Bill Butler (cinematographer)

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Bill Butler
Born Butler, Wilmer C.
(1921-04-07) 7 April 1921 (age 94)
Cripple Creek, Colorado, U.S.
Nationality American
Occupation Cinematographer
Years active 1969 – present
Spouse(s) Alma H. Smith (m. 1943–83)
Iris Butler (m. 1984)
Children Genevieve Butler,
Chelsea Butler
Awards American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award

Wilmer C. “Bill” Butler, A.S.C. (born April 7, 1921) is an American cinematographer, part of the New Hollywood generation. He shot The Conversation (1974), Jaws (1975), and three Rocky sequels. He completed 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest after Haskell Wexler was fired from the production.

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 was mainly raised in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a small college town.[3][4] Also at the age of five, he saw the first sound film, The Jazz Singer (1927).[5] He graduated from Mount Pleasant High School in 1940.[3]

Butler attended Ohio Wesleyan University, Iowa Wesleyan College and the University of Iowa.[1][2][3] In the latter university, Butler was majoring in electronics.[1][6] 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] It was at his tenure with WGN, where Butler met William Friedkin.[1]

Friedkin asked Butler to be his cinematographer on a documentary he was making, The People vs. Paul Crump, which 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][7] who was introduced to him by Friedkin.[1] Then Butler relocated to Los Angeles in 1970.[4]

“I did some work with director Phil(ip) 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."[8] Butler would then take charge of cinematography for two of Spielberg's earliest films, Something Evil (1972) and Savage (1973).[8][9]

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),[10] as well as for Capricorn One (1978), Stripes (1981), Biloxi Blues (1988), Child's Play (1988), Graffiti Bridge (1990), Flipper (1996), Anaconda (1997) and Deceiver (1997).[4][11] 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 even worked in films during the 2000s, such as Frailty (2002) and Funny Money (2006).[5][12] Bill Paxton, the director of the former film, said of Butler, "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?'" The respect was mutual, as 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."[13]

Butler is also notable for being a replacement to Haskell Wexler on two occasions: The Conversation (1974; also directed by Coppola)[14][15] and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).[16][17]


Butler had heard that Spielberg was preparing to shoot Jaws (1975), mainly at practical locations on Martha’s Vineyard in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He also knew that Universal Studios wanted Spielberg to hire an east coast cameraman and crew to reduce costs. “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.[8]

Butler assembled an east coast crew, including 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-pound gimbal. Spielberg embraced the idea. "About 90 percent 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.”[8]

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 vigorously reconfigured the standard “water box” casing used to hold a camera in the water. He also is acknowledged for heroically 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 loose a foot,” said Butler.[18]

Butler also created a pontoon camera raft with a waterproof housing that achieved those trademark water level shots that gave a Shark fin POV. 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.[9]

Butler originally envisioned the look of Jaws to start in bright summer sunshine and then become more ominous as the shark hunt goes on but shooting at sea put pay to such a controlled palette. The first half remains a riot of vibrant primary colours. In lensing Amity, Butler was inspired by the work of painters such as Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth in their view of an America untainted by urban life.[9]

Awards, nominations and honors[edit]

Butler was nominated for an Academy Award (shared the nomination with Wexler)[19] and a BAFTA Film Award for his work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and has won Emmys for Raid on Entebbe (1977) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1984).[1][2][3][6][11]

On February 16, 2003, Butler received the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award.[4][5][8] His memorable and influential work on Jaws is one of the many reasons the ASC honored him with the award,[18] 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 was also 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.[11][21]

Personal life[edit]

Butler resides in Montana.[11] On June 1, 2014, Butler returned to his hometown, Mount Pleasant, for a reception honoring his career.[3]

Butler has two daughters, Genevieve and Chelsea, and they are film/television actresses.[1]

Selected filmography[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Bill Butler
  2. ^ a b c d e Bill Butler biography at The New York Times
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i 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 g Whyte, Jason (28 March 2005). "Bill Butler, Cinematographer - Profile Interview Series Vol. #7". Retrieved 2 March 2015. 
  6. ^ a b "Bill Butler, Asc, On Shooting Graffiti Bridge with Prince". Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  7. ^ Hill, Rodney F.; Phillips, Gene D.; Welsh, James M. (2010). The Francis Ford Coppola Encyclopedia. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9780810876514. 
  8. ^ a b c d e "Shooting Jaws at 30". MovieMaker. 21 June 2005. Retrieved 2 February 2015. 
  9. ^ a b c Freer, Ian. "Jaws Filmmaking 101". Empire. Retrieved 2 March 2015. 
  10. ^ "Cinematographer Bill Butler To Shoot "Demon Seed"". Pittsburgh Press. 18 June 1976. Retrieved 2 March 2015. 
  11. ^ a b c d "Bill Butler to Come to Charleston for Sixth Annual Charleston International Film Festival". 10 April 2013. Retrieved 2 March 2015. 
  12. ^ Skir, James (12 January 2005). "JAWS Screenwriter & Cinematographer Appear at Hollywood’s Master Storytellers Series at The Arclight". Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  13. ^ "Frailty : Production Notes". Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  14. ^ Stafford, Jeff. "The Conversation". Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  15. ^ "Conversation Pieces". 13 August 2009. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  16. ^ Townsend, Sylvia (19 December 2014). "Haskell Wexler and the Making of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’". Retrieved 2 March 2015. 
  17. ^ Krause, Luana (5 August 2013). "The Conversation". Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  18. ^ a b Sweeney, Kenneth (October 2012). "Jaws (1975)". Retrieved 2 March 2012. 
  20. ^ "'Jaws' Cinematographer and Resident Artist to Speak at Screening". 14 November 2006. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  21. ^ "Cinematographer Bill Butler To Receive Charleston International Film Festival Inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award". 11 April 2013. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 

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