Richard Leacock (Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
NEW YORK (AP) - 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 at age 89.
Leacock died in Paris on Wednesday, said one of his daughters, Victoria Leacock Hoffman, of New York. 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.
Maysles said that when he thought of Leacock, the cinematographer on "Primary," he had two images: "a wonderful, loving face and his hands."
"I could see his hands on the camera, cradling it in such a way that he could take good care of the people he was filming," Maysles said.
Leacock, born in London, 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 "Primary," Leacock had a hand in the documentaries "A Stravinsky Portrait," about composer and conductor Igor Stravinsky, and the historic concert film "Monterey Pop," about a 1967 rock music festival. He also was cinematographer on Robert Drew's 1963 "The Chair," which documented Chicago lawyers trying to get a man off death row.
"Richard Leacock was one of the true pioneers of documentary filmmaking," said Martin Scorsese. "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."
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 four other children: Elspeth Leacock, Robert Leacock, David Leacock, and Claudia Leacock. He has nine grandchildren and a great grandchild due on what would have been his 90th birthday, July 18.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press