Bill Butler (cinematographer)

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Bill Butler

Wilmer C. Butler

(1921-04-07) April 7, 1921 (age 101)
Alma materUniversity of Iowa
Years active1969–2009
  • Alma H. Smith
    (m. 1943⁠–⁠1983)
  • Iris Butler
    (m. 1984)
AwardsAmerican Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award

Wilmer C. "Bill" Butler ASC (born April 7, 1921) is an American former cinematographer. He is known for his work on The Conversation (1974), Jaws (1975), and three Rocky sequels. Butler also completed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) after Haskell Wexler was fired from the production, and was subsequently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

Early life and education[edit]

Wilmer C. Butler[1] was born on April 7, 1921, in Cripple Creek, Colorado.[1][2][3] Butler spent the first five years of his life living in a log cabin on a homestead in Colorado, where his parents were farmers. He moved with his parents to Henry County when he was 5 years old and raised in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a small college town.[3][4] He graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in 1940.[3]

He graduated with a degree in engineering from the University of Iowa.[5]

Early career[edit]

Butler began his career as an engineer at a radio station in Gary, Indiana. He subsequently moved to Chicago, where he helped design and build the first television stations at the ABC affiliate and later at WGN-TV. When WGN went on the air, Butler operated a live video camera for commercials and for locally produced programs.[4][5] At his tenure with WGN, Butler met William Friedkin.[1]

Friedkin asked Butler to be his cinematographer on The People vs. Paul Crump, a documentary that focused on a prisoner who was slated for execution in Illinois. It was a docudrama that resulted in the governor of Illinois' commuting the prisoner's death sentence.[5] "I was very successful in television, so I had no reason to go into film," Butler said. "But I knew Bill Friedkin was interested in making a film documentary, and he needed a cinematographer. He asked me to assist him. And I did." As a result, Butler's interest shifted from live television to film documentaries.[3][4] In a 2005 interview, Butler credited Friedkin for giving him his first actual job in the film industry.[5]


Butler earned his first narrative credit in Chicago in 1967 for Fearless Frank, a low-budget feature directed by Philip Kaufman.[2][3][4] Two years later, Butler shot The Rain People (1969) for Francis Ford Coppola,[4][6] who was introduced to him by Friedkin.[1] Butler moved to Los Angeles in 1970.[4]

"I did some work with director Phil Kaufman on the Universal Studios lot as a writer while I was still trying to get into the Los Angeles camera guild," Butler recalls. "That's when I met Steven Spielberg."[7] Butler would then take charge of cinematography for two of Spielberg's earliest films, Something Evil (1972) and Savage (1973).[7][8]

Other films which Butler served as the director of photography include The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976), Grease (1978) and installments two, three, and four of Rocky.[2] Butler was also the cinematographer for Demon Seed (1977),[9] as well as Capricorn One (1978), Stripes (1981), Biloxi Blues (1988), Child's Play (1988), Graffiti Bridge (1990), Flipper (1996), Anaconda (1997) and Deceiver (1997).[4][10] His television credits include The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) and The Thorn Birds (1983).[4]

Butler was scheduled to have made his directorial debut in January 1979 with Adrift & Beyond, but it never came to fruition.[1] Butler turned down Coppola's offer to direct the photography for Apocalypse Now (1979). Butler has worked in films during the 2000s, such as Frailty (2002) and Funny Money (2006).[5][11] Bill Paxton, the director of the former film, said, "I was excited when Bill Butler who was the cinematographer on such classic films as Jaws and The Conversation came aboard as my director of photography for Frailty. And I really picked his brain, always asking 'how did you do this shot?' and 'how did you figure that out?'" Bill Butler recounts his initial conversations with Paxton about the script: "I liked the direction he wanted to take, and he inspired me to share his vision. It was a great collaboration."[12]

Butler is also notable for being a replacement to Haskell Wexler on two occasions: The Conversation (1974; also directed by Coppola)[13][14] and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).[15][16]


Butler had heard that Spielberg was preparing to shoot Jaws (1975), mainly on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. "I said, 'I hear you're making a movie about a fish,'" Butler recalls. After they joked for a few minutes, Spielberg asked Butler if he was interested.[7]

Butler's crew included Michael Chapman as camera operator. When they arrived on Martha's Vineyard, Butler showed Spielberg how he could brace a handheld Panaflex camera and take the roll out of the boat rocking on the waves with his knees instead of using a 400-lb gimbal. Spielberg embraced the idea. "About 90% of the shots on the boat were handheld," Butler says. "Michael was intrigued by the idea and was very good at it. We did things that we probably wouldn't have tried without the lightweight camera. Michael even climbed the mast and shot from the top straight down. We also put him in a small boat."[7]

During the production of Jaws, Butler spent most of his time on the picture in the water with Spielberg. Butler created a special camera platform that worked with the water to accommodate both "below the water line" and "surface" shots quickly. To handle the longer surface shots the film required, Butler reconfigured the standard "water box" casing used to hold a camera in the water. He also is acknowledged for saving footage from a camera that sank into the ocean, having claimed sea water is similar to saline-based developing solutions. "We got on an airplane with the film in a bucket of water, took it to New York and developed it. We didn't lose a foot," said Butler.[17]

Butler also created a pontoon camera raft with a waterproof housing that achieved those trademark water level shots that gave a point of view from the shark fin. To stop water drops hitting the lens, Butler used the Panavision Spray Deflector that saw an optical glass spin at high speed to deflect the drops except for the 4th of July beach stampede where the water-lens interface adds to the panic.[8]

Butler originally envisioned the look of Jaws to start in bright, summer sunshine and then become more ominous as the shark hunt goes on. The first half remains a riot of vibrant primary colors. In filming Amity, Butler was inspired by the work of painters such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth in their view of the United States untainted by urban life.[8]

Awards, nominations, and honors[edit]

Butler was nominated for an Academy Award (which he shared with Wexler)[18] and a BAFTA Film Award for his work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). He won Primetime Emmy Awards for Raid on Entebbe (1977) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1984).[1][2][3][19][10]

On February 16, 2003, Butler received the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award.[4][5][7] His memorable and influential work on Jaws is one of the many reasons the ASC honored him with the award,[17] and Spielberg wrote a letter to Butler acknowledging his award which indicated the director's mutual respect for Butler and his work behind the camera. "You were the calm before, during and after every storm on the set of Jaws," Spielberg wrote in the letter. "Without your zen-like confidence and wonderful sense of humor, I would have gone the way of the rest of the Jaws crew — totally out of my friggin' mind. Congratulations on this well-deserved career achievement award from your peers. All my best, Steven."[3]

Butler also was named KODAK Cinematographer in Residence at the University of Arizona (Department of Media Arts) in 2006.[1][20]

On April 28, 2013, the Charleston International Film Festival presented Butler with the festival's inaugural lifetime achievement award.[10][21]

Personal life[edit]

Butler resides in Montana.[10] On June 1, 2014, Butler returned to his hometown of Mount Pleasant for a reception honoring his career.[3]

Butler has five daughters, three from his first marriage to Alma H. Smith, and two, Genevieve and Chelsea, who are both actresses, from his second marriage to Iris Butler.[1]

He turned 100 on April 7, 2021.[22]



Year Title Director Notes
1967 Fearless Frank Philip Kaufman
1969 The Rain People Francis Ford Coppola
1970 Adam's Woman Philip Leacock
1971 Drive, He Said Jack Nicholson
The Return of Count Yorga Bob Kelljan
1972 Melinda Hugh A. Robertson
Deliverance John Boorman 2nd Unit Photography (uncredited)
Hickey & Boggs Robert Culp
1973 The Godfather Francis Ford Coppola 2nd Unit Photography (uncredited)
1974 The Conversation
1975 Jaws Steven Spielberg
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Miloš Forman With Haskell Wexler and William A. Fraker
Nominated- Academy Award for Best Cinematography
Nominated- BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography
1976 Lipstick Lamont Johnson
The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings John Badham
Alex & the Gypsy John Korty
1977 Demon Seed Donald Cammell
Capricorn One Peter Hyams
1978 Damien: Omen II Don Taylor
Mike Hodges
Grease Randal Kleiser
Uncle Joe Shannon Joseph Hanwright
Ice Castles Donald Wrye
1979 Rocky II Sylvester Stallone
1980 Can't Stop the Music Nancy Walker
It's My Turn Claudia Weill
1981 Stripes Ivan Reitman
1982 Rocky III Sylvester Stallone
The Secret of NIMH Don Bluth Animated visual consultant
1983 The Sting II Jeremy Kagan
1985 Rocky IV Sylvester Stallone
1986 Big Trouble John Cassavetes
An American Tail Don Bluth Animated visual consultant
1988 Wildfire Zalman King
Biloxi Blues Mike Nichols
Child's Play Tom Holland
1990 Graffiti Bridge Prince
1991 Hot Shots! Jim Abrahams
1993 Cop and a Half Henry Winkler
Sniper Luis Llosa
Beethoven's 2nd Rod Daniel
1996 Flipper Alan Shapiro
1997 Anaconda Luis Llosa
Deceiver Jonas Pate
Josh Pate
2000 Ropewalk Matthew Brown
2001 Frailty Bill Paxton
2006 Funny Money Leslie Greif
The Plague Hal Masonberg
2007 Redline Andy Cheng
2008 The Chauffeur Jérôme Dassier
2009 Evil Angel Richard Dutcher


Year Title Director Notes
1962 The People vs. Paul Crump William Friedkin Documentary
1965 The Bold Men
1970 A Clear and Present Danger James Goldstone TV movie
1972-1973 Ghost Story Richard Donner
Paul Stanley
Don McDougall
Leo Penn
David Lowell Rich
5 episodes
1972 Something Evil Steven Spielberg TV movie
1973 Savage
Deliver Us from Evil Boris Sagal
Sunshine Joseph Sargent
I Heard the Owl Call My Name Daryl Duke
1974 The Execution of Private Slovik Lamont Johnson
1975 Hustling Joseph Sargent
Target Risk Robert Scheerer
The Big Rip-Off Dean Hargrove
1977 Raid on Entebbe Irvin Kershner
Mary White Jud Taylor
1981 Death Ray 2000 Lee H. Katzin
Killing At Hell's Gate Jerry Jameson
1983 The Thorn Birds Daryl Duke Miniseries (4 episodes)
1984 A Streetcar Named Desire John Erman TV movie
1987 Bates Motel Richard Rothstein
1989 When We Were Young Daryl Duke
1995 A Walton Wedding Robert Ellis Miller
1996 Dark Skies Tobe Hooper 1 episode
1997 Don King: Only in America John Herzfeld TV movie
1999 Passing Glory Steve James
G vs E Jonas Pate 1 episode
2000 Hendrix Leon Ichaso TV movie
2002 Joe and Max Steve James


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Bill Butler
  2. ^ a b c d Bill Butler biography at The New York Times
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Hoffman, Andy (1 June 2014). "Award-winning cinematographer returns to Mount Pleasant". Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Bill Butler". 26 October 2002. Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Whyte, Jason (28 March 2005). "Bill Butler, Cinematographer - Profile Interview Series Vol. #7". Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  6. ^ Hill, Rodney F.; Phillips, Gene D.; Welsh, James M. (2010). The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9780810876514.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Shooting Jaws at 30". MovieMaker. 21 June 2005. Retrieved 2 February 2015.
  8. ^ a b c Freer, Ian. "Jaws Filmmaking 101". Empire. Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  9. ^ "Cinematographer Bill Butler To Shoot "Demon Seed"". Pittsburgh Press. 18 June 1976. Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  10. ^ a b c d "Bill Butler to Come to Charleston for Sixth Annual Charleston International Film Festival". 10 April 2013. Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  11. ^ Skir, James (12 January 2005). "JAWS Screenwriter & Cinematographer Appear at Hollywood's Master Storytellers Series at The Arclight". Archived from the original on 18 May 2015. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  12. ^ "Frailty : Production Notes". Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  13. ^ Stafford, Jeff. "The Conversation". Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  14. ^ "Conversation Pieces". 13 August 2009. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  15. ^ Townsend, Sylvia (19 December 2014). "Haskell Wexler and the Making of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'". Retrieved 2 March 2015.
  16. ^ Krause, Luana (5 August 2013). "The Conversation". Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  17. ^ a b Sweeney, Kenneth (October 2012). "Jaws (1975)". Retrieved 2 March 2012.
  18. ^ "HUMANITARIAN AWARD: CINEMATOGRAPHER HASKELL WEXLER". Location Managers Guild International. 15 April 2014. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  19. ^ "Bill Butler, Asc, On Shooting Graffiti Bridge with Prince". FILM & VIDEO Magazine. VPOP Technologies, Inc. 1990. Archived from the original on 7 February 2017. Retrieved 8 May 2015 – via Bill Butler's page].
  20. ^ University Communications (14 November 2006). "'Jaws' Cinematographer and Resident Artist to Speak at Screening". UA News. The University of Arizona. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  21. ^ "Cinematographer Bill Butler To Receive Charleston International Film Festival Inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award". Vimooz. 11 April 2013. Retrieved 8 May 2015.
  22. ^ "A Hundredth-Birthday Serenade, from Bill Murray". The New Yorker. 26 June 2021. Retrieved 11 July 2021.

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