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D.A. Pennebaker

A probing storyteller and resourceful technician, documentarian D.A. Pennebaker is able to combine perfectly both the art and the science of motion pictures.

Although as a young man, the Yale-trained engineer from Evanston, Illinois, knew nothing of filmmaking, he had an instinct for art and loved experimentation. In the early 1950s, his visual curiosity led him to Francis Thompson, a filmmaking friend whose short film "N.Y., N.Y." deeply inspired him with its kaleidoscopic energy and abstraction.

D.A. Pennebaker©Pennebaker Hegedus Films

In 1953, Pennebaker began shooting his own short, "Daybreak Express," on a windup 16mm camera. Set to the Duke Ellington tune of the same name, the film chronicled a day in the life of New York’s busy Third Avenue elevated train. For years, the film sat unfinished in Pennebaker’s closet, but in 1958, he finally completed it. He then convinced the Paris Theatre to screen it, and the cinematic world took note.

In early 1959, Pennebaker was invited to join filmmaker Robert Drew’s new company, Drew Associates. In 1961 and 1962, the documentarians at Drew Associates produced ten films for Time-Life’s "Living Camera" series, including Pennebaker’s "Jane" (1962), an intimate portrait of the young Jane Fonda.

More significant than the "Living Camera" shows themselves, however, was the new filming technique that blossomed during production. Using his engineering know-how, Pennebaker helped devise a fully portable, 16mm synchronized camera and sound recording system that made it easy for filmmakers to stay close to their subjects. This revolutionary system became the driving technical force behind what is now known as cinéma vérité, or direct cinema. 

D.A. Pennebaker©Pennebaker Hegedus Films

Pennebaker expanded on this "you are there" style with his first two theatrical documentaries: the iconic "Don’t Look Back" (1967), starring Bob Dylan, and the hugely influential concert film "Monterey Pop" (1968). More music-themed pictures followed, including "Keep On Rockin’" (1972) and "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," which he directed in 1973.

In the mid-1970s, Pennebaker teamed up with future wife Chris Hegedus. Over the decades, the duo has released an impressive, varied slate of documentaries, from 1993’s Academy Award®-nominated "The War Room," a groundbreaking look at Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, to "Moon over Broadway" (1998), a hilarious backstage peek at Carol Burnett’s Broadway flop, and "Kings of Pastry" (2010), a heart-stopping insider’s exposé of the grueling Meilleur Ouvrier de France pastry competition.

D.A. Pennebaker

For a man who once compared filmmaking to house painting – "You just do it" – D.A. Pennebaker has "just done it" with a tenacious style and broad influence matched by few.

Top image ©Pennebaker Hegedus Films/photo by Bill Ray

Selected Filmography

  • "Kings of Pastry" (2010) (co-director)

  • "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" (2002) (co-director)

  • "" (2001) (producer)

  • "Down from the Mountain" (2000) (co-director)

  • "Moon over Broadway" (1998) (co-director)

  • "The War Room" (1993) (co-director)

  • "Rockaby" (1983) (co-director)

  • "Town Bloody Hall" (1979) (co-director, producer)

  • "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" (shot 1973; released 1983) (director)

  • "Keep On Rockin'" (1972) (director)

  • "Company: Original Cast Album" (1970) (director)

  • "Monterey Pop" (1968) (director)

  • "Don't Look Back" (1967) (director)

  • "Jane" (1962) (director)

  • "Daybreak Express" (shot 1953; released 1958) (director)

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