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03/24/2011

Documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock dies at 89

March 24, 2011 | 12:51 pm

Richard Leacock, a documentary filmmaker and pioneer of the unobtrusive camera technique cinema verite who followed John F. Kennedy on his presidential campaign and was seen by some as the grandfather of reality television, 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.

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.

"He had a poetic eye behind the camera, which gave him access to anybody because they sensed they could trust him," said documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, who first worked with Leacock on "Primary," the seminal documentary that followed JFK's presidential campaign in Wisconsin.

"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."

Leacock, born in 1921 and raised in England and the Canary Islands, made his name as an innovator.

"He was the first one to do what we call 'reality TV,' " said Bob Doyle, a Cambridge, Mass.-based inventor who knew Leacock and maintains a website in his honor. "He was famous for making documentary films which captured people being very natural. But he had a critical eye that exposed weakness or insights into people he was filming."

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 "truthful 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 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 "Monterey Pop," about the 1967 rock music festival (seen in the above YouTube clip).

He moved to Paris in 1989 after retiring from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was the head of the film/video section, his daughter said.

A memoir, "Richard Leacock: The Feeling of Being There," will be released this summer as a book and a digital video book.

Besides his daughter, Leacock is survived by his wife, Valerie Lalond, and a son, Robert Leacock.

-- Associated Press

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