Alum Don Burgess on the set of Contact.
Alum Don Burgess on the set of Contact, with Jodie Foster and director Robert Zemeckis.

profile / film / alumni
March 07, 2024
By Solvej Schou

Alum Don Burgess wins American Society of Cinematographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award

Aquaman. Cast Away. Forrest Gump. Spider-Man. These are just some of the visually stunning blockbuster movies that Oscar-nominated alum Don Burgess (BFA 82 Film) has worked on as a director of photography, during his career. To celebrate his prolific work, the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) recently honored Burgess with a 2024 Lifetime Achievement Award.  

On stage, to a standing ovation and cheers, director Robert Zemeckis presented the award to Burgess, calling him “my good friend, staunch collaborator and creative soulmate.” Burgess, in accepting the honor, reflected on working with Zemeckis for 30 years as a cinematographer, including on Zemeckis’s movies Cast Away, Contact, Flight and Forrest Gump.  

Then Burgess turned to cinematographer and current ASC President Shelly Johnson (BFA 80), who he was classmates with at ArtCenter.  

“Whoever thought, when we were young, kicking around ArtCenter film school, trying to figure out which end of the camera to look through, we would end up here—certainly not our teachers,” said Burgess. “My journey from film school to this stage has been amazing. I’ve filmed in dugout canoes in the Amazon, repelled off the Hoover Dam, climbed into a space shuttle, stood in the Oval Office. I’ve traveled the world chasing directors’ visions.”

Don Burgess on the set of Aquaman.
Don Burgess on the set of Aquaman, wearing an ArtCenter Film hat.

Raised in Southern California, Burgess made his first Super 8 movie in high school, after taking a photography class. While a Film student at ArtCenter, he connected with guest lecturer and Oscar-winning filmmaker Mike Hoover, who hired him to work on adventure documentaries, and he assisted cinematographer John M. Stephens on William Friedkin’s 1977 adventure opus Sorcerer in the Dominican Republic, Burgess told ASC’s American Cinematographer magazine.  

The late Mike Ahnemann, a writer, editor, director and ArtCenter faculty member, also inspired Burgess to pursue cinematography. After finishing his degree, Burgess jumpstarted his career, working with directors including Zemeckis, James Wan (Aquaman, The Conjuring 2, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom), Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) and Albert and Allen Hughes (The Book of Eli).  

“I hope, along the way, I’ve inspired a few young cinematographers to do good work and take care of their crew,” said Burgess during his ASC Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech.

Don Burgess on the set of Forrest Gump.
Don Burgess (pointing) on the set of Forrest Gump, with Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis.

Burgess also told the audience that early on in his career he took a test for color blindness, and didn’t pass. That could have been a barrier to being a director of photography, but wasn’t.  

“The real question is, ‘Why would someone who is color blind try to become a DP in the first place,’” he asked. “And that’s the great part about being young. When you’re passionate about something, nothing will stop you. For me, it was cinematography. I love what I do. Not many people can say that after 48 years on the job. But this room can. We are the lucky ones.”   

Don Burgess on the set of Contact.
Don Burgess on the set of Contact.