Leacock, Richard

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LEACOCK, Richard

Nationality: British. Born: the Canary Islands, 18 July 1921. Education: Educated in England, then studied physics at Harvard University, graduated 1943. Career: Began making documentaries in the Canaries, 1935; moved to U.S., 1938; served as combat photographer, World War II; worked on documentaries with Robert Flaherty, Louis de Rochemont, John Ferno, and Willard Van Dyke, among others, from late 1940s; worked with Robert Drew of Time-Life, then formed partnership with D.A. Pennebaker, 1960s; founder then Head of Department of Film at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from 1969.

Films as Director and Cinematographer:


Canary Bananas


Galápagos Islands


Pelileo Earthquake


The Lonely Boat


Toby and the Tall Corn


How the F-100 Got Its Tail


Bernstein in Israel


Bernstein in Moscow; Coulomb's Law; Crystals; Magnet Laboratory; Points of Reference


Primary (co-d, co-ph, ed); On the Pole (co-d, co-ph, co-ed); Yanqui No (co-d, co-ph)


Petey and Johnny (co-d, co-ph); The Children Were Watching (co-d, co-ph)


The Chair (co-d, co-ph); Kenya, South Africa (co-d, co-ph)


Crisis (co-d, co-ph); Happy Mother's Day (co-d, co-ph, co-ed)


A Stravinsky Portrait (+ ed); Portrait of Geza Anda (+ ed); Portrait of Paul Burkhard (+ ed); Republicans—The NewBreed (co-d, co-ph)


The Anatomy of Cindy Fink (co-d, co-ph); Ku Klux Klan—TheInvisible Empire


Old Age—The Wasted Years; Portrait of Van Cliburn (+ ed)


Monterey Pop (+ co-ph); Lulu


Who's Afraid of the Avant-Garde (co-d, co-ph, co-ed); Hickory Hill


Chiefs (+ ed)


Queen of Apollo (+ ed)


Impressions de L'Ile des Morts (co-d)

Other Films:


To Hear Your Banjo Play (Van Dyke, W.) (ph)


Louisiana Story (Flaherty) (ph, assoc pr)


Geography Films Series (ph)


New Frontier (Years of Change) (ph, ed)


The Lonely Night (ph)


Head of the House (ph)


New York (ph)


Bullfight at Málaga (ph)


Balloon (co-ph)


Maidstone (co-ph)


Sweet Toronto (co-ph); One P.M. (co-ph); Keep On Rockin' (co-ph)


Ein Film für Bossak und Leacock (Wildenhalm) (for TV) (role as himself)


Working Girls (Borden) (role as Joseph)


Le Fils de Gascogne (Aubier) (role)


Der Letzte Dokumentarfilm (Sebening and Sponsel) (role); Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment (Wintonick) (role as himself)


By LEACOCK: books—

Richard Leacock: An American Film Institute Seminar on His Work, American Film Institute.

By LEACOCK: articles—

"To Far Places with Camera and Sound-Track," in Films in Review (New York), March 1950.

"Richard Leacock Tells How to Boost Available Light," with H. Bell, in Popular Photography (Boulder, Colorado), February 1956.

"The Work of Ricky Leacock: Interview," in Film Culture (New York), no. 22–23, 1961.

"For an Uncontrolled Cinema," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1961.

Interview, in Movie (London), April 1963.

"Ricky Leacock on Stravinsky Film," in Film Culture (New York), Fall 1966.

"On Filming the Dance," in Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), November 1970.

"Richard Leacock,"in Documentary Explorations edited by G. Roy Levin, Garden City, New York, 1971.

"Remembering Frances Flaherty," in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1973.

"Leacock at M.I.T.," an interview with L. Marcorelles, in Sight andSound (London), Spring 1974.

"(Richard) Leacock on Super 8, Video Discs, and Distribution," interview with M. Sturken, in Afterimage (Rochester, New York), May 1979.

Interview with H. Naficy, in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 10, no. 4, October 1982.

Interview with M. Petrutiina, in Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow), July 1989.

Interview with Louis Marcorelles, in 24 Images (Montreal), November-December 1989.

"Master Home Movies," an interview with Mieke Bernink, in Skrien (Amsterdam), February-March 1994.

"Portrait Gallery," an interview with Bruce Harding, in Wide Angle (Baltimore), vol. 17, no. 1–4, 1995.

"Leacock's Life Lessons," an interview with G. Fifield, in TheIndependent Film & Video Monthly (New York), March 1996.

"Life on the Other Side of the Moon," in Film Culture (New York), no. 79, Winter 1996.

"In Defense of the Flaherty Traditions," in Film Culture (New York), no. 79, Winter 1996.

On LEACOCK: books—

Issari, M. Ali, Cinéma Verité, East Lansing, Michigan, 1971.

Mamber, Stephen, Cinéma Verité in America: Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974.

Issari, M. Ali, and Doris A. Paul, What Is Cinéma Verité? Metuchen, New Jersey, 1979.

On LEACOCK: articles—

Callenbach, Ernest, "Going out to the Subject," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1961.

Bachmann, Gideon, "The Frontiers of Realist Cinema: The Work of Ricky Leacock," in Film Culture (New York), Summer 1961.

Mekas, Jonas, "Notes on the New American Cinema," in FilmCulture (New York), no. 24, 1962.

Blue, James, "One Man's Truth," in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1965.

Vanderwildt, A., "Richard Leacock Uses Super-8," in Lumiere (Melbourne), September 1973.

"Richard Leacock," in Film Dope (London), November 1985.

Barsam. R.M., "American Direct Cinema: The Re-Presentation of Reality," in Persistence of Vision (Maspeth, New York), Summer 1986.

Trenczak, Heinz, "Leacock und Frank in Augsburg," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), May 1991.

Harding, R. and E. Barnouw, "Ricky Leacock," in Wide Angle (Baltimore), no. 17, 1995.

* * *

As cinematographer, producer, director, and editor, Richard Leacock has been an important contributor to the development of the documentary film, specifically in cinéma verité, now often called direct cinema. For direct cinema filming, the lightweight 16-millimeter camera, handheld and synced to a quiet recorder, allows the filmmaker to intrude as little as possible into the lives of those being filmed. From the very beginning of his interest in this kind of filming, Leacock has been an active experimenter and an inventor of mobile 16-millimeter equipment for filming events, lifestyles, ongoing problematic situations, and other varieties of live history. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he heads the department of film, he has developed super-8 sync-sound equipment and related technology. As a patient, courteous and informative lecturer to hundreds of teachers in many workshops, he has demonstrated this equipment and its use for TV, shown his films, and indirectly taught many youngsters who went on to work in film, TV, and related fields.

At fourteen, Leacock, already an active still photographer, impressed his schoolmates in England with a 16-minute film made on his home island. An indicator, perhaps, of his later concentration on non-subjective filming, his 1935 Canary Bananas is still a good, straightforward silent film about what workers do on a banana plantation. Leacock's later work on diverse topics, including the life of a traveling tent show entertainer, communism and democracy in South America, excitement about quintuplets in South Dakota, the mind and work of an artist, and opera attest to the breadth of his interests.

Leacock treasures his experience as photographer with poetic filmmaker/explorer Robert Flaherty on Louisiana Story, which was commissioned by Standard Oil to show preliminary steps in searching and drilling for oil, but emerged as a film poem about a boy in the bayou. Leacock stated that he learned from Flaherty how to discover with a camera. But having realized how difficult Flaherty's ponderous un-synced equipment had made direct shooting, Leacock later joined a group, led by Robert Drew of Time-Life in 1960, committed to making direct cinema films for TV.

An example of the Drew unit's work was Primary, an account of the campaign of Democratic senators John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in the Wisconsin presidential primary that Leacock worked on with Donn Alan Pennebaker, Robert Drew, and Terry Filgate. Critics called this film an excellent report on the inner workings of a political campaign as well as an appealing glimpse of the personal lives of candidates and their families. But Leacock was dissatisfied because the camera people could never get in to film such vital behind-the-scenes activities as public relations methods.

Leacock has frequently indicated his own and other documentarists concerns about obstacles to achieving direct cinema. Leacock, always critical of his own work, is concerned about distribution problems and thoughtful about the role of films in effecting social change. He has dedicated his life to creating less expensive, more manageable apparatus, to portraying art and artists, to experimenting, to letting situation and event tell their own story, and to teaching.

—Lillian Schiff

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