Robert L. Drew, a journalist and filmmaker who altered both journalism and filmmaking when he helped develop the hand-held camera and a synchronized sound recorder and put the new equipment to use making documentaries in the put-the-audience-in-the-room style known as cinéma vérité, died on Wednesday at his home in Sharon, Conn. He was 90.
The cause was sepsis, his daughter, Lisa W. Drew, said.
Cinéma vérité, also known as direct cinema — a scriptless, actorless form of storytelling in which a camera reveals what purports to be a spontaneous, ongoing reality without an accompanying narration — is an old-hat technique today, having become familiar not just through documentaries but feature films and reality television.
But in the mid-1950s, storytelling films were largely the province of Hollywood, and documentary footage was primarily used in news reports. At the time, while Mr. Drew was a writer and editor at Life magazine, he spent a year on a Nieman fellowship at Harvard, where he pursued an interest in television and new methods of creating a visual narrative.
“During my Nieman year in 1955, I focused on two questions: Why are documentaries so dull? What would it take for them to become gripping and exciting?” Mr. Drew wrote in an essay in 2001.
His answers were that documentaries, with their stitched-together footage and stilted narration, had been little more than lectures, and that television had the ability to draw audiences into dramatic stories with an immediacy it had yet to exploit.
The new form he envisioned would be “a theater without actors,” Mr. Drew recalled in a 1962 interview. “It would be plays without playwrights; it would be reporting without summary and opinion; it would be the ability to look in on people’s lives at crucial times from which you could deduce certain things and see a kind of truth that can only be gotten by personal experience.”
To achieve this, however, he needed a lightweight camera that, operating silently, recorded synchronized sound. While these were inevitable developments, the market for such technology had yet to be widely perceived, so camera companies weren’t pursuing it. Mr. Drew persuaded Time Inc. to finance the development of the equipment he needed.
“It took a year to get that film equipment usable, and when it was finally usable, we could go out as a two-man team, cameraman and producer or correspondent, which I was, and cover a story,” he said. “And I had to pick the first story. And the first story I picked was a young senator running for president in Wisconsin.”
The 1960 film, titled “Primary,” was a close-in view of John F. Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, as he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination against Senator Hubert H. Humphrey.
Produced and directed by Mr. Drew under contract with Time Inc., it was shot and edited by a team that included Albert Maysles, D. A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, all of whom became major documentarians in the cinéma vérité mode. “Primary” is often cited by filmmakers as the work that engendered their art form.
“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of that equipment in the history of how documentaries are made and how movies in general are made,” Thom Powers, a documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and the artistic director of the New York City-based festival DOC NYC, said in an interview. “I would liken it to the invention of the electric guitar for rock ’n’ roll.”
Mr. Drew made more than 100 films and won numerous awards, including an Emmy for “Man Who Dances” (1968), about the ballet dancer Edward Villella. But between 1960 and 1963, his company, Drew Associates, “made more important documentary films than anybody else did before or since,” Mr. Powers said.
They included “The Chair,” about the legal battle to save a death row inmate from execution; “Adventures on the New Frontier,” which brought the American public inside the Kennedy White House during the early days of the administration; “Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment,” which showed the president in meetings during a tense civil rights episode of June 1963, when Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, blocked the entrance to the University of Alabama to prevent it from becoming integrated; and“Jane,” about Jane Fonda preparing for a role on Broadway, in the play “The Fun Couple,” a critically reviled flop.
“Modern art has Picasso, rock ’n’ roll has Bill Haley, and the documentary film has Robert Drew,” the filmmaker Michael Moore said in a statement. “All of us who make nonfiction movies can trace our lineage to what he created.”
Robert Lincoln Drew was born in Toledo, Ohio, on Feb. 15, 1924, and grew up in Kentucky, where his father ran a seaplane business and taught his son to fly.
Young Robert, who never finished high school or went to college, enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Before he was 20, he flew more than two dozen combat missions and was shot down in Italy; he survived three months behind enemy lines before finding his way back to his unit, his daughter said.
After returning to the United States, he attended an engineering program run by the military to prepare for jet fighter training. While in the program, he wrote an article for Life magazine about the experience. The war ended before his training was complete, and Life offered him a job.
Mr. Drew’s first marriage, to the former Ruth Faris, who was known as Rue, ended in divorce; his second marriage, to Anne Gilbert, a filmmaker who edited “Man Who Dances” and worked with him frequently, ended with her death in 2012. In addition to his daughter, Lisa, he is survived by two sons, Thatcher and Derek; a brother, Frank; a sister, Mary Way Drew Greer, and three grandchildren.
In 1958, with the backing of Time Inc., Mr. Drew made a film called“Weightless,” about experiments with men in a gravity-free environment. His hope was that the company would see the value of investing in the new documentary film equipment he needed to realize his vision. Of course, he said, the story would also run in Life magazine, which was published by Time Inc.
“I went to the Life magazine publisher and asked him to back me in making a film on weightless men,” Mr. Drew recalled later. “ ‘Why?’ he said. I said, ‘Because if I make this film the way I’m planning, Ed Sullivan will run it on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He’ll hold up the Life magazine, you’ll get exposure, you’ll sell more Life magazines.’
“It worked,” he said.