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'There is No Formula': Cinematographer Gordon Willis on Testing the Limits of His Craft

Gordon WillisOn the set of The Godfather, one of the biggest lighting “mistakes” in filmmaking became one of the most iconic cinematographic choices in film history. The decision to light Marlon Brando from the top, casting a complete shadow over his eyes, was that of master cinematographer Gordon Willis. He recently sat down with Craft Truck for an interview, discussing how he got his most famous shots, what it was like working with Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen, and what he thinks new cinematographers should avoid and pursue when starting out.

I remember the moment I fell in love with cinematography — I was watching In Cold Blood, and Robert Blake’s window monologue for the jailhouse scene comes on. He stands in a dark room next to a window, rain pouring. All of a sudden I notice what look like tears falling from Blake’s face, only they weren’t tears — they were shadows cast by the raindrops against the window. I was head over heels!

Conrad Hall, though a 3-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, admitted that the effect was a “happy mistake” made during a rehearsal for the scene.

This brings to mind something Gordon Willis says in his interview with Craft Truck about his unconventional way of lighting Marlon Brando in The Godfather.

There is no formula. The formula comes out of you. So, whether it’s a top light or whether it’s some other thing. It just happened to be — that’s what was necessary to do this particular movie or this particular scene. So, I did it. Bottom line is, the design behind all of that, or the thinking behind the design of all of that came out of Marlon Brando, because Marlon had this makeup stuff he was using, so top light seemed to be the most effective way of dealing with him. You don’t really want to see his eyes. There was a big Hollywood rush about, “You can’t see his eyes.” That’s right. You can’t.

As mechanical and technical as filmmaking can be at times, it is still an art. It still takes the keen sensibilities of a human, not a machine, to express and evoke emotion through the poetics of light, shadow, and motion. Gordon Willis reminds us of that, which makes the craft all the more unpredictable and exciting.

The interview is a little over an hour-long, so if you’re in a rush and want to cut to the parts that interest you, Craft Truck has laid out every topic covered in Part 1 and Part 2. Check it out below:

What do you think? What did you learn from Gordon Willis’ interview? Who are your favorite cinematographers? Let us know in the comments below.



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  • I’m happy to reveal my ignorance (to learn), but hasn’t the role of cinematographer in the digital world effectively fallen to the colour grader ? The on-set cinematographer “just” has to light all the shot to ensure the sensor doesn’t clip, but it is the grader who pulls off the final “look” ?

    • The cinematographer designs the shot and makes the director’s vision come to life. That means lighting, lenses, camera movement, blocking, etc. It is one of the most important jobs on any film set. Besides, the colorist can only do so much if the footage is lit poorly

      • I know that there are many ways to skin a cat but i have always felt it was the director’s responsibility to block the camera, actors, choose lenses, and define the mood of the lighting. This is how i work as a director. As a dp i have worked with a variety of directors with different strengths but i think the best of them have a strong influence over all of these elements. What are your thoughts?

        As for colorists, with the invention of the DI and the all digital workflows of today they have become much more important in creating the final look of an image. However, my personal opinion as that their skills are relied upon too much and that for some reason the on set dps skills are sometimes being undervalued. I have often heard producers comment that they will “fix” my lighting in color. Or that my lighting didn’t look good until color, etc. This happens often when i shoot in flat scene profiles. What is your experience? Curious.

        • The daytime soaps are heavily redone in terms of color because they’re shot so fast and the scenes are lit fairly uniformly – mostly with the overhead Fresnel and some background flood types. Coloring helps create variety. IMO, the big time DP’s on major projects control the final look.

        • The question about the roles of DP and director is interesting. It seems like it really varies. Some directors focus on story and acting and look to the DP for a lot of input. Other directors seem to be looking for a technician of sorts, a pair of hands, that will set up the shot they request. In my limited experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you don’t have the right pairing of types, there is conflict or confusion every step of the way.

    • The DP’s job is to interpret the director’s vision into cinematic visuals. The post coloring is done under the direction of the DP. The DP will light a scene with the intent on a certain post processing technique ex: day for night, bleach by-pass etc. You can fix and enhance many things in post and it’s best to use a combination of techniques on and off set to achieve the desired visual aesthetic.

  • Composition plays as big a role as anything in the process of storytelling. A colorist can’t re-compose a shot. Colorists are important but the role of the cinematographer should definitely not be diminished.

  • Willis is so great, we had to post twice.

    In all seriousness, I was the bonehead.

  • I have no idea what the ignorant comments above are about.

    Willis is one of the absolute greats (Conrad Hall doesn’t exactly suck either!).
    I’m lucky enough that about once or twice a year I get to work with/watch a genuine A list DOP, and its always mind-blowing. You think you have skills, you think you’ve seen it all, and then someone waltzes in and resets all of that for you.

    My favourite advice to people re this is: owning a Les Paul, and knowing how to plug it in, does not make you Jimmy Page.

    My all-time fav Willis shot (outside of everything in Godfather 2) is from “Parallax View” where a dialogue scene takes place on a park train that disappears for long periods into jet black tunnels. It made me want to find out how to do that.

    Great post, thanks.

  • After the first Willis post, I decided to find a few of his Woody Allen’s films. “Annie Hall”, as he says himself, is almost an example of “no lighting” which fit its a pseudo-documentary style but “Manhattan” is just amazingly classy in B&W.

  • Thanks a lot for the interview, so good to hear Mr Willis speak about his work!

  • One thing intrigues me regarding ‘All The President’s Men’, and that’s its use of a split focus diopter. The use of this device with Panavision cameras has often been cited as a step forward in cinematography during the ’70s, but it’s actually a significant step back from what was possible with the Italian Techniscope format, at least regarding depth of focus.

    For evidence of this, there’s a scene in ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly’ where a hotel owner (in extreme foreground) watches Confederate troops arrive on horseback (in the far distance). Both are in focus, and the depth of field on this particular shot is crazy. Not only was it filmed in widescreen without a diopter, the results are superior to anything I have seen achieved in-camera with Panavision – diopter or not – to this day.

    New lenses and camera processes are always a trade-off, but the inability to preserve Techniscope’s benefits was a particularly bad loss for cinematography, in my opinion.

    • Here are some links in furtherance of the above, for anyone whose interested:

      Firstly, ‘All The President’s Men’ in Panavision with a diopter…

      Secondly, ‘The Good, The Bad And The Ugly’ in Techniscope and no diopter…

      Neither of these clips is hi-res, but hopefully they illustrate my point about the focussing limitations introduced by the use of Panavision.

  • One of the reasons cinematographers like Mr. Willis really go into the realms of greatness is their essential simplicity. No matter how much technology and advancements in sheer technique come up, there will always be the artist who in her or his essence knows to keep things as simple and uncluttered as possible. It really is up to the cinematographer to provide the easiest relationship between the audience and the director, not the bloody colorist!

  • Jesse from Craft Truck here — BS Kumar; you nailed it. That’s why we love Gordon. He takes very complex ideas and boils them down to their essence. But beyond that, its like he hits these ideas some kind of philosophical ease that makes it easy for anyone to understand an apply. It’s great stuff from Gordon, no doubt. And your analysis of Gordon is spot on.

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