17 directors of photography spoke with IndieWire about the continuing resonance of Gordon Willis’ shadowy, practically lit cinematography:

Shane Hurlbut (“Terminator: Salvation,” “We Are Marshall”): I think it was the first time someone really used lighting to set the tone and mood for the characters; before that we were lighting areas more than characters. Gordon Willis asked, “What is this character going through, and how can I use lighting to express that?” That’s where you get the toplight, and the underexposure in the eyes — it’s a way of depicting the dark underbelly of this world, where one look can mean that someone is going to be killed. But it’s very organic. Willis lit those rooms practically — the whole idea of toplight is very realistic, in addition to creating emotion, and the naturalism combined with the emotion puts you in that world so, so quickly.

Andrew Droz Palermo (“The Green Knight,” “Moon Knight”): It’s hard to overstate Gordon Willis’ impact on light levels. It’s clear from frame one of “The Godfather” that he’s not afraid of darkness, and uses it to great effect thematically. In the shot, the camera slowly zooms out from a close-up on an undertaker making his case. You see heavily shadowed eyes, with just a glint of eye-light to guide us, and as it zooms further out, we begin to see the space, but his black suit jacket is barely discernible from the inky shadows behind him. He’s just a skeletal, desperate face. Further out still and we are over the shoulder of Brando, who is in full silhouette. It’s haunting. Of course, there are roots of this style in noir and German Expression, but to bring it to color film on the heels of an era when everything was overfilled, edged, illuminated was so bold.

John Matysiak (“Old Henry,” “Still the King”): Gordon Willis and Conrad Hall really changed the game in the sense that what you didn’t see was as important as what you did see. “The Godfather” raises the question of what naturalism is. Just because it’s dark and has shadows doesn’t mean it’s not natural. It’s interesting because it’s stylized but still rooted in Willis’ interpretation of reality — it’s like super-stylized naturalism.

Nicole Whitaker (“Shining Vale,” “Truth Be Told”): Gordon Willis set the stage for so many cinematographers to think outside the box, not only in his lighting choices but also his camera work. He and Coppola did not use traditional methods of covering scenes with wide, medium and close ups but rather used stillness or subtle movement to connect the audience to the character. For me as a viewer I was able to feel closer to the characters and not feel manipulated by the filmmaker. It almost was a documentary sensibility how you felt so part of their world, but of course completely planned and stylized.