There are few cinematographers as beloved, and who achieved as much crossover fame, as Gordon Willis.

He served as DP on The Godfather I, II, and even III, along with Klute, All the President's Men, and countless other classics. Willis was a DP who managed to keep working on movies that weren't just beautifully shot but also turned out to actually be good movies. How did he do it?

Check out the video from In Depth Cine below, then let's go over a few takeaways.

The biggest lesson from the video is that Willis insisted on having a concept before shooting a film. This was some idea or approach, what we on the internet would call a "take," some perspective to bring to the film.

This is the key, more than anything about what lenses or film stocks were used, to creating great cinematography.

Screen_shot_2020-12-12_at_6'The Godfather'Credit: Paramount Pictures

But building on top of that, Willis also deeply understood the power of contrast.

While many might think of The Godfather as being a "dark" movie, Willis knew if it was all dark, it wouldn't work. Your eyes would adjust, you would get bored, it would get dull.

He would deliberately plan visual contrasts, like the bright technicolor wedding outside and the dark office inside, that would push up against each other to create visual stimulation.

You have to have a take, but your take can't be "make it all one thing." You need to establish several aesthetics to mix together to keep things fresh.


That focus on having a distinct, story-driven approach to each film is what kept Willis' work fresh over the peak years of his career and also helped make the movies stronger.

The fact that many of these movies are rewatched year after year is that they are films where everything—story, acting, directing, and camerawork—came together perfectly.

It's clear that Willis was looking actively for projects to work on with engaging stories and collaborators, not just movies where he could show off his tricks or do a cool shot for his reel. This led to a great variety of looks in his work.

Screen_shot_2020-12-12_at_6'All the President's Men'Credit: Warner Bros.

Style is, after all, not about doing the same thing over and over.

We don't consider a person "stylish" if they wear the same outfit every day, to weddings, and to do yard work. Someone is stylish for being able to approach all situations with the right approach for that situation, and that is absolutely true of Willis.

What is your favorite movie from Willis? Let us know in the comments.

Source: In Depth Cine