John M. Stephens, a cinematographer and cameraman who engineered thrilling sequences for such films as Grand Prix, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Field of Dreams, has died. He was 82.
Stephens, also known for his work on Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972) and William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), died June 18 of congestive heart failure at Mission Hospital in Laguna Beach, Calif., his wife, Barbara, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Stephens received the Technical Achievement Award from the Society of Operating Cameramen in 1994 for developing the first remotely controlled pan-and-tilt head camera, used for John Frankenheimer’s authentic Grand Prix (1966). While his camera captured close-ups of James Garner zooming around the track at 160 mph, Stephens was monitoring the action from a helicopter just a few hundred feet above the racetrack. (Before Stephens’ ground-breaking work, directors would shoot cars moving much slower, then speed up the film.) Le Mans champion driver Bob Bondurant, who served as a technical adviser on Grand Prix, called Stephens “one of America’s most creative film pioneers in the cinema photography industry.”
On his website, Bondurant said that during production, he “explained to John what he needed to see through his camera, explained the shot in the drivers’ meetings and John would go shoot it. Boy, could he shoot it! That guy was the biggest risk taker I had ever seen outside of racing.”
Stephens also devised the memorable bicycle chase for E.T. (1982), mounting cameras on several bikes, and worked as an operating cameraman on another Steven Spielberg classic, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). For Titanic (1997), James Cameron brought him to the giant water tank in Rosarito, Mexico, for much-needed pickup shots after most of the film was finished. Stephens also did arctic photography for Ice Station Zebra (1968) and aerial photography for Field of Dreams (1989); his shot of the ribbon of cars at nightfall making their way to the Iowa field at the end of the Phil Alden Robinson film is memorable.
“John has photographed the action from virtually every kind of vehicle, from Lear jets to helicopters,” the Society of Operating Cameramen said when it honored him, noting he had survived three helicopter crashes during his career. Stephens also was director of photography on Billy Jack (1971) and Blacula (1972) and served as second-unit director of photography on ¡Three Amigos! (1986), Midnight Run (1988), V.I. Warshawski (1991), Major League II (1994), The Peacemaker (1997) and Bandits (2001). In television, he worked as DP on The Virginian, Alias Smith and Jones and McCloud.
A native of Valparaiso, Ind., Stephens served in the U.S. Navy, where he learned to operate a camera in extreme conditions. He found a job at the Sun Valley ski resort, taking photos of socialites and Hollywood types in Idaho for a vacation. When the production crew for the Marilyn Monroe film Bus Stop (1956) came to town, Stephens stepped in for an assistant cameraman who was ill. He then shot a promotional piece for Oklahoma! (1955), the first film photographed in the Todd-AO 70mm widescreen process, using a cumbersome camera that weighed 25 pounds. That led to a stint as a second assistant cameraman on South Pacific (1958). In addition to his wife, survivors include his children Melanie, Johnny, Valerie and Sheri.
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