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5 Tips from Master Cinematographer Gordon Willis

5 Tips from Master Cinematographer 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.

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.

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.

Visit Craft Truck. Watch the full video interview here and listen to the unedited podcast.

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