'Oscar' 1976

[Right] with c.asst Richard Andry

               

JOHN ALCOTT

Born: 1931, Isleworth, London, UK, as son of prod controller Arthur Alcott [1894-1986].

Died: 28 July 1986, Cannes, France [heart attack].

Career: Moved to the USA in 1981.

Ph commercials dir by Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott, a.o.

Was member of the BSC since 1976.

In 1986, the BSC named one of its awards the 'John Alcott Memorial Award' [presented by Arnold & Richter]. The recipients were Les Ostinelli [1986], Oswald Morris [1992], Robin Vidgeon [1999], a.o.

Awards: BAFTA Film Award nom [1973] for 'A Clockwork Orange'; 'Oscar' AA [1975], BSC Best Cinematography Award [1975], LAFCA Award [1975], NSFC Award [1975] & BAFTA Film Award [1976] for 'Barry Lyndon'; BSC Best Cinematography Award nom [1984] & BAFTA Film Award nom [1985] for 'Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes'.



By the time of his tragically premature death in 1986, John Alcott had established himself as one of the world's leading directors of photography. In particular, his association with director Stanley Kubrick had put him at the forefront of technical and aesthetic developments in his field.

After working as a focus puller on various films in the 1950s and 1960s, his big break came with his first film for Kubrick, '2001: A Space Odyssey'. When that landmark film's original director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth, had to leave the project half-way through its two-year shooting schedule because of other commitments, Alcott, who had been his assistant, stepped ably into his shoes.

By all reports a modest and self-effacing man, Alcott preferred lighting that appeared natural and which did not draw attention to itself. As he himself put it, "It is possible then to emphasize colors more, on the streets and on the set." It was his work with Kubrick that gave Alcott the best opportunity to develop his ideas about "natural" lighting. One can indicate as examples of his skill the now famous scenes from 'Barry Lyndon' which were shot entirely by candlelight. This was an idea that Kubrick and Alcott had discussed as far back as '2001' [it had originally been intended for Kubrick's abortive 'Napoleon' project], but it was only in the 1970s that lens technology finally caught up with the imagination of these two great filmmakers. Similarly, in 'The Shining', Alcott chose to light the elaborate hotel sets almost entirely with 'practicals' [that is, sources of lighting which are visible on screen as an integral part of the set; e.g. chandeliers and other light fixtures].

Alcott was one of a number of important behind-the-scenes figures in cinema whose input into various films often goes unheeded by critics and the public. The meticulousness of his work, as well as his complete lack of pretentiousness and his willingness to become involved in a wide range of projects marked him out as one of cinema's great artist-technicians, someone who through his ability to push back the boundaries of what was technically possible and then think through some of the aesthetic consequences of this contributed to the development of film as an art form. [From article by Peter Hutchings.]

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'Oscar' footage © AMPAS [1976]

'Barry Lyndon': 'There was a great deal of testing of possible photographic approaches and effects - the candlelight thing, for example. Actually, we had talked about shooting solely by candlelight as far back as '2001', when Stanley Kubrick was planning to film 'Napoleon' but the requisite fast lenses were not available at the time. […] The objective was to shoot these scenes exclusively by candlelight - that is, without a boost from any artificial light whatsoever. Stanley finally discovered three 50mm f/0.7 Zeiss still-camera lenses which were left over from a batch made for use by NASA in their Apollo moon-landing program. We had a non-reflexed Mitchell BNC which was sent over to Ed Di Giulio to be reconstructed to accept this ultra-fast lens. He had to mill out the existing lens mounts, because the rear element of this f/0.7 lens was virtually something like 4mm from the film plane. It took quite a while, and when we got the camera back we made quite extensive tests on it. This Zeiss lens was like no other lens in a way, because when you look through any normal type of lens you are looking through the optical system and by just altering the focus you can tell whether it's in or out of focus. But when you looked through this lens it appeared to have a fantastic range of focus, quite unbelievable. However, when you did a photographic test you discovered that it had no depth of field at all - which one expected anyway. So we literally had to scale this lens by doing hand tests from about 200 feet down to about 4 feet, marking every distance that would lead up to the 10-foot range. We had to literally get it down to inches on the actual scaling. […] The point of focus was so critical and there was hardly any depth of field with that f/0.7 lens. My focus operator, Doug Milsome, used a closed-circuit video camera as the only way to keep track of the distances with any degree of accuracy. The video camera was placed at a 90-degree angle to the film camera position and was monitored by means of a TV screen mounted above the camera lens scale. A grid was placed over the TV screen and by taping the various artists' positions, the distances could be transferred to the TV grid to allow the artists a certain flexibility of movement, while keeping them in focus. [...] There was also the problem of finding a side viewfinder that would transmit enough light to show us where we were framed. The conventional viewfinder would not do at all, because it involves prisms which cause such a high degree of light loss that very little image is visible at such low light levels. Instead, we had to adapt to the BNC a viewfinder from one of the old Technicolor three-strip cameras. It works on a principle of mirrors and simply reflects what it 'sees', resulting in a much brighter image. There is very little parallax with that viewfinder, since it mounts so close to the lens. […] In the sequence where Lord Ludd and Barry are in the gaming room and he loses a large amount of money, the set was lit entirely by the candles, but I had metal reflectors made to mount above the two chandeliers, the main purpose being to keep the heat of the candles from damaging the ceiling. However, it also acted as a light reflector to provide an overall illumination of top light. […] Roughly, three foot-candles was the key. We were forcing the whole picture one stop in development. Incidentally, I found a great advantage in using the Gossen Panalux electronic meter for these sequences, because it goes down to half foot-candle measurements. It's a very good meter for those extreme low-light situations. We were using 70-candle chandeliers, and most of the time I could also use either five-candle or three-candle table candelabra, as well.' [From article in 'American Cinematographer', December 1975.]



 FILMS & TELEVISION

1964

Ring Around the Earth [Stanley Willis] c; comm doc/32m; cph: Peter Hennessy; for Cable and Wireless

[Left] with Stanley Kubrick - "2001: A Space Odyssey"

1965

2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick] sp70/c; addph ('The Dawn of Man' seq); ph: Geoffrey Unsworth

1969

Dave Cash Radio Programme [created by Dawn Lane & Richard Kenning] possibly pilot for tv-series, 1972

1970

A Clockwork Orange [Stanley Kubrick] b&w-c

1971

Fangio/Drive to Win/Fangio, una vita a 300 all'ora [Hugh Hudson] b&w-c; doc/84m; cph: Patrice Pouget

1973

David Niven [prod: John Burder & Alistair Cameron] c; doc/45m

1973

Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs/Little Malcolm [Stuart Cooper] p/c

[Right] with Ryan O'Neal & Stanley Kubrick  - "Barry Lyndon"

1973

Barry Lyndon [Stanley Kubrick] c; 2uc: Paddy Carey; spec cinematographer: Ed Di Giulio; filmed 1973-74

1975

Overlord [Stuart Cooper] b&w; dram doc/85m

1976

March or Die [Dick Richards] c

1977

The Disappearance [Stuart Cooper] c

1977

The Fiesta Story [Frank Worth] c; comm doc/33m; for Ford Motor Company

1977

Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?/Too Many Chefs [Ted Kotcheff] c

With dir Stanley Kubrick [right] - "The Shining"

1978

The Shining [Stanley Kubrick] c; hph: Greg MacGillivray; 'With remarkable visual panache and a keen sense of irony, Stanley Kubrick rehabilitates Stephen King's trashy, terrifying novel. The film begins with astounding aerial footage of the Torrances' car driving through breathtaking mountain landscapes. There's also some impressive Steadicam work as the camera follows directly behind Danny, riding his Big Wheel bike through the winding corridors of the hotel. Cinematographer John Alcott does his usual outstanding job in each of these sequences.' [TV Guide]

1979

Terror Train/Train of Terror [Roger Spottiswoode] c; addph: René Verzier, Al Smith & Peter Benison

1980

Fort Apache, The Bronx [Daniel Petrie] c

1981

Vice Squad [Gary Sherman] c

1981

The Beastmaster [Don Coscarelli] c; 2uc: Joel King & Daryn Okada

1982

Triumphs of a Man Called Horse/El triunfo de un hombre llamado Caballo [John Hough] c; cph: John Cabrera; spec photographer: Peter Lyons Collister & Dwight H. Little

1982

Under Fire [Roger Spottiswoode] c; 2uc: Egil Woxholt

1982

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes [Hugh Hudson] s35/c; uncred cph: David Watkin; 2uc: Egil Woxholt & Ken Withers; spec vfx: Albert Whitlock; David Watkin was asked by dir Hugh Hudson to shoot the film, but he turned it down because of the African locations and its large amount of spiders which he had a great fear of. John Alcott was then employed, but couldn't start when the production started at Elstree due to prior commitments so Watkin agreed to do the studio scenes.

1983

Baby... Secret of the Lost Legend/Dinosaur... Secret of the Lost Legend [Bill L. Norton] sts/c; 2uc: Egil Woxholt; sfx ph: Peter Anderson; spec pfx: Philip Meador

1985

Miracles [Jim Kouf] sts/c; 2uc: Salvador Gil

1985

White Water Summer/The Rites of Summer [Jeff Bleckner] c; ph New Zealand: Dana Christiaansen; dedicated to John Alcott; released in 1987

"No Way Out"

1986

No Way Out [Roger Donaldson] s35/c; ph New Zealand: Alun Bollinger; dedicated to the memory of John Alcott


 MISCELLANEOUS

1947

Easy Money [Bernard Knowles] clapper/loader; ph: Jack Asher

1952

The Story of Robin Hood [and His Merrie Men] [Ken Annakin] clapper/loader; ph: Guy Green

1952

The Long Memory [Robert Hamer] clapper/loader; ph: Harry Waxman

1953

The Million Pound Note/Man with a Million [Ronald Neame] clapper/loader; ph: Geoffrey Unsworth

1955

An Alligator Named Daisy [J. Lee Thompson] focus puller; ph: Reginald Wyer

1955

Value for Money [Ken Annakin] focus puller; ph: Geoffrey Unsworth

1957

Violent Playground [Basil Dearden] focus puller; ph: Reginald Wyer

1958

A Night to Remember [Roy Ward Baker] focus puller; ph: Geoffrey Unsworth

1959

North West Frontier/Flame Over India [J. Lee Thompson] focus puller; ph: Geoffrey Unsworth

1961

Whistle Down the Wind [Bryan Forbes] focus puller; ph: Arthur Ibbetson

1961

The Singer Not the Song [Roy Ward Baker] focus puller; ph: Otto Heller

1962

The Main Attraction [Daniel Petrie] focus puller; ph: Geoffrey Unsworth

1963

Tamahine [Philip Leacock] focus puller; ph: Geoffrey Unsworth

1965

Othello [Stuart Burge & John Dexter] c.asst; ph: Geoffrey Unsworth