April 20, 2011
Ricky Leacock and “The Sense of Being There”
by Stephen Altobello

A few weeks ago, Ricky Leacock passed away. He was a filmmaker, cameraman, educator, and, as a key player in the American Direct Cinema movement of the 60s, one of the most groundbreaking, rule-changing storytellers of the 20th Century. Working under the guidance of producer Robert Drew, Leacock and his collaborators at Drew Associates (including DA Pennebaker and Albert Maysles) kickstarted modern documentary filmmaking with such cutting edge films as Primary (1960) and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963).

I could go on and on about Leacock’s many accomplishments and philosophies, but luckily that information is readily available elsewhere (for example, this essay at his website; his Wiki entry; the NY Times obit). But as someone who was schooled in documentary film (in part by cameraman/director Nick Doob, a direct descendant of the Direct Cinema movement), I prefer to zero in on three aspects that never cease to amaze me…

1. Moving at the Pace of the Subjects

Prior to Primary, due largely to the bulky and prohibitive gear necessary to record synch sound, documentary filmmakers had to be interactive with the people they were filming, which, as you can imagine, greatly affected the events being captured on film. If merely watching an event affects its outcome, then what happens when you bring in a couple hundred pounds of gear, a shitload of lights and several crew people. Huh? What kind of “reality” do you get that way?

Well, this notion vexxed Drew, Leacock and Pennebaker, too, and they aspired to be as unobtrusive as possible. Here’s what Leacock had to say about it:

“We had this weird set of rules. They were spoken. Never ask anybody anything. Don’t ever ask anybody to repeat anything you missed. Don’t ask them questions. Don’t—this was the rule of the game. And this was contrary to what everybody [else] was doing. There was, you know, See It Now [Edward Murrow’s late 50s documentary TV program]: questions, questions, yak, yak, yak, yak, one cigarette after another….And we weren’t searching for absolute truth; that’s all bullshit. We were trying to get [what Drew calls] the sense of being there.” (Robert Drew and the Development of Cinema Vérité in America, 1992, by P.J. O’Connell, pg 66)

These “rules” have become ingrained policy for subsequent generations of vérité filmmakers, some in the documentary field, others in the narrative field (certainly there’s hints of the Danish Dogme 95 movement in there). Cynically-speaking, after enough experiences producing “reality” TV, I’d say that arm of the industry does not adhere to the rules of Direct Cinema. Huge financial stakes, the interests of advertisers and networks, and the need to make something dramatically compelling to as large an audience as possible turns Leacock’s rules into ridiculous idealism.

2. Taking the Camera Where It’s Never Been

Repeatedly, when watching Primary and other films by Drew Associates, I think, “Wow, a film camera’s never seen this place.” I’m referring to locations that previously cameras didn’t have access to because of technological limitations or because no one had considered that place to be worth filming. Here’s two perfect examples, brief, consecutive scenes from Primary illustrating the routine and tedium John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey experienced living on the 1960 campaign trail.

Naturally, given the primitiveness of their gear, the lack of light necessary to film indoors, and their strict, self-imposed rules, the footage was bound to look rag-tag or even unprofessional. But none of this bothered producer Robert Drew. Quite the contrary:

“Nothing would have come out of [the movement] if people had stuck to light levels and sound levels that were considered acceptable. It was an example of the kind of risks that I urged people to take, and of the kind of risks I was willing to try to make films from. So, how satisfied was I? I was appalled at all the problems and the lack of technical quality, and I was thrilled by the fact that I’d never in my life seen anything like it.” (O’Connell, pg 101)

This fearless mindset took its cue from Italian neo-realist cinema, and is definitely one that influenced the burgeoning 60s New York narrative filmmaking scene (i.e. Cassavettes and Scorsese). Nowadays every independent film made considers location-shooting as the primary way to go: the most logical, the most affordable, the most ideal for making a sincere film.

3. The Two Person Team

True, the Drew Associates’ aim was to have as few people as possible covering an event or person, but by design, it would never be less than two people: one was the producer, who happened to take sound; and the other was the cameraman.

“The people taking sound were not ‘sound men’; they were reporters, journalists, trained in finding and telling stories. It was a collaborative work: filmmakers and journalists, not cameramen and soundmen.” (Leacock on Primary, from his website)

To me, this story is the best example of the Two Person Team in effect, where the shooter sees what's through the lens, but the producer is looking for the next shot and keeping track of the Big Picture. In 1965, producer/journalist Hope Ryden and cameraman Abbott Mills were filming The Time of Our Lives, a Drew Associates film about the pilot testing the B-70 bomber. Ryden was also taking sound. They were covering the bomber’s first flight.

Mills was shooting the jet taking off, which anyone could imagine was the shot to get, however…

 

...Ryden noticed the pilot's wife's reaction and yanked the photographer's attention to that.







It was a true collaboration since the two shots together tell the story and give us a sense of being there.

Although the contemporary vérité doc crew has a field producer and a shooter—which insures that the collaborative notion is still in effect (in theory)—I also have a personal affinity for the sound and image being captured on separate equipment, aka double system sound. Having one person and one piece of gear responsible for capturing all the information (sight and sound) and another person monitoring everything else can create a disconnect both in communication and in the end result. (Also, as a former sound editor who’s heard an abundance of buzzes, pops and unusable sound recorded by cameramen, I’ll vouch that it’s a rare and special cameraman who can cover all the technical needs of a vérité shoot without something slipping through the cracks.)

It’s exciting that thanks to the recent proliferation of DSLR cameras (i.e. the Canon 7D), filmmakers have to think in terms of double system sound, using portable sound devices such as the Zoom H4n. I’m sure Leacock, sitting comfortably in Direct Cinema Heaven, is looking down with elation.


In Their Own Words

Cinema Vérité and Direct Cinema; nonfiction filmmaking before and since these movements; the players—these topics have been fodder for writers for decades. There’s been so much praise, analysis and even criticism that it’s daunting to know where to go for further insight. Here’s my suggestions…

  • The Robert Drew/Ricky Leacock audio commentaries for Primary and Crisis are, by far, the most important resources to embrace. Recorded in 2000 for the DVDs, these old friends and collaborators watched their films and swapped stories—and it’s a non-stop treat. You’re listening to history speak. Here’s a sample: their reaction to the same two scenes from above…

    Forty years after the fact, Drew and Leacock’s pride and excitement is palpable. I got giddy listening to them talk in such detail, at such length and with such wonderment that matched my own. (Re-loading every 2-and-a-half minutes?!) For that reason, I found these commentaries to be more satisfying than anything else I’ve read on the topic. I strongly recommend them for education, enlightenment and sheer entertainment. (They can be had on Netflix, or you can get both Primary and Crisis together in a single DVD set.)

  • Film: A Montage of Theories, 1966, edited by Richard Dyer MacCann. Track down a used copy (it’s out of print). Among its 40 essays about the state of film in the 60s, is a transcript of a 1961 roundtable discussion with Drew, Leacock, and Pennebaker, led by journalist Gideon Bachmann. Although they had already made Primary, they were still the underdogs, critically appreciated by the elite but years away from making a difference on a grander scale. It’s unique to hear their insights without the taint of revisionism. (Here’s a scan of a page.)
  • Robert Drew and the Development of Cinema Vérité in America, 1992, by P.J. O’Connell. Perhaps the most thorough book on the topic and a source for many of my quotes in this post. Drew, Leacock and Pennebaker contributed significantly.
  • The Originators, on the DVD of the film Primary. This is a 30-minute excerpt of a 2000 panel discussion with Drew, Leacock, Pennebaker and Maysles. Fun and fascinating.

The Primary Fallout

To write this piece, I re-watched Primary and immersed myself in the ambitions and integrity of Leacock and his contemporaries, and I became overwhelmed by their impact on our day-to-day lives. Walking down a Manhattan street, I was amazed at the number of instances of people shooting pictures and video of their life-in-action, and, uncontrollably, my mind quickly traced the film’s many legacies:

  • Synch-sound 16mm cameras became video cameras became “reality” TV became smart phones.
  • Humanizing politicians begat demythologizing politicians, which made post-Watergate cynicism all the easier to accept as the Norm.
  • Shooting anywhere/anytime broadened the scope of “acceptable” cinematography, opening the floodgates for amateur photography, which brings us to YouTube and purposely-shaky, headache-inducing camerawork on Friday Night Lights.
  • Shooting with smaller crews means spending less money, which means a lot to the TV industry, which means Drew Associates’ crazy notions were suddenly not so crazy.
  • Taking the camera out of the traditional studio, and into real homes, paved the way for “glorification of the Common Man,” that became self-glorification, that became everything from amateur porn to the blog I write.

I wonder if any of that crossed Drew and Leacock’s mind when they shared a glance 51 years ago, in the back of a car, in rainy Wisconsin.


Stephen Altobello is a New York City-based producer and post production supervisor whose fine blog can be followed here.


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