5 Notable Cinematographers Who Started From the Bottom

Posted on: Jan 04, 2024

Haskell Wexler at a movie premiere event smiling in a suit and shades.Photo courtesy of s_bukley // Shutterstock

By Benjamin Hickson

When you’re starting in the industry, it can be daunting to imagine becoming a director, producer or director of photography.

As a production assistant, it may seem nearly impossible to become the next legend in the industry. Working hard and staying motivated are essential and can lead to substantial career progression.

As an aspiring cinematographer and a fan of movies, I have always looked up to these legendary cinematographers and wondered if any of them started the same way I have. Like any industry, it’s comforting to know that some of the most notable and well-known cinematographers started somewhere at the bottom and were able to achieve greatness.

1. John Alcott

John Alcott is considered to be one of the greatest cinematographers out there. A frequent collaborator with Stanley Kubrick, Alcott started his career as a clapper boy. From there he was able to move up to lighting cameraman for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where he shot the iconic “Dawn of Man” sequence.

His hard work led him to become director of photography for A Clockwork Orange. Clockwork propelled Alcott to the top of his field, where he went on to help create some of the most important films of the century, including The Shining and Barry Lyndon, which earned him an Oscar.

2. Michael Chapman

One of the most prominent cinematographers of the 70s and 80s, Michael Chapman started his career as an assistant cameraman and focus puller on commercials. He soon became a camera operator, eventually operating on very well-known films such as The Godfather and Jaws.

Chapman was Martin Scorsese’s go-to cinematographer, where he honed his craft to help create remarkable films, including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

3. Tonino Delli Colli

Known for his contribution to the Western film genre, Tonino Delli Colli is one of the greatest Italian cinematographers.

Delli Colli began working at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios at the age of 16, starting as an assistant to Mario Albertelli. By the mid-1940s, he was working as a cinematographer, shooting the first Italian film in color.

He grew to create over 100 films, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in America.

4. Haskell Wexler

Haskell Wexler, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer best known for films that include In the Heat of the Night and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, began his career by shooting industrial films at Midwest factories and creating educational videos. From there, he began working as an assistant cameraman for low-budget features and short films.

Wexler’s hard work began gaining notoriety for his craft behind the camera. Over time, he became one of the most influential cinematographers among many of his peers.

5. Dana Gonzales

Dana Gonzales is a talented cinematographer who has worked in TV and film for decades. Like many others, he started his career as a second assistant cameraman. He also worked as a camera operator on Crash, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Gonzales honed his craft to become one of the more notable directors of photography in modern times. He has since worked on popular TV shows that include Pretty Little Liars, Fargo and Legion. He may have started as a camera assistant, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a successful cinematographer.

These famed cinematographers are only a few examples of talented individuals who started at the bottom, but their stories can help inspire the next generation. No matter where you want to go in your career, it’s important to remember that everyone starts somewhere, so don’t give up and continue to work hard at everything you do.

If these cinematographers—who are some of the most prolific professionals in the industry—were able to start as an assistant and reach these heights, then there’s nothing stopping you from achieving the same level of success.

Benjamin Hickson is an aspiring producer and production coordinator who has 4+ years experience working on various Film and TV projects. He has a background in Public Relations and served for six years in the military. He also has passion for travel and aims to increase LGBTQ+ representation in the entertainment industry.

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