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Bill Butler, Cinematographer - Profile Interview Series Vol. #7

Bill Butler, Cinematographer Extraordinare
by Jason Whyte

Jaws. The Conversation. Frailty. Grease. Stripes. Rocky II-IV. When one normally thinks of these films, you think of a terrorizing shark, Gene Hackman playing a corrupt surveillance expert, Bill Paxtonís creepy horror film, John Travolta with greasy hair, Bill Murray being funny and Sly Stallone constantly beating his bad-ass competition. These are well-known films made by great filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Randal Kleiser, Harold Ramis and many others. But the partial reason for these filmsí successes is the talent that goes on behind the scene, and noted cinematographer Bill Butler is the genius behind the camera of these motion pictures (among many others).

Butler, a graduate of engineering from the University of Iowa, first had his hand in radio and television work in Chicago, where he worked as a camera operator for live programs and commercials at WGN-TV, which began his path into his work as a director of photography. Now, at 73 years old, his vast experience has made him one of the cornerstones of film photography in American cinema. His constant output of hard work and his deep knowledge of old and new technology has made him one of the most respected cinematographers out there. In 2003, he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement by the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) for his work. Today, Bill Butler is still working on new projects, and is sought out by filmmakers, both major and independent, for his watchful eye.

I had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Butler about his career (and also talk shop, so be forewarned that thereís a bit of tech-talk in here as well) while attending a film forum dedicated to his work at this yearís Victoria Film Festival.

Jason Whyte: So Iím just going to let this tape roll and feel free to just say whatís on your mind-
Bill Butler:
Iím not good at making stuff up, soÖ(laughs)

JW: I am interested in Cinematography, and when I found you were coming to the Victoria Film Festival I thought it would be a great idea to talk about your career and your immense body of work. Iíve been very curious as to how you got your start in this industry, your education, and so forth; basically how you wound up as who you are today.
BB: It would be easy to tell you about my film school background since, simply, I did not go to any film school. (Laughs) The way that I learned to shoot pictures was to go directly to the movies and see what somebody else was doing on screen, and then going out and trying to do it myself. And that was it. I also bought the manual that the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) puts out, which is known as the bible of filmmaking. I read the manual and referred to it when I ever had a shooting problem and thought that I needed help on.

JW: When you first started watching movies, besides going to see a great story, were you noticing things like framing, lighting, widescreen formatsÖ
BB: Not at all. At first, I wasnít interested technically. I just went to the movies like anyone else. But I was impressed by them. I was about five years old when I saw the first sound movie ever made (The Jazz Singer) and I was impressed by that. But at a very subconscious level, I suspect, even though I used to ride along in a car and hear my father sing ďSonny BoyĒ, it was just an experience that was buried in my psyche somewhere. I didnít start shooting motion pictures until I was about 40 years old.

JW: What was the first actual job that you had in this industry?
BB: A guy by the name of William FriedkinÖ

JW: Oh, Iím a fan. (laughs)
BB: (Laughs) Absolutely. I decided to shoot some documentaries, so we decided to start shooting some documentaries together. He used techniques on The French Connection that we learned together as were shooting documentaries in the early-to-mid 1960ís. One of which, The People vs. Paul Crump (a 1962 documentary that aired on television) actually saved a young manís life from the electric chair. When you see the power a little piece of 16mm film will bring to you, you are inspired to go ahead and pursue a career in the field, and thatís exactly what I did.

JW: What would you consider the most difficult aspect of your job as a cinematographer?
BB: The harder films are usually the big ones that require controlling a lot of people and a lot of cameras, and over a large area or sometimes many locations. Keeping that organized is something that some cinematographers are not capable of, so they do smaller films. Smaller films can be just as difficult for them, because the pressure of a small film means that they may not have the time to properly gather their footage, and thatís another definite pressure thatís equally challenging.

JW: Would you say have a personal style to your work, or does it depend on the director for each project?
BB: I think everybody can not help but have their own style and it comes from the personality; it comes from what they feel is beautiful, it comes from what they think a good composition is; how they see the world can not help but invade what they do.

JW: How do you feel that the advance of technology has affected your job? By that I mean newer film stocks, the advance of high-definition, the digital revolutionÖ.
BB: All of the things that you mentioned definitely affect my job, and affect what I do and how I do it. Itís a challenge for me to keep up information-wise to know what these things all mean. If youíre talking about digital photography, the challenge is to know how to get the best quality and which system is best to use. Some of these systems use compression, there are several kinds of compressions; it is important to understand what that is and what it means.

For example, The new Viper cameras do not use compression at all, but records onto a hard disk and adds the corrections later. They claim by that to get better quality, and so on; the point is that it is important to understand all of these things, to make a decision on your own part if youíre shooting digital, which system you want to use. Panasonic has a system where they use curves to correct what their camera does so it looks more like film and that is quite impressive.

JW: Where do you stand on high-definition versus 35mm film?
BB: It isnít a matter of just having an opinion, but your opinion must be based on fact. And the fact is that film is probably about twice the quality that the best high-definition has. Film still is the best. Part of the reason is the latitude that you get on film far exceeds anything that you can get on high-definition video yet, at this point in time. Someday it may get better, but at the moment, film far out-reaches the quality of the amount of information that can be captured in one little area. Film still stands as the leader, and the new stock that Kodak is putting out has an extra stop of latitude towards to both top and bottom. Itís absolutely beautiful.

JW: Whatís your favourite kind of stock that youíve worked with. I know weíre getting REALLY technical right now, but I love it. (laughs)
BB: I stand with Kodak film, and their new stock that has the extra latitude, you can get it in both their 500 ASA film and you can get it in their daylight stock as well. It just keeps getting better.

JW: How about release prints? Do you have a favourite?
BB: It depends. Kodak has more than one choice of stock to print for release. For example, one is softer, one shows more detail, and so forth. You have to choose your stock in accordance with the picture you are releasing. There isnít one best one. Itís one that shows off your product the best.

JW: Do you have a personal preference in which aspect ratio to shoot in for each project?
BB: It doesnít matter too much in which aspect the director decides to shoot in. Itís a different composition; you compose differently in one format against the other. Close-ups are easier in the spherical 1.85:1 format, and in any of the widescreen formats you have to do it a little differently. They both work and they both have their own challenges. If youíre showing a large horizontal view and you want the widescreen to show the territory, then thatís a good choice. If itís a little, tight, personal film, then maybe not.

JW: Where do you stand on the Super 35 widescreen format? (Super 35 is a spherical widescreen process where the filmís negative is shot in the 1.85:1 ďFlatĒ format and then optically converted to an anamorphic release print.
BB: Super 35 is a great format. Itís one of the best choices that you can make today, and the reason itís better now is because of digital intermediate printing.

JW: Exactly, which was actually my next question, how digital intermediates have changed film processing in the labs today.
BB: It changes in this manner; If youíre shooting in widescreen, Super 35, because all of the projectors and houses that are distributing film have to squeeze the image in order to use their lens -- which is a little stupid but itís a money thing Ė you then have to go through one step further away in film in Super 35 to get it back to a squeezed image. You no longer have to do that with a digital intermediate.

JW: Whatís great too is recently that digital intermediates have recently went up to 4k resolution as opposed to 2k resolution, which greatly enhances print quality. ďSpider-Man 2Ē and ďI, RobotĒ are examples of films shot in Super 35 and DIíed to 4k resolution and they look absolutely breathtaking on screen.
BB: Oh yeah. Youíre doubling your image quality, digitally, but they still have to back off the film quality a little bitÖ

JW: But I still want it to look like film. Youíre going to a theatre to see FILM, not digital. A lot of the films shot in HD look a bit disappointing to me [when transferred to filmÖ]
BB: Digital both in sound and in picture has a harsher quality, and in fact sometimes the detail lacks the softness that you get from a lens, especially a lens thatís out of focus in the background and sharp focus in the foreground, which tends to bring that image forward and focus your attention on it better. In situations like that, sometimes the digital doesnít feel quite as right, it isnít quite as natural; and by natural in the terms of a wood in a tree or the feel of someoneís hand. That kind of human experience, youíre kind of further away in digital sometimes than you are in film.

JW: And youíre still hard at work. What are you working on right now?
BB: I just finished a picture in Romania with Chevy Chase entitled Funny Money and weíre editing that right now. Itís being put together as we speak.

JW: Who would you say are some of your favourite cinematographers? Do you have any major influences to your work?
BB: Vittoro Storaro is one of the greats --

JW: Oh, absolutely. His work on Apocalypse Now, my favourite film, is unforgettable.
BB: Apocalypse Now was offered to me and I didnít follow up on it because I had worked with Coppola quite a bit and I was also working with new filmmakers at that point. But as for Storaro, heís one of the many great cinematographers out there, although I donít want to put one above the other, and the reason I donít is because as great as Storaro is, heís different from the other cinematographers out there.

Storaro likes to come up with new formats and new ways of developing film and heís done a lot of that over the years. A lot of other people have tried it, but again, it depends on who you are and what you think is great. If itís worth the effort, if you see the difference, then great. A lot of times, when you try to take someone elseís technique and reproduce it, youíre not after the same vision and you fail. Frankly, Iím very inventive about the things that I do, and I would rather pursue ideas of my own simply because I know what Iím after rather than copying someone else.

JW: What would you say is your favourite photographed film of all time? Or even your favourite movie?
BB: Iíd rather not have to make a choice (laughs) because when you say favourite, itís almost like voting for the best actor of the year which I think is totally ridiculous (laughs) because one is as talented as the other. You may like it better because of the script or the director directing the actor, but it is really unfair to say ďthis one is better than the otherĒ because it would be equally nonsense for me from all of the great movies that have been made out there and go ďI like that one better than ANY other one!Ē (We both laugh)

JW: I like that answer. I always ask this out of all of my interviews and I really admire the different, broad answers that I get. I either get a brilliant response like that or I get somebody who says ďI see hundreds of films a year and THIS one is my #1 of all timeĒ. And while I choose Apocalypse Now as mine, itís just an answer to a question, really, itís the one that I choose even though I have about 100 favourite films of all time. (Laughs)
BB: Absolutely. At any given moment if Iím sitting in a theatre and Iím inspired I would feel that way at a time, but to sit down and think about it, itís apples and oranges. Different movies are great for different reasons!

Thanks to Bill Butler and Nora Arajs from the Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival for arranging this interview. This is another chapter in a series of interviews where a filmmaker or actor is profiled for our site. Any comments or questions can be sent to Jason at

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originally posted: 03/28/05 06:35:28
last updated: 03/28/05 13:34:28
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