Ford Coppola Style Guide

Ford Coppola Style Guide

Let's distill the main ingredients of a Francis Ford Coppola movie, looking at color, frames and motifs that create a film oeuvre of epic proportions.


ford coppola movie style

In "The Godfather" employs a muted color palette that reflects the moody, somber tone of the story. The majority of the film is shot in warm, earthy tones of browns, yellows, and greens, which help to create a sense of nostalgia. When the violence and tension in the film escalate, the color grading shifts to a more sterile palette, reflecting the violent and dangerous world of the characters.

 ford coppola style guide

In "The Godfather Part II," Coppola continues to use color to reflect the mood and tone of the story. The film is divided into two parts, one set in the past and one in the present, and Coppola uses color grading to differentiate between the two. The scenes set in the past are shot in golden sepia tones, which help to evoke a sense of nostalgia. Scenes in the present are shot in cooler, more neutral tones, reflecting the grim reality of the characters' lives.

In "Apocalypse Now" the use of color plays a key role in creating the film's dreamlike atmosphere. Coppola's storytelling with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro's palette is so deliberate it deserves a book on its own - not many other films go hell for leather with the bold, vibrant colors like the purple and orange of the smoke grenades. In the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence, the green jungle and red explosions contrast dramatically.

ford coppola palette

Ultimately lurching into darker, even scarier waters of muddy greens and heightened contrast that comes with more shadows, the color in "Apocalypse Now" shows a psychological journey through the madness of war.

Weirdly in "Rumble Fish", shot in black and white, the character is colorblind - and there are just a few moments of bold, bright color, such as red fish, and the red and blue police lights - striking and memorable. They highlight the film's themes of rebellion and freedom.

Light is also key in Apocalypse now. Flares and flashes of bombs, searchlights all add to a heightened sense of chaos and confusion.  

Signature Shots

apocalypse now film look

Coppola is known for using a mix of wide and close-up shots to create a sense of intimacy and epic scope in his films.

ford coppola

He often employs stylized shots such as these from the Godfather and Bram Stoker's Dracula, to convey a sense of unease or to symbolize a character's inner turmoil. 

ford coppola movie style

By only sticking to in-camera visual effects in 'Bram Stoker's Dracula', the effect is otherworldly, and oddly out of place with the CG feel of what many contemporary movie makers would have done in his place. "What if I made Dracula much in the way that the earliest cinema practitioners would have? You know, making a thing that is in fact what it is also about.” —Francis Ford Coppola

Coppola is also known for using tracking shots to create a sense of movement and to follow characters through their environments - even pursuing a slower, more resonating shot by developing a weighted dolly move, adding sandbags to his dolly on the set of the Godfather.

But - in 'The Conversation', Coppola stated that he wanted the camera to be "dead" - like a passive eavesdropper watching its subject, not following it. It's a portentous thought now, in our age of surveillance cams. 

Motifs & Symbols

Gardens or natural landscapes: In many of his films, Coppola uses gardens or natural landscapes (such as Sicily) as symbols of childhood innocence, purity, and refuge from the corrupt world. Similarly, oranges recur, representing and reminding us of Sicily's influence throughout, even if the characters are elsewhere.

ford coppola film look
Doors, windows and architectural structures: Houses often serve as symbols of power, safety, and control. In films such as "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now," buildings are used to represent the institutions that characters must navigate and often manipulate to achieve their goals. 

the godfather symbolsford coppola movie style

A desk by a window... (The Godfather Part II, Bram Stoker's Dracula)

Chairs are often used as the throne within those institutions - but, on the other hand, Coppola also uses them to show a character in thought, maybe isolated - it's a handy device for power and as a segue to a backstory or memory.

The color red:  representing both passion and violence. In "The Godfather," the color red is prominently featured in scenes of murder or betrayal.

the godfather color

Yeah, that's not water.


Mirrors or reflections:  often used to represent a character's inner turmoil or duality. In "The Conversation," the main character's obsession with surveillance and privacy is reflected in his own paranoia and fear of being watched. In the Godfather Part II, Vito stares from his cell at the Statue of Liberty - framed by a window - in one of the most beautiful arrangements of cinematography. 

Water: Water can represent both life and death. In "Apocalypse Now," for example, the river journey is a metaphor for the journey into the heart of darkness and the eventual confrontation with death.


Recipe for a Ford Coppola Movie

  • Color that packs a punch psychologically, especially red
  • A story that explores themes of family, power, and corruption.
  • A large cast 
  • A mix of wide and close-up shots to create intimacy and epic scope.
  • Stylized shots to convey a sense of unease or inner turmoil.
  • Use doors, chairs, or other building structures as metaphors for power.
  • A distinctive score or soundtrack
Begin by developing a story that explores themes of family, power, and corruption with lots of characters that are complex and have compelling motivations and inner turmoil. Incorporate symbolism of the natural world, houses, or other structures as metaphors for power, or corruption. Seat characters in chairs by windows, preferably with a desk of some kind. Have them think hard in those chairs or, remember something in sepia. Let the time setting of the story drive or inspire the techniques you're using.  Develop a distinctive score or soundtrack that enhances the emotional impact of the film. Serve the final product to an audience who is ready for a thought-provoking, emotionally charged experience.