The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Presidents Desk
Gordon Willis, ASC
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ASC Master Class
ASC Close-Up

In an excerpt from Stephen Pizzello's forthcoming book, Gordon Willis on Cinematography, Willis explains his approach to managing a set.

Photos courtesy of MGM/UA, Brian Hamill, the Margaret Herrick Library and National General Pictures.

During his long and distinguished career behind the camera, Gordon Willis has gained a reputation as a demanding and sometimes obsessive perfectionist. He readily concedes the accuracy of this characterization, noting that his exacting standards extend to his interactions with directors, actors, crewmembers and anyone else who steps onto his sets. However, he’s quick to assert that his strict methods are always intended to strengthen a picture’s narrative or aesthetic underpinnings.

As the head of the camera crew, a director of photography is not only responsible for the picture’s overall visual style, but also a dizzying array of logistical and pictorial details — ranging from the choice of equipment to the quality of the light on an actress’ face. The cinematographer must also interact with virtually everyone on a given project, from the producer to the camera loader. The resulting pressure can be enormous, and Willis understands that he can’t always be Mr. Nice Guy. Still, he insists that his occasionally stern demeanor is merely a byproduct of his professional pride. “Over the years, I have gotten upset with certain people, but only if I feel that they suffer from selective hearing,” he says.

While Willis is all too familiar with the pitfalls of motion-picture production, he still enjoys the work. “It’s a great business to be involved in when you’re on a shoot and everything is going well,” he offers. “In general, I think of myself as a low-key guy. I like making movies, and I enjoy working with other people who like it. I try to do my job well, go home and relax. At the end of the day, I like to remove myself from the process. I don’t need it 24 hours a day. Some people do, but I’m not one of them.”

Maintaining discipline on a set is a skill that comes from experience, and Willis is a keen observer of both human nature and the collaborative process. In the following pages, he offers his insights into supervising a set, including tips on hiring a solid crew, interacting with actors and directors, establishing the proper decorum, and running a tight ship.

Let’s address the managerial aspects of the cinematographer’s job. As a film’s director of photography, you’re in charge of an entire crew of people. What qualities do you look for in the people you hire?

Willis: I probably look for the same qualities everyone else looks for when they hire people. I generally look for someone who’s both pleasant and technically astute. For example, if I’m hiring a camera operator, he has to be able to fulfill his primary function, but I also want that person to be able to help the assistant get everything put together properly, anticipate any problems that might arise, and so on. I don’t want a situation where he’s operating one moment and making phone calls the next. The operator has to be intelligent and able to relate well to actors. I feel most comfortable with someone who’s smart, specific and easy to deal with. It’s the same with the assistant cameraman — who, I think, has one of the most difficult jobs on the set. Another major consideration is that I want people who know how to pay attention. Everyone on the crew should be fully involved with what’s going on, because we have a responsibility to keep things moving forward. If I’m spending 20 minutes discussing something with a director or an actor, I don’t want a crewmember off somewhere hitting on a girl or eating a sandwich — because then he doesn’t know what’s going on, and I have to spend another 20 minutes explaining it to him. A crewmember should be within earshot and listening, because I don’t want to go through it all again. If you’re not listening and watching all the time, things will slip by you. A motion picture is always a work in progress, and things can change from minute to minute. You may start the day with a specific idea, but that idea can change.

Do you take recommendations on crewmembers from other directors of photography? That can potentially eliminate some of the guesswork in the selection process.

Willis: I sometimes do that, yes. If you don’t shoot with the same crew every single day, all year round, you’re eventually going to find yourself in a position where they’re not available. If you’re not working, they still have to make a living and take other jobs, and when that happens, you end up with new people. I do take recommendations from other people, and I’ve ended up okay and not okay.

How would you describe your own demeanor on the set?

Willis: My set demeanor is pretty businesslike, or maybe I should say ‘procedural’ or ‘systematic.’ I work out whatever needs to be worked out with the director and crew, and then we block things out with the actors. After that, everyone can go back to their trailers while we light. When they come back, I generally like to do a camera rehearsal and then shoot. I do prefer to work with a relaxed group of people, myself included. But I don’t like to have people dancing in the streets while I’m trying to think.

When a problem arises, do you find that fear is a good motivator?

Willis: That depends. In general, I’d say no, because that type of tactic is counterproductive with good people. On the other hand, there are those who, if they sense something problematic or indecisive [in your demeanor], will try to pry your head open with a crowbar and use the moment to their advantage. It can happen with anybody, and there are certainly some movie stars who fall into that category. Movies involve cooperation, togetherness and quite often compromise, but somebody has to have a grip on the steering wheel. The thing I really like to control is noise; I think it’s debilitating, and it saps everyone’s energy. When a director and actress are working something out, everyone’s supposed to be dead quiet. Somehow, though, when they’re done and it’s time for the cinematographer to go to work, certain people take it as a license to exercise their vocal cords. When that happens, I’ll ask people to be quiet or leave. The bottom line is that my process is just as complicated as anyone else’s; the more noise there is, the less ability you have to communicate.

How specific do you get in your instructions to the crew, especially in relation to their individual functions on the set?

Willis: People function at different levels, depending on who they are and how they think. In relation to the camera operator, I’m fairly specific, and I want to get what I set up. Some cinematographers will say, ‘Okay, what’s the shot?’ and then they’ll light it while the operator works more with the director. That’s the English style of working; I don’t do it. I usually set up the shot and explain it to the operator, but I don’t want to operate after that, because I’ve got enough other things to look at while the scene is unfolding. A lot of directors of photography like to operate themselves. I personally feel that it’s too tiring, given all of the other responsibilities I have on a show. Once in a while, I’ll do a shot because I want to see how it’s working. Video’s been a help in that regard, because I can watch the shot mechanically — not photographically, but mechanically. Of course, if someone gets sick or we need another camera at the last minute, I’ll jump in and operate. My basic relationship with an operator is that I’ll talk about a given shot with the director, who usually wants a certain type of thing. Once I set up the shot, I show it to the director, who will either okay it or not okay it. If it’s not okay, we’ll make adjustments. After that, the operator gets the camera and we discuss what’s going to happen. If he’s been watching and listening, he knows what’s going to happen.


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