Alcott, John

Alcott, John
(1931–July 28, 1986)
   STANLEY KUBRICK gave cinematographer John Alcott his “break” on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, asking him to step up from assistant to cinematographer six months into shooting, when GEOFFREY UNSWORTH, the credited director of photography, had to leave in order to fulfill other commitments. Alcott’s first job as the functioning cinematographer on 2001 (although his credit reads merely “Additional Photography”) was to oversee the stunning front-projection setups for the “Dawn of Man” sequence. Alcott’s performance on 2001 earned him a “promotion” to cinematographer for Kubrick’s next project, an altogether different kind of film. Alcott recalled, “A CLOCKWORK ORANGE employed a darker, obviously dramatic type of photography. It was a modern story taking place in an advanced period of the 1980s— although the period was never actually pinpointed in the picture. That period called for a really cold, stark style of photography. ”With only a handful of exceptions, all of the settings of A Clockwork Orange were filmed on location, as Kubrick wanted to utilize the existing ultramodern architecture of contemporary London to evoke the unspecified near future. New, faster lenses allowed Kubrick and Alcott to shoot in natural light under circumstances that would have been impossible before. When situations called for additional, artificial light, in most cases Kubrick and Alcott used primarily the “practicals,” or lights actually seen in the set. This approach allowed for 360- degree pans and also removed the necessity of setting up bulky studio lights, thus saving precious time on the shooting schedule. The overall result is a curious blend of gritty realism and futuristic starkness. Alcott’s next collaboration with Kubrick became his crowning achievement, BARRY LYNDON, for which he won the Academy Award for cinematography, as well as the award for outstanding cinematography from the National Society of Film Critics. Alcott strove to create the feeling of natural light throughout, although he did indeed use artificial lighting, contrary to the myth that has grown up around the picture. Alcott took his cues from the way the natural light actually fell on a setting, and then he would simulate that effect with a combination of natural light and lighting units to achieve an exposurable level of illumination. In a few scenes,Alcott used virtually no natural light at all, as in the scene in Barry’s dining room when his son asks if Barry has bought him a horse. In that setup, Alcott simulated natural light using mini-Brutes, with a plastic diffusing material, which he preferred over tracing paper, on the windows. Every shot of Barry Lyndon was done in an actual location, presenting rather unique cinematographic challenges, as Alcott told the editor of American Cinematographer: “In some of the interiors used for shooting Barry Lyndon, there were lots of white areas—fireplaces and such. If you put a light through a window, these would stick out like a sore thumb . . . So most of the time, I covered them with a black net—the white marble of the fireplaces, the very large white three-foot panels on the walls, and the door frames that were white. I covered them with a black net having about a half-inch mesh. You could never see it photographically. It did wonders in toning down the white. ” In what he rated as the most difficult scene to shoot in Barry Lyndon, Alcott ran into a complex set of problems, due to the combination of natural and artificial light, as well as the nature of the location. Alcott describes the scene in the gentlemen’s club, where Barry is given the cold shoulder: “That involved a 180-degree pan, and what made it difficult were the fluctuations in the weather outside. There were many windows, and I had lights hidden behind the brickwork and beaming through the windows. The outside light was going up and down so much that we had to keep changing things to make sure the windows wouldn’t blow out excessively . . . What complicated it further was that this was one of those stately houses that had the public coming through and visiting at the same time we were shooting. ” Alcott’s camera of choice was the Arriflex 35BL, which he used for all of Barry Lyndon. “[One] feature I like about the camera is that you’ve got the aperture control literally at your fingertips,” he explained. “It’s got a much larger scale and therefore a finer adjustment than most cameras. This feature is especially important when you’re working with Stanley Kubrick, because he likes to continue shooting whether the sun is going in or out . . . You’ve got to cater to this. That old bit that says you cut because the sun’s gone in doesn’t go any more. ” Alcott would ride the shots out by varying the aperture opening during each shot. “On most lenses there’s not a great distance between one aperture stop and the next. There [aren’t] actually on the Arriflex 35BL lenses either, but it’s the gearing mechanism on the outside that offers the larger scale and therefore the possibility of more precise adjustment. It’s like converting a 1/4-inch move into a one-inch move. ”
   Barry Lyndon makes extensive use of the zoom lens, even though Alcott generally preferred prime lenses. He felt that many cinematographers misused the zoom simply as a means to speed up production by not having to change lenses. On Barry Lyndon, Alcott said,“the zoom enhanced the fluid look of the film and was used throughout the picture integrally. ” He used an Angénieux 10-to-1 zoom, in conjunction with ED DIGIULIO’s joystick control, which starts and stops without jarring. “You can manipulate it so slowly that it feels like nothing is happening. This is very difficult to do with some of the motorized zoom controls. ”
   Most cameras setups in Barry Lyndon are stationary, but on the handful of occasions when the camera moves, it does so elaborately and to stunning effect. The battle sequence involved an 800-foot track, with three cameras moving simultaneously along as the troops advanced. Alcott recalled, “We used an Elemack dolly, with bogie wheels on ordinary metal platforms, and a five-foot and sometimes six-foot wheel span. We found than this worked quite well in trying to get rid of the vibrations when working on the end of the zoom. ” In other words, Alcott was racking all the way in to the 250 mm end of the zoom for some of the tracking shots—quite a daring maneuver, considering that being fully zoomed in tends to accentuate any vibrations. One aspect of the myth surrounding Barry Lyndon’s cinematography is true: all the candlelit scenes were done entirely without artificial light—by candlelight and reflectors alone, necessitating the development of custom lenses. Alcott told American Cinematographer, “Kubrick located three 50 mm f/0. 7 Zeiss still-camera lenses, which were left over from a batch made for NASA. We had a non-reflex Mitchell BNC which was sent over to Ed DiGiulio to be reconstructed to accept this ultra-fast lens. ” As the lens had virtually no depth of field in such low light, Alcott had to scale the lens’s focal settings by doing hand tests from 200 feet down to 4 feet. Focus operator DOUGLAS MILSOME used a closed-circuit video system to keep track of depth of field as it related to the actors’ positions. Alcott explained, “The video camera was placed at a 90-degree angle to the film camera 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. ”This is one example of many that illustrate the lengths to which Kubrick and his collaborators would go in order to achieve the result he wanted.
   In preparation for THE SHINING, Kubrick gave Alcott the STEPHEN KING book almost a year before shooting was to commence. Although Alcott was working on other films and television commercials during that time, he was able to prepare extensively. He and Kubrick remained in constant touch, consulting on how the sets should be constructed, the number and placement of windows, the location of one set with respect to another, and so on. As further part of his preproduction effort on The Shining, Alcott had all the major sets built in miniature, so that he could work out the lighting setups well in advance; and while the actual sets were being constructed (also well in advance of shooting), he had his gaffers wiring extensively. Kubrick told Alcott that “he wanted [The Shining] to have a different approach from that of previous films. He stated that he wanted to use the Steadicam extensively and very freely without having any lighting equipment in the scenes. ”This mandate made conventional floor- and overhead-lights out of the question. Therefore, most of the lights used in The Shining were wired as “practicals” in the sets: lamps, chandeliers, wall brackets, and fluorescent tube lights—they were “part of the hotel. ” Alcott had the practicals dimmed and raised from a control panel outside the soundstage. He would communicate with the control room via walkie-talkie, often changing the levels of various lights while a shot was in progress and the Steadicam was moving through the set, past the lights. Another result of the Steadicam’s ubiquitous service on The Shining was that Alcott had to use video-assist extensively. Most of the crew were in the corridor off the set, so that they would not be caught on camera, and aside from video-assist, there was no other way to see how a scene was playing out, other than to wait for the rushes. Ironically, the roving nature of the Steadicam, which necessitated video-assist in the first place, made video-assist harder to achieve than it would have been with a fixed camera. In order to solve this problem, Kubrick had video antennas hidden in the walls of the set throughout, making it possible to transmit video from anywhere within the Overlook Hotel sets.
   The entire Overlook Hotel (with the exception of the front façade—Timberline Lodge in Oregon) was built on a soundstage and back lot. The main lounge set nevertheless contained several very large windows, which appeared to face outside and let in a great deal of “daylight. ” Achieving this effect involved a rather elaborate setup. Alcott custom-ordered an 80-by-30- foot diffusing panel, which went in front of a bank of 860 1,000-watt lamps, mounted at two-foot intervals on tubular scaffolding. Each lamp was on a pivoting mount, and they were all linked together, so that Alcott could vary the light from the control room. Of his working relationship with Kubrick, Alcott said: “He is, as I’ve said before, very demanding. He demands perfection, but he will give you all the help you need if he thinks that whatever you want to do will accomplish the desired result. He will give you full power to do it—but at the same time, it must work. ” John Alcott clearly did his best work with Stanley Kubrick. His other noteworthy credits as cinematographer include Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981); Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984); White Water Summer (1987); and No Way Out (1987). At the time of his death from a heart attack in Cannes, Alcott was to start the photography on John Hughes’s Some Kind of Wonderful, and he had been scheduled to photograph David Lean’s Nostromo (which Lean never made) the following year.
   ■ “John Alcott, Master of Light,” program, National Film Theatre, London, December 1986;
   ■ “John Alcott,” (obit. ) Variety, August 6, 1986, p. 93;
   ■ “John Alcott,” advertisement for Eastman Kodak Co. , Variety, June 8, 1977, p. 25;
   ■ Lightman, Herb, “Photographing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining,American Cinematographer, vol. 61, no. 8 (August 1980): 780–85+;
   ■ “Photographing Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon,American Cinematographer, vol. 57, no. 3 (March 1976): 269–75+;
   ■ Saxon, Wolfgang, “John Alcott, an Oscar Winner For Cinematography, Is Dead,” New York Times, August 3, 1986, p. 32.

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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  • John Alcott — Pour les articles homonymes, voir Alcott. John Alcott (1931 1986) est un directeur de la photographie anglais. Il est particulièrement connu pour sa collaboration avec Stanley Kubrick, pour qui il a tourné Barry Lyndon entièrement en lumière… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • John Alcott — (* 1931 in London; † 28. Juli 1986 in Cannes, Frankreich) war ein englischer Kameramann. Bekannt wurde er vor allem durch seine langjährige Zusammenarbeit mit Stanley Kubrick. Inhaltsverzeichnis 1 Leben 2 Filmografie 3 …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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