Major Directors Who Started As Cinematographers

Film directors come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some begin their careers as writers. Others get their start in the editing room. As you'd expect, plenty of them learn their craft behind the camera. Cinematographers are responsible for the actual look of a film. They're in charge of the lighting and camera departments and it's up to them to create images that trick the eye into thinking that everything on screen looks real.

Plenty of cinematographers have tried their hand at directing. Some have found massively successful careers and some of the best camera masters in the business have tried and failed. These are 10 of the most noteworthy cinematographers to make that jump.

Wally Pfister

Even if you don't know his name, you're familiar with Wally Pfister's work. As Christopher Nolan's constant companion, he shot Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, making him responsible for the look of the some of the biggest movies of all time. He also made Moneyball, a movie about baseball stats, look gorgeous! We can only assume he learned a trick or two from Nolan when he steps into the blockbuster arena with his directorial debut, Transcendence, opening this weekend.

 

Barry Sonnenfeld

As a cinematographer, Barry Sonnenfeld shot horror movies like Misery and classic rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally. He turned his camera on Tom Hanks in Big and helped launch the career of the Coen brothers with Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing. His camera career is a laundry list of classics, so it's strange that his directorial career is a laundry list of massive blockbuster hits (the Men in Black trilogy), spectacular bombs (Wild Wild West), and star-studded projects that you forgot even existed (RV).

 

Freddie Francis

Once upon a time, Freddie Francis won an Oscar for his cinematography in Sons and Lovers. And then he took on directing, helming B-horror movies with fantastic titles like The Deadly Bees, Torture Garden and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. And then he teamed up with the great David Lynch and shot The Elephant Man and Dune. And then he won another Oscar for his cinematography on Glory and worked with the legendary Martin Scorsese on Cape Fear. The career of Freddie Francis is guaranteed to give you some serious whiplash.

 

Ernest Dickerson

For awhile, Ernest Dickerson was the go-to cinematographer for Spike Lee, shooting classics like She's Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. Fans of comedy should know his name as well since he ran the camera department on Eddie Murphy's Raw concert film.These days, Dickerson has left cinematography behind to become one of Hollywood's most prolific TV directors, helming episodes of The Walking Dead, Dexter, Treme, The Wire, Weeds, ER, Heroes and Burn Notice. In other words, the guy who shot some of the most controversial movies of all time also made your favorite television shows.

 

Haskell Wexler

A two-time Oscar winner for his cinematography on Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? and Bound for Glory, Haskell Wexler also shot classics like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Coming Home and In the Heat of the Night. In between shooting masterpieces, he was directing documentaries, including 2013's Four Days in Chicago. However, his career high as a director came with Medium Cool, which has evolved into one of the most important films of the '60s. He's 88 years old and still directing and shooting movies. What are you doing?

 

Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff shot some of the most beautiful technicolor films of the '40s, including Stairway to Heaven, The Red Shows and Black Narcissus. Four decades later, he shot Conan the Destroyer and Rambo: First Blood Part II, proving that he could also photograph great junk food cinema. However, his directing career failed to truly take off. Despite the masterpieces he shot, his directorial resume includes long-forgotten movies like Intent to Kill, Web of Evidence and Scent of Mystery. But who cares? The man was director of photography on The African Queen and Ghost Story.

 

Jan De Bont

Before he directed Hollywood action blockbusters like Speed, Twister and the Tomb Raider sequel, Jan De Bont was the go-to guy to shoot Hollywood action blockbusters. His cinematographer credits will blow the mind of any '80s and '90s action fan: Basic Instinct, Lethal Weapon 3, The Hunt for Red October, Flatliners, Black Rain and, of course, Die Hard. He also shot Leonard Part 6 and directed Speed 2: Cruise Control, but let's not hold that against him.

 

Michael Chapman

Some of the most prolific cinematographers don't exactly break the mold as directors. Michael Chapman is a perfect example. A glance at his directorial efforts will earn only a shrug (unless you happen to be a fan of All the Right Moves or Clan of the Cave Bear), but his career as a director of photography is nothing short of astonishing. He shot Martin Scorsese movies like Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz and Raging Bull. He made the Steve Martin comedies Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and The Man with Two Brains look far better than the average comedy. And attention children of the '90s: he was the cinematographer on Kindergarten Cop and Space Jam.

 

Andrzej Bartkowiak

Someone has to make entertaining, middle-of-the-road Hollywood flicks and Andrzej Bartkowiak knows a thing or two about that. As a cinematographer, he was behind the camera for Twins, Falling Down, Speed, Species, Dante's Peak, The Devil's Advocate and Thirteen Days, showcasing a knack for making mainstream movies look slick. His directorial efforts are in a similar vein: people don't exactly lose their minds over Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds and Doom, but they're competent and entertaining films. He's also operated on other ends of the good/bad spectrum, shooting acclaimed films like Terms of Endearment and The Verdict and directing disasters like Cradle 2 the Grave and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.

 

Mario Bava

One of the most famous horror filmmakers of all time, Mario Bava didn't just direct his movies: he shot many them as well, rarely giving himself the proper credit. He cut his teeth as cinematographer by toiling away in the world of low-budget Italian cinema, photographing cheesy sword-and-sandals films like Hercules Unchained and sci-fi B movies like The Day the Sky Exploded. Whatever tricks he learned shooting movies like that paid off when he dove into the world of directing horror movies, where he helmed infamous titles like Black Sabbath, Planet of the Vampires, Rabid Dogs and A Bay of Blood.

 

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