Nykvist’s natural and minimalistic approach to cinematography should be studied by every filmmaker, period.
…because being called the Prince of Darkness is awesome enough, but especially when it refers to your atmospheric cinematography. Willis was known for his realistic style of cinematography best exemplified by his work on "The Godfather" films (yes, even Part III). His sparingly lit shots emphasized storytelling over style, making him a favorite collaborator of directors like Alan J. Pakula and Woody Allen. Rather than distracting the viewer’s eye, Willis’s signature use of negative space and darkness served to highlight important details in every scene.
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Willis didn’t earn his reputation as the Prince of Darkness lightly (pun intended). His bold creative decisions on the use of lighting went against the standard set by most Hollywood productions. His main goal in doing so was to achieve a sense of naturalism, but this approach also honed his instinct as to how the details of a shot contribute to the story. Willis had a unique ability to decide what to show and what to obscure within a scene, generally through the use of negative space and the contrast between light and darkness, or perhaps more accurately for Willis, between darkness and less darkness. To this day, his work on "The Godfather" remains probably the best example of how these aspects contribute to the overall effect of a story. For example, in the film’s famous opening scene, while the focus of the first shot is on Bonasera, both the lighting and the intrusive glimpses of other figures make clear the power dynamic at play, which itself will be the primary focus of the story. This is only further emphasized by the natural lighting through the window in the reverse shots, which serves to both accentuate Don Vito’s place while also shrouding his features. Interestingly, Coppola more or less had to beg Willis to work on the film, insisting that his unique approach was necessary to tell such a dark story – and history proved Coppola right.
Although he had a signature aesthetic, Willis always tailored his approach to the material. While his work is generally associated with a kind of realism, he actually distinguished between an objective and cinematic representation of reality. He could film scenes in a more artistic style, so long as the look was not artificial to the world of the story. Ultimately, Willis set up his camera and lights as the material in every scene dictated in relation to the overall film. For example, Willis’s work on "The Parallax View" presents a much more stylized technique than "All the President’s Men," although both films were directed by Alan J. Pakula and deal with similar themes of corruption at the highest levels of power. However, "The Parallax View" presents a more subjective version of paranoia through the eyes of its main character, while "All the President’s Men" dramatizes paranoia based on actual events reported by the film’s protagonists. Willis viewed the camera as another level of storytelling within the process of making films.
As a cinematographer, Willis was a big proponent of addition by subtraction, believing that quality was enhanced by negative space. Through Willis’s lens, this defined his task as guiding the viewer’s eye towards the important action. With sparse lighting and no unnecessary objects in the frame, the dramatic focus becomes clear. To put it in terms of Chekov’s famous example, if you’re watching something that Willis filmed and you notice a gun, you better believe that gun is going off pretty soon. While some may disagree with this philosophy – Stanley Kubrick, for one, famously saturated his shots with details – it does place the story and characters first. Willis understood that all viewers would bring a subjective interpretation to a film, so in a sense, he tried to limit the range so that the director’s overall vision of the story would be clear; in fact, to go back to the counter-example of Kubrick, consider the thousands of conspiracy theory interpretations surrounding his films. In the end, what you take from Gordon Willis’s style of cinematography can inform your own artistic decisions: if you want to produce a powerful effect, keep the lighting low and the space minimal.
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