Richard Leacock, a British filmmaker (1921-2011) is recognized as a leading and pioneer documentary filmmaker. His unique filmic style resembles that of direct cinema and cinema verite. Direct cinema is a filmic style that values realism and honors objectivity. The filmmaker maintains a “fly on the wall” relationship with the subjects, allowing their ‘real’ behavior to show through without the influence of the filmmaker. Cinema verite is a style that aims to reveal truth through the use of the camera, uses improvisation, and can maintain a transparent relationship between filmmaker on screen and subject. Both differ in the filmmaker’s involvement within his own film.
Growing up, Leacock was interested in the photographic arts and then moved towards the moving image. His aim was to make his films realistic, so an audience member would feel like they were really there. Some examples of his early work were Canary Bananas followed by Toby and the Tall Corn and the film Jazz, which was filmed with a hand held camera. Leacock, however, is most renowned for his revolutionary work with sound in films.
Leacock was frustrated with the technology available at the time and aimed to separate sound and visuals, seamlessly linking these two fundamental aspects of cinema. Sound equipment before the 1960’s was heavy and bulky. The sound for documentaries was often recorded separately and prior to the actual video recording. This in essence, means that a realistic or genuine recording of documentary cinema was simply not possible before Leacock and others devised a way to combine sound and imagery and revolutionize filmmaking.
The first work of its kind, Primary, benefitted from this technological advancement. Primary acts as a record of the democratic primary between JFK and Hubert Humphrey and led a new journalistic filmmaking movement. Using a tape recorder and lightweight camera, which was unprecedented at the time, sound and visual content were combined simultaneously without the viewer’s knowledge to capture what was really happening. Leacock is known within the field as the patriarch of documentary filmmaking due to this groundbreaking invention. Filmmakers had the freedom to now work outside of the bounds of a tripod, could use unique types of shots, and could move away from the omnipotent style of narrating documentaries that was customary to the time period. It is actually said, that this style of filmmaking dominated over all other styles for over 25 years. This profound moment in documentary filmmaking’s history is remembered as a huge turning point for the industry.
Here is the preview for Leacock’s film: Primary
Also known as one of the leading figures in the Direct Cinema movement, Albert Maysles (1926-2015) also made his mark within the field. He is known as one of the first people to make a feature film about daily life as it unfolds in reality. This occurred with no planning, scripting, or shaping. Like Leacock, Albert also made Primary and contributed to the philosophy that a film should tell it’s own story. Known for defining “classic American documentary” (Mayles Films), his career was marked by tremendous success as he continued to pave the way for documentary filmmaking.