It gets tiring when I think of how many obituaries I've been compelled to write lately. But we're getting older, and our heroes are only going to start dying at a more and more accelerated rate. Such is life.
Now it's Gordon Willis. Aside from being one of the greatest, and perhaps most influential, cinematographer of the last fifty years, Willis' work provides a very easy template for illustrating the ultimate value that a great Director of Photography can have not only to an individual film, but to a director's entire filmography. One need only look at the work of someone like Woody Allen pre- and post his collaborations with the Prince of Darkness to see the artistic growth Willis forced upon him. Perhaps it's a coincidence, or just as much due to commercial success, that the cinematic ambition and audacity of Allen's films leapt exponentially once he teamed with Willis on Annie Hall, but there's no denying that the partnership was one that enriched everything that came after - both for Allen and for cinema as a whole.
It was Willis' other most notable partnership that had the biggest impact on me as a young cinephile. As the cinematographer on all three of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films, he not only created some of the most beautiful and iconic images to ever grace cinema screens, he indirectly helped to teach a young mook not merely a Cinematographer did, but how a true artistic collaboration was meant to function. Like many since its release, The Godfather was the first "serious" film that I really got into - obsessed over, in fact. My devotion was so deep that I sought out every piece of writing that I could find on the film and it's production. Harlan Lebo's The Godfather Legacy was the most exhaustive account I read at the time, and as well as all of the other production nightmares detailed within its pages, a lot of attention was given to the tensions between Coppola and Willis over the film's pre-established look and the liberties each would allow the other to take with it. Their working relationship on that film was beyond tempestuous, bolstered by the pressures on Coppola as well as their difference in approaches to their work, and yet in the end they had created together something that would live on for generations beyond their own. From their temporary squabbles had emerged something eternal.
In reading these accounts, I suddenly knew that as much as one person could possibly be in charge of every aspect of a film's production, in the end it always came down to a set of collaborators in whom you could trust to aid you in implementing and carrying out that vision, and yet who would also be brilliant and visionary enough on their own to be able to challenge you on every decision. In doing so, you would each lead each other to do your greatest work.
And so, Mr. Willis, for giving me so many of my favorite films as well as enriching my understanding and appreciation of the particulars of their makings, I offer you my most heartfelt and sincere thanks.