An American Film Institute Seminar with Gordon Willis, Asc: Part II

By Schwartz, Howard | American Cinematographer, October 1978 | Go to article overview

An American Film Institute Seminar with Gordon Willis, Asc: Part II


Schwartz, Howard, American Cinematographer


A brilliant, often controversial cinematographer shares his considerable expertise with student filmmakers of the A.F.I.

PART II

What follows is the concluding segment of a seminar sponsored by the American Film Institute (West) for Fellows of its Center for Advanced Film Studies.

The seminar, moderated by Howard Schwartz, ASC, featured cinematographer Gordon Willis, ASC, and was preceded by a screening of "THE GODFATHER: PART II", on which he functioned as Director of Photography.

QUESTION: Do you have any opinions as to whether you're more effective with limitations or freedom?

WILLIS: That's a good question. I have friends who are actors and some of them become confused in making movies because they're undisciplined. In my opinion, you have a lot of freedom in the movies if you work within the limitations; then you're free. But I think that you do work better with a certain amount of limitation. There are some things you can't do if you're too limited, but the essence of good movie-making is discipline. There is nothing more horrifying than an undisciplined filmmaker. Things don't just happen; you've got to make them happen. So, yes, I would say that you do function better in a limited environment, because you're going to use a lot more skill and a lot more brain power to make it happen. In fact, I've probably done some of my best work photographically in a bad situation. I wouldn't want to shoot my way out of it again, or even get involved in it, but you learn a lot. If you have everything at your disposal, it can get raunchy. Like having too much time to rehearse, or having too much of this, or too much of that. You've got to face up to the fact that eventually you've got to shoot, and this is it. What I said about actors-any good actor who works in movies for any length of time realizes that he's going to get the best of himself or herself on the screen by working within the structure of the frame. He can act in the corner, and he can act between his legs, and he can act anywhere, but if he's not acting relative to what you're all there for-which is the camera-he's wasting his time. Good motion picture actors understand that limitation and know how to act within it, as do directors and cameramen. You learn to work within limitations. You are limited. It's true.

QUESTION: Do actors ask you what the framing is so that they'll know the limitations?

WILLIS: Yes. They want to know where they are in respect to the frame. Brando was very heavy with that, because he would never destroy himself in a performance if you were a mile-and-a-half away. At that distance, it's a physical performance, a body thing, not an acting thing. So he saves himself until he gets to the closeups, It's the same with any good acting in the movies, and good directors don't bum actors out in long shots. Acting in a long shot is a purely physical thing. You get it out of the way and then continue on to something else.

QUESTION: You mentioned the fact that as you and Francis Coppola worked more together, you communicated better and the need for dialogue between the two of you became less and less. What about your communication with the people on your crew? Do you keep the same operator, the same gaffer?

WILLIS: I've used several operators. I had one operator who did six pictures with me and then it was time for him to go on and start shooting his own pictures. So the answer to your question is, yes, I like to keep the same people, especially gaffers and grips. Grips take a terrible beating on shows that I shoot, much more so than electricians, because they have a lot more to do. But I do like to keep the same people, for the reason that I don't have to say as much to them. They already know. I'm exhausted at the end of a movie. I mean, it's a campaign for me, even though I enjoy it. Mostly my head is always going on a concept level, not simply a photographic level. As I said, photography comes out of a concept. …

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