Iconic cinematographer Gordon Willis died early Sunday at age 82 after a battle with cancer, surrounded by family at his Cape Cod home. Most famous for his distinctive cinematography work on Francis Ford Coppola‘s Godfather series, Willis’s also worked with Woody Allen on some of his great New York-based movies, including Manhattan, Annie Hall, Zelig, Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose Of Cairo. He was a fixture with New York-based directors, also working with the late Alan J. Pakula on the classic All The President’s Men, Klute, and The Parallax View, and worked with Herbert Ross’s Pennies From Heaven; and Malice, The Devil’s Own. Official cause of death has not been disclosed, but expect Monday morning to be Gordon Willis appreciation day around the cinephile set. Phone calls and social media posts about Willis’s passing began trickling in Sunday evening. “This is a momentous loss,” confirmed ASC President Richard Crudo late Sunday night. “He was one of the giants who absolutely changed the way movies looked. Up until the time of The Godfather 1 and 2, nothing previously shot looked that way. He changed the way films looked and the way people looked at films.”
Queens, NY-born Willis cultivated a background in photography and served in the Korean War as an Air Force Photographic and Charting Serviceman before starting his film career as an assistant cameraman, working his way up with commercials and documentaries. He made his debut as a cinematographer with four features in 1970: comedy End of the Road, Irvin Kershner’s Loving, drama The People Next Door, and Hal Ashby’s The Landlord. His deft use of shadows and light for Coppola’s 1972 mafia classic The Godfather was a career-maker for Willis, who came to be known as one of the most influential cinematographers in the field. Despite his landmark contributions, Willis didn’t win either of the Oscar nods earned for films with two of his most frequent collaborators – Woody Allen’s Zelig and Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. He also shot 1986’s The Money Pit, 1988’s Bright Lights, Big City, 1990’s Presumed Innocent, and his own lone directorial effort, the 1980 thriller Windows. In 2009 the Academy awarded him an Honorary Academy Award “for unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion.”
Here’s Willis discussing his cinematography style for The Godfather:
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