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5 Tips from Master Cinematographer Gordon Willis

By Indiewire | Indiewire December 6, 2013 at 10:30AM

Master cinematographer Gordon Willis shares his tips of the trade in an extensive interview.
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Gordon Willis
Craft Truck Gordon Willis

We've recently discovered Craft Truck, a wonderful resource for behind-the-scenes information about filmmaking. Jeff at Craft Truck interviewed master cinematographer Gordon Willis, who has worked with Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola,, Alan J. Pakula and other great directors. Craft Truck has given us permission to republish it here. You can read Willis' tips below and read his obituary here.

1. Cut the Hyperbole. 

Before the interview began Gordon said, "Our job isn’t to recreate reality, our job is to represent reality."

He was saying that no matter how you slice it, photography is art. There isn't a hierarchy of realism because that doesn't even exist. The question is how do you use the tools available to tell a story?

Sounds basic enough but he never used the word "naturalism." Not once. Later on he stated, "I just think about….what I want it to look like."

He also used "good" and "bad" a lot to describe things. He doesn't use words that don't mean anything. He doesn't talk about his work in ways that aren't simple. And that's the way he worked.

While the most complicated idea might be being expressed, it was and is Willis' approach to discuss choices and photography in the clearest possible way.

While there are different ways to work, a great approach is to cut the hyperbole. Be straight and direct in figuring out what you’re doing and how you’re going to do it. Sounds simple but it’s harder than it sounds.

2. Shoot to Cut.

Quickly into my conversation with him, I realized that Gordon was talking about how shooting relates to cutting. And at that point he basically said that cutting was everything. He doesn't shoot to have a close-up, or a wide, or something well lit. He shoots to tell the story.

This matters both in terms of how something is relayed to an audience -- a scene, for example -- and also how one transfers between scenes or places or moments. He related his feelings on B&W films from the 30's and 40's.

You'll have two people talking, or fighting, and they'll be in a two shot. (Boom, he gestures the shot, a straight on two shot). It plays really well. So why would you cut?

He was expressing what he did so well in so many films. YES, his lighting was amazing, but he was focused first on what was going to be in a shot to reveal the information of the story step to step. The look came next. And probably way, way, way down the line is "What would be a cool shot?" I highly doubt that this was his focus, if ever. If a cool shot happened, it happened in the context of what he was doing--shooting to cut.

Did he have the "look" of the film in his head? Sure. But before that came the idea of what shot was before and what shot was after. In other words, what cuts.

Note: this is not a suggestion to directors or photographers to shoot in such a way that an editor cannot elyptically shorten, lengthen, or change a scene. God forbid. Not many people have the exact instinct that Gordon has, obviously. But his point can be internalized and applied much more often than you might think. Sometimes you can do a scene in a "1'er" if you know for sure it's going to work in the final film.

3. Blocking is Cutting.

On stage, blocking is the movement and positioning of the actors between one another. In film, blocking is all that plus where the camera is, what it does and what lens is used. This means blocking for film is at least three times as complicated. Ultimately, this was the most important aspect of how to execute the shooting of a scene for Gordon. Certainly, it was more important than the lighting. And in many cases, probably makes the lighting much easier to achieve.

By focusing on how the story needs to be told (i.e. what you see and when you see it,) it allows the photographer and director to choreograph first and then think about how these choreographed moments will cut together.

Here's a short clip of Gordon the relationship of directing and cutting:

It sounds obvious but it is most often tossed out with the trash when people get onto the set. Then comes the "need the close up, need the long shot, get this get that." The basic rules are forgotten. Many of Woody Allen's greatest moments came from not just how they were written or performed but how they were played in front of the camera. This allowed for speed, economy and simplicity in the storytelling. Countless examples from "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Stardust Memories,"  etc. Mr. Willis was instrumental in this.

By focusing on the blocking and how the actors might move in and out of frame, or how the camera might wait to follow them, led to figuring out what played well and then how to connect the dots from one scene to the next.

Basic thinking with very, very articulate and refined results.

This article is related to: Craft Truck, Gordon Willis, Filmmaker Toolkit, Cinematography






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