Jack Couffer, Oscar-Nominated Cinematographer on ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull,’ Dies at 96

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Jack Couffer, the cinematographer, director, producer and wildlife aficionado who received an Oscar nomination for shooting the 1973 adventure tale Jonathan Livingston Seagull, has died. He was 96.

Couffer died July 30 at a hospice care facility in Costa Mesa, California, his son, Michael Couffer, announced.

Couffer also directed such features as Ring of Bright Water (1969), a movie about a dog that he co-wrote; The Legend of Lobo (1962), revolving around a wolf; and Living Free (1972), the sequel to the 1966 lion tale Born Free.

He served as the second-unit director on the Oscar best picture winner Out of Africa (1985), the Tanya Roberts-starring Sheena (1984) and the Kenya-set, William Goldman-written The Ghost and the Darkness (1998), and he produced the Carroll Ballard-directed Never Cry Wolf (1983).

Couffer also wrote, directed and shot footage for ABC’s The Magical World of Disney in the 1960s and served as the second unit cinematographer on The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), directed by Robert Redford.

The quirky Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973), written and directed by Hall Bartlett, tells the story of a restless bird (voiced by James Franciscus) who soars physically as well as spiritually.

“I have a built-in fascination with animals,” Couffer explained in a 2011 interview for American Cinematographer magazine. “I was given my first still camera at the age of 11, and I stalked birds, squirrels and rabbits in the hills and felt great if I got close enough with my wide-angle lens to see that I’d captured a recognizable creature. I’ve felt the same urge ever since.

“The niche I have happily occupied has been predominantly films with humans interacting with animals,” he added. “Well-trained animals are very good at hitting their marks.”

Jack Craig Couffer was born on Dec. 7, 1924, in Upland, California. In high school, he worked as a student assistant at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

After a stint with the U.S. Army, Couffer enrolled at USC on the GI Bill to major in zoology. He found himself sitting next to Conrad Hall in an English class, and the future three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer suggested that they audit a class in the school’s new Department of Cinema Arts.

“We sat in on one lecture by [department head] Slavko Vorkapich and were seriously hooked,” he said.

He, Hall and another student, Marvin R. Weinstein, made a 1950 student film, Sea Theme, that won an ASC prize for amateurs, formed Canyon Films and served as cinematographers on the United Artists thriller Edge of Fury (1958).

Couffer spent more than a decade at Disney, working often on the company’s True-Life Adventure series of films. While there, he and Hall collaborated on a 1960 nature documentary, Islands of the Sea, which was nominated for the Oscar for best short subject, live action.

Survivors include his companion, Jean Allison — she was an actress in Edge of Fury, and they reunited many years later — and his son, a wildlife photographer, naturalist and biological field consultant who collaborated with his dad on several books.

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