Essays by Richard Leacock

| Richard Leacock page | Academic Film Archive of North America |

In addition to his film work, Leacock is a superb essayist who, eschewing the stuffiness often found in theoretical writing for the cinema, presents opinions that are readable, enjoyable, and of tremendous importance for the filmmaker/auteur of today wishing to create in a seemingly very expensive world.  We have chosen four essays which, we feel, represent "the essential Leacock".  All bear his copyright.   They are:

The Art of Home Movies or "To Hell With The Professionalism of Television and Cinema Producers" (1993), an iconoclastic look at how technology is changing the world of independent filmmaking.  Length: approximately 5 typewritten pages.

A Search for the Feeling of Being There (1997), an autobiographical history of the development of his philosophy.   Length: approximately 10 typewritten pages.

On Working with Robert and Frances Flaherty (1990), a rebuttal to Flaherty's detractors.  Length: approximately 4 typewritten pages.

A Conversation with Louise Brooks (1973), the text of the film which became "Lulu in Berlin", an interview with the silent screen star (G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box) filmed shortly before her death.  The interview is hilarious, historical, and poignant; Leacock's additional commentary provides an interesting look at the events that led up to, and beyond the interview. Length: approximately 26 typewritten pages.

A recent addition:

A critique of Filming Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story : The Helen van Dogen Diary ( (2000) Correcting certain inaccuracies in this book published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York in collaboration with Stifung Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin

The Art of Home Movies or "To Hell With The Professionalism of Television and Cinema Producers"   top

Draft Article by Richard Leacock November 30, 1993 

Robert Flaherty, who made NANOOK OF THE NORTH in 1921 and then, with his wife Francis, MOANA in 1925, is quoted as having said that films would eventually be made by "amateurs". What did he mean by that? Surely not what the contemporary use of the word would imply: "incompetence". But the opposite word has changed in meaning also, "professional" now means someone who has been certified by an institution as an "expert". Our "industry" (documentary film making) is dominated by such persons, who handle complicated professional equipment with assured competence; soldiers marching off to war. I think Flaherty meant that films would be made by people who loved the art, the act of filming; who loved creating sequences that did justice to their subjects, that conveyed an exquisite sense of seeing and hearing, of being there.

I spent years of my professional life working as a Cameraman, as an Editor and then as a Director--Cameraman--Editor, with cumbersome 35 mm film equipment. In despair at the clumsiness of this system, I helped in developing portable 16mm synchronous sound and film cameras. This change resulted in what came to be known as "direct cinema", a change not only in the manner of filming but also in editing. Then, trying to bring the. cost of filming down I tried (not very successfully) to professionalize 8 mm film equipment. Finally, with the introduction of the CCD and its refinement in Video-8, I am working exclusively with Video H-8. Not because I can’t got jobs working in the other formats but because I want to work this way. I must work this way.

For me,, the act of filming or, as we are working in video, let’s invent a new verb, the act of Videoing is a delight, a pleasure, like singing or sketching with pencil on paper, capturing the essence of places, people, situations, tragedies, comedies... life as we see and hear it around us. Then to go home, not to a studio; home, and edit, creating a bridge to one’s friends and yes, people you don't even know who might be interested in this evocation of what was experienced.

Like singing, or sketching, or playing the violin, this habit, this addiction, is demanding. I must practice all the time. If I put down my tiny Sony Camcorder for a week or two I will need time to practice to get back into a harmonious relationship with it. Years ago I studied the violin; seven years; I could not make the sound I wanted; I gave up. In 1959 I was making a film of Leonard Bernstein on a conducting tour in Israel. I awoke one morning and heard the faintest sound from the room next to mine. It was Isaac Stern playing the Mendelssohn Concerto at half speed with a mute on. I thought to-myself... s...t! after all these years he has to do that. You can buy a violin for less than a Camcorder but don't rent a hall for several years... and so with these cameras, it is easy to make a bad picture but, a good one? ... practice, look, experiment, they are very sophisticated little beasts!

A great deal of attention has been paid to the technological changes in camera equipment for documentary filming. Very little has been said about the act of making the movie.

Flaherty didn't need a Cameraman. His best work was done by himself, looking through the camera, searching, finding images that delighted him; not standing beside the hired hand asking "did you get that? See that little boy over there.? Did you get a close shot..." similarly with editing. He had an editor to do all the clumsy work that goes with using film, splicing, hanging up trims etc., but he was there in the editing room constantly working on the new material, not after the filming was finished but right there wherever he was working. He learned as he shot and often showed the results to his subjects so that they knew what they were involved in.

It is now five years since I started using Video 8. I work and live with Valerie Lalonde. I carry with me the hang-ups of a life spent filming the other way, she has no such baggage to deal with. We come home, we edit at home, we edit as we go along, shooting, editing, building and shifting in our approach. These are personal acts of artistic judgment which are not to be delegated. In most instances we don't even know what it is that we are after. We are searching for something, one has a rough idea but only that. If you delegate this search to another, there is no sense to it, the essence will probably be lost.

A case in point. I have been associated with many productions of plays and operas in various capacities. As a result I have wanted to search out some core of interest in the process of rehearsal. At a party in London a friend told us that rehearsals of John Webster's THE DUCHESS OF MALFI were to start in a couple of days. We got permission to video from the Cherub Company. We started as they arrived for the first rehearsal, we observed; we never asked anyone to do anything for us; we never told anyone to repeat an action, a phrase. We never interviewed. We got to know the cast. We helped where we could. We went away, we came again. On and off for the six weeks up till the last rehearsal. We had no idea what it was that we had captured. We doubted that we had a story; perhaps it was all a big mistake. We had accumulated twenty hours of material. We looked. We got very bored; it looked histrionic and false. What worked on the stage didn't seem to work on. the screen. Finally we found a thread; the rape and murder, on stage, of the Duchess' maid Cariola. The first time they tried this scene it was ludicrous and left the cast and director laughing, it got better; they

worked and worked on the technical details. Better but not much better. Then the dress rehearsal, it worked! I was videoing front stage. It was horrible! It was believable! They dragged the body off stage and Valerie picked up there; the actress was in shock; shaking her head to get out of it. The two young actors who had just killed her were now comforting her. This was the essence of theater when it works. You know it isn't real but you believe it, you feel it.

I am delighted with the resulting. - forty minute film, REHEARSAL: THE KILLINGS OF CARIOLA. We were able to make it because we both had cameras and we have VHS editing equipment at home which suffices for off-line edits. The out of pocket costs, travel, tape etc. were around $2000, that is, up to the point where you get serious and go On-Line. A friend in Canada made a film of rehearsals of a play using 16mm and a conventional crew, they too, shot 20 hours of film which made a 40 minute film. The below the line costs were $100,000.

Before I went to Video I would get funding for a film at about five year intervals. Now we are making two, three or four movies a year. We can afford the unheard of luxury of starting a project and aborting it! In the heyday of LIFE magazine they would shoot about three stories and publish two. Film is too expensive for such frivolity, every single story must be completed. If it isn't there, put it there! Make it work! Distort it, do what you must but make it work! That is the code of television today, everywhere,

The assumptions of professional film making are bizarre. You must have a "subject". Well in a sense, yes. When Piazzetta sketched his wife, his daughter... one day in the late 18th century, he had a subject, but would it have persuaded the producer of a major TV network that it would grab the undivided attention of a portion of his 15,000,000 potential viewers? And besides, this producer only deals in one hour slots. (Like the psychiatrist’s hour it is actually less, say four 13 minute segments).

So, OK, you have a "subject". You film, or video; slowly it dawns on you that it is the wrong subject; that something else that's going on there is far more interesting, or often, there is something aside from the main subject that is fascinating but not relevant... what do you do?

Recently I have been the subject of some TV specials. It is ludicrous! We live in a small space. Suddenly we are invaded, the crew have arrived, four large men with their equipment. Lights are set up for no reason that I can tell except that otherwise one of the crew would be out of a job. Tripods, microphone boom, a microphone enclosed in a great furry capsule to protect it from hurricane winds, furniture is moved, sit here, sit there, turn this way turn that way, now talk. This is madness but it goes on the air and I suppose millions of people see it and forget it. I have no idea what happens when people see these shows and I don't think the people that make them know.

Artistic prostitution is OK by me... sometimes, that is. If you know what you are up to and have another agenda. But not all the time. These problems that I am complaining about are not new. Flaherty had his problems raising money from Revillon Freres for NANOOK and Paramount was not pleased with MOANA. It was years before he got another commission. Today we can do pretty much what we want, when we want and where we want. However we will pay a price for our freedom. They (TV) probably won't show what we make. For the time being that is a problem., I think that our films, all sorts of odd lengths on all kinds of "subjects" should be available like books, to be played not by millions but by a modest audience of hundreds, maybe thousands and very occasionally, hundreds of thousands. Again I recall Flaherty saying "we should be able to see what we want. to, where we want to, when we want to; at a reasonable price."

Technologically we are close to able to achieve this goal and make a reasonable living out of supplying what we want to show-

During the last five years, working in video, we have made:





KREN - PARKING 3 min a portrait of an art work

FELIX ET JOSEPHINE 33 min a fiction based in reality.

HOORAY! WE'RE FIFTY! 1943-199a. 30 min My Harvard 50th reunion.

A CELEBRATION OF ST. SILAS 34 min Preparation for and celebration of an Anglican Mass


As far as actual shooting and editing goes, I adore this new way. I would never go back to film, The camera is a gem; with a really good microphone attached (it will cost about as much as the camera) you can obtain superb sound, far better than the dreadful optical tracks on 16 mm prints. The new image stabilizing device in the camera is astoundingly effective. (The Steady Cam, used in the industry, is a 19th-century solution; the image stabilizer is a 21st century solution). Editing on, film is an absurdity, every time you change something you destroy what you had! On ‘Oeufs ý la Coque’ we made 16 different edits before we settled on one. We can make new as time demands.

This can be fun! And, there is nothing that limits what I have been saying to the documentary. You can make any kind of film you like this way. The tools are here. The road is open, just go out and make it!

A Search for the Feeling of Being There  top

Richard Leacock May 20, 1997

When I was eleven years old and a pupil at an English boarding school something extraordinary was done; we were shown a film, a silent 35mm full length film from the Soviet Union, TURK-SIB, about the building of the trans-Siberian Railway. I was riveted, astounded; here was what I had been looking for and it was simple, all I needed was a movie camera and I could do it myself.

I had been raised on my father's plantation in the Canary Islands. We grew Bananas, Tomatoes, we made cement pipes and pumped irrigation water. Of the more than 200 men and women that worked there I think about three could read and write. They worked with oxen and camels. There were no schools where we lived so I had a wonderful time until it was decided that I should go to school --- in England --- cold, dark, little boys in short pants with chapped knees and chilblains.... eventually I got used to it and in a perverse kind of way, enjoyed it. But how to explain to my schoolmates, where I came from and what life in my Garden of Eden was like?

Turk-Sib was the answer. So three years later with the help of school friends Polly Church and Noel Florence, armed with our detailed scenario which included drawings of each shot, a 16mm Victor camera and an elegant Thailhamer Tripod we made a 14 min. black & white, silent film; CANARY BANANAS, a film I am proud of, that can still tell you all you need to know about growing Bananas but it fell far short of giving you the feeling of being there. It informed you but it didn't involve you.

In 1938 at the ripe old age of 17, 1 went as photographer-film-maker to the Galapagos Islands as a member of David Lack's expedition to learn more about Darwin's finches. We lived on a "desert island", isolated, not even a radio. I spent most of my time with the Angermeyer brothers who had listened to Hitler and fled; it was a bit like Robinson Crusoe, l loved it. I did what I was supposed to do and filmed the birds and just about everything else that moved but the result gave you no feeling whatever of "being there".

By 1941 we were shooting synch sound. Features had been "talkies" for a decade but it was easier for them, they created their own controlled world in the safe confines of vast studios and here we were making a Documentary on American folk music in the hills of Virginia and Tennessee. Madness! No electricity there. So a truck-load of lead storage batteries and a motor converter from 110 volts DC to 110 volts 60 cycle AC, powering a 35mm optical film recorder and a 35mm film camera. you turned them on and adjusted the DC to get the frequency of the AC up to 60 cycles and when the sound camera and the picture camera stopped hunting you yelled "speed" and then the clap-sticks and the director, Geza Karpathy, murmured "relax" to the petrified musicians. And it was a good two weeks before you got to hear the play-back! It worked but not much spontaneity with that rigmarole to contend with.

This was professional film making, the leading edge. Documentary couldn't go on avoiding the issue by laying music and narration on silent pictures. We were going into the "real world" and systematically destroying the very thing that we were looking for. Why not make our films in studios like the big boys do? Don't be silly! It wasn't just the technology, it was the attitude of a professionalized industry aping the world of the fiction film -- it still is.

Today, when we have available, superb portable sensitive mini-digital cameras and sound equipment the impact of filming or videoing is just as ridiculous and even more so because it is utterly uncalled for. I have been filmed by various Television crews and invariably the routine is just as disruptive as ever. Four or five large men come busting into our tiny apartment with tripods, camera, microphones, booms, light-stands... it is politely suggested that you sit "there, no a bit to the left, now turn your head, do you mind if we move the painting on the wall, it's distracting and we can see a reflection of the sound man..." "can you give us a level? just say anything"... and you start to say what you are to say and the sound-man says "cut! I'm picking up the refrigerator, can some one unplug it... thanks , now just take it from the head again..." and perhaps they want a shot of you talking on the street so you are expected to walk "casual like" with cameraman soundman and assistant walking backward in front of you. At last it is over!

In the early sixties I thought we had solved these problems by a set of working rules designed to make it possible for us to get as near as we could to observing our subjects with minimal impact. No lights, no tripod, no microphone boom or pole, never wear headphones (they make you look silly, and or, remote) never more than two people, never ask anyone to do anything and most especially never ask anyone to repeat an action or a line. Allow lots of time, don't shoot all the time, if you miss something, forget it in the hope that something like it will happen again. Get to know your subject if possible in order to generate some kind of mutual respect, if not friendship.

OK these are rules, not laws, and rules can be broken:

This means no interviews, fine I'm sick of interviews but when I filmed Louis Brooks in her very private apartment in Rochester N.Y. it was an interview and that was that!

Why not ask some one to repeat an action that you missed? It is not a question of morality but just try it. I was filming the editor of the Aberdeen S.Dakota newspaper; while I was reloading my camera, his secretary ran in and told him that Senator McGovern was calling from Washington... It was wonderful so I loaded up and asked her to do it again. Weeks later I was screening rushes in New York and Joyce Chopra and I and some friends saw it! Horrors! It was ridiculous, like some third rate TV soap!

In general, when you are making a film you are in a situation where something you find significant is going on. Usually the people you are filming want to help you get what they think you want to get; often as a way of getting rid of you. And this can be fatal because they are then second-guessing you and can end up destroying the possibility of achieving your aim. I remember Bob Drew and I coming into the lawyer's office when we were making THE CHAIR. He asked what he could do for us, we said, "nothing", put our equipment in a corner and went out for coffee. A little later we came back in and he was back at work doing what had to be done, having decided that we were nuts. We kept our distance and started filming as he picked up his phone...

What am I looking for? I hope to be able to create sequences, that when run together will present aspects of my perception of what took place in the presence of my camera. To capture spontaneity it must exist and everything you do is liable to destroy-it... beware!

Filming is searching for and capturing the ingredients with which to make sequences. You are not going to get "the whole thing", you are lucky to get fragments but they must be captured in such a way that you can edit. If there is dialogue you know that editing is more restricted and you must find ways to deal with this problem without recourse to that dreadful concept: the "cut away". If music is involved the problems are even more complex.

The making of sequences is, for me, at the heart of film making. I had always assumed that you just got the bits of an action and put it together and Bingo! you have a sequence. But there are all kinds of things that you may want to convey with a sequence and it was not until I worked as cameraman on Robert Flaherty's LOUISIANA STORY that I started to learn from him, the complexity of this process. We were a tiny crew, most unprofessional. We shot, day after day, for 14 months more often than not, just the three of us, Mr. & Mrs. Flaherty, she with a Leica, he and I often with two Arriflex 35mm cameras, recently liberated from Hitler's Wehrmacht, and sometimes an assistant. We shot and shot. If something appealed to us, never mind that it wasn't in the script, film it. A beautiful cloud, swallows wheeling through the sky preparing to migrate, a water-lily pad with a drop of water on it in perfect light, a spider completing the building of its web. Often the camera in motion or panning and tilting, no rules except look, look through the camera lens, search.

The first time I ever met Mr. Flaherty was in 1936 just after I had completed the Banana film. He was visiting his daughters, Franny and Monica at our school and he had a 16mm camera on a tripod and he was filming blond Brenda McDermot brushing her hair to dry it in the sunlight. Fine, but he went on and on and on... I decided he must be mad. What on earth could be so complicated about a young woman brushing her hair? In Louisiana I began to learn. Only began. After that job I went back to work with "professionals!" and learned that I had better behave myself or look for another job!

After long days of filming, often starting as early as six in the morning and on, with a long break to avoid the midday light, till twilight, then cleaning cameras, developing test strips, shipping film to the lab... to a well earned well watered drink before bed, Flaherty would sometimes talk about making sequences. Mostly he talked about the making of Moana, how every sequence is a new and different problem. The use of different focal length lenses, the function of the close-up, not so much to reveal detail as to withhold information from the viewer, of the surround or, as he put it "the camera is like a horse with blinders, it can only see what is in front of its nose" and thus increase the visual tension that requires the viewer to search for the resolution of what they are experiencing. Moana, since this experience, has become his masterpiece for me and the version that his daughter Monica has made, with sound is superb.  The next step in my de-professionalization, was when Roger Tilton invited me to shoot, JAZZ DANCE in 1954. Now he, was clearly crazy! Bear in mind that the only synch- sound film equipment of acceptable quality was massive. Magnetic recording tape was available; the Reeves 35mm recorder weighed about 70 lbs. and was said to be "portable" because it had handles on it. The handiest camera was a Mitchell NC, OK in a noisy situation but still, massive. Tilton wanted to make a short film to be shown in theaters (35mm) of an evening at a place on the lower East-side in New York where young people were dancing to live Jazz music. Everyone had told him that it had to be done with the standard equipment described above. Set ups, rehearsals, clap sticks, take one, take two... take 23.... So we got two hand held spring driven 35mm Eymos (The same as we used in combat in WW II) 100 ft. loads which run just over one minute each and on these cameras the longest you can shoot without rewinding is about 15 seconds. My friend Hugh Bell constantly reloading while I shot and Bob Campbell shot with another camera and a rudimentary synch system close to the musicians.

Me? I was all over the place having the time of my life, jumping, dancing shooting right in the midst of everything. What a fabulous night. We shot slow music, fast music and medium, just like buying T-shirts - large - medium - small! I had nothing to do with the editing, but what a job. They used a slow medium and fast selection and they matched the action to the beat. Fantastic! This was more like it. Now, on a big screen in a theater, WOW! you were there, right in the midst of it and it looked like it was in synch... it was in synch! But, you couldn't film a conversation this way. It gave us a taste, a goal. Tilton tells me that he was invited out to Hollywood by the biggies but when he told them that they couldn't do it with their clumsy equipment they told him to get lost and didn't even pay his fare back!

Right after this wonderful experience I got a commission to film a traveling tent theater show in the Midwest, a Toby Show. It was the first film I had made where I had control since Bananas. I wrote, directed, filmed and edited. We used the conventional equipment plus a hand held camera for wild shooting. I had a small and wonderful crew. We worked like dogs and the result may look a bit stilted by today's standards but it achieved a feeling of being there rather than that of a conducted tour.

More and more frustration. All we were asking for was to be free to move and to record image and sound of quality and not be dragging an anchor behind us. It wasn't just me. Morris Engel was making headway in shooting WEDDINGS AND BABIES with Viveca Lindfors, a clumsy rig but it worked. The Canadian National Film Board had experiments going on. Look at the documentaries they made of the pianist Glen Gould. Remarkable. In New York Leo Hurwitz was shooting with heavy equipment in a hospital emergency room, a bit like trying to light a cigarette with a stick of dynamite but whatever, headway was being made.

My final film before the breakthrough was a report on my friend from college days, Lenny Bernstein on a conducting tour in Israel. Lenny, Felicia, a young friend of theirs, Jean Stein and I left for Israel on the day after WEST SIDE STORY opened on Broadway. I knew I couldn't take the standard truck full of junk so I switched to something the industry looked down on, 16mm, a camera that was quiet (we knew we had to film concerts) that recorded sound on the film optically, therefore low quality, but in synch. We also took the latest 1/4 inch tape deck, about the size of an overnight suitcase, but not synchronous. Well, I still think it a nice film that shows Lenny at his best but we missed absolutely everything that I wanted to have in it. The night when Lenny and Felicia performed practically the whole of West Side Story for their friends, including Teddy Kolleck, in their hotel room. The Camera was in a truck, and so it went, but it cleared my head. Now I knew exactly what we needed and the standards that must be met.

Many disasters later, it was with Bob Drew, an editor on Life Magazine who, after a year at Harvard as a Niemen Fellow, was determined to rescue Television Journalism from the boondocks of the perpetual Interview, the hallmark cigarette of Edward R. Morrow that dominated the medium. Drew had seen The Toby film and followed it up with a brief visit and a drink with me in New York. He saw other works and from firsthand experience as a LIFE reporter, knew what could happen with a good still photographer working with their relatively minute equipment. He was determined and we were with him. We got equipment made to our specifications. We were part of the development. I contributed the idea of synchronizing with a new Bulova watch that was controlled by a tiny tuning-fork (the transistor was already there but the crystal chips were still a long way off). Morris Engel had already used a bigger tuning-fork but ours was a neater solution. D. A. Pennebaker was with us and radically modified the Auricon Camera that we were using (it was quiet!) Mitch Bogdonovitch engineered it all but like so many geniuses he could never do the same thing twice, always the step forward and then again, sometimes the two steps backward.

With Bob Drew, we formed a nucleus gang, Al Maysles, McCartney-Filgate, then Shuker and Lipscomb making films that in general adhered to the list of rules above. With the appearance of PRIMARY, YANKI NO!, ON THE POLE, CRISIS, PETEY & JOHNNIE, MOONEY vs. FOWLE, and the rest. We, at least 1, thought that we had solved the problems of Documentary film making. But the Industry didn't give a damn. The French intellectual film buffs did for a while but then came Jean Luc Godard and other obscurantists with heavy Marxist hangovers.

It is now thirty years later and the TV industry and the Film Industry haven't really changed. The new equipment has made news gathering more facile and just as dumb. The big boys of Hollywood are happy with the Steady-Cam and, in my view, both are heading for a numbing form of number-crunching disaster called ENTERTAINING THE BILLIONS.

How to get away from the Industries and their demands? Is this a problem that can be solved in part by changing the technology? We, the film makers, depend upon the Industry to be shown, TV or Theaters. In rare instances we have cracked the theater walls. Pennebaker's DON'T LOOK BACK and MONTEREY POP did this and it was wonderful fun and most satisfying. My little short film CHIEFS rode in on Monterey's back. But these were propelled by star attractions and performance. Not something that I want to depend on. Television is relatively easy to satisfy but they want to own what they show, if they give you money for production they want control. Monterey Pop was made for ABC TV and we thought we had a winner. When it was completed we invited the newly appointed president of ABC Barry Diller, to screen it. He came and he sat through it, there was a ponderous silence till he turned and said "This film does not meet industry standards" to which I responded "I didn't know you had any" End of conference. It was the best thing that ever happened to us.

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY was rejected by its sponsor Curtis Publications, so be it. Others went on the air and that is the