Monday 1 September 2008


Because the cinematographer is so closely tied to the look and visual design of a film, one would think a graduation from DOP (aka Director of Photography) to Director would be a natural and common transition. The opposite is true. Throughout cinema history there have been surprisingly few successful films made by cinematographers, and fewer cinematographers who make the permanent transition to directing.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but many of the notable names who have contributed some great films as either director or cinematographer, or both.


Over the 100 years of cinema, there have been a few cinematographers who permanently made the jump from director of photography to director.

Nicholas Roeg

Roeg came up through the British film industry in the camera department: camera assistant, to camera operator, to second unit photography and finally the head of his department, the director of photography. Some notable early films includes second unit work on the famous train explosion sequence in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). As a full-fledged DOP Roeg lensed François Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451" (1966), John Schlesinger's Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) and Richard Lestor’s “Petulia” (1968). He embraced the zoom lens innovation – a dated look with today’s eyes, but his experimentation fit in well with the changing notions of cinematic language in the 60's. His solo directorial debut, “Walkabout” (1971) successfully established himself as a bonfide director. His directorial career continued through numerous hits and misses, such as “Don’t Look Now” (1973) , “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) and “Bad Timing” (1980).

Barry Sonnenfeld

Sonnenfeld was instrumental in helping to define the Coen Bros' distinctive visual style. Sonnenfeld shot the Coens' first three films, “Blood Simple” (1984), “Raising Arizona” (1987, and “Miller’s Crossing” (1990). He was also hired by other directors to shoot a number of successful hits in the late 80’s, “Big” (1988), “Throw Mama From the Train” (1987) and “When Harry Met Sally” (1988). His widelens and exagerrated style was so distinctive he seemed a natural to tackle his directorial debut, “The Addams Family” (1991)  and its sequel “Addams Family Values” (1993). Both were successful, and of course his stock would grow even higher with “Get Shorty” (1995) and “Men in Black” (1997). Since then it’s been over 10 years of successive flops, and it appears he has taken a break from feature films to concentrate on TV producing.

Jan de Bont

Like Roeg, De Bont came up through the camera department, but in the Netherlands. As a cinematographer his success was tied to the success of his compatriot Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven’s and De Bont’s first breakthrough was the Oscar nominated “Turkish Delight” (1973) . De Bont continued to work in Holland during the 70’s and was courted to Hollywood in the early 80’s lensing numerous films in all genres and styles “Cujo” (1983), “Jewel of the Nile” (1985) , and “Ruthless People” (1986). But it was work on action blockbusters such as “Die Hard” (1988), “The Hunt For Red October” (1990) and “Lethal Weapon 3” (1992) that gave producers confidence he could direct his first film, the ambitious high concept actioner “Speed” (1994). That success along with a “Twister” (1996) made him a bankable blockbuster action director. He hasn’t shot anything as cinematographer since 1992, and picks and chooses his director’s gig carefully.

Freddie Francis

One of the most interesting examples is the career Freddie Francis. A British cinematographer who started off as a DOP in the 40’s and 50’s, moved into directing in the 60’s and 70’s, then went back to become an even better cinematographer in the 80’s and 90’s. Francis shot a number of British films in the 60’s, including Jack Cardiff’s “Sons and Lovers” (1960). The film would win Francis the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Later that decade Francis fell in with Hammer Studios and became one of their stalwart directors. Francis directed over 20 genre horror films, including “Paranoiac” (1963), and “The Evil of Frankenstein” (1964). Later he worked with a similar low budget genre studio Amicus Productions on more b-movies, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1968). Francis was lured back into cinematography by David Lynch in “The Elephant Man” (1980) – a glorious B&W production. He would go on to shoot “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981), “Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” (1991) and win is second Oscar 29 years after his first for “Glory” (1989).

Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff is a legend in British cinema. His renowned work with Powell and Pressburger included “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946), “Black Narcissus” (1947) and then his Oscar-winning colour cinematography on “The Red Shoes” (1948). Cardiff also shots films for Alfred Hitchcock (“Under Capricorn” 1948), and John Huston (“The African Queen” 1951). He made the transition to directing in the 50’s, but had his first major success with “Sons and Lovers” (1960) which garnered seven Oscar nominations, including, as mentioned above, the win for Freddie Francis’ cinematography. He continued directing in the 60’s and 70’s– a number unimpressive works. But like Francis Cardiff went back cinematography and lensed some interesting films in his elder age, including shooting “Rambo First Blood Part II” (1985) as a 71 year old!

Mikael Salomon

Mikael Salomon’s career mirrors that of Jan De Bont’s – a European cinematographer, who began shooting films in Europe (a native of Sweden), before coming to Hollywood and becoming a sought after specialist in blockbuster photography. His best work in Hollywood includes his luscious 70mm work in “Far and Away” (1992), “Backdraft” (1991) and his suffering through the James Cameron tantrums on “The Abyss” (1989). Salomon's directorial debut was unsuccessful, the South African coming of age film "A Far Off Place" (1993). His work in the water likely got him his next gig as director, the forgettable disaster film, “ Hard Rain” (1995). While the big screen wasn’t kind to him, he became one of best directors working in event television. His episodes of “Band of Brothers” (2001) were some of the best episodes of television ever produced, and his mini-series “The Company” (2007) became the definitive dramatization of the history of the CIA.

Ronald Neame

Neame was another Brit who was allowed to work his way through the department hierarchy to a director of photography, then transition into directing his own films. His notable works as DOP were some of the early David Lean films, “In Which We Serve” (1942), “This Happy Breed” (1944) and “Blithe Spirit” (1945) – all brilliantly composed and lit films. But Neame would become better known as a director and enjoy 30 years of great filmmaking. In the 60’s, his modern classic “Tunes of Glory” (1960) is one of the greatest British films ever made. In the 1970’s he became one of Irwin Allen’s go-to men for his lavish disaster films, “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972) and “Meteor” (1979).

Ernest Dickerson

Dickerson collaborated with Spike Lee on his first five films, including Lee's two seminal films "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "Malcolm X" (1992) . After "X" Dickerson abandoned cinematography and became a full time director. Unfortunately his career as director hasn't been as acclaimed as his photography. After a series of mediocre action/thrillers, Dickerson, like Mikael Salomon found his success on television. He's a regular on cable TV series, specifically his work directing "The Wire".


A number of successful cinematographers have tested the waters with directing with one or two films, but went back to cinematography.

Haskell WexlerMedium Cool (1968)

The most prominent example of the ‘one-off’ director is Haskell Wexler’s inspired drama/documentary hybrid “Medium Cool” (1969). Wexler is one of cinema’s great DOPs, responsible for such great films as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “American Graffiti” (1973) and “Bound for Glory” (1978). Wexler was and still is a passionate social advocate and rebel. He is also a Chicagoan, and so when he heard a protest was being organized during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, he took his camera and some actors and shot a semi-improvisational film about journalists covering the Convention and the protest. It’s a groundbreaking film blurring the line between drama and reality. Wexler would go on to direct a few documentaries, and another drama in 1984 “Latino” but “Medium Cool” remains that shining asterix on a multi-award-winning career as a cinematographer.

Sven NykvistThe Oxen (1992)

Sven Nykvist is also legend in cinematography. His collaboration with Ingmar Bergman spanned 22 years and 15 films. But he also worked with Woody Allen, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Norman Jewison. Nykvist’s only full-length feature film is a marvelous one-off emotional stunner, “The Oxen”, starring Bergman alumni Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman. It’s a sparse and tragic film about a poor Swedish labourer who kills his employer’s oxen to feed his family, then suffers through the fall out of this seemingly innocent crime. Though little remembered now, it was acclaimed enough to garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film in 1992.

Michael ChapmanAll the Right Moves (1983)

Chapman’s stylish work with Martin Scorsese on “Taxi Driver” (1976), and “Raging Bull” (1980) cemented his place in cinema history. In 1983, Chapman ventured into directing with an unlikely film, “All the Right Moves”, a sports film about high school football, starring a young Tom Cruise. While not a showcase for it’s cinematography, it captured perfectly the despair of a dying working class town and the pressure of high school football on its young players. The film would help establish Cruise’s career, and though it was a moderate success, Chapman directing career wasn’t jumpstarted. He would go on to make the 80’s adventure story “Clan of the Cave Bear” (1986), but then went back to shoot many more classic films as a director of photography.


And then there are those talent filmmakers who chose to act as their own DOP. Many indie filmmakers do it out of necessity, for lack of budget or labour (ie. Shane Carruth who did everything on “Primer”). Some directors started their careers using a separate DOP then just started shooting their films themselves.

Steven Soderbergh

If you watch the credits on any Soderbergh film since “Traffic” (2000), you’ll see his cinematographer listed as ‘Peter Andrews’ – that's Soderbergh’s own alias. After years of collaborating, I assume with frustrating results, Soderbergh said those words, ‘fuck it, I’ll just shoot it myself’. Since 2002, he’s shot 10 films on his own, so there’s no stopping the talented man.

Robert Rodriguez

Like Shane Carruth, Rodriguez performed all the key creative roles on his micro-budget masterpiece “El Mariachi” (1992). After then he employed Mexican DOP Guillermo Navarro to shoot his films, “Desperado” (1995) , “From Dusk Till Dawn” (1996) and “Spy Kids” (2001). But for “Spy Kids 2” and beyond, Rodriguez said, “Fuck it, I’ll shoot it myself”. Why not, Rodriguez already cuts and composes his films as well.

Peter Hyams

Hyams is one of the best directors of 80’s and 90’s action/thriller cinema – “The Presidio” (1988) and “Narrow Margin” (1990). In the later 70’s/early 80’s he made a series of taut thrillers, “Capricorn One” (1979), “Outland” (1981) and “Star Chamber” (1983). Each film he used a different DOP. Again, perhaps it was a frustrating experience, when he could do the job just as well. And so Hyams said, “fuck it, I'll shoot it myself”, and starting with "2010"(1984) became his own cinematographer. Hyams perfected his own distinct style comprised of long lenses and smoke-filled interiors to create an elegant and beautifying hazy look.


We don’t need to dwell too long on the failures of directorial works of renowned DOPs - there have been many. But here’s one which must be mentioned, only because it was the only film directed by one of the absolute greats of all time.

Gordon WillisWindows (1980)

Does anyone remember this film directed by the great lensman of "The Godfather" and "Manhattan"? A lesbian peeping tom film with Talia Shire from 1980. No? Needless to say Willis never directed another film. It was nominated for 5 Razzies! Willis smartly kept his day job.


Anonymous said...

What about Tony Kaye directing American History X?

Anonymous said...

A few points on Jan De Bont:

1. Jan De Bont lensed Lethal Weapon 3, not Lethal Weapon 2.

2. Jan De Bont directed "The Haunting" with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones in 1999.

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks for the Jan de Bont correction. I'll make the change.

Anonymous said...

How do you not mention Caleb Deschanel in this list?

He still works (with success) as both a director and a DP.