Joseph M. Wilcots

Director of Photography


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About
About this interview

In his over three-hour interview, Joseph M. Wilcots (1939-2009) speaks about his early interest in photography as a teenager and his filmmaking experiences while serving in the Navy. He describes his work, following the service, at the Westheimer Optical House, in particular the creative work being done for the special effects on the original Star Trek series. He relates how he became the first African-American member of the camera operators union and identified the slow shift in adding other African-American members into the union over the years. He talks about his work in independent filmmaking and reminisces about some of the people he worked with including director Gordon Parks and cinematographer Robert Surtees. He speaks in great detail about the two projects for which he is most associated, the miniseries: Roots and Roots: The Next Generations for which he served as Directory of Photography. He talks about his approach to the Roots shows ("I wanted to make the audience smell the dirt"), meeting and working with Alex Haley ("Everything he wrote was shootable"), and working with actor Marlon Brando. (He says he took 200 pounds off him using a fireplace as the key light).  He notes the impact of Roots and what working on the miniseries meant to him. He also acknowledges his work on the Alex Haley/Norman Lear series Palmerstown U.S.A. Lastly, he gives his impressions of three individuals for whom he worked extensively: actor/director George Stanford Brown, Bill Cosby, and Michael Jackson. Gary Rutkowski conducted the interview in Los Angeles, CA on December 5, 2007.

"I tried to show the dirt in the scenes of 'Roots.' To make you smell the dirt, to make you realize that the place was dirty...I was saying that it's all about the earth and all about the dirt on the earth and it is an innate part of us. That if we pay attention to it, there's a picture there."

Full Interview

Chapter 1

On his early life and influences
On this early interest in film; on running into Desi Arnaz on the Paramount lot; on joining the Navy

Chapter 2

On joining the Navy; on filming his first movie
On his career plans after the Navy; on breaking into the business after leaving the Navy

Chapter 3

On doing visual effects at Westheimer Optical House for various shows; on doing visual effects for commercials
On doing visual effects for Star Trek; on working with Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek; on shooting models for the visual effects on Star Trek, and on how they held up over the years
On doing visual effects for "The Learning Tree"; on working on The FBI, and Gunsmoke, and on joining the union

Chapter 4

On being the first African-American to join the camera union; on what he learned while working on feature films early on; on working with Gordon Parks, and in independent film
On working on "The Last Picture Show," and on working with John Wayne; on how he came to be involved with Roots

Chapter 5

On how he came to be involved with Roots; on his first day shooting Roots; on staging a scene for the show
On the challenges of lighting Roots; on staging the "Kunta Kinte" foot chopping and the "Kissy" being taken from her family scenes in Roots; on the directors of the show
On the diversity of the Roots crew, and on his interaction with Alex Haley; on the success of Roots; on the legacy of Roots being Alex Haley

Chapter 7

On then-current projects; on how things changed for black cinematographers during his career; on technological innovations during his career, and on working with a crew
On advice to an aspiring cinematographer; on his mentors; on how he'd like to be remembered
Shows

Emmy Awards, The (Primetime and Daytime)

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Joseph M. Wilcots on being nominated for Emmy Awards for Roots
00:38

FBI, The

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Joseph M. Wilcots on working on The FBI, and Gunsmoke, and on joining the union
08:05

Gunsmoke

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Joseph M. Wilcots on working on The FBI, and Gunsmoke, and on joining the union
08:05

Roots

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Joseph M. Wilcots on how he came to be involved with Roots
03:53
Joseph M. Wilcots on how he came to be involved with Roots
03:46
Joseph M. Wilcots on his first day shooting Roots
05:14
Joseph M. Wilcots on staging a scene for Roots
01:37
Joseph M. Wilcots on the challenges of lighting Roots
03:54
Joseph M. Wilcots on staging the "Kunta Kinte" foot chopping and the "Kissy" being taken from her family scenes in Roots
04:16
Joseph M. Wilcots on the directors of Roots
02:25
Joseph M. Wilcots on the diversity of the Roots crew, and on his interaction with Alex Haley
03:59
Joseph M. Wilcots on the success of Roots
02:29
Joseph M. Wilcots on the legacy of Roots being Alex Haley
00:51
Joseph M. Wilcots on being nominated for Emmy Awards for Roots
00:38
Joseph M. Wilcots on what Roots has meant to his life and career
01:47

Roots: The Next Generations

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Joseph M. Wilcots on shooting Roots: The Next Generations
02:49
Joseph M. Wilcots on the "George Lincoln Rockwell" scene in Roots: The Next Generations, played by Marlon Brando
04:01
Joseph M. Wilcots on the staging of the assassination of "Malcolm X" scene in Roots: The Next Generations
01:54

Star Trek

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Joseph M. Wilcots on how the Star Trek transporter effects were created in post-production
03:19
Joseph M. Wilcots on how the Star Trek phaser effects were created in post-production
00:53
Joseph M. Wilcots on how the various Star Trek effects were created in post-production; working with Gene Roddenberry; creating effects depicting the ship
05:57
Joseph M. Wilcots on doing visual effects for Star Trek
05:45
Joseph M. Wilcots on working with Gene Roddenberry on Star Trek
01:57
Joseph M. Wilcots on shooting models for the visual effects on Star Trek, and on how they held up over the years
02:21
Topics

Advice

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Joseph M. Wilcots on advice to an aspiring cinematographer
01:04

Creative Influences and Inspiration

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Joseph M. Wilcots on his mentors
00:55

Diversity in Television

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Joseph M. Wilcots on being the first African-American to join the camera union
06:05
Joseph M. Wilcots on how things changed for black cinematographers during his career
00:42

Emmy Awards

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Joseph M. Wilcots on being nominated for Emmy Awards for Roots
00:38

Minorities

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Joseph M. Wilcots on being the first African-American in the camera operators union
05:56
Joseph M. Wilcots on being the first African-American to join the camera union
06:05
Joseph M. Wilcots on how things changed for black cinematographers during his career
00:42

Pivotal Career Moments

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Joseph M. Wilcots on his mentors
00:55

Technological Innovation

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Joseph M. Wilcots on technological innovations during his career, and on working with a crew
05:46

Television Industry

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Joseph M. Wilcots on advice to an aspiring cinematographer
01:04
Professions

Camera Operator

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Joseph Wilcots on being hired to be cameraman on Roots
22:05

Cinematographer

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Joseph M. Wilcots on his philosophy for dealing with crews and directors
02:22
Joseph M. Wilcots on his advice to aspiring Directors of Photography
00:58
Joseph M. Wilcots on the challenges of lighting Roots
03:54
Joseph M. Wilcots on depth of field and selective focus when shooting, and the use of filters
05:47
Joseph M. Wilcots on technological innovations during his career, and on working with a crew
05:46
Joseph M. Wilcots on advice to an aspiring cinematographer
01:04

Production Professionals

View Profession
Joseph M. Wilcots on the challenges of lighting Roots
03:54
Joseph M. Wilcots on depth of field and selective focus when shooting, and the use of filters
05:47
Joseph M. Wilcots on technological innovations during his career, and on working with a crew
05:46
Joseph M. Wilcots on advice to an aspiring cinematographer
01:04
Genres

Commercials

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Joseph M. Wilcots on shooting early commercials using doctored products
02:14
Joseph M. Wilcots on doing visual effects for commercials
02:31

Cop/Detective/Mystery Series

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Joseph M. Wilcots on working on The FBI, and Gunsmoke, and on joining the union
08:05

Sci-Fi/Supernatural Series

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Joseph M. Wilcots on doing visual effects for Star Trek
10:17

TV Movies/Miniseries/Dramatic Specials

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Joseph M. Wilcots on doing cinematography for Roots
28:32
Joseph M. Wilcots on doing cinematography for Roots and Roots: The Next Generations
11:09
People

Desi Arnaz

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Joseph M. Wilcots on running into Desi Arnaz on the Paramount lot
02:42

Marlon Brando

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Joseph M. Wilcots on the "George Lincoln Rockwell" scene in Roots: The Next Generations, played by Marlon Brando
04:01

Georg Stanford Brown

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Joseph M. Wilcots on working with Georg Stanford Brown
01:44

Bill Cosby

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Joseph M. Wilcots on working with Bill Cosby
03:06

Alex Haley

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Joseph M. Wilcots on the diversity of the Roots crew, and on his interaction with Alex Haley
03:59
Joseph M. Wilcots on the legacy of Roots being Alex Haley
00:51

Michael Jackson

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Joseph M. Wilcots on working with Michael Jackson
04:52

Gordon Parks

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Joseph M. Wilcots on Gordon Parks
02:09

Gene Roddenberry

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Joseph M. Wilcots on working with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry
03:52

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