Gordon Willis, 'Godfather' cinematographer, dead at 82

Gordon Willis holds an honorary Oscar received at the 2009 Governors Ball.

Story highlights

  • Gordon Willis was cinematographer on "Godfather" films, many Woody Allen works
  • Willis was known as "The Prince of Darkness" for his use of shadow
  • He won an honorary Oscar for "unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion"
Gordon Willis, the cinematographer whose expert use of light and shadow on such films as "The Godfather" and "Manhattan" earned him the nickname "The Prince of Darkness," has died. He was 82.
Richard Crudo, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, confirmed Willis' death to CNN.
"Gordon was one of the undisputed giants of the industry. He not only changed the way movies look, he changed the way the world looks at movies," Crudo said in a statement. "His work on 'The Godfather' in 1972 and 'The Godfather Part II' in 1974 made everything we now accept as superlative cinematography possible. His influence over subsequent generations of artists will continue for all time. He will be sorely missed."
Indeed, Willis' handiwork helped set the tone for the 1970s "New Hollywood" renaissance -- led by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese -- and could have an incredible impact on his films.
On "The Godfather" (1972), Coppola's epic gangster saga, Willis' dimly photographed, almost sepia-colored rooms and bright outdoors scenes added both historical shading and ominous mood-setting to what was intended to be a quickie take on Mario Puzo's bestselling book.
 Willis did the cinematography for all three "Godfather" films.
Woody Allen's "Manhattan," on the other hand, is a love letter to New York. There are few openings more thrilling than "Manhattan's," which pairs Willis' photography of the city with George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."
"He adored New York City. ... He romanticized it all out of proportion," Allen narrates, and the effect is transcendent.
In a film such as "All the President's Men" (1976), Willis' cinematography was a literal illustration of the battle between the forces of light -- note the almost painfully bright Washington Post newsroom -- and darkness, as in the scenes in which Robert Redford meets Deep Throat in the gloomy parking garage.
Jeff Cronenweth, the cinematographer for such David Fincher films as "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2011) and "The Social Network" (2010), noted that Willis was among a group (which included Cronenweth's father, Jordan) that changed American cinema.
My father's peer group "made the most headway of anybody: Conrad Hall and Gordon Willis and Vilmos Zsigmond and Owen Roizman. They came out of what was still pretty archaic, and they (made the most of) developing technology and color film, all the new tricks," he told CNN in 2012.
Amazingly, Willis never won a competitive Oscar and was nominated just twice, for Allen's "Zelig" (1983) and Coppola's "The Godfather Part III" (1990). He was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2009 for "unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion."
He was a perfectionist who knew exactly what he wanted.
"On every movie I shot, I maintained strict developing and printing control -- everything was printed on one light," Willis told American Cinematographer magazine. "I lit and exposed things at the level I wanted to be perceived on the screen; if you don't do that, anyone can decide what your work is supposed to look like, and I never believed in giving the studios that kind of flexibility."
Willis' other films included "The Paper Chase" (1973), "The Godfather Part II" (1974), "The Parallax View" (1974), "Annie Hall" (1977) and "Presumed Innocent" (1988).