Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Visual Tribute to Cinematographer Gordon Willis

Gordon Willis shot it like it is. We hear this term a lot: he tells it like it is, usually applied to people who speak their minds and have the audacity and impressive vernacular to back it up. But Willis didn’t need to talk. Instead, he shot. As one of film’s greatest cinematographers, Willis bucked convention with each passing frame, consistently changing the game.

Rather infamously, when the studio heads behind The Godfather saw early footage while the movie was still in production, they vigorously fought to have Francis Ford Coppola thrown off the picture. Why? Because according to them, the film was literally too dark. They didn’t understand why anyone, for example, would shoot Marlon Brando in shadow, shielding his magnetic eyes from the audience. But such was the foresight of Gordon Willis. Aptly dubbed “The Prince of Darkness” by his peers, Willis knew that story came first; mood, tone, structure, taste. Everything else, including “acting” eyes, were a distant second.

Failing eye sight forced Willis into retirement in the late ‘90s, and on Sunday, news broke that at the age of 82, we had lost The Prince of Darkness to cancer. Below are a handful of my favorite frames that Willis ever captured. Presented here in their original aspect ratio, the frames show Willis’ penchant for shadows, magic hour, and his masterful ability to capture architecture. Seriously, no one photographed the interior or exterior of a building better than Gordon Willis. And instead of explaining why I love these stills, I thought it be best to let the pictures do the talking.

Klute (1971)


The Godfather (1972)


The Paper Chase (1973)

The Parallax View (1974)



The Godfather: Part II (1974)


All the President’s Men (1976)



Annie Hall (1977)

Interiors (1978)

Manhattan (1979)
Note: this is my favorite shot of Willis career

Stardust Memories (1980)

Zelig (1983)

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Bright Lights, Big City (1988)

The Godfather: Part III (1990)

26 comments:

  1. Beautiful work and beautiful tribute! His work with Allen was tremendous. I just saw Klute a month ago and was blown away by the cinematography. I had no idea he was behind that camera.

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    1. Thanks man. Willis really did put out such great, revelatory work over the years. Funny enough, I actually rewatched Klute about a month ago as well. The shadows, man. The shadows.

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  2. Brilliant tribute, Alex! He truly was a master of darkness and shadows. The beauty of his work, I feel, is that you can always find something new each time you watch one of the films that he worked on. And in my opinion, Manhattan is one of the ten best shot movies of all time. I mean, that opening scene? One for the ages!!

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    1. Thanks Aditya! You are SO RIGHT about finding something new everytime you watch one of his films. That was the true beauty of his photography. Manhattan is my favorite-looking film he shot, no question. The look of that movie really changed things. Remarkable.

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  3. Wonderful tribute, Alex! These are some great shots.

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    1. Thanks Brittani! Glad you like the stills. They're all so damn beautiful.

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  4. One of the best. Manhattan is his crowning achievement. The man was a master in the art of cinematography. Right now, I bet he's talking to Nestor Almendros and Harris Savides about lighting schemes.

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    1. Ahh, what a great thought: Willis and Almendros preaching about film, and Savides praising the fluidity of digital. That's great shit.

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  5. I totally knew that you were going to make a post like this and it really is wonderful. Being a fan of Allen's work, it was really sad to hear of Willis' passing. Manhattan, Interiors, Purple Rose and Stardust Memories really blew me away.

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    1. I'm glad you like the post - I couldn't not write it, you know? Interiors is probably his most criminally underrated achievement. That shot I chose here from Interiors is one of my favorite shots in any films. The best.

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  6. Willis filmed such beautiful films; it's sad that he has passed. I especially love his work in Manhattan, which the cinematography was the best part of the film.

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    1. A very sad passing indeed. And I agree, the look of Manhattan is definitely one of the best aspects about it. So gorgeous.

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  7. Having to be quiet and listen to the voices because it was nearly impossible to see who was speaking....that is how I will remember his work. The garage scene from "All the President's Men" always stands out in my mind, though I don't know if I could narrow it down to a favorite. Beautiful choice to do a visual tribute, Alex. We've already been missing him for a long time now, but how sad that his great presence is no longer with us.

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    1. So well said Dawn. And yes, those garage scene just floor me. Rewatched the film last night, and those scenes are so hauntingly done - they really help make the film unbearable tense. Love it.

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  8. Wow, tremendous work, buddy. Willis was quite simply one of the best cinematographers of all time. Manhattan is my favorite work of him. The scene in planetarium is just... God, he was awesome. Enough said.

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    1. Thanks man. I adore what he did for Manhattan. It still utterly floors me. He certainly is one of the best DPs film has ever had.

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  9. I don't get how Willis was only nominated for an Oscar twice during his career. That part baffles me.

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    1. I know this is a cliche, but I honestly think he was too ahead of his time. Doesn't excuse it, but I think it's hard for people to accept change while it is being made.

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  10. We lost one of the greats, and these shots do more than back that up. Wonderful post man!

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    1. Thanks! A great one gone. Not too many people we can say actually change the way films look. Willis was one.

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  11. His work with Woody Allen was just awe-inspiring. Manhattan, that's all I gotta say.

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    1. And that's really all that needs to be said. It's that good. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  12. What a lovely post. Such wonderful cinematography!

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    1. Thanks! He was one of the all-time greats.

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  13. I first discovered him in The Godfather trilogy long time ago, but the film in which he awed me was Zelig; it's probably on my top 5 cinematography ever!
    Manhattan, Klute, The Godfather all came behind to Zelig to me :)

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    1. The feats he pulled off in Zelig are extraordinary. He should definitely have more than two Oscar nominations, but I'm glad one was for Zelig. Great pick! And thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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