Cinematographer. Nationality: British. Born: London, 1931. Career: 1940s—clapper boy at Gainsborough Studios; 1983—moved to Hollywood. Awards: Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear Award for Little Malcolm, 1974; Academy Award and British Academy Award for Barry Lyndon, 1975. Died: Of heart attack, Cannes, 28 July 1986.
Films as Cinematographer:
2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick) (additional photography)
Fangio (Hudson); A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick)
David Niven (Burder—doc)
Little Malcolm (Cooper)
Barry Lyndon (Kubrick)
The Fiesta Story (Worth); March or Die (Richards); The Disappearance (Cooper)
Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (Too Many Chefs) (Kotcheff)
The Shining (Kubrick); Fort Apache, the Bronx (Petrie); Terror Train (Spottiswoode)
The Beastmaster (Coscarelli); El triúnfo de un hombre llamado caballo (Hough); Vice Squad (Sherman)
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (Hudson); Miracles (Kouf)
No Way Out (Donaldson); White Water Summer (Bleckner)
Films as Focus Puller:
The Singer Not the Song (Baker)
Whistle Down the Wind (Forbes)
By ALCOTT: article—
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 6, no. 3, March 1985.
On ALCOTT: articles—
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 57, no. 3, March 1976.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 6 August 1986.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 68, no. 3, March 1987.
* * *
By the time of his tragically premature death in 1986, John Alcott had established himself as one of the world's leading directors of photography. In particular, his association with director Stanley Kubrick had put him at the forefront of technical and aesthetic developments in his field.
The son of Arthur Alcott, production controller at Gainsborough Studios throughout the 1940s, John Alcott began his movie career in the lowly position of clapper boy. After working as a focus puller on various films in the 1950s and 1960s (including Roy Baker's The Singer Not the Song and Bryan Forbes' Whistle Down the Wind), his big break came in the mid-sixties with his first film for Kubrick, 2001:A Space Odyssey. When that landmark film's original director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth had to leave the project half-way through its two-year shooting schedule because of other commitments, Alcott, who had been his assistant, stepped ably into his shoes.
By all reports a modest and self-effacing man, Alcott preferred lighting that appeared natural and which did not draw attention to itself. As he himself put it, "It is possible then to emphasize colours more, on the streets and on the set." It was his work with Kubrick that gave Alcott the best opportunity to develop his ideas about "natural" lighting. One can indicate as examples of his skill the now famous scenes from Barry Lyndon which were shot entirely by candlelight. This was an idea that Kubrick and Alcott had discussed as far back as 2001 (it had originally been intended for Kubrick's abortive Napoleon project), but it was only in the 1970s that lens technology finally caught up with the imagination of these two great filmmakers. Similarly, in The Shining Alcott chose to light the elaborate hotel sets almost entirely with "practicals" (that is, sources of lighting which are visible on screen as an integral part of the set; e.g. chandeliers and other light fixtures).
Alcott also of course produced distinguished work with other directors. His numerous projects included a glossy comedy-romance (Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?), a Tarzan movie (Greystoke), thrillers (No Way Out, Vice Squad) and fantasies (Baby, The Beastmaster). Some of these films were better than others, but Alcott nearly always contributed something distinctive, even to the least interesting of films. A good example of this occurs in the generally undistinguished low-budget horror production Terror Train. At one point near the beginning of this film a group of masked party-goers board a train in the middle of the night. The scene is genuinely eerie (unlike the rest of the film), with its strange, dreamlike quality arising almost entirely from Alcott's lighting.
Alcott was one of a number of important behind-the-scenes figures in cinema whose input into various films often goes unheeded by critics and the public. The meticulousness of his work, as well as his complete lack of pretentiousness and his willingness to become involved in a wide range of projects (including some very unlikely ones) marked him out as one of cinema's great artist-technicians, someone who through his ability to push back the boundaries of what was technically possible and then think through some of the aesthetic consequences of this contributed to the development of film as an art form.