The Godfather (1972) is one of the most recognized works by Francis Ford Coppola, and one of the best movies in the history of American films. The film was brilliantly made, utilizing all aspects of cinematography at the time. One aspect of the film that should be specifically emphasized and which largely contributed to the film’s success is its photography, which was the work of Gordon Willis. In order to clarify the meaning of cinematography and photography, both of the techniques will be introduced in the present paper. Additionally, this paper will attempt to provide examples of those techniques in order to highlight the methods used in The Godfather.
Photography can be defined as the process of producing images of either moving or still objects using the light’s characteristics. As described by Sir John F.W. Herschel (1839), photography is the drawing by light (Warner Marien, 2010). The technology of taking pictures was first developed by the French scientist Joseph Nicephore Niepce in 1826 (Warner Marien, 2010). Niepce method was based on putting a picture or a painting on a metal plate coated with Bitumen. The plate was then put under direct light exposure for eight hours. The light passed through the picture’s free spaces and bright areas, starting a chemical reaction with the plate. Submerging the plate in a solvent resulted in the picture appearing on the metal sheet for a short time. Such technique was primitive, but nevertheless, formed the main principles of photography that were developed later. One of such developments was the work of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a French scientist who came up with the Daggereotype in 1839, a process that marked the birth of modern photography (Warner Marien, 2010). The process required a light sensitive sheet of copper that was plated with silver, coated with iodine, and well polished. This plate was placed inside a camera Obscura, a device that projected an image of the surroundings from a hole into a specific surface. The plate was exposed to light for a very short period of time. Putting the plate afterwards into a silver chloride solution resulted in the appearance of the image on the metal sheet.
With the development of photography different types and forms of photography occurred. Aerial photography, for instance, is a form of taking pictures from a high position using airplanes, helicopters or balloons, which is a method appropriate for political and geographical purposes. Astrophotography, on the other hand, is a method of taking photos of space for research purposes using telescopes. There are many other forms and types of photography that can be categorized into many different categories. Cinematography, in that regard, can be considered as a special category related to the art of photography.
Cinematography can be defined as the main form of photography in the movie industry. Such form implies using different techniques, lighting method methods, and cameras, in order to take pictures of moving objects. The development of cinematography can be traced back to the creation of the first motion picture film. The film was titled Roundhay Garden Scene and was made by the French showman Louis Le Prince in 1888. Seven years later, the Lumière brothers staged the first public exhibition of a film through a paid show in Paris. Such event marked the birth of Cinema as we know it (Wheeler, 2000).
In order to produce an artistic cinematic work, cooperation between the movie director and the cinematographer is essential. The role of cinematographers, also known as the director of photography, is to identify and control the arrangement of the elements that will be shown to the audience. The choice of the elements is also dependant on many factors such as the type of the shot, the angles, the lighting styles, color selection, the lenses, and the special effects. The cinematographer uses a combination of those factors to create the most effective picture of the scene, in order to draw the minds of the audience according to the intention of the director or the script. In fact, cinematography can be seen as one of the most effective way of engaging the audience with the picture. Accordingly, the director of photography should make sure that the elements shown are interconnected and related to each other. Such fact statement puts an emphasis on the choice of appropriate cinematographic aspects, such as appropriate sequence, lenses, filters and stocks, color combination and camera angles (Giannetti, 2010).
In The Godfather, various techniques were combined together to give the film dark and stylish touch to the scenes. For instance, choosing a combination of such colors as red, black, brown and yellow can be used to provide a representation of a violent atmosphere full of revenge in the minds of the audience. As the movie progresses, the colors turn brighter and the scenes lighter, which reduces the atmosphere of violence set at the beginning of the movie. As shown in the following picture from a scene at the beginning of the movie, the combination of colors introduces a violent and dramatic atmosphere. Looking at the picture, the audience first notice the red rose on Brando’s coat, and then a yellow light is exposed from the window and reflected on the faces. Other elements, however, are dark, where even Brando’s eyes cannot be seen (Giannetti, 2010).
Similarly, in many other scenes, the contrast between dark and light professionally employed by the director of photography provides a touchable sense of fear and stress to the story. Such method is implemented using high contrasts between shadows and lights and different color combinations. The latter is especially true for scenes in which the faces and/or the bodies of the characters appear against a dark background.
The techniques of light and dark are employed through carefully choosing the location of key, fill and back lights sources based on the type of the scene. For instance, in the picture on the right, the key light is placed on the top of the character’s head, while the remaining pictures the light is mostly located on the left side of the scene to show other character in the location and revealing their body parts more.
The choice of shots in the movie is mostly connected to showing the ability of the actors, making the audience more engaged. In that regard, most of the scenes use long, medium, and close-up shots, showing the incredible performance of such actors as Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Over –the-shoulder shots, as it can be seen from the pictures below, are used for the same reason.
Camera angles in most of scenes in the movie are at the eye level. Such technique is mostly used to provide the audience with more legible and believable point of view. The length of the movie provides the opportunity to illustrate several locations in the city, gardens, and ceremonies. All those scenes were captured from above the eye level. In few sections, however, the cinematographer used the bird’s eye angle to provide a more complete picture of the event, focusing on the acts as well as the place in which it happens, e.g. the scene in which Brando’s character is shot.
Willis also focused on the choice of appropriate camera lenses to be used in the film. As mentioned earlier, such factor is vital to the job performed by the cinematographer. Willis used telephoto lenses in order to make the audience focus their attention at exact point intended by the director in each scene. Willis also used the technique of colors and contrast to help the audience identify the points of focus.
As an example of the way Willis used lenses, in the left photo above the telephoto lens helps the audience to focus on Al Pacino entrance from far away, while at the same time keeping his wife in the shot. In the middle photo, the lens focuses on the gun in the man’s hand, keeping the body of the character in the scene. In the right image, the scene is focused in way that shows Sonny standing a bit far watching the dialogue between his father and Michael. In such way, the audience will be able to focus on the dialogue and on the reaction of Sonny at the same time. Differences in focus are used to differentiate the importance of each part of the scene.
Additionally, Willis used wide-angle lenses in order to provide a deep focus of the picture. The latter can be illustrated through the examples of the city, the road, and the natural view illustrated below.
In conclusion, it can be stated that Gordon Willis, the director of photography in The Godfather, employed many essential techniques and aspects of cinematography in order to produce and illustrate notable scenes to audience. Those techniques were used to attract the attention of the audience to the elements that indicated by the director, whatever, whenever, and wherever required in the drama. The most important aspect in the work of the cinematographer is the knowledge on how to combine all these techniques together to give the film an artistic value. A talented cinematographer such as Willis will make use of the techniques in collaboration with the main vision of the director. The present paper provided brief examples and highlights of the various cinematography techniques that were appropriately chosen in The Godfather, forming the harmony of this fabulous drama.
- Giannetti, Louis. (2010). Understanding movies. United States: Pearson Education.
- LoBrutto, Vincent. (1999). Principal photography. London: PraegerPublishers.
- Warner Marien, Mary. (2010). Photography: a cultural history. United States: Pearson.
- Wheeler, Paul. (2000). Practical cinematography. Boston, United States: Focal Press.