire, the laconic Willis said "I got tired of trying to get actors out of trailers, and standing in the rain."

He is survived by his wife Helen, two sons, Gordon and Timothy, a daughter, Susan, and five grandchildren. [From obituary by Ronald Bergan in 'The Guardian', 19 May 2014.]


 

 FILMS

1968

End of the Road [Aram Avakian] c

1968

Loving [Irvin Kershner] c

1969

The Landlord [Hal Ashby] c

1970

The People Next Door [David Greene] c

1970

Little Murders [Alan Arkin] c

1970

Klute [Alan Pakula] p/c

1971

The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola] c; uncred 2uc (West Coast scenes and finished prod after Gordon Willis had gone to another assignment): Bill Butler; filmed March-August

1971

Bad Company [Robert Benton] c

1972

Up the Sandbox [Irvin Kershner] c; ph cons: Bernard Abramson

1972

Lookin' Good/Corky [Leonard Horn] c

 

[Left] with dir James Bridges - "The Paper Chase"

 

1973

The Paper Chase [Jim Bridges] p/c

1973

The Parallax View [Alan Pakula] p/c

1973

The Godfather, Part II [Francis Ford Coppola] c

1974

The Drowning Pool [Stuart Rosenberg] p/c

 

[Left] with dir Alan Pakula - "All the President's Men" - photo Thys Ockersen Archive

 

1975

All the President's Men [Alan Pakula] c

1976

Annie Hall [Woody Allen] c

1976

September 30, 1955/24 Hours of the Rebel [James Bridges] c

1977

Comes a Horseman [Alan Pakula] p/c

1977

Interiors [Woody Allen] c

1978

Manhattan [Woody Allen] p/b&w

1979

Windows [Gordon Willis] c

1979

Stardust Memories [Woody Allen] b&w

1981

Pennies from Heaven [Herbert Ross] c

1981

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy [Woody Allen] c

1981

Zelig [Woody Allen] b&w-c; 'Zelig' was the prototype of the modern visual effects film. It basically put the main character in a time and place defined by 1920s and '30s-style newsreels. Willis says that there were actually only two optical composites combining old and new footage. "People think there are more," he says, "but that's an illusion. The rest was seamless intercepting of new black-and-white film with vintage footage from the 1920s and '30s. The trick was to make it integrate properly." About half of the film consisted of stock footage obtained from different libraries. Then, dupe negatives and fine grain prints were made. A big challenge in postproduction was timing the sound track to match the images. Then, Willis had to match the new footage to the old newsreels scene by scene. Depending upon, who shot it and when, some of it was handcranked at 16, 18 and 20 frames a second. Willis had to undercrank to match specific stock film scenes. Perhaps, a bigger challenge was matching the lighting in each segment. He also located and used vintage newsreel lenses. "I had to think about and plan every shot," he says. "I had to think about the look, how it was originally lit, and the effects of duping it down to a given point. The other hard part was the matte shots. The backgrounds were very old. I had to figure out how they were shot, including the focal lengths of the lenses that were used. The new foregrounds had to integrate precisely." [From the ASC website.]

1982

Broadway Danny Rose [Woody Allen] c

1983

The Purple Rose of Cairo [Woody Allen] b&w-c

1984

Perfect [James Bridges] c

1985

The Money Pit [Richard Benjamin] c

1986

The Pick-Up Artist [James Toback] c

1987

Bright Lights, Big City [James Bridges] c

1989

Presumed Innocent [Alan Pakula] c

1989

The Godfather, Part III [Francis Ford Coppola] s35-to-35mm/c; filmed 1989-90

1992

The Godfather Trilogy 1901-1980/The Godfather Saga [video release of 'The Godfather', 'The Godfather, Part II' & 'The Godfather, Part III']

1992

Malice [Harold Becker] c

1995

The Juror [Brian Gibson] started the prod, but was replaced after 2 weeks by ph Jamie Anderson

1996

The Devil's Own [Alan Pakula] p/c; 2uc Dublin: Gary Capo

 

 TELEVISION & THEATER

1965

The New York Times Story [?] ?

1977

The Godfather Saga/Mario Puzo's The Godfather: The Complete Novel for Television [Francis Ford Coppola] 4-part miniseries; re-edited version of 'The Godfather, Parts I & II' + new material

1983

The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck/Act of Passion [Simon Langton] tvm

1985

Singin' in the Rain [film sequence used in stage production]

 

 MISCELLANEOUS

1965

The Beatles at Shea Stadium [Dick Fontaine; mus doc] c.op; ph: Andrew Laszlo

1979

Windows [dir; + ph] see Films