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A Look Behind the Lens of Stanley Kubrick’s Cinematographer John Alcott

Jourdan Aldredge

While Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece films will always remain an enigma, his go-to cinematographer John Alcott offers a revealing lens into his films.

During the waning days of production on one of the most famous and acclaimed films of all time — Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey — Kubrick’s director of photography Geoffrey Unsworth had to leave the production early to begin work on another project.

John Alcott, an aspiring cinematographer who’d made his way from clapper boy all the way to lighting cameraman, was given the chance of a lifetime. He was asked to fill in as DP and complete some of the final shots needed for the landmark film — including the iconic “Dawn of Man” opening sequence, which (oddly enough) was the final scene they needed for the production.

Clearly Kubrick was pleased with the results. The director made Alcott his go-to cinematographer for the majority of his career, tasking him with helping to bring some of the most famous and audacious shots and scenes in film history to life.

Over a period of twenty years, Alcott served as cinematographer on four of Kubrick’s most recognizable classics: 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining. Along the way and under Kubrick’s direction, Alcott mastered advanced cinematographic visual effects, beautiful compositions, new techniques, and was the man behind the lens for some of the most iconic moments in cinema history.

So, let’s take a look into how John Alcott — Kubrick’s right-hand man — was able to develop, and ultimately shape, the future of cinematography.

An Early Visual Effects Pioneer

Alcott’s early contributions in the field of visual effects would shape the nature of the industry for decades to come. 2001: A Space Odyssey was notable for including a wide range of visual effect innovations and technological breakthroughs, including the first major use of front projection cinematography — which Alcott shot firsthand in the “Dawn of Man” sequence.

As you can see in the video feature above by YouTuber CinemaTyler, this cinematography technique was truly revolutionary, as it allowed Kubrick and Alcott to create scenes anywhere in the world, all while in the controlled environment of a sound stage.

Alcott’s choice to shoot wide, long-shots with telephoto lenses led to the sequence’s “viewer” perspective, allowing audiences to simply watch and observe. It’s a stylistic choice that often pops up in the rest of his Kubrick collaborations.

DIY Filmmaking and Practical Lighting

A Clockwork Orange employed a darker, more 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. It called for a really cold, stark style of photography. — John Alcott

Alcott partnered up with Kubrick again on A Clockwork Orange, representing a stark change in both style and budget from the high-concept sci-fi spectacle of 2001.

In 2001, the production was highly technical and tightly controlled. And, while Kubrick was never one to do anything without careful thought, he did enlist Alcott with the task of shooting much more loose and open, presenting new stylistic challenges for the young Alcott.

In an interview with American Cinematographer, Alcott details how he used “very lightweight Lowel 1,000-watt quartz lights” for many scenes, bouncing the lights off of reflective umbrellas or, at times, simply the ceiling. His goal was to allow Kubrick to shoot from any angle and with any camera movement, as the duo employed more intimate handheld shots and chaotic movements while interacting with the hectic characters in the story.

Ultimately, Alcott proved that a cinematographer’s adaptability and resourcefulness could help some of the most deranged and iconic scenes come to life.

Cinematic Zooms and Picturesque Compositions

At the very early stages of his preparation for Barry Lyndon, Kubrick scoured the world looking for exotic, ultra-fast lenses, because he knew he would be shooting extremely low-light level scenes. It was his objective, incredible as it seemed at the time, to photograph candle-lit scenes in old English castles, by only the light of the candles themselves! — John Alcott

After helming a couple of non-Kubrick projects, Alcott was again called to take on the role of cinematographer for Barry Lyndon, a decorative period drama which would earn Alcott an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Alcott’s work on Barry Lyndon is perhaps his most heralded, and it’s the best example of his artistic eye for the highly picturesque compositions for which the film is most lauded.

Kubrick, not known for wanting to use the same style twice, pursued a much more laborious pace for the film, counter to the A Clockwork Orange approach. He gave Alcott much more time to use all the elements at his disposal in order to create beautiful landscapes and images.

However, Barry Lyndon also presented several new challenges for Alcott, as Kubrick insisted on shooting night interior scenes with only the light available to them — with often no more than a single flickering candle to light the characters. To achieve what’s almost cinematographically impossible, Kubrick secured the experimental Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7 lens — developed for the NASA Apollo lunar program — which he and Alcott would use for the darkest of scenes.

In another interview with American Cinematographer, Alcott details 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 shots.

An Astute Attention to Detail

I think that, as time goes on, Stanley becomes more thorough, more exacting in his demands. I think that one has to go away after having done a film with him, gather knowledge, come back and try to put that knowledge together with his knowledge into another film. 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. Stanley is a great inspiration.  — John Alcott

Alcott passed away in 1986, so we can only imagine what he would have offered Kubrick’s final two films, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut. His last collaboration with Kubrick occurred in 1980, on one of the highest regarded horror films of all time — The Shining.

And, it’s in this final collaboration that we really get to see Alcott put together all the styles and tricks he’d developed over the years under Kubrick’s direction. The Shining is still being enjoyed, studied, and dissected today, due in part to the insane attention to detail which Kubrick and Alcott crammed into every frame, set piece, and camera movement. If you haven’t seen it, watch the documentary Room 237 to get an idea of the level of intentionality that went into every single decision of the film.

Alcott didn’t do a lot interviews, but he did speak with American Cinematographer again about the filming of The Shining and the opportunities he had to work with Kubrick over the years. The Shining represented some thrilling breakthroughs, including a major introduction into just how connective the use of the steadicam could be.

Alcott’s contributions will never be lost, as one of his final works — and his last collaboration with his famous directorial partner — remains one of the most mysterious and fascinating movies ever filmed.

For more cinematographer profiles and filmmaking insights, check out these articles below.

Cover image via Warner Bros. ASCmag.