Started at the Bottom: The Cinematography of John Alcott

DP of Kubrick’s most memorable productions.

For his first job in the industry, John Alcott started as a clapper boy; you know, the guy who holds the clapper and clicks it to mark the start of filming. But from this absolute bottom rung of the camera crew Alcott ascended to the ultimate peak, that of an Oscar winner for Best Cinematography, along the way contributing to some of the most important films of the 20th century.

Alcott got his big break while working on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as a lighting cameraman. When the film’s original cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, had to leave the project after two years owing to other commitments, Alcott was promoted – though not credited – and helped Kubrick finish the film, including shooting the entire “Dawn of Man” sequence. Two years later it was Kubrick who gave Alcott his first official job as a cinematographer, and what a job it was: A Clockwork Orange. That film, with its frenetic camerawork, unique and exaggerated use of color and unconventional spaces, and intentionally hallucinatory framing, propelled Alcott to the top of his field and opened the door to a pair of other Kubrick collaborations, Barry Lyndon and The Shining, the former of which earned Alcott his Oscar.

Besides Kubrick, Alcott shot for directors Stuart Cooper (Overlord), Roger Spottiswoode (Terror Train, Under Fire), and Don Coscarelli (The Beastmaster). When he died in 1986 from a sudden heart attack at the age of 55, his final two films, White Water Summer and No Way Out, were both dedicated to him.

Alcott is remembered not only as a cinematographer of great vision, but also as one with a great technical proficiency, as much an artist as he was a practitioner, a dichotomy that can be found in the skills and techniques he brought to his work, all of which are covered in the following video for Sareesh Sudhakaran for wolfcrow, the latest in their Understanding Cinematography series, which I personally consider to be the most accessible and thorough guide to the artform online. If you’re unfamiliar, once you finish this be sure to scroll through their YouTube channel for more great stuff.