John Alcott Poster


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Overview (2)

Born in London, England, UK
Died in Cannes, Alpes-Maritimes, France  (heart attack)

Mini Bio (1)

John Alcott, the Oscar-winning cinematographer best known for his collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick, was born in 1931, in Isleworth, England, the son of movie executive Arthur Alcott, who would become the production controller at Gainsborough Studios during the 1940s.

Alcott began his film career as a clapper boy, the lowest member of a camera crew. By the early 1960s he had worked his way up to focus puller, the #3 position on a camera crew after the lighting cameraman and camera operator. As a focus puller Alcott was responsible for measuring the distances between the camera and the subject being shot, which is critical during traveling shots, and more vitally, he was tasked with adjusting the lens when the camera is following a subject.

By the mid-'60s Alcott was a member of the camera team of master cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, working on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). When Unsworth had to leave the project during its two-year-long shoot to meet other commitments, Alcott was elevated to lighting cameraman by Kubrick. Thus began a collaboration that would reach its zenith a decade later with Barry Lyndon (1975). His association with Kubrick propelled him to the top of his craft, in terms of both style and in pushing the technical aspects of the discipline.

Alcott preferred lighting that appeared natural and did not draw attention to itself. His ideas meshed perfectly with those of Kubrick, and the two developed their ideas about "natural" lighting in two landmark films, A Clockwork Orange (1971) and "Barry Lyndon", which incorporated scenes shot entirely by candlelight. The idea of using candlelight solely for illumination was discussed by Alcott and Kubrick after the wrap of "2001" for Kubrick's planned film about the life of Napoleon, but there wasn't a fast-enough lens in existence then.

After a search, Kubrick located three unique 50mm f/0.7 still-camera camera lenses designed by the Zeiss Corporation for use by NASA in its Apollo moon-landing program in order to shoot still pictures in the low light levels of outer space. The lens was 2 f stops faster than the fastest movie camera lens made at the time.

Kubrick tasked Cinema Products Corp. to adapt a standard 35mm non-reflexed Mitchell BNC movie camera so that the camera could accept the lens. The camera was outfitted with a side viewfinder from one of the old Technicolor three-strip cameras that used mirrors rather than prisms (like a modern camera) to show what it "sees", the mirrors providing a much brighter image than did a prism-based single-lens reflex system, which could not obtain enough light to register an image. There was no real problem with parallax, as the viewfinder was mounted close to the lens.

Cinema Products also created two special lenses by mating a 70mm projection lens with the remaining 0.7 Zeiss 50mm lenses. This battery of three lenses allowed Kubrick and Alcott to shoot the indoor scenes using nothing but candlelight. It was a formidable task, as the lenses could not be focused by eye. Metal shields also had to be installed above the sets, which were filmed in actual castles and manor houses in Ireland and England, to keep the heat and smoke from the candles from damaging the ceilings. Fortitously, the shields also reflected the candlelight back into the scene (this approach was later used successfully by lighting cameraman Alwin H. Küchler on the western The Claim (2000), which shot its saloon interiors in very low light). The candles had to be constantly replaced to keep continuity during the scenes, and shooting was hampered by the fact that many of the manor houses were open to the public and the crew had to wait until the intervals between tours to film a scene.

Alcott told "American Cinematographer" in a December 1975 interview that the ultra-fast lens had no depth of field at all. This necessitated the scaling of the lens by doing hand tests. Alcott's focus puller, Douglas Milsome (who would succeed him as Kubrick's cinematographer), used a closed-circuit video camera at a 90-degree angle to the film camera to keep track of the distances to maintain focus. A grid was placed over the TV screen and, by taping the various actors' positions in the set, the distances could be transferred to the TV grid to allow the actors a limited scope of movement during the scene, while keeping in focus.

Alcott won an Academy Award for his work on "Barry Lyndon", which is considered one of the most visually beautiful movies ever made. (Three of Alcott's movies were ranked in the top 20 of "Best Shot" movies in the period after 1950-97 by the American Society of Cinematographers: "2001" at #3, "Barry Lyndon" at #16, and "A Clockwork Orange", for which he won the British Academy Award, at #19.) Alcott realized Kubrick's vision by evoking the paintings of Corot, Gainsborough, and Watteau, creating gorgeous tableaux. It was the aesthetic opposite of the cubism evoked by "A Clockwork Orange",

While shooting what would turn out to be his last film for Kubrick, The Shining (1980), Alcott lit the hotel sets with "practicals" (sources of lighting that are visible on screen as part of the set, such as lighting fixtures). As on "Barry Lyndon", Alcott supplemented the lighting with illumination coming into the set from outside the windows, though the "windows" on "The Shining" were part of a set. The high temperatures (110 degrees Fahrenheit) caused by the 700,000 watts of illumination outside the set's "windows" Alcott used to create the high white effect favored by Kubrick caused the set to burn down.

Alcott, who shot films and TV commercials for other directors in the UK, moved to the US in 1981 in order to obtain more steady work than was possible in the ailing British film industry. His non-Kubrick projects as a cinematographer included three films with director Stuart Cooper and two with Roger Spottiswoode. Alcott could not shoot Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), which commenced shooting in 1985 and -- like any Kubrick shoot -- would involved a substantial commitment of time, as Alcott was committed to other projects (Kubrick hired Douglas Milsome, who had been Alcott's focus puller on "Barry Lyndon" and "The Shining", to shoot "Jacket"). His non-Kubrick oeuvre was eccentric, and included the Canadian slasher film My Bloody Valentine (1981), but he was able to bring his outstanding visual quality to such movies as Fort Apache the Bronx (1981), The Beastmaster (1982), Under Fire (1983) and Hugh Hudson's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984).

Alcott suffered a massive heart attack and died on July 28, 1986, in Cannes, France. At the time of his death he was considered one of the film industry's great artist-technicians, someone who through his ability to push back the boundaries of what was technically possible, linked technology to aesthetic needs and contributed to the development of cinema as an art form. His last film, No Way Out (1987), was dedicated to his memory. The British Society of Cinematographers named one of its awards the "BSC John Alcott ARRI Award" in his honor to commemorate his role as a lighting cameraman in the development of film as an art form.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood

Trade Mark (1)

Frequently used natural lighting as cinematographer.

Trivia (5)

Son of producer/production executive Arthur Alcott.
The movies White Water Summer (1987) and No Way Out (1987), on which he worked, are dedicated to his memory.
Worked frequently with Stanley Kubrick.
Was a member of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) since 1976.
He developed the versatile non-anamorphic Super Techniscope system. It would later be in use under the same "System 35.".

Personal Quotes (1)

[on the shooting of Barry Lyndon (1975)} "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.

  • "American Cinematographer" Dec. 1975

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