Understanding the Cinematography of Gordon Willis

Conrad Hall paid Gordon Willis the ultimate compliment – he was the prince of darkness, the master of shadows.

In this video and article, I go through some of his cinematography lighting and camera techniques to help you understand his unique style. Just to be clear: Gordon Willis changed his style to suit the movies he shot. The goal of this video and article is to drum up enthusiasm and a yearning to learn more.

Warning: I do not claim this knowledge is 100% accurate. Just think of it as an endorsement of his work. If you want accuracy, look someplace else. One interview I would definitely watch is at the bottom of this article.

First, here’s the video illuminating the cinematography style of Gordon Willis:

The top light

His primary weapon of choice was the top light. He has two versions, the extremely soft version almost flat without any contrast; and the hard version which acts as a ‘butterfly’ light.

In the Godfather, he takes it to its most extreme, but only because he felt it was the right thing to do.


It isn’t mentioned in the video, but Gordon Willis sometimes did use diffusion on his lenses. Since this is a complicated subject, and the exact diffusion he used is no longer available, I’ll let you research that on your own.

Contrast Ratio

Typically falls between 4-5 stops, and he uses the entire latitude of film. He did this so the labs and studios couldn’t process it any other way.

Lenses and camera

His favorite focal length was 40mm, and he probably used the Cooke Speed Panchros, later a set was made for him by Panavision. He carried all the lenses, including zooms.

He typically shot at T2.8 or T4, but due to his lighting style couldn’t stop down more. For exteriors he kept close to this. He tried to shoot entire movies on one T-stop!

Editing and blocking

He was very hands on with editing and blocking on set, and usually the movies he worked on were low budget movies so time was important. Still, once it was blocked, he took his time to light the scene and they managed to get everything in the end because they were all long takes – mostly.

Woody Allen, in the Moviemakers’ MasterClass, said Gordon Willis typically lit a scene so the actors had to hit their marks, and they couldn’t improvise.

Here is an excellent interview (in two parts) by Craft Truck for you to get started:

I hope you’ve found this article useful. If I’ve stoked your interest in Gordon Willis’ work, please watch the movies he shot. Not only is the lighting top notch, the movies are actually good!


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