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by Indiewire
December 6, 2013 10:30 AM
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5 Tips from Master Cinematographer Gordon Willis

4. Lighting Shouldn't Be Driven By Insecurity.

I'd like to make this a "should" but at the end of the day, it's easier to summarize what Gordon felt on this subject via a negative. Because this is what happens 90% of the time. Photographers too often light to make things look "wow" instead of first blocking the shot, using the camera and the space and the actors, and then (and only then) involving lights and making things glisten.

On the set of "Annie Hall"

While lighting is never "easy" it can be made very simple if you are operating from a point of security in what you’re doing. Most people aren't, they're operating from insecurity. The same gene that wants to over-complicate a story is the same gene that wants to over shoot and over light. And quite simply that’s bullshit and doesn’t help anything.

Everyone remembers the Brando lighting in "The Godfather" which he simply states was motivated partially by Brando’s makeup and partially because he wanted to open the movie in this cave-like setting, juxtaposed against the wedding outside.

Think about the planetarium sequence in "Manhattan." Think about the walk and talks in "Stardust Memories." No lights. Hardly ever with wide day exteriors for him. They look beautiful because they're right for what the story is at the time.

YES Gordon was aware of what the film "should look like" but that was more based on an overall instinct and consistency of feeling with which he approached a given project. He was very secure in his choices and free to explore simplicity if that mean lots of lights, few lights, one light, or no lights. That's the point.

5. Have a Reason for Your Decisions

The one thing that ties together everything is that every choice was based on a solid reason. Gordon often used a 40mm lens. Why? Because it felt right to him and because he felt the perspective of the lens best allowed him --yes him, and by extension the audience --to see what was happening in a reasonable way.

He also said that he sees the world from roughly his own height. Sure there were other times when he used other lenses or other heights to shoot from but it was because the scene, the blocking, the cutting, demanded it.

In order to simplify his work space he stuck with tools that were comfortable and intuitive and then worked from there. He needed a reason to go high-angle-, low-angle, wide, long, etc. Most of the time choices are made by a desire to ramp up style as opposed to really looking at the sequence, figuring out how best to tell it and then executing with simplicity.

So while it's okay to do something fancy, there has to be a reason for it. In the overhead shot of Library of Congress in "All the President's Men" Gordon's first reaction to the scene was, "How do we show the idea of a needle in a haystack?" So out came the winch and the rig and everything else along with it. And the shot is stunning. But you don't do that unless it's necessary and you've been naturally bumped away from basic principles.

If you have an honest realistic reason as to why you want your film to look a certain way; a reason why a scene should be cut up a certain way; why it should be staged and lit the way you want it; and, why it needs to be whatever color palette you're playing with, you stand a better chance of getting out of the story's way instead of smothering it in style that doesn't help anyone.

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1 Comment

  • mike simmonds | December 6, 2013 5:35 PMReply

    i was his t.a. when he taught a workshop at SVA.
    the best advice he gave was; "when reading a script for the first time, sit down with a nice glass of wine or good cup of coffee and enjoy that script as much as possible, because it will be the last time you will ever enjoy looking at it."