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2008 Outstanding Achievement Award: Richard Leacock

As a filmmaker, technical innovator and iconic figure of cinema vérité, Richard “Ricky” Leacock is one of the most important contributors to documentary film. His desire to convey “the feeling of being there”, his sensitivity for observation, and the advancements in sound technology he developed drove documentary in exciting, new directions. His collaborations with such filmmakers as Robert Flaherty, Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker revolutionized the documentary in exciting, new directions. His collaborations with such filmmakers as Robert Flaherty, Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker revolutionized the documentary form. As an educator at MIT, Leacock schooled a generation of new directors like Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March). Leacock’s achievements are impressive, but like all good documentarians, they started with an unquenchable desire to investigate the world around him.

Born in 1921 in London, and raised on the Canary Islands, Leacock’s interest in cinema began at age 13, when he made his first 16mm film, Canary Island Bananas (1935). A silent study of activities on his father’s banana plantation, the film caught the attention of renowned doc-maker Robert Flaherty when Leacock later showed it in London where he attended school. After WWII, during which Leacock served as a combat photographer, Flaherty hired Leacock to shoot Louisiana Story (1946). What Leacock took away from his experience with the master was how to be a true observer. He also began to realize that the creation of mobile synchronized sound recording systems would be key to capturing life as it is lived. But years would pass before these elements came together. Meanwhile, Leacock, working on various documentaries for television, developed an aversion to voice-over narration and became known for his candid, newsreel shooting style.

It was this style that attracted director Roger Tilton, who hired Leacock to shoot Jazz Dance (1953), a short film capturing the kinetic energy of a New York dance hall. Tilton instructed his shooters to “get the smell and the feel of the place”, an almost impossible task given the cumbersome equipment of the time. But, through creative editing, Tilton managed a lithesome effect that later vérité directors achieved using more mobile equipment.

It all came together for Leacock in 1958, at Time Inc. NYC, where visionary filmmaker Robert Drew had persuaded the organization to finance experiments with mobile, synchronized sound shooting. His enthusiasm had been ignited by a cameraman whose work he had long admired – Richard Leacock.

With Leacock as a key member of his team, Drew formed the company Drew Associates. By 1960, they had developed a wireless synchronizing system and had enlisted other young directors, like D.A. Pennebaker, Terry Filgate and Albert Maysles. Their first film using the new technology was Primary (1960), which follows John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey on the Wisconsin Democratic primary campaign trail. Other films included The Chair (1963), about lawyer Louis Nizer’s fight to save Paul Crump from the electric chair; and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), a study of the Kennedy administration’s push to abolish segregation.

In 1963, Leacock made Happy Mother’s Day, a biting portrayal of the cultural fever surrounding the birth Fischer Quintuplets in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Most Drew Associates films were corporately sponsored, and when ABC-TV, who commissioned the piece, saw the film they re-edited it and re-named it, removing all reference to corporate greed. Leacock’s version went on to win awards at the Venice and Leipzig film festivals.

The limitations of corporate sponsorship became clear to the filmmakers at Drew Associates, and many dispersed. But, despite those limitations, one fact remained: Leacock and Drew had launched the American vérité movement.

Through the latter 60s, Leacock partnered with Pennebaker to make vanguard films like Don’t Look Back (1966), a gripping profile of Bob Dylan, A Stravinsky Portrait (1967), an intimate visit with the legendary composer, and Monterey Pop (1968), a monument to some of rock music’s most iconic performances.

In 1968, Leacock was invited to join Ed Pincus to create a new film school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he experimented with new digital technologies. Leacock ran the MIT Film Unit until 1989, when he began a new venture, in Paris, partnering in all aspects of his life with filmmaker Valerie Lalonde. Together they shot Les Oeufs a la Coque (1991), a love letter to France and Lalonde. It was the first major film shot with a tiny video-8 Handycam to air on prime-time television in France. Their latest film, A Musical Adventure in Siberia (2000), follows maestro Sarah Caldwell’s attempts to stage a previously-banned 1936 symphonic drama by Sergei Prokofiev.

Leacock, in his long and illustrious career, has always fought to create less expensive, more manageable filmmaking equipment. He has championed experimentation and freedom of expression. He has been vocal about the role of film in effecting social change, and has been passionate about portraying art and artists. But most of all, Richard Leacock has endeavoured to create an art form through which situation and event tell their own story.

— Shannon Abel
Senior International Programmer

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