Richard Leacock, a cinematographer, producer and director of documentary films who helped create the unobtrusive filmmaking style known as cinema verite, or direct cinema, died March 23 in Paris. He was 89.
His daughter told the Associated Press that he had recently had several debilitating falls.
In scores of films since the 1930s, Mr. Leacock’s influential filmmaking was defined by unparalleled closeness and immediacy. He moved among his subjects, holding a small camera, creating a sense of intimacy and shared experience with the audience. His unadorned style was borrowed by feature film directors, including Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese.
“Richard Leacock was one of the true pioneers of documentary filmmaking,” Scorsese told the Associated Press. “He was instrumental in the development and use of lightweight, portable equipment, which opened the way for genuinely independent filmmaking. And he had a remarkably sensitive, quick camera eye. He paved the way for all of us.”
Mr. Leacock was the cinematographer for Robert Drew’s “Primary,” which tracked Democratic senators Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy in the Wisconsin primary during the 1960 presidential campaign. It is hailed as an early classic of cinema verite.
“We made a film that captured the flavor, the guts of what was happening,” Mr. Leacock once wrote about the groundbreaking film. “No interviews. No reenactments. . . . We were in fact developing a new grammar which was entirely different from that of silent filmmaking and of fiction filmmaking.”
Mr. Leacock’s 1963 film “Crisis,” which recounted the standoff between Gov. George Wallace and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy over the first black students to enroll at the University of Alabama, captured real-time decision-making. With Mr. Leacock on one camera and colleague D.A. Pennebaker on another, they were able to capture both ends of the conversation.
Mr. Leacock and Pennebaker were part of an influential group of documentary filmmakers that included Albert and David Maysles, who came together in the 1950s to produce films for Drew at Time-Life.
The filmmakers also spawned the rock documentary in the 1960s with films such as “Monterey Pop,” “Don’t Look Back” and “Gimme Shelter.”
Mr. Leacock filmed “Monterey Pop” for Pennebaker in 1967, capturing the rock festival at which Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire, smashed it onstage and tossed it into the audience.
Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote in 2005 that they “were revolutionizing film with unnarrated slices of life devoid of technical bells and whistles.”
The group used portable 16mm cameras and sound systems to capture their subjects with a newfound intimacy. Mr. Leacock developed a system of recording speech and video simultaneously, by using watches for precise timing.
“These are the founders and fathers of American documentary film,” Paul Stekler, chairman of the radio, television and film department at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Washington Post on Thursday. “Back then, no one had any experience being filmed. They were inventing the form as they went.”
Richard Leacock, who was known as Ricky, was born in London on July 18, 1921, and grew up in the Canary Islands, where his father owned a banana plantation. When he was 14 and on a break from school in England, Mr. Leacock filmed “Canary Island Bananas,” a silent documentary about the life of a banana, from planting to shipping.
He moved to the United States when he was 17 and dropped out of Harvard to serve as an Army cameraman during World War II, filming combat in Burma.
In 1948, he was the cinematographer for Robert Flaherty’s “Louisiana Story,” a documentary about the oil industry that focused on the life of a boy on the Bayou.
In 1954, Mr. Leacock wrote and directed “Toby and the Tall Corn,” about a traveling tent theater in Missouri. His later subjects included the Ku Klux Klan, Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer and Louise Brooks.
“I love finding out how people tick,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987.
He taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1968 to 1989, when he moved to Paris. He continued to make films, including 1990’s “Les Oeufs a la Coque de Ricky Leacock,” which depicts people eating eggs in various ways.
His memoir, “Richard Leacock: The Feeling of Being There,” will be published in June.
His marriage to Eleanor Burke ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Valerie Lalonde; five children; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. Leacock disliked political films that claimed to present the “real truth.” He preferred to immerse viewers in the experience and allow them to draw their own conclusions.
“My obsession has been — and still is — the feeling of being there,” he said.