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Alcott, John (1931-1986)


Main image of Alcott, John (1931-1986)

The career of John Alcott, cut tragically short by a fatal heart attack in 1986, began in the 1940s at Gainsborough studios, where his father was production controller. By the 1960s he had become an assistant to Geoffrey Unsworth and gained his big break on Stanley Kubrick's mammoth production of 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK/US, 1968). Unsworth had to leave the film, which took two years to make, because of other commitments, and Alcott was promoted to photographing the opening 'Dawn of Man' section. This was shot on a large studio set using a specially designed front-projection system, in order to control the lighting approximating the weak light of dawn - a sequence that would have taken months to film in the African locations where the action is supposed to take place.

Alcott graduated to director of photography on Kubrick's next film, his infamous adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange (1971), withdrawn by the director in Britain after it was implicated in a media panic about the rising level of violence in society. Set in a near future delineated by a combination of 1970s high kitsch interior design and urban decay, the film graphically charts the exploits of Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a savage young gang leader who is arrested and brainwashed by the state in order to 'cure' him of his violent tendencies. A Clockwork Orange makes extensive use of real locations, including some quite cramped interiors, illuminated in a rather hard and cold style by Alcott. The opening shot of Alex's malevolent face sets the tone, his piercing blue eyes blazing out from a smooth shadowless visage. The first half of the film is deliberately stylised, with prolific use of hand-held camera, wide-angle lenses, slow and stop-motion and the deliberate mixing of orange incandescent light with the harsher blues of daylight, before giving way to a more naturalistic approach for the 'rehabilitation' sequences ill the prison and hospital.

Kubrick's adaptation of Barry Lyndon (1975), Thackeray's tale of a lowborn but ambitious young Irishman who in the course of his adventures almost succeeds in becoming a member of the English aristocracy, is arguably the highlight of Alcott's career, and won him the 1976 Oscar for best cinematography. This presented a variety of photographic challenges, not least of which was how to create an 'authentic' sense of period in the interiors, as Alcott notes:

In most instances we were trying to create the feeling of natural light within the houses, mostly stately homes, that we used as shooting locations. That was virtually their only source of light during the period of the film.

For daytime sequences this involved shining mini-brutes (small lights) through the windows, creating interesting contrasts of light and shadow within an overall subdued effect in both the rude Irish cottages of Barry's home and the opulent English stately homes he infiltrates. The soft muted colours were maintained throughout by a combination of low light levels and a low contrast filter and a brown net - rather than diffusing the lights, which would have destroyed the subtle effects created by the Irish light that enhances many of the exteriors in the early part of the film. Alcott also makes frequent use of an Angenieux zoom during the film).

But the most revolutionary aspect of the cinematography on Barry Lyndon are the interior sequences illuminated only by candlelight. While Walter Lassally had used a similar effect fourteen years earlier on A Taste of Honey (d. Tony Richardson, 1961), this was facilitated by fast black-and-white film stock and even by the mid-1970s no colour film existed of sufficient speed to register an acceptable image at such low light levels. However, Kubrick had discovered three special ultra-fast Zeiss lenses for a still camera left over from a batch made for the Apollo moon Iandings. These allowed filming in candlelight - with metal reflectors mounted above the chandeliers to give some reflected toplight - at a level as low as three footcandles. The added problem of following focus at such low light levels was solved by using a closed-circuit video camera mounted at ninety degrees to the film camera. The image was relayed to a monitor mounted over the camera-lens scale which had a grid over the screen, allowing focus puller Doug Milsome to watch the actors' range of movement forwards and backwards in relation to the limited field of focus. In spite of such logistics, Alcott achieves a slight burnt-out effect in the candlelight, the high key on the faces of the actors combining with the white make-up worn by some to give them a fragile porcelain quality.

Alcott and Kubrick's final collaboration was another adaptation, The Shining (US/UK, 1980), from Stephen King's novel. Most of the action takes place in a remote and empty hotel where the caretaker, in a fabulously over-the-top performance by Jack Nicholson, turns psychotic and proceeds to terrorise his wife and small son. The hotel lounge and ballroom sets, built at Elstree, were lit by a combination of practicals and simulated daylight via a specially constructed lighting unit which contained 860 1,000-watt bulbs diffused through a screen and which could be manoeuvred to follow the action. This lighting allowed much of the action to he shot in long fluid takes using the Steadicam system. Indeed, The Shining abounds with exemplary uses of the system as inventor Garrett Brown, who operated it on the production, remarks:

Kubrick wasn't just talking of stunt shots and staircases. He would use the Steadicam as it was intended to be used - as a tool which can help get the lens where it's wanted in space and time without the classic limitations of the dolly and crane.

The most memorable Steadicam sequences include those shots of the little boy frantically pedalling his tricycle through corridors of the empty hotel. For these, Brown sat in a modified wheelchair which coped with bumps as the action moves from carpet to linoleum and back again. The climactic scene at night in the snow-covered hedge maze when Nicholson, by now completely deranged, chases his terrified wife and son, is equally effective both in terms of lighting - fixed flood lights with a fill running behind - and frenetic camera movement. After extensive tests in the maze, a wide-angle lens of 9.8mm was chosen and the ideal height was determined as two feet from the ground: this gave a tremendous sense of speed and ominous height to the walls.

Unfortunately, none of Alcott's other credits come close to matching the technical or artistic ambition of his work for Kubrick. During the 1970s he tended to specialise in bland mid-Atlantic fare, before emigrating in 1981 to the United States, where he immediately found work on more interesting projects.

Duncan Petrie

This entry is taken from Duncan Petrie's The British Cinematographer (BFI, 1996). Used by permission.

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Thumbnail image of Barry Lyndon (1975)Barry Lyndon (1975)

Stanley Kubrick's visually ravishing reconstruction of the 18th century

Thumbnail image of Clockwork Orange, A (1971)Clockwork Orange, A (1971)

Stanley Kubrick's dazzling and disturbing vision of near-future Britain

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Thumbnail image of Kubrick, Stanley (1928-1999)Kubrick, Stanley (1928-1999)

Director, Producer, Writer, Cinematographer