I used to subscribe to American Cinematographer Magazine, a very well produced monthly that focused on the business of magic: the behind the scenes visual storytelling of movies as it pertains to cinematographers. Through the articles in ACM I became conversant with some the true cinematographer luminaries who where responsible for some of the greatest movies ever made, names such as Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis and Vittorio Storraro. Well, way back in 1998 I read in the back pages of ACM that Gordon Willis who lensed Woody Allen's Manhattan and Francis Coppola's Godfather series was teaching a one week intensive course in NYC about his craft. I leapt at the opportunity to learn from the master! I signed up and got on a plane to NYC (I had moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1989).
One of the most fascinating concepts that Gordon pushed forward that week was that "less is more". In fact, Conrad Hall, one of his brilliant contemporaries, was fond of saying that Gordon was the "Prince of Darkness" because his movies always looked under lit. Gordon's process, as stated to his students, was to arrive on set and start turning on EVERY light available and then systematically turning them off one by one until he was pleased with the result. Gordon believed that if the audience was working to peer into the shadow areas, the viewing experience was enhanced. He never used more lights that necessary to tell his story. At it's core this is the fundamental truth I was left with at the conclusion of that informative week. Gordon also talked about the power of "scale" and how to use it to great effect. For instance, he would follow an extreme close-up with a wide angle establishing shot that encompassed a great deal of visual information. Again, a very useful tool to enhance the visual story telling.
I will always treasure that week spent with the master. In retrospect, I've come to realize that Gordon must have had real guts to stand up to the studios who funded his films, to commit to his cherished lighting technique when producers would probably ask, "Mr. Willis, why does it look so dark?"
Rest in Peace Gordon.