Watch: How Minimalistic Cinematography Brought 'The Godfather Part II' to Life
DP Mike Eley breaks down Gordon Willis's cinematography in 'The Godfather Part II.'
In a new video essay from Cooke Optics, Mike Eley, cinematographer of Jane Eyre, Touching the Void, and, most recently, Woman Walks Ahead, walks us through the game-changing cinematography of The Godfather Part II. To shoot the film, the legendary "Prince of Darkness" Gordon Willis expanded upon the shadowy, underlit aesthetic he employed on The Godfather, but there were some notable changes to his method.
For one, the Eley explains, The Godfather Part II, released in 1974, was among the first generation of films to shoot mostly on location—a result of increasingly mobile camera technology and a growing trend that saw studios moving away from sets. The film features many scenes in a taxi and on the street, and many compositions use the architecture of existing locations to tell the story. "It took on that air of being real," Eley says.
Additionally, these on-location interiors promoted minimalistic lighting decisions, "such as using a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling," Eley explains. In the dark interiors, Willis created a "romantic skin glow."
Willis also referenced many different genres in his cinematography for The Godfather Part II, including the gangster film, the romantic film, and the Western. Although the cinematographer died in 2014, his legacy lives on as digital cameras afford increasing amounts of latitude to DPs who continue to emulate Willis's dark aesthetic.
"Digital cameras are very good for digging information out of the shadows... ASAs are getting higher and higher all the time," Eley concludes.