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Gordon Willis Defined?


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#1 Joshua Provost

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Posted 24 May 2005 - 07:08 PM

I'm in pre-production on a short dramatic film about an assassin getting out of the business. It will be shot here in Phoenix, AZ, but we're playing it as being set in Italy and we have Italian-speaking actors.

I have a number of inspirations I am drawing on for the characters, story, and directing style. Visually, my inspiration for this piece will be the work of Gordon Willis, particularly The Godfather Trilogy and All The President's Men.

Could some of the more experienced DPs out there help a newbie quantify, in any respect, the look of Gordon Willis, in terms of light, color, and compostiion, so I might experiement with some of the techniques in this new film?

I have seen and respect the work, but I can't accurately determine or communicate what it is he is doing. Anything specific in terms of lenses, filters, lighting, etc. that I could try?

Thanks,
Josh
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 24 May 2005 - 07:15 PM

Since his is a style built on restraint, subtlety, and precision, it is not easily copied in any obvious way other than the use of soft top lighting.

But that's a good place to start, with some soft boxes for overhead lighting, skirted off of the walls. Restraint in color would be a good idea too. He also favored medium focal lengths for an undistorted perspective. Composition is key but it was not show-offy, just carefully balanced (or imbalanced by design). Somber is an apt word, like a Hopper painting. It was almost like he studied people under a microscope; his work is less sentimental than other DP's.
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#3 Delorme Jean-Marie

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 07:03 AM

could we try to compare it with Tom Stern style ?
he was his gaffer and is now a DP " master of the dark"
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#4 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 08:59 AM

Gordon Willis is a master at restraint, combined with cutting edge avant garde and irreverence - he's not easily defined.

COMPOSITION
For me, no one comes close to Willis compositional skills. Here he's at his most diverse and constantly mixes it up. He mixes dead-center, very symmetrical compositions or what I call "fascist framing" with very "off" angles where the lines don't always converge in the classic art school way. He often places objects at the very corner or side of the frame - or, just to fool you - dead center.

The camera rarely moves - and when it does it has an impact. Such as the lateral tracking shot in The Godfather 2 when DeNiro crosses the street with his grocery box (something I've wanted to rip off for years but never get a chance to do). Or when it tracks DeNiro as he's following Fanucci on the roof tops.

He's also interesting in the fact that although he can incorporate very daring framing, he rarely likes gimicky shots from odd perspectives - his camera is often at eye height. There's the classic fight from the Godfather between Coppola and him as to where to put the camera when the Don gets shot on the street, which illustrates Willis stubborn restraint at times:

COPPOLA: Let's put the camera on the roof and shoot down.
WILLIS: But who's point of view is that?
COPPOLA: Nobody's - I just thought it'd look good with the yellow oranges spilling out from above.
WILLIS: But it's nobody's point of view!

Coppola was right in that instance, but Willis has a point.

Anyway, in my view Willis, Leone and Leni Riefenstahl are the only ones one need to study to learn composition. Just check the last shot from Klute where Willis places the camera on the helicopter to see a man who isn't bound by conventions. A master at work.

LIGHTING
Here he's very minimalistic and spare. Often single-source, often motivated by practicals, often top light. For instance the "chase" scene in Klute when Donald Sutherland lights himself, his surroundings with the flashlight he's carrying and nothing else. He does also to some extent light the set, not the actors. Never afraid to put faces in darkness or silhouette.

All in all he was just ahead of his time by so many years I sometimes feel we still haven't caught up. Especially composition is much less daring or avant garde today than it ever was in Willis 35-year old films. Wonder why that is?
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 09:11 AM

One problem is that modern movies are so obsessed with close-ups and camera movement, that playing a scene in well-composed medium and wide shots is very rare. Modern audiences apparently don't have to patience for that. It's harder to do striking compositions in close-ups, especially in shallow focus.

I think the movement away from the stark top lighting is partially because movies are more concerned than ever with making their stars look good.
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#6 Jon Rosenbloom

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 09:42 AM

could we try to compare it with Tom Stern style ?
he was his gaffer and is now  a DP " master of the dark"

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Wasn't Tom Stern Conrad Hall's gaffer?

The "signature" light of the Godfather is the baylight. According to Willis in his interview on NPR's Fresh Air, he used the soft, even top light to accomodate Brando's makeup, and to allow the actors freedom of movement on the set.
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#7 Delorme Jean-Marie

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 10:04 AM

[quote name='J-Ro' date='May 25 2005, 06:42 AM']
Wasn't Tom Stern Conrad Hall's gaffer?

i'm wrong, my mistake
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#8 Wendell_Greene

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 11:11 AM

had remember speaking to America Cinematographer editor Stephen Pizzello a couple of years ago and he said he was writing a book about Gordon Willis and his work, any one have an update on what's going on with that?
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#9 Wendell_Greene

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 11:13 AM

Wasn't Tom Stern Conrad Hall's gaffer?



Yes, for American Beauty and Road To Perdition
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#10 coolbreeze

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 02:00 PM

A very funny Gordon Willis Story:)

www.mcsweeneys.net/2003/08/02willis.html
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#11 Joshua Provost

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 02:17 PM

David and Adam, thanks for the great feedback. I'm open to hear more.

In thinking about it last night, I came up with the following: Lots of wide shots with medium to long lenses, very compressed space, flat, like a classic painting. Subjects often slightly obscured by objects or shadow and from a distance, but seemingly combined with close micing, makes you feel close, yet far distant at the same time.

Can someone comment on his use of underexposure? I heard he often greatly underexposed, sometimes catching himself later for being too extreme with it. Now, does this mean underexposing while shooting, then pushing the film in processing somewhat? Or leaving it underexposed? Does this result in a different look? Less saturated colors?
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#12 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 05:08 PM

As far as the underexposure goes, remember he was shooting in 35mm, so if you are shooting in 16mm, you can't make the image too soft & grainy.

He liked older lenses -- I believe he used old Cooke Speed Panchros or B&L Baltars (something like that) on many of his 1970's movies. On "The Godfather", he underexposed the stock by a stop and a half and then push-processed the stock by one stop, ending up with a half-stop underexposure. But he did not print this up but kept the print a little dark. In other words, he was printing at normal lights even though his negative was a little thin. Of course, some scenes were much more underexposed for a dim effect.

This was 5254 (100 ASA) stock at the time.

He told one audience that he was aiming for something a little degraded-looking, not too slick and sharp. This was sort of unique at the time in American cinematography to actually create a "texture" of grain, softer lenses, etc. rather than aim for technical perfection.

But remember that "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II" were printed using Technicolor's dye transfer process, similar in look to today's Vision Premier print stock. Higher in contrast with stronger, denser blacks. So his movies did not look "thin".

When he did "The Godfather, Part III", he shot it on high-speed stock overexposed, not slow-speed stock underexposed and pushed.
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#13 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 05:32 PM

One problem is that modern movies are so obsessed with close-ups and camera movement, that playing a scene in well-composed medium and wide shots is very rare. Modern audiences apparently don't have to patience for that.  It's harder to do striking compositions in close-ups, especially in shallow focus.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


I think you're right. I just re-watched Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West yesterday and once again I'm floored by the 40 year old compositions. They absolutely rule.

Damn - I wish I'd been born 30 years earlier! :D
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#14 Adam Frisch FSF

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 05:36 PM

I'm in pre-production on a short dramatic film about an assassin getting out of the business.  It will be shot here in Phoenix, AZ, but we're playing it as being set in Italy and we have Italian-speaking actors.

I have a number of inspirations I am drawing on for the characters, story, and directing style.  Visually, my inspiration for this piece will be the work of Gordon Willis, particularly The Godfather Trilogy and All The President's Men.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Do check out Three Days For Condor with Robert Redford and shot by Owen Roizman, ASC. Very nicely shot 70's paranoia-thriller - it encapsulates the look of the era very well.
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#15 Ignacio Aguilar

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 06:21 PM

I just re-watched Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West yesterday and once again I'm floored by the 40 year old compositions. They absolutely rule


I agree with you, Adam.

I find amusing that Leone perhaps is most remembered by his long & powerful close-ups (have you ever seen Charles Bronson or even Claudia Cardinale looking so good?) when he had an incredible eye for wide-angle compositions and for deep focus staging.

Speaking about Gordon Willis, one of his trademarks was shooting actors with the light source behind then, then exposing correctly that light letting the characters a little underexposed. The most famous example of this is the Lake Tahoe scene between Michael and Fredo Corleone in The Godfather II inside the house when it's snowing outside. Both characters are barely shown, fitting the mood of the scene.
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#16 Ignacio Aguilar

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Posted 25 May 2005 - 06:26 PM

I could't find a screenshot of that scene, but Caleb Deschanel did that kind of shot in The Black Stallion (among other films):

Posted Image
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#17 Raffinator

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Posted 26 May 2005 - 01:49 AM

I think you're right. I just re-watched Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West yesterday and once again I'm floored by the 40 year old compositions. They absolutely rule.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>


"Once Upon A Time in America" is also one of my favorite Leone films, shot be Tonino Delli Colli. Maybe I'm crazy, but I always thought it had kind of a Gordon Willis feel, what with the muted period browns and yellows, some top lighting. Maybe its just because he started this look.
Here's a still from the movie (hope it works):OnceUponAmerica.jpg
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#18 fstop

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Posted 26 May 2005 - 04:55 AM

Most importantly I think Willis opened the door with the Godfather on just how much all of the conservative Holllywood cameramen would swear by the given ASA rating. Latitude was nolonger about medium grey or above with room for underexposure on a day for night, as David said it was now about selecting the texture for your movie. I think Willis' genius comes from the amount of tests and prep he was doing on those projects, disecting his arsenal of tools as an artist and not a workman reading a textbook. I've always felt circa 1970 must have been the most exciting time ever in cinematography.
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#19 Joshua Provost

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Posted 27 May 2005 - 11:15 PM

Thanks everyone for their insight. This should be a fun film to DP. I'll let you know how it goes.

Thanks!
Josh
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#20 DavidSloan

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Posted 15 June 2005 - 02:38 AM

Gordon Willis is such a larger than life persona...every DP worth anything, worships him. He's definitely my favorite DP of all time.

I totally agree with David and Adam's point about composition, and the state of contemporary films. I have to say, the Hollywood films that are being released today simply aren't worth watching. There is nothing but pure mindless pollution. It seems to me that China and France are begining to release universally entertaining films of a high quality that beat Hollywood hands down. Films like Hero, The Long Engagement, and House of Flying Daggers simply astound with their grand beauty and well crafted filmmaking. Even the acting is better. It has been said that China will dominate the global economy in approximately 50 years. We shall see what will become of Hollywood and their propaganda machine.

Sorry for this unrelated rant, but I needed to express myself.

Thanks
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