Wrap Shot: The Godfather

“[Gordon Willis, ASC] was one of the giants who absolutely changed the way movies looked.”

David E. Williams

Working on location on East 142nd St. in New York City in 1971, future ASC great Gordon Willis checks his composition while shooting what would later become a touchstone for generations of aspiring cinematographers, The Godfather (1972), directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Noted Richard Crudo, ASC after Willis’ death in 2014, “He was one of the giants who absolutely changed the way movies looked. Up until the time of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, nothing previously shot looked that way.” 

Also in this photo above are Coppola, to the left of the camera, and operator Michael Chapman, another future ASC great, just behind Willis.

“On every movie I shot, I maintained strict developing and printing control — everything was printed on one light.” Willis told AC in 2008 as The Godfather was being restored by film-preservation expert Robert A. Harris and associate archivist Joanne Lawson of The Film Preserve. “In fact, much of the negative on the Godfather films will only work when printed that way. 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. So when making exposures, I based my exposures on the full curve of the film, shoulder to toe. The exposures are right where they should be to achieve a given look on the screen as long as they’re printed as designed. There’s no room to move things around on the printer.”

Both cinematographers would later be honored with the ASC Lifetime Achievement Award: Willis in 1995 and Chapman in 2004.

In 1990, The Godfather was included in the Library of Congress National Film Registry for its cultural and historical significance.

The Godfather was selected as one of the ASC 100 Milestone Films in Cinematography of the 20th Century.

You’ll find much more about Willis here:

The Restoration of The Godfather
A Remembrance by Jon Boorstin
Gordon Willis Q&A at the AFI Part I
Gordon Willis Q&A at the AFI Part II

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