Advertisement

Richard Leacock dies at 89; documentary filmmaker pioneered cinema verite technique

Richard Leacock, a

and pioneer of the unobtrusive cinema verite camera technique, has died. He was 89.

Leacock died Wednesday in Paris, said his daughter Victoria Leacock Hoffman. He had been in declining health and had taken several recent falls, she said in an email.

Advertisement

Leacock's technical acumen supplied the likes of

Jean-Luc Godard

and

Francois Truffaut

with the tools of their trade. His insightful direction laid the groundwork for generations of filmmakers seeking to use their cameras to capture real life as it happened, colleagues said.

"Richard Leacock was one of the true pioneers of documentary filmmaking," director

Martin Scorsese

said in a statement. "He was instrumental in the development and use of lightweight, portable equipment, which opened the way for genuinely independent filmmaking. And he had a remarkably sensitive, quick camera eye. He paved the way for all of us."

Documentary filmmaker

Albert Maysles

first worked with Leacock on "Primary," the seminal documentary directed by Robert Drew that followed

John F. Kennedy

's presidential campaign in Wisconsin.

"He had a poetic eye behind the camera, which gave him access to anybody because they sensed they could trust him," Maysles said.

In the post-

World War II

period, filmmakers were increasingly preoccupied with escaping the confines of the film set and capturing real life as it was happening. But that ambition, known as cinema verite (French for "truth cinema"), faced a daunting technical challenge: Taking the camera out of the studio made it extremely difficult to capture high-quality sound.

Filmmakers needed to find a way to soak up speech and video independently without letting the pair slip out of sync, and it was Leacock who hit upon the idea of using a system of American-made Bulova watches to keep the two in accordance.

Leacock was born July 18, 1921, and raised in England and the Canary Islands, where his father had a banana plantation. He studied physics at

Harvard University

and served as a combat photographer for the

U.S. Army

during World War II.

Leacock wrote, directed and edited "Toby and the Tall Corn," a 1954 documentary about a traveling tent theater in

Missouri

. It aired on television as part of the cultural program "Omnibus."

In 1960, Leacock formed a partnership with documentarian

D.A. Pennebaker

. Besides serving as cinematographer on "Primary," Leacock had a hand in the documentaries "A Stravinsky Portrait," about composer and conductor

Igor Stravinsky

, and

. He also was cinematographer on Drew's 1963 "The Chair," which documented Chicago lawyers trying to get a man off death row.

Leacock moved to Paris in 1989 after retiring from the

where he taught for 20 years in the film/video section.

A memoir,

will be released this summer as a book and a digital video book.

Survivors include his wife, Valerie Lalond, five children and nine grandchildren.

Advertisement
Advertisement