Bill Butler Obituary, Death – Bill Butler, the Oscar-nominated self-taught cinematographer whose work on the famous 1975 horror picture Jaws launched a wave of terror for beachgoers that continues to this day, died on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. According to the American Society of Cinematographers, Butler died Wednesday evening in Los Angeles. He is survived by his wife, Iris, and five daughters. During his five-decade career, Butler also worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) and The Conversation (1974); Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1977); Randal Kleiser’s hit musical Grease (1978); and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982), and Rocky IV (1985). Butler took over for the fired Haskell Wexler midway through production on Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. Both received Oscar nominations for cinematography for their efforts.
Butler had also taken over for Wexler on The Conversation after creative disputes led Wexler to leave the project early on. Butler also shot Jack Nicholson’s 1971 directorial debut, Drive, He Said; the horror sci-fi Demon Seed (1977); the skating drama Ice Castles (1978); the 1980 musical Can’t Stop the Music; the Ivan Reitman comedy Stripes (1981); and the 1997 scary snake picture Anaconda. Butler had previously worked with Steven Spielberg on the telefilms Something Evil (starring Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin) and Savage (with Martin Landau) in the early 1970s. He happened to run into the director in the Universal Studios parking lot one day and said, “I hear you’re making a fish movie.” Butler stated that his objective for Jaws was for the early scenes on Amity Island to mimic the regional and realistic manner of Andrew Wyeth paintings, and then contrast them with darker, violent imagery.
The early morning assault on the first victim (Susan Backlinie) that starts the picture, the Vertigo-inspired dolly zoom that accompanies Chief Brody’s (Roy Scheider) amazement at witnessing a shark attack from the beach, and the extreme close-ups of panicked swimmers were among his classic shots. Butler stated in Patrick Jankiewicz’s 2015 book, Just When You Thought It Was Safe: A Jaws Companion, “I brought a lot of new things to the picture, such as hand-holding the camera.” “In the old days, they used a giant gimbal, which weighs around 400 pounds and is slow and difficult to set up but keeps the camera level.” Simply by trying, I discovered that I could hand-hold the camera on an ocean-going boat and keep it level by using my knees. “When I told Steven I was going to shoot the picture hand-held, he fainted.”
“On Jaws, Bill Butler was the bedrock on that rickety, rocking boat called the Orca,” Spielberg said in a statement. He was the only peace in the midst of the storm, and as we engaged in a battle against nature and technology that exhausted both of us, the audience eventually won the war. Bill’s view on life was pragmatic, philosophical, and patient, and I owe him a great deal for his consistent and imaginative contributions to the overall design of Jaws.” Butler photographed stunt footage and the opening-title scene while the camera skimmed across the river as a second-unit photographer on John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), an event that strongly impacted his Jaws technique. Butler explained how Deliverance cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond shot the famous rapids sequence before approaching Panavision to build a watertight plastic and glass floating box that would allow him to shoot at sea level for Jaws.
In 2005, he claimed, “We were able to dip just slightly into the water to show the audience a scene from the shark’s perspective.” “Swimmers’ dangling legs looked like dinner to the shark.” In addition, Panavision contributed an underwater camera. It was massive but quite stable underwater and simple to operate.” Jaws’ set production issues became famous. The film began without a finalized script, the gigantic mechanical shark malfunctioned, and the original 55-day shoot ballooned to 159 days with a drastically overinflated budget that nearly doubled to $9 million. Spielberg was terrified that he would be sacked at any time. “‘I’ll tell you something, it’s been a week and we’re still here,’ I said Steve. You have nothing to be concerned about. They must think we’ve got a terrific thing going here, otherwise we’d be gone, because we’ve gone further than any Universal picture has ever gone!’ ”
Despite the difficulties, Jaws got Oscar nominations for picture, soundtrack, editing, and sound (winning all but the top prize), but Butler’s name was left out of the cinematography category. The summer blockbuster was the highest-grossing film of all time ($470 million) until 1977’s Star Wars surpassed it. Wilmer Butler was born in Cripple Creek, Colorado, on April 7, 1921, and raised in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. He recalled seeing The Jazz Singer (1927) when he was six years old. Butler met Friedkin, then a floor manager at the Chicago station, while working as a cameraman for WGN-TV in the early 1960s, years after graduating with a degree in engineering from the University of Iowa.
In The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir, the Exorcist director writes, “We shared a common love of film, and we each harbored a desire to make them one day.” That day arrived when Friedkin began work on a TV documentary on a 32-year-old African-American death row inmate. He hired Butler as cinematographer for The People vs. Paul Crump (1962), and the two worked on the 52-minute piece when they weren’t at the station. “When you see the power that a little piece of 16mm film can bring to you, you are inspired to go ahead and pursue a career in the field,” Butler remarked in 1994. In 1965, he and Friedkin collaborated on the David Wolper NBC documentary The Bold Men and the Sonny & Cher musical comedy Good Times. (1967). Butler passed away just a few days before his 102nd birthday.