How Gordon Willis Created Magic In 'The Godfather'...

By Arun Fulara. Posted on August 06, 2015

Gordon Willis needs no introduction. The legendary cinematographer of Coppola's The Godfather series, Annie Hall, Manhattan & All The President's Men was one of the best cinematographers of his generation.

When he passed away last week, the ASC held a tribute session for him with leading cinematographers talking about the importance of his work. This amazing conversation can be read in full at their site, here and here.

We've picked this small excerpt from the discussion on the opening scene of The Godfather, and the revolutionary use of lighting techniques that Willis employed in it. The discussion involves Stephen Pizzello (Editor-in-Chief/ Publisher of American Cinematographer) and cinematographers Caleb Deschanel (The Patriot, The Passion Of The Christ) , Ed Lachman (Mississippi Masala & Erin Brockovich), Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) and Vilmos Zsigmond (The Long Goodbye & Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Read on to understand why the film and the way Willis shot it, is so iconic.

Opening Zoom

The Godfather starts with the words: “I believe in America,” and we see the close-up of the top-lit face of Bonasera, a funeral parlor owner, in a dark office. The first shot is a very slow zoom out — almost 3 minutes long — that gradually reveals the silhouette of a mysterious man behind a desk listening to Bonasera asking to avenge the violent assault on his daughter. The zoom out settles to a wide shot, and Bonasera steps out of frame and comes back in the foreground to whisper his revenge wish to the Don.

The two dark out-of-focus silhouettes obscuring the frame in the foreground are emblematic of Gordon’s frequent use of concealment to create dramatic tension.

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During the tribute, we started our first Godfather excerpt after the zoom, when the film cuts to reveal Vito, the elder godfather played by Marlon Brando, lit by distinctive top lighting that sometimes obscures his eyes, a revolutionary and controversial lighting technique in the 1970s.

The opening scene continues with a wide shot of the godfather’s office, followed by angles and reverses on Vito and Bonasera, ending with a pan that follows them to the dark doorway area. Gordon’s signature lighting from above creates pools of light that Brando walks in and out of, while a shuttered window and practicals define bright background areas that silhouette the dark characters. The cut to a bright overexposed wedding scene offers a strong contrast between dark interiors and bright exteriors.

Here is a video storyboard of the opening scene:

Top Lighting

Benjamin: What’s really striking here is the top lighting, which Gordon created with custom “chicken coop” fixtures.

Ed: They’re Baylight units. That was kind of his signature. He had different variations. Sometimes he would put mushroom bulbs on battens and build skirts around them to keep the light off the walls. There are metal Baylights in Hollywood studios, but Gordon made his own lightweight ones, that he could put in locations. Today people use Kino Flos that way because there’s less heat.

Stephen: Gordy told me that the use of top light in The Godfather really came out of a screen test that Marlon Brando did. The studio didn’t want to use Brando, so he had to submit to a screen test.

Brando stuffed Kleenex into his cheeks, put shoe polish in his hair, and put a fake mustache on. The only way that Gordy could make the screen test work, was to light him from overhead. As he was looking at the test, he realized that this might work for the entire movie. Gordy said that, while overhead lighting was not a new concept, it was kind of new to extend it throughout an entire film over everyone and every thing. You definitely see that in this scene.

Benjamin: The top lights are creating these pools that the actors walk in and out of. And of course there is also the darkness in the eyes, which was shocking to many people back then.

Stephen: That was actually a design element on his part. Gordy said: “you don’t always want to know what this man is thinking”. He felt that it really preserved the mystery of the character. He would show the eyes in certain moments, but over all he wanted to keep what the character was thinking sort of mysterious.

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Ed: It’s interesting that, as dark as he could make a scene, he always used highlights to separate elements in the frame. So because of the windows and the lamps, the images don’t become flat, even though there is darkness in the scene and you sometimes lose information in the walls. His framing allows the highlights to come through.

Benjamin: So he has a dark foreground and bright background, and vice-versa.

Ed: Yeah, or some place in the frame. Behind Vito’s desk there’s that strange light through the window with the blinds. That was always remarkable to me, that he would use such strong highlights in the darkness.

Matthew: Gordon let the characters exist in the light in between. He created the impact of the shot photographically from the highlights, like Ed was saying. Or he added this lamp that’s not really doing anything but lighting someone’s eyes ever so slightly, just so you see them. Where so many other people light the people first and let the light fall off, Gordon’s never afraid to let people exist in the dark.

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Stephen: On this film, it got him in trouble, he and Coppola were almost fired a few times. His famous quote to me was “making The Godfather was like trying to serve a sit-down dinner on the deck of the Titanic.”

Caleb: I just did this film with Warren Beatty and he was talking about when he was doing Parallax View with Gordy there was a scene that he had to do and there was some dialogue that he felt was just too on the nose — just too obvious, and it was really annoying for him to say it. So Gordon shot the scene in such a way that Warren is in the light, and then he disappears into the dark and says the line… And suddenly it works!

Gordon had a great sensibility for when you need to see somebody, when you don’t need to see somebody, what you need to see, and what you don’t need to see, to tell the story. He was really brilliant that way, and I think it escapes most people, unless you really study the work. The Godfather is a great film to study in terms of what you see and what you don’t see, and how effective that is in the storytelling.

No wonder so many of us are still mesmerised by the scene and the movie. Are there any other scenes that stand out in your memory? We would love to know more and maybe dig out more about them. Let us know in the comments below.


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