What Willis Was Talkin’ ’Bout

The parallel between design and the movies is one that’s commonly drawn, with not a lot of false modesty at play when the duties of an art director are likened to the work of a film director. Both are aesthetic managers, of a sort, charged with negotiating the realities of production, personnel and money in order to realize artistic visions that must resonate with an audience. However, the more I read about film, the more I wonder if there’s not a more appropriate similarity between an art director and a cinematographer.

Pursuant to my ongoing fascination with the work of cinematographer extraordinaire Gordon Willis, I recently dug up a lengthy profile that the author James Stevenson wrote about him in the October 1978 issue of The New Yorker. Given Willis’s impressive résumé, it’s strange that there are no book-length studies of his work; as a result, I read whatever I can get my hands on.

Parallel, Not Together

Stevenson’s profile delivers expected nuggets of wisdom from Willis on the erudite particulars of succeeding in cinematography. Reading through Willis’s quotes, even novice designers and art directors can spot tidy relevances to the designer’s craft. In this one, for instance, Gordon makes a distinction between technical ability and artistry:

“There are a lot of cameramen but not so many photographers. And a lot of cameramen attack from a technical approach without much imagination. They look, but they don’t see.”

And in this one there is some wisdom to be collected about the nature of working with clients or, perhaps more germanely, the blurred but nevertheless segregating line between a designer of a text and the author of a text:

“I’ve been accused of directing movies for directors. The truth is, I make movies with directors. Some of them have very special minds and may not be accomplished at the physical execution, but ultimately it’s their idea that I’m executing.”

Trade Smarts

In sketching out Gordon Willis as tradesman, though, Stevenson does more than just transcribe his subject’s requisite insights. As the narrator of this profile, he also reveals that the dimensions of cinematography are more extensive than most casual filmgoers would expect. In this lengthy passage, he posits a job description for the cinematographer’s role that, aside from the technical specifics, seems entirely suitable for any designer.

“A cinemeatographer must have an easy grasp of such things as color-reversal internegatives, aspect ratios, lenses, T-stops, brutes, color temperatures, Steenbecks, mattes, pushing and flashing, film resolution, freeze frames, Arriflexes, match cuts, halation, dye transfers, fish-eyes, three-strip processes, pull-down mechanisms, glass shots, tilts, emulsions, Kenworthy snorkels, film generations, diffusers, tracking, dollies, dailies, and inserts — and also a pretty good knowledge of carpentry, electricity, sound, set design, costumes, makeup, optics, meteorology, and the history of art and architecture, and a complete, up-to-date acquaintance with major movies, foreign and domestic, extending back to the Lumières, and Méliès. He needs, of course, a strong sense of color, composition, contrast and narrative development, and he must be able to work effectively with large groups of temperamental individuals. He should have a vivid pictorial imagination, and be able to design what is seen in every frame of a movie (which usually has from a hundred and fifty thousand frames, stretching over a mile and a half of film) so that it contributes to the movie’s general pace and feeling, and he must know how to get this done within a fixed budget and a limited time. When the film is completed, it not only should satisfy him and those connected with it but must engage the interest of several million spectators in order to be financially successful.”

Later in the profile, Stevenson expands upon Willis’s abovementioned quote regarding the working relationship between cinematographer and film director. And it’s here, as the writer elaborates on the tension in that division of labor, that I think the most interesting case can be made for the art director as a being most similar to a cinematographer, rather than a film director.

“It is hard to generalize about where a movie director’s work ends and his cinematographer’s work begins; the seam should be invisible. A director with a strong visual identity might need no more than a technician to operate the camera; a gifted cinemtaographer might require a director merely to tell the actors what to say. If the cinematographer is increasingly important today, it is partly because the nature of storytelling has moved in a direction that gives great weight to the way a story is told and less weight to the story itself. The look of a film becomes the author’s voice, reflecting and revealing the mood, the attitude, the sensibilities. It often happens that form and content are not exactly balanced or united; where the content is familiar, meagre, or absent altogether, form may get the upper hand. A cinematographer can prevent this from showing; he can enhance a slow, shallow, artificial story to such an extent that it seems exciting, real, even profound. He must have the necessary proficiency, however, and the autonomy — granted or grabbed — to pull it off. Willis, as a rule, has both.”


It would be unfair to blame art directors for identifying so strongly with film directors. After all, it’s a film’s director that most commonly receives the credit for a film’s ‘look and feel’ — for the ineffable qualities that are so similar to the ‘look and feel’ in which art directors trade. And, after all, both roles are by definition and by name director roles.

But Stevenson’s passage makes a compelling case for the author of a text, or perhaps its editor — for lack of a better term, the client — as the true counterpart of a film director. Except in rare circumstances, it’s the client who drives the narrative of any design problem, who is principally responsible for producing the content, supplying the ideas, the meat of any given example of graphic design. In collaboration, the art director functions as the cinematographer, the one who realizes the vision, often by supplying a vision of her own in synchronicity with the client/film director. It’s the art director/cinematographer who in many ways is the one responsible for drawing upon all of the tools of experience, technology and ingenuity at her disposal to transform a script and an ambition into film in the can. It’s not quite as glamorous a parallel, but I think it’s accurate.

  1. I strongly considered going into cinematography in university before finding my true calling on the web. The tasks involved in the role certainly appealed to me more than the director’s, as they were more concerned with the technical side of art rather than managing actors’ egos. The director, though, has overall creative control which didn’t appeal to me.

    I still follow cinematograhpy very closely and admire people like Conrad L. Hall and often use the craft to inform my work on the web.

  2. Interesting reading as ever!

    I’ve been wondering lately about the underlying structure that a film’s score provides and the possible parallels with the grid in design. Both provide a rhythm and structure for narrative. If the parallel can be drawn between art director and cinematographer, perhaps there is also one between score composer and typographer?

  3. Maybe it’s me being oversensitive, but that last bit about “pulling it off” rubs me the wrong way. Sounds like Milton Glaser’s step 1 on the road to hell… I guess it’s a question of can vs should.

  4. I must say I agree that the cinematographer is probably more akin to an art director than a film director (not that I have done either). I’ve always seen the director as more of a set manager than just somebody who gives command to a crew. Maybe that’s what an art director does.

    I only know of one cinematographer by name – Christopher Doyle. It is obvious that he is also a photographer and his skills framing a shot or scene often have the advantage of elevating a mediocre story to a decent movie. As he said in an interview with Steve Rose, “You only need a little bit of technical knowledge. Most people can get it in a couple of months. The training of the eye is the real job, and that takes forever.”

    I’d say the same thing about Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai, but they are writer/directors so that would disprove my hypothesis. I suspect vision often gets diminished in a committee process which I suspect is so more common in Hollywood. Perhaps the setting that those three work in lend itself better to their influence on a production being more overt compared to the Hollywood system.

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