Gordon Willis 1931-2014

One of the greatest cinematographers in history goes into the shadows.

I feel stymied by any attempt to write about Gordon Willis because the man was so good that he outpaces any words I have. At the same time I feel like we have to take a moment to recognize him and his contribution to cinema now that he's gone. 

Willis was a cinematographer, and perhaps one of the greatest who ever lived. We take cinematography for granted - perhaps because so much of it is simply workmanlike or worse - but Willis' shots demand to be noticed, and not in a showy, flashy way. They tell a story in light and shadow and manage to be absolutely beautiful at the same time. It's tempting to reduced his work to still images - his shots look stunning as stills - but the reality is that Willis painted not just in shadow and light, but in time. A movie shot is in motion, even when nothing within the frame is moving.

Shadows are Willis' best known trick - he used darkness on screen in a way that no other filmmaker ever had before, and his friend and cinematographer Conrad Hall called him "The Prince of Darkness" - but he had more in his arsenal than that. His images were often perfectly composed, and the darkness in his frame only existed as a counterpoint to the light. His movie are sumptuous; Manhattan might be the most beautiful movie ever made. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that Wilis never won an Oscar. In his best period, when the films he worked on racked up 39 Academy Award nominations, winning 19, Willis wasn't nominated once. To put this into perspective the movies for which Willis was not nominated were:


The Godfather

The Godfather, Part II

The Paper Chase

The Parallax View

All The President's Men

Annie Hall



Stardust Memories

Willis' first Oscar nomination was for Zelig, a totally innovative film that was perhaps twenty years ahead of its time. 

If you haven't seen any of those films, this is as good a time as any to watch. Get yourself to the biggest screen possible, make sure the settings are correct, turn off the lights, shut out the sun and immerse yourself into the rich, gorgeous blackness of Gordon Willis' work.