One of the popular replies of iconic cinematographer Gordon Willis to a question about his success formula was, “the formula is me”. Popularly known as the prince of darkness for his path-breaking innovations in low-light cinematography, Willis always kept that firm hand over the light and shadows within his range. He shot the Godfather trilogy for Francis Ford Coppola, nine films by Woody Allen and some of the classic paranoia thrillers by Alan J Pakula in the 1970s and walked straight into the hall of fame of the best cinematographers in the world.
In this conversation, Willis remembers his early collaborations with Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Alan J. Pakula, and how he used the camera as a primary instrument to tell the story, not the other way. He emphasizes on the importance of blocking in cinematography, especially for a filmmaker who want to deliver effective information with the shortest possible way to the viewers. Willis also opens up about his technical preferences like the 40 mm lens and the rapidly changing technological scenario.
Willis shaped a striped down and minimalist style and he managed to achieve a noir look even when using a color film. As he promptly rounded up the conversation, saying filmmakers who know how to tell a story are slowly vanishing or retiring or quitting, Willis was always a director’s cinematographer and adhered to that reputation throughout his career. In 2010, after so many thumbs down, the Academy awarded him an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar, with a felicitation, “for unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color, and motion.”
Written By: Ragesh Dipu