REMEMBERING THE MASTERS: JOHN ALCOTT
Since its inception the International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography CAMERIMAGE has always focused on distinguishing those brilliant filmmakers who stayed in the shade of actors, directors or screenwriters - the cinematographers. We have shown their exceptional skills and visual sensitivity. We have acknowledged their input in the art of cinema. Together with them we observed the upcoming digital revolution.
The aim of “Remembering the Masters" is to accentuate the craft of all those brilliant cinematographers who passed away, and to provoke a discussion about the cinematic possibilities given by the films which over the years set the standards for what we watch today. In the moment of the digital revolution, both mental and technological, it is crucial not to forget about the always-fascinating history of cinema without which such revolution wouldn't come. We therefore invite everyone to watch the work of true masters, and by this remember every lesson they wanted to teach us.
This year we will present the work of British cinematographer John Alcott.
JOHN ALCOTT (1931 - 1986)
The eminent British cinematographer is best known for the outstanding film visuals he achieved in collaboration with the visionary American film director Stanley Kubrick, particularly in the sarcastic vivisection of a violence-based society in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and in the period drama film Barry Lyndon (1975). For Barry Lyndon, Alcott not only won the most prized trophy in cinema - an Oscar - but also a BAFTA and a British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) Award. For A Clockwork Orange, Alcott received a BAFTA nomination. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) by Hugh Hudson won him two nominations - one for a BAFTA and one for a BSC Award.
John Alcott was born in 1931 in Isleworth, England, to Arthur Alcott, a long-standing employee of the film production departments in Gainsborough Studios and Pinewood Studios. Alcott launched his film career at the age of 17, when he became a clapper boy. There he worked on the set of The Million Pound Note (1954) by Ronald Neame as well as other productions. As time progressed, he worked his way up to a focus puller, where one of the sets he worked on was for the disaster film A Night To Remember (1958) by Roy Ward Baker.Geoffrey Unsworth was the cinematographer for this and for a number of other films in over fifteen titles for which Alcott assisted with the camerawork, mainly as a focus puller. These include The Main Attraction by Daniel Petrie (1962) and Othello by Stuart Burge(1965). Soon after, both of them (with Unsworth as the master cinematographer) met again - this time on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick (1968). At that time, it was regarded as the greatest ever film production and even today it is regarded as the all-time masterpiece of the sci-fi genre. This visually breathtaking and intriguing vision of space, based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke and brought to the huge Cinerama screen thanks to the Super Panavision 70 system, turned out to be the breakthrough in Alcott'scareer.
A cameraman, who before that would have worked in the 2nd team at best (there is only one another such case - in Checkpoint by Ralph Thomas from 1956), advanced to the position of master cinematographer when Unsworth, due to the prolonging production of Odyssey, was obliged to leave the project to meet his other professional commitments. Alcott was appointed to be Unsworth's successor byStanley Kubrick himself! It is now irrelevant that in the closing credits Alcott, responsible for the cinematography in the first, prehistoric sequence of Odyssey, i.e. The Dawn of Man, done with front projection, a relatively new technique for special photographic effects, was not mentioned as the Director of Photography but as responsible for Additional Photography. What is important, however, is that a new Director-Cinematographer duo was thus born, whose works, although in terms of numbers more modest than the works of such duos asBergman-Nykvist, Fellini-Rotunno or Bertolucci-Storaro (Kubrick-Alcott's works included only four titles: Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining from 1980), were equally good in terms of quality as the works of the other duos. Namely, in all these films we can find either new technical solutions or already existing ones but applied so ingeniously that every single one of these films is both surprising and awe-inspiring with their visual aspect always adequate to the story on the screen.
Still from "Barry Lyndon"
Vivid colours and optical deformations (9.8mm wide-angle lens) in A Clockwork Orange make for the visual layer of the film, whose far-fetched eccentricity proved to be a perfect visual equivalent to the shocking descriptions of the novel by Anthony Burgess. In The Shining, brilliant use of everyday sources of interior lighting, visible in the scenes, along with the use of the Steadicam, which in 1980 was a relative novelty, allowed the creation of an unprecedented air of horror, claustrophobia and incredibility. However, John Alcott's ultimate masterpiece is Barry Lyndon, set in eighteenth-century England. It is famous for its scenes - for the first time in the history of cinema, shot exclusively in candlelight. Kubrick and Alcott had already begun planning, right after finishing Odyssey, these scenes when preparing for a film about Napoleon. However, this production was never launched, and additionally Alcott couldn't find bright enough lenses at that time.
In Barry Lyndon the experiment of shooting in candlelight, which this time turned out to be successful, was dictated by the period of the film and inspired by the eighteenth-century English painting (the works of Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth). It was realised with 50 mm, extraordinary bright f/0.7 Planar lens. Zeiss had at that time equipped Hasselblad cameras with this lens, which were used by NASA in their manned Apollo flights to the Moon. Now, the lens had been installed in a 35mm Mitchell BNC film camera. Also, a side sight taken from an old three-tape Technicolor had been fixed, which was the only way to watch scenes barely lit by candles. In order to protect the ceilings of the historic interiors, an additional, metal, ceiling was suspended, which at the same time served as a reflector for the candlelight, directing it onto the actors' heads and thus illuminating them. Outdoor scenes in Barry Lyndon were shot without the aid of any artificial lighting (the paintings of Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Jean Antoine Watteau served here as the reference), whereas the lighting of day interior scenes was aided by artificial light, perfectly imitating natural lighting, such as sunlight pouring in through windows, glass doors, etc.
Still from "The Shining"
That is how Barry Lyndon was made, one of the greatest masterpieces of camerawork in the history of cinema. Then, we have The Shining, the last film of Stanley Kubrick made with John Alcott. Alcott didn't work on the next film, Full Metal Jacket (1987), as he had to meet his other professional commitments. Among the most interesting films which were not directed by Kubrick, in terms of cinematography, that Alcott shot, apart from Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, there are: March or Die by Dick Richards (1977), Fort Apache, Bronx by Daniel Petrie (1981), The Beastmaster by Don Coscarelli (1982) and Under Fire by Roger Spottiswoode (1983).
In 1981, John Alcott moved from England to the USA, with the hope of achieving better professional stability there. Five years later, he created the cinematography for Roger Donaldson's thriller No Way Out (which premiered in 1987), unfortunately the last film in Alcott'scareer. John Alcott died on 28 July 1986 in Cannes at the age of 55. The cause of his death was a massive heart attack. To commemorate this great artist, the British Society of Cinematographers founded an award named after him - the John Alcott ARRI Award.
by Andrzej Bukowiecki