Richard Leacock  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Richard Leacock (18 July 1921 - 23 March 2011) was a documentary film director and one of the pioneers of Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité.



Leacock was born in London on 18 July 1921. Leacock grew up on his father's banana plantation in the Canary Islands till shipped off to boarding schools in England at the age of eight. He had no way of telling his schoolmates what it was like to live in the Canary Islands.

He took up photography with a glass plate camera, built a darkroom and developed his pictures, but was not satisfied. At age 11 he was shown a silent film Turk-Sib about the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway. He was stunned, and said to himself "All I need is a cine-camera and I can make a film that shows you what it is like to be there".

Aged 14, he made Canary Bananas (10 min. 16mm, silent) scripted, directed, filmed and edited by him. It tells you all you need to know about growing bananas but did not, in his opinion, give you "the feeling of being there".

He was educated at Dartington Hall School from 1934-38, alongside Robert Flaherty's daughters, and where David Lack (Life of the Robin) taught biology.

Having filmed in the Canary Islands and then in the Galapagos Islands (1938-9) for ornithologist David Lack's expedition, he moved to the USA and majored in Physics at Harvard in order to master the technology of filmmaking. Meanwhile he worked as cameraman and assistant editor on other peoples films, notably To Hear Your Banjo Play (1941), filming a folk music festival atop a mountain in south Virginia where there was no electricity, with a 35mm studio camera and 35mm optical film sound recorder using batteries in a large truck, a rare achievement at that time. Three years as a combat photographer in Burma and China followed by 14 months as cameraman on Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story, an extraordinary experience of immense value to his future work.

Many relatively conventional jobs followed, until 1954. He was then asked to make a reportage on a traveling tent theater in Missouri: the first film that he wrote, directed, photographed and edited himself, since Canary Bananas.

This film, Toby and the Tall Corn, went on the American cultural TV program, Omnibus, in prime time and brought him into contact with Robert Drew, an editor at Life Magazine in search for a less verbal approach to television reportage. Another stranger, Roger Tilton wanted to film an evening of people dancing to Dixieland music spontaneously. Leacock filmed Jazz Dance for him, using hand held combat techniques.

The search for high quality, mobile, synchronous equipment to facilitate observation was on. It took time, money ,and physics to solve the problems. By 1960 this was achieved and resulted in Robert Drew's film PRIMARY, an intimate observation of a primary election with JFK and Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin. A new way of making films that did, indeed, give you the feeling of being there. Including synchronous dialogue.

An avalanche followed of wonderful films, made with Drew, Pennebaker, Maysles et al. But the US networks were not impressed, whereas in France at the CINEMATHEQUE FRANCAISE when Drew and Leacock screened "Primary" and "On the Pole" Henri Langlois introduced the films as "perhaps the most important documentaries since the brothers Lumiere"!

After the screening, a monk in robes came up to them and said, "You have invented a new form. Now you must invent a new grammar!"

When Drew went to work for ABC-TV, "Leacock Pennebaker" was formed and produced HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY, DON'T LOOK BACK, MONTEREY POP, A STRAVINSKY PORTRATI and many others ending with the remnants of Jean Luc Godard's 1-AM. --- 1-PM.

In 1968 he was invited to join Ed Pincus creating a new, small film school at MIT. Since 16mm filming was becoming so expensive, his group developed super-8 film synch equipment with modified mass-produced cameras that were much cheaper. It worked, but was not really satisfactory.

Many excellent filmmakers emerged from his program, including Ross McElway (Sherman's March), among others.

In 1989 he retired and moved to Paris, where he met Valerie Lalonde and, together, they made LES OEUFS A LA COQUE DE RICHARD LEACOCK (84 minutes), the first major film shot with a tiny Video-8 Handycam to air on prime-time television in France.

A combination of talent and love that continues into the digital age, he and Valerie continued making films of their own choice without the pressures of TV producers, films that finally do give you "the feeling of being there".

Leacock died on March 23, 2011 at age the age of 89 in Paris.


The following was primarily written by Leacock, with occasional additions by Geoff Alexander. All comments are by Leacock, unless indicated by (GA).

More info on specific films can be found by clicking on items in bold.

  • 1935 CANARY BANANAS: 8m. Filmed on his father's plantation, Leacock’s sophisticated use of pans and tilts described the process of planting, harvesting, and shipping Canary Island bananas to his schoolmates. This film was shown to family friend Robert Flaherty, who would hire him after the war, largely based on the remembrance of this early film (GA).
  • 1938 filmed the David Lack Expedition to the Galapagos Islands.
  • 1939-42 Read Physics at Harvard University spending much time producing plays.
  • 1940 Summer job as assistant to assistant editor with Frontier Films in New York, splicing much of NATIVE LAND (1942), dir. Leo Hurwitz/Paul Strand.
  • 1941 TO HEAR YOUR BANJO PLAY: 20m, dir. Charles Korvin (Geza Karpathy). On this summer job, Leacock shot folk singers in the mountains of Virginia including Texas Gladden and Horton Barker on 35mm with sync sound (this film was completed by Willard Van Dyke & Irving Lerner after the war, with added footage of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee)
  • 1942 Left Harvard to become a "Combat-Cameraman" in the American Army, serving in the Arctic, the Burma Campaign and in China.
  • 1947-8 Cameraman-director with John Ferno (Fernhaut) on seven short "Human-Geography" films, two in France, and one each in Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Greece and the Sahara Desert (Desert Nomads), produced by Louis De Rochemont. Leacock shot and sent the undeveloped negatives back to New York, where they were edited and released.
  • 1948 Camera for Willard Van Dyke's MOUNT VERNON and THE NEW FRONTIER.
  • 1949 Director Cameraman on EARTHQUAKE IN ECUADOR (about effects and aftermath of the Pelileo Earthquake) for United Nations.
  • 1950 HEAD OF THE HOUSE Writer-Dir.-Edit. An acted "documentary" for US State Dept.
  • 1952 THE LONELY NIGHT Dir. by Irving Jacoby. Filmed. by Leacock
  • 1954 JAZZ DANCE: 20 min. Cameraman with Bob Campbell on Roger Tilton's film. Photographed on 35mm with small hand held cameras; a limited breakthrough.
  • 1954 TOBY AND THE TALL CORN: 30 min. Writer-Director-Camera-Editor, a film report on a traveling tent-theater in the Middle West, (made for Omnibus, a television program)
  • 1956 A CONVERSATION WITH MARCEL DUCHAMP. Filmed for NBC News’ ‘Conversations with Elder Wisemen’ series.
  • 1957 HOW THE F-100 GOT ITS TAIL 20 min. 35 mm Dir. by Leacock. A military reenactment for Omnibus TV.
  • 1957-9 Directed four physics films including FRAMES OF REFERENCE, COULOMB’S LAW, A MAGNET LABORATORY, AND CRYSTALS for the Physical Science Study Committee.
  • 1958 BERNSTEIN IN ISRAEL: 30 min. A close look at a conducting tour.(used 16mm film & sound equipment for the first time, also for Omnibus)
  • 1959 BERNSTEIN IN MOSCOW: 55 min. The New York Philharmonic visit to USSR
  • 1960 Joined Robert Drew in Drew Associates along with Pennebaker, Albert Maysles and others, making experiments in journalism that came to be called "Direct Cinema", which -resulted in such films as:
  • 1959 BULL FIGHT AT MALAGA: 20 min. 1959 Drew and I tried to film “mano · mano" with equipment built for us that didn't work the way it was supposed to. With Luis-Miguel Dominguin, OrdoÒez, Hemingway, et a1.
  • 1960 PRIMARY: 30 min. Sen. Kennedy's election campaign in Wisconsin.
  • 1960-1 ABC’s ‘CLOSE-UP’ series was originally produced by in-house producer John Secondari, but four episodes were contributed by John Drew’s group. In protest of the utilization of this independent production team, ABC VP of News John Daly resigned. Leacock was directly involved in the following episodes:
    • YANKI NO!: 55 min. Castro's takeover in Cuba.
    • KENYA: LAND OF THE WHITE GHOST The election of the first black majority in Kenya.
    • THE CHILDREN WERE WATCHING. Desegregation in New Orleans, directed by Leacock.
    • ADVENTURES ON THE NEW FRONTIER. Focused on the 1960 presidential primary and inauguration of JFK. This is probably a longer version of PRIMARY, filmed in 1960 (GA).
  • 1961-2 ‘THE LIVING CAMERA’ series was produced by Robert Drew and distributed for television by Time-Life. This series explored the lives of ten people, utilizing the ‘direct cinema’, or ‘Cinéma Vérité’ style of hand-held cameras and synch-sound. Leacock’s contribution included the following:
    • ON THE POLE (also known as ‘Eddie’): 55 min. Eddie Sachs driving the Indianapolis 500. Co-produced and directed.
    • PETEY AND JOHNNY: 55 min. Teenage gangs in East Harlem. Produced by Leacock.
    • NEHRU: 55 min. His last campaign for election. Co-produced, directed, and shot with Gregory Shuker.
    • THE CHAIR: 55 min. The last moment commutation of Paul Crump's death sentence.Co-produced, directed, and photographed.
    • SUSAN STARR: 19 year-old pianist vies for Mitroupoulos prize. Filmed by a number of cinematographers, including Leacock.
  • 1963 CRISIS: 55 min. President Kennedy's confrontation with Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.
  • 1963 Formed Leacock Pennebaker Inc., making:
  • l963 HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY: 30 min. With Joyce Chopra. Mrs. Fisher bears quintuplets in Aberdeen, S. Dakota.
  • 1964 REPUBLICANS - THE NEW BREED: 30 min. The Goldwater Campaign, made with Noel E. Parmentel Jr.
  • 1965 GEZA ANDA: 30 min. With Rolf Liebermann, a film on pianism. Sarah Hudson recording sound.
  • 1965 KU KLUX KLAN --- INVISIBLE EMPIRE: 50 min. Produced and written by David Lowe for 'CBS Reports', sound by Noel Parmentel.
  • 1966 OH MEIN PA-PA! A portrait of Paul Burkhard: made with Rolf Liebermann. Helga Feddersen recording sound.
  • 1966 THE ANATOMY OF CINDY FINK: 20 min. A view of the art world made with Patricia Jaffe.
  • 1966 OLD AGE, THE WASTED YEARS: Two 30 min. parts for WNET made with Nell Cox
  • 1966 Helped filming Pennebaker's MONTEREY POP!
  • 1967 Film projections that were seen in Sarah Caldwell's productions of Berg's Opera LULU, Berlioz's LES TROYENS and others, for The Opera Company of Boston.
  • 1968 1-PM: 90 min. Pennebaker put together this material, gleaned from a film we shot under the direction of Jean-Luc Godard which was to be 1-AM (one American Movie, get it?) which he decided not to complete.
  • 1968 FRENCH LUNCH: Camera on Nell Cox's film.
  • 1968 HICKORY HILL: 18 min. With George Plimpton. A visit to a children's charity pet-show at the home of Robert Kennedy.
  • 1969 CHIEFS: 18 min. With Noel E. Parmentel Jr. A convention of 3,500 American Police Chiefs and their wives at Waikiki Beach, Hawaii.
  • 1969 MAIDSTONE: Norman Mailer's film. One of several Cameras.
  • 1970 COMPANY: 60 min. Pennebaker’s film of Original cast recording session for Sondheim's musical hit. One of three cameras.
  • 1969 Appointed Professor of Cinema at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • 1970 QUEEN OF APOLLO: 20 min. With Elspeth Leacock. A 16 year old is Queen of a Mardi Gras ball, in New Orleans.
  • 1972 TREAD: 20 min. A direct camera view of a ballet by Merce Cunningham. By Richard Leacock with Sandy D'Annunzio.
  • 1977 ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER: 30 min. a tribute to the memory of the founder of the Gardner Museum in Boston.
  • 1978 CENTERBEAM: 20 min. A document of Documenta. John Ruben and Leacock film of the Centerbeam art machine created by the Center for Advanced Visual Studies of MIT, in Cissel, Germany
  • 1980 LIGHT COMING THROUGH: 20 min. A Portrait of Maud Morgan, painter.
  • 1981 COMMUNITY OF PRAISE: 55 min. With Marisa Silver. A portrait of a fundamentalist Christian family, in middle America. (I have a UMatic copy of the original edit which I consider to be a far better film)
  • 1988 Leacock retired from MIT, came to Paris and started shooting on Video-8. He met and started working with, Valerie Lalonde. They became fascinated with the possibility of carrying this tiny, sensitive tool with them everywhere they went.
  • 1991 LES OEUFS A LA COQUE DE RICHARD LEACOCK: 84 min. video, a lighthearted view of life in France.
  • 1992 REHEARSAL: THE KILLINGS OF CARIOLA: 35 min. video. Rehearsals of the Duchess of Malfi with the Cherub Company, in London.
  • 1992 LES VACANCES DE MONSIEUR LEACOCK: 20 min.. Travels in the US of A.
  • 1992 KREN: PARKING. 3 min. A portrait of an Art Work.
  • 1993 "GOTT SEI DANK" EINE BESUCH BEI HELGA FEDDERSEN: 30 min.Leacock visits his friend, the actress, a year before her death.
  • 1993 FELIX ET JOSEPHINE: 33 min. a fiction based on a reality.
  • 1993 HOORAY! WE'RE FIFTY! 1943-1993: 30 min. Leacock's Harvard 50th reunion.
  • 1993 A CELEBRATION OF SAINT SILAS: 30 min. Preparation for and celebration of the Heavenly Birthday of Saint Silas, with Him ! Twenty-seven Anglican Priests, orchestra, solo trumpets, solo voices, ...
  • 1994 A HOLE IN THE SEA: A lighthearted visit to both sides of the Channel as the "Chunnel" was about to open. For Arte.
  • 1996 A MUSICAL ADVENTURE IN SIBERIA: With Sarah Caldwell. The preparation of a first ever performance of Prokofiev's Eugene Onegin, a Symphonic Drama (Actors not singers) which was banned before it opened in 1937. With the Eketarinsburg Symphony orchestra conducted by Sarah Caldwell, Artistic director of the Opera Company of Boston (videoed in mini digital).

Films about Leacock

"On BEING THERE with Richard Leacock" by Jane Weiner. A JDB Films, Inc and STRIANA coproduction. (work-in-progress)

Further reading

  • Leacock (1988), Interview in: Mo Beyerle, Christine N. Brinckmann (editors), Der amerikanische Dokumentarfilm der 60er Jahre. Direct Cinema und Radical Cinema, Frankfurt am Main, New York: Campus, 1991, p. 124–133
  • Mamber, Stephen (1974), Cinéma Vérité in America. Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary, Cambridge, Mass.
  • Dave Saunders, Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties, London, Wallflower Press 2007

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Richard Leacock" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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