Gordon Willis, who died on Sunday at 82, was one of the great cinematographers of the 20th century. Between his work on The Godfather, Manhattan, All The President’s Men, Annie Hall, and many more classic films, he leaves behind an exquisite body of work.
When an interviewer asked about his process, Willis chided, “You’re looking for the formula. There is no formula. The formula comes out of you.”
A small sampling of his most memorable shots are below.
1. In this shot of the attempt on Don Corleone’s life in The Godfather (1972), Willis shot from above, keeping the street pitch black to offset the oranges rolling in the street.
“It was only about 20 minutes before the movie started that I decided how the movie ultimately should look overall,” Willis said.
2. Even moments of more explicit violence in The Godfather have an eerie beauty to them, thanks to Willis’ use of a long lens and diffuse lighting.
3. In this shot of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) emerging from the shadows in a parking garage in All the President’s Men (1976), Willis makes great use of garish florescent lighting.
“People perceive complexity as good,” he said. “Complexity is not good. People don’t understand the elegance of simplicity.”
4. In the next shot, an unseen light source throws Redford’s shadow across a beam in the parking lot, emphasizing the eerie quality of the scene.
“Don’t get simple mixed up with simplistic.”
5. In the period piece Pennies from Heaven (1981), Willis recreated Edward Hopper’s famous 1940s painting, “Nighthawks.”
6. Willis shot Jane Fonda’s character being pursued down the stairs in Klute (1971) with a twisting single shot to accentuate the claustrophobia in the film.
“That’s another thing you have to think of, what it is you want to see. And when you want to see it,” he said.
7. Perhaps Willis’ best work, however, is in the exquisitely shot Manhattan (1979), filmed in Willis’ preferred black and white. One of its most famous scenes was in a planetarium, where not seeing was so much better than seeing.
Willis said he suggested to Woody Allen that they block a scene where Diane Keaton’s Mary and Allen’s Isaac walked in and out of the frame. He said Allen protested, “I’ll be off screen, you won’t see me.” Willis said, “Yeah, but they’ll hear you.”
“When you work with color, it’s a burden,” Willis said.
10. Willis also convinced Allen to shoot this scene in one unbroken wide master, with just a few lamps lighting the room.
11. By framing the characters at the far edges of the screen, Willis subtly rendered the distance between the protagonists.
“That was designed to put this kind of space between these two people,” he said.
12. And, of course, there was moment that defined Manhattan — both the city and the film.
“I never thought of anything as being iconic,” he said.