While the basic elements of the camera have remained essentially the same over the years, there have been numerous technological developments that have had a significant impact on motion picture style and aesthetics. The advent of sound in the late 1920s created problems for filmmakers because the cameras used during the silent era were too noisy to be used on sound productions. The sensitive microphones used in early sound films picked up even the slightest noise from the cameras, and so it was necessary to place the camera in a soundproof box. The soundproof camera booths could be moved, but they significantly limited mobility, although filmmakers were often creative in finding ways to move the camera. Some studios used other methods besides camera booths to quiet their cameras, including the use of blimps, or sound-proof casings, and even horse blankets. Another problem of early sound film had to do with the filmstrip itself. Silent films could use the entire width of the film to record the image, but the addition of the soundtrack on the edge of the sound filmstrip meant that the aspect ratio (the proportion of height to width on the film frame) was changed. This problem was solved by reducing the top and bottom of each frame on the filmstrip to achieve a standardized aspect ratio of 1:1.37.
Richard Leacock was raised on his father's banana plantation in the Canary Islands. When he started attending boarding school in England, he wanted to find a way to let his schoolmates know what life was like on the plantation, and so at the age of fourteen he made his first film, Canary Island Bananas (1935), to show them what it was like to be there. For the bulk of his professional life, Leacock has been motivated by the desire to let people know what it is like "to be there." He has long felt that the purpose of the documentary filmmaker is to observe, rather than direct, the action, and has worked to develop portable cameras with synchronous sound systems to serve this purpose, allowing maximum flexibility in filmmaking with minimum intrusion.
Leacock served in the US Army as a combat camera operator during World War II, and later did freelance camera work for various government agencies and for a number of directors, including the pioneer documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty on Louisiana Story (1948). He was continually frustrated by the way the cumbersome cameras and sound equipment made it nearly impossible to capture events spontaneously. Although he found some creative ways around this problem, such as shooting with a handheld camera and later adding non-synchronized sound over the image, he found these solutions to be ultimately unsatisfactory.
In the 1950s Leacock began a collaboration with photojournalist Robert Drew, and by 1960 they had developed a portable 16mm sync-sound camera and recording equipment. Synchronizing sound to image involves linking the camera and audio recorder together, enabling the two devices to run at exactly the same speed. Leacock and Drew felt that the documentary filmmaker should be a neutral observer, getting close to the action but not becoming involved—a style their new equipment allowed and which later became known as direct cinema. The first film made with this equipment was Primary (1960), which followed John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the 1960 Wisconsin presidential primary. Leacock formed his own production company in the mid-1960s, and continued to make films that enable viewers to see what it is like "to be there." In 1969 Leacock and Edward Pincus joined together to create the Visual Studies department at MIT. There, he worked with a small group of talented students, many of whom have made names for themselves as filmmakers. Leacock remained at MIT as the department chair until 1988. In the late 1980s, he began using digital video, the low cost and flexibility of which are ideally suited to Leacock's style of filmmaking, allowing him the freedom to shoot quickly and easily, as well as to edit his own work at home.
Primary (1960), The Children Were Watching (1960), The Chair (1963), Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963), A Happy Mother's Day (1963), Chiefs (1968), Community of Praise (1982), Lulu in Berlin (1984), Les Oeufs a la Coque (1991), A Musical Adventure in Siberia (2000)
Breitrose, Henry. "Drew Associates, Observational Film, and the Modern Documentary." Stanford Humanities Review 7, no. 2 (Winter 1999): 113–127.
Naficy, Hamid. "Richard Leacock: A Personal Perspective." Literature/Film Quarterly 10 (1982): 234–253.
O'Connell, P. J. Robert Drew and the Development of Cinéma Vérité in America . Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.
Kristen Anderson Wagner
The introduction of portable, lightweight 16mm cameras featuring synchronous sound recording devices
had a tremendous effect on documentary filmmaking, especially in the documentary styles known as cinéma vérité and direct cinema. In the 1940s manufacturers developed portable 16mm systems to meet the demands of two important users: the military, who was using the format for training films, and the burgeoning television industry. Documentary filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s began to use these cameras to capture events as they happened. The new lightweight, handheld 16mm cameras were essential to this type of filmmaking, as they allowed the director to record activities as they happened without being restricted by cumbersome equipment or large film crews—with synchronized sound recording, the necessary crew was reduced to two people. Examples of films made in this way include Primary (1960), which followed John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the 1960 presidential primary in Wisconsin, Dont Look Back (1967), which detailed Bob Dylan's 1965 British concert tour, and High School (1968), which recorded students' daily activities at a high school in Philadelphia.
The biggest change to motion picture cameras is the advent of digital technology. Digital movie cameras were first used by the industry in the 1990s, and since that time have had a major impact on the way that movies are made. Using digital technology can save time and money during a production in a number of ways. With digital video, the director and cinematographer are able to see what they have shot immediately, without waiting for film dailies to be developed. Digital technology also eliminates the cost of processing film and is easier than film to work with when editing or creating special effects. Unlike film, digital media can be duplicated countless times without loss of quality, and the videos do not degrade over time. Because digital cameras are smaller and weigh less than 35mm cameras, they allow the use of cinéma vérité and direct cinema techniques previously reserved for 16mm cameras. More and more movies have been produced on digital video since the turn of the century, including Collateral (2004), Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (2005). Despite its many advantages, however, there are some drawbacks to using digital technology. Because films are still overwhelmingly projected from 35mm, digital videos must be transferred to film for distribution. Furthermore, some filmmakers maintain that the mathematically precise digital image cannot compare with the imperfect, ethereal quality of traditional film.
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Kristen Anderson Wagner