The Camera(s) That Changed the World

Richard Leacock and his converted Auricon.

Richard Leacock and his converted Auricon.

Michel Brault and his Eclair NPR.

Michel Brault and his Eclair NPR.

During four days of early April 1960, four documentary cameramen photographed a young politician’s presidential primary campaign in Wisconsin. The man was 43 year-old John F. Kennedy. The cameramen were a team working with ex-Life magazine producer Robert Drew. They were: veteran Flaherty cameraman Richard Leacock, Don Pennebaker, Al Maysles, and Terry McCartney Filgate.

Don Pennebaker with Bob Dylan.

Don Pennebaker with Bob Dylan.

Al Maysles with his Aaton, successor to the NPR. HIs brother David is in the background.

Al Maysles with his Aaton, successor to the NPR. HIs brother David is in the background.

Terry McCartney Filgate.

Terry McCartney Filgate.

Kennedy was soon to become the 35th President of the United States; the five filmmakers were soon to become major figures in a new era of documentaries labeled direct cinema or cinéma vérité.

Primary, their hour-long film was an unprecedented, intimate look into the hour-by-hour movements of the Massachusetts junior senator as he traveled through Wisconsin seeking his party’s nomination. The cameras followed him from city to city via car and bus, stalking the charismatic candidate at fundraising dinners and stump speeches. Al Maysles executed one jaw-dropping 85-second shot as Kennedy moved through a crowd of supporters at a Milwaukee rally. Mayles held his camera over his head, walking behind the candidate, carrying the shot up onto the stage, pointing it at the audience below— this at a time when most  news cameras were tripod bound, lined up in a rank.

This immediacy had become possible only with the dynamic freedom of a new handheld sound camera. The Mayles shot begins in the clip below at 50 seconds.

As election night returns came in, Drew, Leacock and his Auricon were in JFK’s hotel suite along with Kennedy’s supporters and wife, Jackie. This intimacy was unprecedented, startling even, in its raw, real time view of the man and the unfolding political process around him. Primary was the first in a series of direct cinema documentaries made by Robert Drew and Associates, possible because of their labor intensive and expensive conversion of a clunky, sound-on-film camera that had been the stalwart of news cameramen. This “single system” 16mm Auricon was a tripod mounted, near 30-pound behemoth with an intricate threading pattern around the magnetic sound head inside the camera body. The Auricon used single perf. film stock, the sound stripe occupying one side of the film perf. area.

An ad for the single system sound-on-film studio Auricon.

An ad for the single system sound-on-film studio Auricon.

The studio Auricon--pre Drew conversion.

The studio Auricon–pre Drew conversion.

Drew had used a million dollar grant from Life magazine to strip down the bulky Auricon to half its weight. Leacock introduced a handgrip that allowed the camera to rest on his shoulder while being supported by his right hand.

Beyond the camera itself, the filmmaking technique of direct cinema was reductive in the extreme. It avoided voice over narration and editorializing. It avoided interviews; it avoided scripted and set-up situations. The goal was to film real events in real time without mediation or intrusion: in essence, as true to the moment of unfolding life as possible. Of course, this opens the dialectic premise that every camera shot is a de facto choice, and of every editing cut (in Godardian terms) a “moral decision.” Still, the approach of direct cinema represented not only a new kind of documentary filmmaking but a technique soon to send shock waves through the world of mainstream feature films in the tropes of the French New Wave, as well as in its offspring, New American Cinema. It was a dream promised, but until then  unrealized, of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, the seminal Soviet era documentary of 1929.

Dziga-Vertov, aka Denis Kaufman, oldest brother of "On the Waterfront" cinematographer Boris Kaufman.

Dziga-Vertov, aka Denis Kaufman, oldest brother of “On the Waterfront” cinematographer
Boris Kaufman.

A month after Primary was photographed, veteran ethnographer and filmmaker Jean Rouch, along with philosopher/sociologist Edgar Morin began a feature-length documentary about the daily life and relationships of a group of young Parisians, Chronicle of a Summer; it was set against tensions of the Algerian War already in its sixth year, and of racial agitation in the former Sub-Saharan French colonies.

Morin was not a filmmaker, but a leftist intellectual with a definite socio-political agenda. After the film, he retreated back to the world of letters. But Rouch became one of the major influences on the auteurists of the French New Wave. Chronicle of a Summer also became a template for the European kin of America’s direct cinema—dubbed by Rouch and Morin cinéma vérité.

Unlike the much-sought objectivity of its laid back American cousin, Chronicle of a Summer reflected hot button sociological/cultural values of contemporary France. The filmmakers themselves were ready participants in the film, hosting a pre-shooting discussion (which they also filmed), an analysis with the subjects after they viewed the completed film, and a finale walk and talk critique between Morin and Rouch as they strolled side by side through the familiar corridors of the Museé de L’homme.

Jean Rouch, standing, and Edgar Morin in a scene from "Chronicle of a Summer."

Jean Rouch, standing, and Edgar Morin in a scene from “Chronicle of a Summer.”

Morin and Rouch deliberate their film in the museum hallway.

Morin and Rouch deliberate their film in the museum hallway.

The dual ghosts of Descartes and Deconstructionism haunt their approach. This landmark documentary incorporates planned street interviews with other no-nos of American direct cinema such as voice-over narration and internal commentary on the action. A side by side viewing of these two seminal documentaries is a perfect illustration of not only the contrasting filmmaking styles, but serves as an insight to the inherent intellectual and aesthetic differences of the Yankee and Gallic mindset: American empirical direct action without premeditation or judgment, against the French tradition of provocation followed by analysis. A taste of what Rouch and Morin were attempting to capture as a greater truth than what they saw as the mere recording of events can be seen in this short clip which intercuts between the documentary and Rouch’s commentary in a 1991 interview.

There is one scene in Chronicle of a Summer that has become justifiably famous, one that illustrates the fundamental difference between the American and French documentary styles. On an outdoor terrace, the white Parisian and black African subjects of the film discuss the issue of race and the ongoing Algerian War. Both Morin and Rouch are present at the table, readily entering into the conversation. At 3:45 in the clip below Rouch abruptly poses a question to Modeste Landry, the Niger youth also featured in the earlier Rouch documentary The Human Pyramid. He questions Landry about a tattoo on Marceline’s arm. It is a direct provocation and it introduces a back-story into Marceline’s character that had not been presented earlier, that of her incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp. This dramatic intrusion by the filmmaker would not be tolerated in the stripped down, non-invasive style of American direct cinema.

Critic Barbara Bruni describes Rouch and Morin’s approach in a March 2002 issue of Feature Articles:

Chronicle of a Summer was one of the first films to make use of the innovative equipment which Rouch himself had helped to develop. The film’s object, nonetheless, was precisely the contamination so painstakingly avoided by exponents of direct cinema: in the film, Rouch and Morin begin by investigating the nature of happiness by questioning passer-byes in the streets of Paris, but as the film progresses, the investigation becomes a pretext in order to access people’s most innermost thoughts about life and their relationship with others.

Before Rouch teamed with Morin, he had made dozens of documentaries, most of an ethnographic genre, in Sub Saharan countries. His 1958 film Moi, Un Noir follows a group of young men around the capital city of the Ivory Coast, Abidjan, as they eke out an existence. He even gave them cameras to film themselves—decades before small digital camcorders became the province of contemporary documentarians. Rouch himself filmed with a spring wound 16mm non-reflex, non-sound Bell and Howell camera that only allowed for shots of less than a half-minute duration.

Rouch with his spring-wind Bell and Howell during "Moi, Un Noir."

Rouch with his spring-wind Bell and Howell during “Moi, Un Noir.”

Rouch dubbed dialogue and sound effects in post-production. It is said that his camera technique of limited shot length necessitated a style of jump cutting in the editorial continuity of many of his films—a style that was quickly embraced by Godard, Truffaut and many other New Wave directors. Moi, Un Noir, a prototype of the cinéma vérité documentary can be seen here in two parts:

Some scenes of Chronicle of a Summer were photographed with a studio camera on a tripod, but the street scenes were shot with the prototype of the camera that was soon to become the most sought after 16mm camera in the world, the Éclair NPR, the camera that surely even more than the Auricon “changed the world.” As in Primary, four cameramen photographed Chronicle of a Summer. One of them was the Godard and Truffaut cinematographer Raoul Coutard; another was the brilliant NFB cameraman/director from Quebec, Michel Brault. Rouch brought Brault to France for the demanding handheld street scenes. He wanted to break free from the “closed-room” discussion scenes that had framed earlier sequences and which the more academic Morin favored. Rouch called Brault’s walking camera technique “pedovision.” Writer Sam Di Iorio quotes Rouch years later:

Everything we’ve done with cinéma vérité in France comes from the NFB in Canada. Brault brought over a new shooting style that we weren’t familiar with, and we’ve all been copying it since.

Michel Brault on a Paris street with the Eclair prototype.

Michel Brault on a Paris street with the Eclair prototype.

Both of these documentaries are available on DVD and are crucial entries in the history of documentary filmmaking. Here is Primary:–Primary (1960) DVD link

Chronicle of a Summer is available in a richly remastered edition by The Criterion Collection. It includes, as is usual with Criterion, extra features such as a 2011 documentary with outtakes and interviews of the film’s subjects and of Morin.—Chronicle of a Summer DVD link

This brief examination of Primary and Chronicle of a Summer serves as an introduction to an hour-long BBC documentary titled The Camera That Changed the World. It was shown at a recent ASC dinner meeting against the background display of many of the historic 35mm film cameras that line the walls of the Clubhouse’s main room.

The age old dichotomy of “the chicken or the egg” enters front and center in an evaluation of these new documentary techniques of the 60s: did the development of portable cameras encourage a new filmmaking style, or did the mandate for new ways of making documentaries drive the development of new cameras and sound recorders? Close scrutiny in the BBC film suggests simultaneity, though it is evident, at least in Drew’s mission to re-design the Auricon, that he actively sought a camera that would have the same freedom of movement as did photojournalists. His dictum was: “It wasn’t really the camera, it was the idea that changed the world.” In the BBC documentary about those crucial years, some of its seminal figures act as guides through the labyrinth. Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Don Pennebaker and Al Maysles are articulate voices for American direct cinema; the raffish Jean-Pierre Beauviala, employed by Éclair straight out of college, and the great Canadian cinematographer/director Michel Brault, narrate the development of the French NPR— from its vertically held four pound prototype to its shoulder-slung iconic profile.

The dapper Jean Pierre Beauvilia.

The dapper Jean Pierre Beauvilia.

Michel Brault

Michel Brault

This riveting history is viewable on Vimeo. It may not embed here but you can download it or watch as streaming video. For anyone interested in the evolution of documentary film technique, it is thrilling and indispensible viewing.—The Camera That Changed The World link

Robert Drew’s dream of a movie camera with the freedom of a still camera led him first to Leacock, described as the camera’s “godfather,” then to Pennebaker who was and still is a tinkerer. It was Pennebaker who crafted a handle attached to the Auricon which made it possible to rest the front heavy body on the cameraman’s shoulder. In France, Éclair engineer Andre Coutant crafted the lightweight prototype with a silent, slanted pull down claw. This is the camera that Brault used for the street scenes.

Andre Coutant

Andre Coutant

Back in America, the Drew Associates team went on to make vital documentaries with their Auricons during the next three years but went their separate ways by the end of 1963; the Auricon faded away except for filmmakers like Warhol who were attracted to its 1000’ magazine ability.

Andy Warhol at his Auricon, "Harlot," 1965 photo by Eve Arnold.

Andy Warhol at his Auricon, “Harlot,” 1965 photo by Eve Arnold.

In France, the story was different. The Éclair prototype evolved into the NPR, the dominant documentary film camera during the next decade. Its 400 ft. magazine could be pre-threaded, only 12 frames exposed at the front of the magazine, the entire magazine ready to snap onto the camera bod in a few seconds.

The NPR gate with 12 frame loop guide.

The NPR gate with 12 frame loop guide.

The exposed magazine could be instantly removed, the gate inspected, and a new magazine reseated in less than 10 seconds. It was customary to continue sound recording during the reload with a cutaway shot bridging the action.

The exposed film side of the NPR magazine.

The exposed film side of the NPR magazine.

Both Drew and Rouch discovered after they had photographed their movies, that the sound recorders had not kept sync speed with the cameras over long takes; hundreds of hours were spent in the editing room slipping the sound to re-establish sync. This problem was solved with the introduction of the Swiss made Nagra quarter-inch tape recorder with crystal sync drive, the brainchild of Stefan Kudelski.

Stefan Kudelski

Stefan Kudelski

The combination of the NPR with the Nagra made it possible to document the social, political, cultural chaos of the 60s with an unparalleled immediacy and urgency. It was at Woodstock and Altamont and in Vietnam.

I was with cameraman Dave Myers and his battered Eclair NPR on the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, and with Erik Daarstad in East Africa while tracking black rhinos for National Geographic. The NPR was the workhouse camera of many of today’s feature film cinematographers who began their careers in documentaries. I used this wondrous camera until the late 70s— and I miss it today.

John with director Paul Aaron and NPR for a TV PSA., 1978

John with director Paul Aaron and NPR for a TV PSA., 1978

It is the storied legacy of this 16mm camera that anticipated the even more immediate and “democratized” use of smaller digital camcorders for today’s personal documentaries. Still,  for many of us cinematographers  working in both film and video —that special sense of tactile artistry in  handholding  the NPR just can’t be duplicated by the point and shoot aesthetics of today’s  video. Perhaps Mikhail Kaufman felt the same about his DeBrie Parvo, his whole body in sync with the rhythm of his hand cranking.

The well worn NPR of Roger Deakins, his gift to the camera collection of the ASC.

The well worn NPR of Roger Deakins, his gift to the camera collection of the ASC.

Next:  Fotographia de Gabriel Figueroa. 


8 Responses to “The Camera(s) That Changed the World”

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  • Dear Sir,
    Thank you kindly for this very illuminating piece.
    Kindest regards,
    Zdenko Mandusic

  • What a great read.

    Many thanks,


  • john… this piece really brought me back. my first few jobs as a film loader was with cinematographer peter smokler. he was a documentarian turned narrative dp. his documentary style got him the dp position on rob reiner’s “this is spinal tap.” he shot that whole picture with his NPR. it was after spinal tap that I joined him for more narrative projects. we still pulled that NPR out often for handheld shots that were needed. I too, remember loading those mags (index and middle fingers were good for setting the loops), and the quick “snap-on” was great for me to read that piece and know I too, was a part of that generation of filmmaking, and very grateful for it.

  • Wow, this was extremely enlightening. I find it so interesting the evolution of the camera from back then until now. As I’ve never had the privilege of using classic cameras, I can only have a silent appreciation for their contribution. It makes me really thankful for the digital age and the convenience it provides. Yet, I realize it was all because of these original styles and technologies that we are graced with modern equipment.

    I’m sure being a part of the “Film” age makes one nostalgic that we now live in a largely digital world.

    I unfortunately cannot relate to your references of the many documentary filmmakers and other older names in cinematography and directing. As I progress in my film history I’m sure I will understand.

    Thanks a million!

    JOHN’S REPLY: Jeremy, I believe you are a student at Emerson here in Boston where I’m filming “The Forger.” Just know that the digital age does not need to supplant the film age and there is nothing nostalgic about making movies on film. It is visceral and hands on and even unpredictable in the way that much art should be. One of the problems of the point and shoot ease of digital is that what you see is pretty much what you get. If you can’t actually shoot anything on movie film to discover the difference– then just get a 35mm film still camera and develop and print your work in a darkroom. The satisfactions and art experiences are different than those of an inkjet printer. Learning to work with film, cine or still, will only enrichen your experience as a movie maker.

  • Dear John:

    As a cinema-verite filmmaker and a serious student of hand-held camera design and ergonomics, I have to take issue with your take on the Auricon’s demise. You write: “The Auricon faded away except for filmmakers like Warhol who were attracted to its 1000’ (sic) magazine ability.”

    Warhol loved the Auricon for its optical sound recording capability, as well as the 1200 foot magazines. Cheap and simple and films came out of the camera ready to show. Ready-mades!

    The Auricon movement thrived as the heart of the CP16 (and other less popular) through the early 1980s. (When Walter Bach at Auricon refused to sell CP Auricon Cinevoice movement plates, Ed DiGiulio realized the patents on the movement had long expired, so simply built his own, coupled with a brilliant low-power DC crystal motor and the first onboard battery.)

    The Auricon Pro-600 you show in your piece is not the camera used by Leacock/Pennebaker/Drew/Bogdanowicz for their conversions — they used the 100-foot capacity Auricon Cinevoice, designed as a home movie camera circa 1951.

    You can see Walter Bach demonstrate his Super-1200 camera at his Hollywood hills poolside here:

    Until the Aaton came along, most American cinema-verite filmmakers (Leacock, Pennebaker, Al Maysles, etc.) stuck with Auricon-based cameras, as they didn’t like the front-heavy NPR or the later cute but unreliable ACL from Eclair.

    A decade ago I wrote a piece that covers some of this history. See

    The film “The Camera That Changed The World” is filled with errors, but does one very useful thing — they found a photo of the Eclair KMT prototype, something JP Beauviala and I have been searching for for years. The film creates a competition of sorts between the NPR and Auricon, which is silly — it was all about capturing reality without destroying what you were filming.

    One bit of trivia: during WWII, Auricon bodies were made of wood — they were essentially a suitcase with a movement inside — to cut down on the use of aluminum, a material needed for the war effort. I have a couple of variants of these in my collection.

    Please keep writing — your pieces are deeply appreciated.

    Jeff Kreines
    Coosada, Alabama

    JOHN’S REPLY: Jess, many thanks for your illuminating notes on the essay. It is great to get even richer information about these cameras and this era. My own knowledge is defined by the sometimes limited source material I can find. I had totally not considered the use of the Auricon movement in the CP-16. Thank you for noting it. As for the longevity of the Auricon over the NPR, I wonder if that is a function of the material investment many of the NYC filmmakers had in it. (As I recall from Dennis Doris notes on “Portrait of Jason” cinematographer Jeri Sopanen began the evening with the NPR and when it failed they scrounged up an Auricon in the middle of the night.) Certainly the French cinema-verite cineastes and nearly all the documentarians I knew and worked with on the West Coast jumped at the Eclair NPR when it became available. All I can offer is that EVERY documentary I worked on between 1965 and the mid 1970s used the NPR.
    And yes, of course the Auricon had a 1200′ mag— not 1000′. Silly mistake I made. And thanks for the video links.

  • John:

    I think that the (mostly East-coast) filmmakers who used Auricons didn’t think of themselves as camera people or cinematographers, but as filmmakers who shot their own films. Those who shot for others did tend to use (as they became available) more “professional” cameras — i.e. the NPR. (The 16BL, an awful camera, doesn’t count!) The earlier Auricon-based cameras were all essentially one-offs, and looked it. Mostly being tied to Angenieux zooms with finders (except for those of us who used the 10mm Switar) was limiting, especially when the 12-120 was the only choice.

    Look at a film like Gimme Shelter — Al Maysles used his very custom (well balanced but heavy) Auricon and most of the freelance people hired at Altamont used NPRs.

    But the Auricon was very steady and quiet — and many important theatrical documentaries were shot with them — DONT LOOK BACK, MONTEREY POP, SALESMAN. GRAY GARDENS was shot with a CP16 non-reflex (the CP16 reflex was a dog, not well-liked).

    As you can tell, I can go on and on and on about this sort of thing — a bit of a disease.


    Jeff Kreines

  • Peter James ACS,ASC.

    Thanks John for a wonderful history. I just watched the documentary Doug Hart and IMAGO had it on Facebook.It was a trip down memory lane. I did millions of feet on the Eclair NPR and loved it. Warm wishers.

    JOHN’S REPLY: I find it so fascinating– the almost totemic regard for the NPR. I am currently giving the Regents Lectures at UCLA and showed the students the only NPR that is still at UCLA, explaining the pre-threaded magazines and how fast it could be reloaded, what an indefatigable workhorse it was, and how much it seemed to be an extension of our eyes rather than a recording device. They loved it.

  • While hand held cameras and crystal sync sound were the ground breaking technology that made verite cinema possible, equally important was the development of the zoom lens. Virtually every Eclair NPR and CP 16 had an Angenieux 12-120 mounted. The flexibility of these lenses expanded the pallet of cinematographers and became indispensable to verite film making. I would love to see an companion article on zoom lens development.

    JOHN’S REPLY: Scott, you are absolutely correct about the Angenieux 12-120 zoom. It was like a 3rd eye. Most operators used the zoom “a la main,” it was so smooth, and chasing focus became such a part of the aesthetic that it it still used to simulate a feel of “verite” under totally controlled shooting situations. Thanks.

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