Talking Movies: Using Cinema to inspire your Street Photography – The Godfather

Talking Movies: Using Cinema to inspire your Street Photography – The Godfather

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Talking Movies makes another return, and this time I’m aiming almost as high as you can get! I’m casting my photographer’s eye over a movie that is regularly regarded as one of the finest pieces of cinema ever. I am talking about a cinematic epic that is the daddy of all daddies, or more accurately, THE GODFATHER! This Talking Movies series shows you how you can take inspiration from some of your favourite movies (or even some you may not have come across before) and use it to further your street photography techniques when you head out shooting. This week I’ll choose two scenes from the movie to analyse, and I’ll compare them with two of my own photos to examine the similarities and differences between the shots, and describe how the movie has influenced how I shoot. As usual, you can visit the Talking Movies section of the site for a complete list of all previous articles.

Introducing The Godfather

A movie that consistently ranks amongst critics and fans alike as one of the finest pieces of cinema ever committed to celluloid needs very little introduction, though I shall endeavor to give at least a brief précis. Released in 1972, and based on Mario Puzo’s epic novel of the same name, The Godfather follows the power struggles that emerge as pretenders try to usurp Don Corleone, the kingpin of a mafia empire based in New York City. The movie is directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and features a titanic cast of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and James Caan, amongst others. The Godfather won triple Oscars, and holds 5 Golden Globes, as well as top spot on Empire movie magazine’s “500 Greatest Movies Of All Time” list, second place on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 user rated movies, and a top 10 position on critic review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. The extraordinarily powerful and iconic cinematography in The Godfather was handled by master cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose illustrious CV also includes All The President’s Men, Klute, and Annie Hall.

Scene 1

Scene 1 from The Godfather

The first scene I’m going to look at is one of the most powerful and memorable from the whole movie, and really epitomises the mood and character of the entire film. The first thing that jumps out at you in this scene is definitely the lighting, which is so gloriously atmospheric, and is replicated regularly throughout the movie. Fill light in the scene is provided ‘naturally’ from the lamp and the daylight spilling through the blinds, but the key lighting for the actors comes from overhead lights, which cast very strong shadows over the actor’s faces, and really bring extra gravitas to the already fine acting on display. The scene itself is broody, moody and tense, and the lighting really helps to convey this powerfully. Interestingly, part of the decision-making behind using the lighting in this way, and keeping the scene so dark and full of shadows was out of necessity. Director of photography Gordon Willis wanted the lighting to disguise the heavy prosthetics and makeup Marlon Brando was wearing to ‘age’ him as The Godfather. As is so often the case with movie lighting, I’d characterise the light in this scene as heavily influenced by the chiaroscuro style, so much so that this scene almost looks like it’s been lifted from a Caravaggio painting, or one by the Flemish Baroque Masters like Rubens or van Dyck. In fact, so avant-garde and pioneering was Willis decision to under-light scenes and fill them with shadows that The Godfather’s producers Paramount originally demanded re-shoots of scenes as they thought the cameras hadn’t been properly set up.

While the lighting does obviously totally dominate this scene, it is worth giving some consideration to the way in which composition is used to great effect to immerse the viewer in the scene. Obviously this scene is shot very wide, but it is also shot from a very natural point of view, just below head height. These two factors make for a very ‘natural’ perspective on the scene, which makes the viewer feel as though they are a part of the scene and are looking in on it – as though they have just opened the door to the study to witness a shady deal taking place! Note too how all the characters look towards Don Corleone (Brando) and only he looks out confidently towards the camera – it’s very clear exactly who the powerful man is in this scene. Finally, it’s worth considering the use of negative space and lighting in the composition. The lamp in the right of the scene casts a bright light over the right hand side and bottom of the frame, but there are no characters or interesting things happening in this area. Then the viewer’s eye begins to follow the sweeping lighted arc of the beam towards the middle of the frame and the darkness. This means the viewer’s eye does something it not normally accustomed to doing – it looks closer into the darkness of the shadowy areas in search for something or someone of interest, and of course begins to play close attention to the masterful way the limited light plays across the faces of the shadowy actors.

How then might a street photographer produce a photo in this style? The advice would be to try and shoot wide to ‘capture’ a scene, always looking for a way to make the camera feel like a person’s eye peering at events unfolding before it. Look for dimly lit areas where people interact which also offer some kind of overhead lighting – certain bars or pubs would probably be the best bet, and aim to expose only for light highlighted areas of the scene, perhaps underexposing the mid-tones and shadows more than you would normally.

My Photo

Scene 1 by Digby Fullam

I can distinctly remember the night I shot this photo, as I sat in a taverna listening to traditional Greek music being played. The lighting in the tavern just screamed ‘cinematic’ to me, as it was such an amazing mix of light and shadow. Just like The Godfather scene we have a little ambient light (behind the bar) picking out details of the scene, but the key lighting of our subjects is provided by the two circular spotlights above the musician’s head. These illuminate a portion of his head, and his lute, making him the clear focal point of the scene like Don Corleone. The other people in the shot are less strongly lit, like the supporting characters in The Godfather scene, which ensures they don’t take too much attention from our focal point subject. Likewise, the underside of the staircase makes for a nice containing arc like the movie beam in the right of the frame to show where the key area of interest in the scene is. Of course, my shot is not as neat as The Godfather scene – it needs to be much wider in order to have a more cinematic and inclusive feel that pulls the viewer into the frame, and my ‘supporting characters’ aren’t arranged in nearly such a nice circular way around my main focal point to lead the viewer around the scene.

Scene 2

Scene 2 from The Godfather

The other shot from the movie I’d like to look at is another ‘room’ scene, but one which is very different to the scene at the start of the movie featuring Brando et al. This shot is a style of camera setup often found in movies, and a very distinctive one that I find very evocative. I’m talking of course about the voyeuristic ‘looking through a window’ style shot. The most obvious thing about this kind of shot is of course the point of view – the viewer feels as though they are intruding on a private moment of the character’s life – they are literally peering into the character’s world from the outside looking in which feels very immersive and realistic – like glancing into a room when walking past. A shot like this is dominated by the very strong geometric lines of the door window frames that have great visual weight and split up the image. Looking closely, you begin to notice that the window frames have been arranged very meticulously in the frame as they follow the rule of thirds for dividing an image in such a way so as to ensure that is visually appealing. The two vertical ‘columns’ split the frame into thirds, with the thickest and heaviest vertical column appearing one third of the way in from the left of the frame. Then note how it is joined by the horizontal bar part way down from the top of the frame. The corner where these two geometric lines meet form a ‘point of interest’ which the eye naturally gravitates towards. The left of the frame is empty negative space, then a heavy black bar grabs the attention, which the eye then follows in search of a point of interest that turns out to be the character standing contained within the ‘box’ created in the centre of the frame. Likewise, the single horizontal bar and lack of things happening in the right of the frame forces the eye to gravitate back towards the centre of the frame where the action is happening. This means the significance of the actor’s movements are heightened – they actually all happen in a smaller frame within a frame!

Another element of this scene that uses a clever trick to focus the viewer’s eye concerns the use of colour and set dressing. Once you really begin to examine this shot you realise that is almost entirely dominated by cream, pink, and salmon colours. These colours are all analogous or harmonious to one another. This stems from basic colour theory, often used in graphic design, where colours are arranged on a colour wheel, and you use a ‘wheel’ system to pick colours in your design that make it visually appealing. There are basically two methods of choosing colours in this way – one is to choose colours that are opposite one another on the colour wheel, such as red and green. These hues aren’t ones that you’d naturally assume would go together, but actually compliment one another very well to make for a visually distinctive and disruptive mix. A logo will often use colours in this way for maximum visual impact. A second way to use colours with colour theory is by choosing harmonious or analogous colours, and these are similar colours which appear next to one another on the wheel, for instance a yellow and green, or yellow and orange. How then, does this colour theory apply to this movie scene? The cream, pink and salmon hues are all very similar, and would appear next to each other on the colour spectrum. Used together, they don’t challenge the viewer, and make for a harmonious, balanced shot which isn’t distracting. But right in the centre of this Godfather scene is a colour that doesn’t fit this rule – the electric aquamarine blue of the soda stream! If we return to our colour wheel we find something very interesting – blue appears opposite orange/brown/pink hues on the wheel! What does this really mean though? By using the colours in this way the director, DOP and set dresser have again led the viewer’s eye around the scene and guided them where to focus their attention. The scene is all visually harmonious until the bolt of blue in the centre, which is complimented by the dominant pinks in the scene and is really made to ‘pop’. This holds the viewer’s attention. And what happens right next to the splash of blue? All the action in the scene! In fact the actor is almost linked to the blue soda stream by the line of her folded elbow!

Replicating these effects in a street photo is always going to be a challenge – a street photographer cannot hope to arrange the colours in their scene so meticulously – it would defeat the point! But you can train yourself on the basics of colour theory, and in turn train your eye to spot and seek out hues that can add more strength to your shots. It’s probably the case that you’re already following some of the basics of colour theory instinctively, and you don’t even know it. Colours are found arranged in this way throughout nature and of course are used to great effect like this in advertising and logos. Similarly window shots can be a staple of street photography, particularly in cities where you can train your camera lens on the windows of shops and bars.

My Photo

Scene 2 by Digby Fullam

My photo is a slight departure from the movie shot, but it does follow some of the core principles and stylistic choices utilised in The Godfather scene. As with the movie scene, my photo is divided into three portions by vertical lines – two as a result of the frames of the door window bars and the thirds as a result of shadow. The shadow on the right hand side of the frame serves as a big ‘block’ of negative space that focuses the eye on the two thirds of the frame that remains brightly lit, making this the clear focal point where the ‘action’ is occurring. Of course my photo is significantly busier in terms of colour than the movie scene – there was no way for me to pick and choose my colours like a set director! That said, we do have a cream hue on the wall and cupboards, and a salmon pink curtain. The orange lamp out of shot in the corner casts a warm glow over the scene, whilst also serving to focus attention by lighting the woman’s face that would otherwise be in shadow, making her a key focal point. And what should be in the centre of the shot? Another splash of blue, this time from a carrier bag! So the blue grabs the viewer’s attention, though sadly it can’t lead neatly straight to the woman in the scene owing to the bar of the window frame. Also my shot varies from the movie shot in that my subject isn’t contained in the central square created by the window frame – she has to make do in the left third of the frame. Though at least she features on the one-third line in accordance with the rule of thirds.


I hope you’ve found my study of this pair of scenes from The Godfather useful and inspiring. Of course, choosing just two scenes from an epic, iconic and expansive movie like this in no way serves to give it the justice it deserves – so if you haven’t seen it, please watch it! And you have seen it, give it a re-watch! The way lighting is used in this movie is totally incredible – the mass of shadows and limited highlights on the character’s faces were totally pioneering when the movie was first released, and have influenced countless directors and cinematographers right up to the present day. The attention to detail is extraordinary, so be sure to look out for masterful use of colour throughout the scenes. With all this mention of cinematography I haven’t even talked about what The Godfather is truly remembered for – the incredible storyline, and some of the finest acting performances and character studies of a generation. The Godfather is rightly heralded as one of the finest movies of all time, so check it out!


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