While Stanley Kubrick's masterpieces will always remain a mystery, his cameraman John Alcott offers an insightful lens for his films.
During the dwindling days of production of one of the most famous and iconic films of all time – Stanley Kubrick's 2001 science fiction masterpiece: A Space Odyssey – Kubrick's cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth had to leave production early to start work on another project.
John Alcott, an aspiring cameraman who found his way from bobbin lace boy to light cameraman, had the chance of a lifetime. He was asked to enter as a DP and take some of the final shots needed for the landmark film – including the iconic opening sequence "Dawn of Man" which was (oddly) the last scene they needed for production.
Kubrick was clearly pleased with the results. The director made Alcott his cameraman for most of his career, commissioning him to bring to life some of the most famous and daring shots and scenes in film history.
For twenty years, Alcott was the cameraman on four of Kubrick's best-known classics: 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining. On the move and under Kubrick's direction, Alcott mastered advanced cinematographic visual effects, beautiful compositions and new techniques, and was the man behind the lens for some of the most iconic moments in cinema history.
So let's see how John Alcott – Kubrick's right-hand man – was able to develop and ultimately shape the future of cinematography.
A pioneer in early visual effects
Alcott's early contributions to the visual effects field would shape the nature of the industry for decades to come. 2001: A Space Odyssey featured a host of innovations in visual effects and technological breakthroughs, including the first major use of front projection cinema – which Alcott shot firsthand in the sequence "Dawn of Man".
As you can see in the video feature from YouTuber CinemaTyler above, this cinematography technique was really revolutionary as Kubrick and Alcott were able to create scenes anywhere in the world while in the controlled environment of a sound stage.
Alcott's decision to take wide-angle shots with telephoto lenses resulted in the "viewer" perspective of the sequence so that the audience could simply watch and observe. It's a stylistic choice that comes up a lot in the rest of the Kubrick collaborations.
DIY filmmaking and practical lighting
A clockwork orange used a darker, obviously more dramatic, type of photography. It was a modern story set in an advanced period of the 1980s – although the period was never actually captured in the picture. It took a really cold, stark style of photography. – John Alcott
Alcott has teamed up with Kubrick again on A Clockwork Orange, which is a significant shift in style and budget from the high-profile science fiction spectacle of 2001.
In 2001 production was highly technical and strictly controlled. And while Kubrick was never one to do anything without careful consideration, he hired Alcott with the task of shooting much more loosely and openly and presenting the young Alcott with new stylistic challenges.
In an interview with the American cameraman, Alcott describes how he used "very light Lowel 1000-watt quartz lights" for many scenes, which bounce light from reflective umbrellas or sometimes simply from the ceiling. His goal was to allow Kubrick to shoot from any angle and with any camera movement, as the duo used more intimate handheld photography and chaotic movements while interacting with the hectic characters in the story.
Ultimately, Alcott has proven that a cameraman's adaptability and ingenuity can help bring some of the craziest and most iconic scenes to life.
Cinematic zooms and painterly compositions
In the early stages of his preparation for Barry Lyndon, Kubrick looked the world for exotic, ultra-fast lenses because he knew he would shoot scenes in extremely low light. It was his goal, as unbelievable as it seemed at the time, to photograph candle-lit scenes in old English castles just by the light of the candles themselves! – John Alcott
After directing a few non-Kubrick projects, Alcott was reappointed to the role of cameraman for Barry Lyndon, a drama from the decorative era that earned Alcott an Oscar for Best Cinematography. Alcott's work on Barry Lyndon is perhaps his best-known, and the best example of his artistic eye for the very picturesque compositions for which the film is most widely acclaimed.
Kubrick, not known for wanting to use the same style twice, took a much more laborious pace for the film, contrary to A Clockwork Orange's approach. He gave Alcott much more time to use all the elements at his disposal to create beautiful landscapes and pictures.
However, Barry Lyndon also presented Alcott with some new challenges, as Kubrick insisted on filming nocturnal interior scenes using only the light available to them – often with just a single flickering candle to light the characters. To accomplish what is almost cinematically impossible, Kubrick secured the experimental Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f / 0.7 lens, which was developed for NASA's Apollo lunar program and which he and Alcott would use for the darkest scenes.
In another interview with the American cameraman, Alcott describes this experience and the challenges of the production, as well as the opportunity to explore so many of his thoughtful compositions with the heavy use of long, slow zooms in his footage.
Clever attention to detail
I think Stanley will become more thorough and exacting in his claims over time. I think you have to go away after doing a movie with him, gather knowledge, come back and try to incorporate that knowledge along with your knowledge into another movie. As I said, it is very demanding. He calls for perfection, but he will give you all the help you need if he believes anything you want to do will produce the result you want. He will give you full strength to do it. But at the same time it has to work. Stanley is a great inspiration. – John Alcott
Alcott died in 1986, so we can only imagine what he would have offered Kubrick's last two films, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. His last collaboration with Kubrick was in 1980 in one of the most highly regarded horror films of all time – The Shining.
And in this final collaboration, we can really see Alcott putting together all of the styles and tricks he has come up with over the years under Kubrick's guidance. The glow is still enjoyed, studied, and dissected today, partly due to the insane attention to detail that Kubrick and Alcott put into every picture, set piece, and camera movement. If you haven't seen it already, check out the documentary Room 237 to get an idea of the intentionality that went into every single decision about the film.
Alcott didn't do many interviews, but he spoke to the American cameraman again about filming The Shining and the opportunities to work with Kubrick over the years. The Shining featured some exciting breakthroughs, including an important introduction to how connective using the steadicam could be.
Alcott's contributions will never be lost as one of his final works – and his final collaboration with his famous directing partner – remains one of the most mysterious and fascinating films ever made.
For more cameraman profiles and insight into filmmaking, see the articles below.
Cover photo via Warner Bros. ASCmag.