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Bill Butler, 'Jaws' cinematographer, dies at 101

Director Steven Spielberg, camera operator Michael Chapman and cinematographer Bill Butler on the set of the Universal Pictures production of 'Jaws' in 1975.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Director Steven Spielberg, camera operator Michael Chapman and cinematographer Bill Butler on the set of the Universal Pictures production of 'Jaws' in 1975.

Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bill Butler died Wednesday, just days before his 102nd birthday, according to the American Society of Cinematographers. He was known for shooting Jaws and other iconic films.

As director of photography, Butler collaborated with such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassavetes, and Steven Spielberg. In fact, he shot two of Spielberg's TV films (Something Evil and Savage) before lensing the 1975 blockbuster Jaws.

For the shark thriller, Butler reportedly went all out, with cameras under and above the water.

"Psychologically, it got the audience thinking that the shark was just out of sight," Butler told MovieMaker Magazine. "You felt its presence on a subconscious level. We were also able to dip just slightly into the water to show the audience a scene from the shark's perspective. The dangling legs of swimmers looked like dinner to the shark."

On location near Martha's Vineyard, Butler and his camera operator shot from boats, getting steady shots with hand-held cameras. A 1975 article in American Cinematographer magazine noted that Butler saved footage from a camera that sank during a storm.

Butler had a hand in many other legendary films. He'd been a second unit photographer on the 1972 film Deliverance, reportedly shooting stunt footage and the opening-title sequence. He also shot three Rocky sequels (Rocky II , Rocky III and Rocky IV) and pictures including Grease, The Conversation, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, for which he earned an Oscar nomination. (He shared it with cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who he replaced midway through production).

He also won Emmy Awards for shooting Raid on Entebbe and a TV version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Wilmer C. Butler was born in in Cripple Creek Colorado in 1921, and graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in engineering. He began as an engineer at a radio station in Gary Indiana. In Chicago, he operated video cameras and helped design the television stations for the ABC affiliate and also WGN-TV.

In 1962, Butler began shooting documentaries for William Friedkin, starting with The People vs. Paul Crump, about a young African-American prisoner on death row.

Butler's cinematography career spanned from 1962 to 2016. The ASC honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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