PLAN 78: Article
Richard Leacock, 1921-2011

Pioneer in Cinéma Vérité and Professor at SA+P

Documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock, a driving force behind the film program at SA+P, died on March 23 at his home in Paris. He was 89.

Leacock joined MIT in 1968 at the invitation of then-provost Jerome Wiesner (later the Institute's president) in the Documentary Film Section – a part of the School of Architecture + Planning founded one year earlier by filmmaker Ed Pincus – and stayed until 1989 when he retired and moved to Paris.

He was best known for expanding the possibilities of documentary film through the use of small, mobile, hand-held cameras that provided documentaries with greater immediacy and opened up the range of subjects and scenes that could be filmed. He also helped devise some of the technical innovations necessary to provide high-quality sound for hand-held cameras.

His first well-known film was Toby and the Tall Corn (1954), about a traveling theater troupe in Missouri. In the 1950s, he started collaborating with another innovator in documentaries, Robert Drew, with whom he developed a light camera with tape recorder that would record sound simultaneously. Leacock and Drew called the style deriving from this method Living Camera, but it became better known as cinéma vérité or, sometimes, ‘direct cinema’.

Leacock served as cinematographer for Drew's milestone documentary, Primary, about John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, and formed a working partnership with D. A. Pennebaker, for whom he served as cinematographer on Monterey Pop, from 1967, about the celebrated music festival.

Leacock, Drew and others went onto apply the cinéma vérité style to a wide range of subjects; the results included Nehru (1962), about the Indian prime minister; The Chair (1962), on the struggle of a Chicago lawyer to save a client from the death penalty; and Chiefs (1969), about a police-chief convention in Hawaii.

Born in London in 1921, Leacock grew up on his father's banana plantation in the Canary Islands before attending boarding schools in England. He made his first documentary at age 14, Canary Bananas, a 10-minute film about the plantation, using equipment his father had bought. Leacock went to college at Harvard and studied physics, with an eye toward understanding the technology of filmmaking, but dropped out to serve in World War II as a combat photographer in Burma and China. After the war, he worked on a 1948 film about the oil industry, Louisiana Story, made by the well-known documentarist Robert Flaherty, which helped spur on his career.

While the pace at which he made documentaries slowed while he taught at MIT, he still pursued a wide range of projects, from filming student protesters on campus in the late 1960s to a ‘MovieMap’ project in the 1970s with MIT's Architecture Machine Group, which allowed viewers to interactively ‘drive’ through streets in Colorado. His footage of student protests became the 1969 film November Actions. Leacock also pursued efforts to record musical performances at MIT, and created documentaries on diverse subjects from local painters to the legacy of physicist Niels Bohr.

‘Ricky's humanity in his films and in his life taught all of us to be better people,’ said Glorianna Davenport, a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, former head of the Media Lab's Media Fabrics research group and a long-time colleague of Leacock.

‘Ricky taught the world that being in front of the lens or being behind it was the same place,’ said Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Media Lab.

Leacock's memoir, Richard Leacock: The Feeling of Being There, will be released this summer, along with a compilation of his more than 40 documentaries and short films.

A different version of this story, written by Peter Dizikes, appeared on the MIT News Office site on March 25.