Early life and career
Leacock was born in London on 18 July 1921, the younger brother of film director and producer Philip Leacock. Leacock grew up on his father's banana plantation in the Canary Islands until being sent to boarding schools in England at the age of eight.
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".
At the age of 14 he wrote, directed, filmed and edited Canary Bananas (10 min. 16mm, silent), a film about growing bananas, but it did not, in his opinion, give you "the feeling of being there".
Having filmed in the Canary Islands and then in the Galapagos Islands (1938–39) 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 were followed by 14 months as cameraman on Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story (1946-48).
In the meantime, Leacock had married Eleanor "Happy" Burke in 1941. Daughter of the world-famous literary critic, philosopher, and writer Kenneth Burke, she had studied at Radcliffe College, but graduated from Barnard in New York City. The Leacocks had four children together. After ethnographic fieldwork with the Innu (Montagnais-Naskapi) of Labrador, Eleanor Leacock (1922–1987) earned her doctorate in anthropology at Columbia University (1952). Ten years later, after her marriage broke up, she went on to become a pioneering feminist anthropologist.
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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 new contact, Roger Tilton wanted to film an evening of people dancing to Dixieland music spontaneously. Leacock filmed Jazz Dance for him, using hand held camera techniques.
Leacock's search for high quality, mobile, synchronous equipment to facilitate observation was ongoing. Leacock along with fellow film maker Robert Drew came up with the method of separating the wire from the microphones and the cameras. Leacock explains the problem with Louisiana story and pre-synchronized sound filmmakers: "Like all documentary filmmakers, he [Flaherty] had an identity problem in that period. They couldn’t deal with sync sound. It tied them down. Made them rigid… Except for the drilling sequence, which was shot with sound, it was essentially a silent film. And it wasn’t till 1960, when we were filming Primary, that we were able to jump into the new world" Frustrated with the obtrusiveness of the process of synching footage and sound, Leacock knew there had to be a way to separate the two. In 1958, the idea became obvious. “We had to have a mobile quartz camera, and we had to have a mobile quartz tape recorder, and we couldn’t have cables connecting them." Leacock took the same design as in an accutron watch and put it in the camera. This allowed proper synchronization. They then took their design to RCA who showed interest; and after receiving money from Life magazine, Drew and Leacock were able to make the first model. The first film: Primary. As Leacock points out, “nothing has really changed since then, I mean it is a little bit better… basically the same thing." Brian Winston describes Leacock as the father of modern documentary because of this development. "He was the catalyst for the development of the modern documentary, liberating the camera from the tripod and abandoning the tyranny of perfectly stable, perfectly lit shot – as well as the straitjacket of ‘voice of god’ commentary." Winston goes on to note that this new mode of filmmaking essentially dominated over any other style for “a quarter of a century." When most people think of the word “documentary,” they think of the observational mode that Leacock, Drew, and Pennebaker all played such a huge role in creating.
A number of films followed made by Drew, DA Pennebaker, Maysles and their associates, but the US networks were not impressed. In France at the Cinémathèque Française, 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, Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop, A Stravinsky Portrait and many others ending with the remnants of Jean-Luc Godard's One A.M. - One P.M. (1972).
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 sync equipment with modified mass-produced cameras that were much cheaper. Many filmmakers emerged from this program, including Ross McElwee (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 be broadcast on prime-time television in France. Leacock and Lalonde continued making films of their own choice without the pressures of TV producers.
Leacock died on 23 March 2011 at age the age of 89 in Paris. Before his death, he was raising funds for his multi-format memoir, “Richard Leacock: The Feeling of Being There,” a bound paper book and digital video book set to be published by Semeïon Editions.
To Leacock, the process of filmmaking is a “process of discovery." He does not film in order to preach his own ideas and his own presuppositions; he wants to discover the world around him. To him, any type of staging makes no sense, and in the end comes across as fake. “Usually, if you wait long enough they end up doing things naturally." Leacock believes that if you wait, people will become comfortable with the camera and start acting like themselves. Cameras, he thinks, should be small and unobtrusive, though never hidden. You should shoot in sequence if you can, and without interfering or asking for actions to be repeated.. Just like in Crisis and Primary, the action only comes from observation. By simply placing a camera in a room, our eyes can be opened. His main goal was to give viewers the sense of being there.
- 1935 Canary Bananas (8 min.)
- 1941 To Hear Your Banjo Play (20m, dir. Charles Korvin (Geza Karpathy))
- 1948 Louisiana Story (cameraman)
- 1948 Mount Vernon and The New Frontier (cameraman)
- 1949 Earthquake in Ecuador (director cameraman)
- 1950 Head of the House (writer-director-editor)
- 1952 The Lonely Night (dir. Irving Jacoby, filmed by Leacock)
- 1954 Jazz Dance (20min., cameraman)
- 1954 Toby and the Tall Corn (30 min., writer-director-camera-editor for Omnibus)
- 1956 A Conversation with Marcel Duchamp
- 1957 How the F-100 Got Its Tail (20 min., for Omnibus)
- 1957-9 Frames of Reference, Coulomb's Law, A Magnet Laboratory, Crystals
- 1958 Bernstein in Israel (30 min., Omnibus)
- 1959 Bernstein in Moscow (55 min.)
- 1959 Bull Fight at Malaga (20 min.)
- 1960 Primary (30 min.)
- 1960 Adventures on the New Frontier (possibly a longer version of Primary, Close-Up, ABC)
- 1960 Yank! No! (55 min., Close-Up, ABC)
- 1960 Kenya: Land of the White Ghost (Close-Up, ABC)
- 1961 The Children Were Watching (dir. Leacock, Close-Up, ABC)
- 1960 On the Pole (aka, Eddie, 55 min, co-produced and directed, The Living Camera)
- 1961 Peter and Johnny (55 min., produced by Leacock, The Living Camera)
- 1961 The Chair (55 min., co-produced, directed, and photographed, The Living Camera)
- 1962 Nehru (55 min, co-produced, directed, and shot with Gregory Shuker, The Living Camera)
- 1962 Susan Starr (54 min., filmed by a number of cinematographers, including Leacock, The Living Camera)
- 1963 Crisis (55 min.)
- 1963 Happy Mother's Day (30 min.)
- 1964 Republicans - The New Breed (30 min., with Noel E. Parmentel Jr.)
- 1965 A Stravinsky Portrait (55 min., made with Rolf Liebermann)
- 1965 Geza Anda (30 min, with Rolf Liebermann)
- 1965 Ku Klux Klan - Invisible Empire (50 min., produced and written by David Lowe for CBS Reports)
- 1966 Oh Mein Pa-Pa! (made with Rolf Liebermann)
- 1966 The Anatomy of Cindy Fine (20 min.)
- 1966 Old Age, The Wasted Years (30 min. x 2 for WNET)
- 1966 Monterey Pop (assisted D.A. Pennebaker)
- 1968 1-AM - 1-PM (90 min., with Pennebaker and Jean-Luc Godard)
- 1968 French Lunch (cameraman)
- 1968 Hickory Hill (18 min., with George Plimpton)
- 1969 Chiefs (18 min., with Noel E. Parmentel Jr.)
- 1969 Maidstone (cameraman with others)
- 1970 Company (60 min., one of three cameramen)
- 1970 Queen of Apollo (20 min., with Elspeth Leacock)
- 1972 Thread (20 min.)
- 1977 Isabella Stewart Gardner (30 min.)
- 1978 Centerbeam (20 min.)
- 1980 Light Coming Through (20 min.)
- 1981 Community of Praise (55 min.)
- 1984 Lulu in Berlin (50 min.)
- 1991 Les Oeufs a la Coque de Richard Leacock (84 min.) video
- 1992 Rehearsal: The Killings of Cariola (35 min.)
- 1992 Les Vacances de Monsieur Leacock (20 min.)
- 1992 Kren: Parking (3 min.)
- 1993 "Gott sei Dank" eine Besuch bei Helga Feddersen (30 min.)
- 1993 Felix et Josephine (33 min.)
- 1993 Hooray! We're Fifty! 1943-1993 (30 min.)
- 1993 A Celebration of Saint Silas (30 min.)
- 1994 A Hole in the Sea
- 1996 A Musical Adventure in Siberia
Films about Leacock
- Ein Film für Bossak und Leacock (1984) – German documentarist Klaus Wildenhahn's homage to Richard Leacock and Jerzy Bossak
- Ricky on Leacock by Jane Weiner, a JDB Films and Striana co-production. (work-in-progress)
- Richard Leacock -- Obituary.The Telegraph (London), 24 March 2011. Retrieved 30 March 2011.
- Grimes, William (March 24, 2011). "Richard Leacock, Innovative Documentary Maker, Dies at 89". The New York Times.
- "Eleanor Burke Leacock: Biography". Kristin Alten, May 1998. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
- Canary Banana Films & Semeïon Editions
- Leacock, Richard:, Meaulne: Semeïon Editions, 2011
- 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
- Richard Leacock at the Internet Movie Database
- Richard Leacock publishes his memoir
- Richard Leacock and Jean Rouch: Primary and Chronicle of a Summer.
- Innovator of Journalism, Film Dies. NPR -- Remembrances, 25 March 2011. Retrieved 30 March 2011.
- Pioneering filmmaker Richard Leacock, former MIT professor, dies at age 89 - Review by Peter Dizikes at MIT News