Alberto de Almeida Cavalcanti was born in Rio de Janeiro on 6 February 1897, the son of a noted mathematician. He left Brazil at the age of fifteen to study architecture and interior design at the School of Fine Arts in Geneva, from where he moved to Paris to take up work as a set designer in a film studio. As one of a group of young avant-garde artists surrounding Marcel l’Herbier and Louis Delluc, Cavalcanti soon began producing and directing films on his own account, among them the pioneering ‘city symphony’ Rien que les heures (France, 1926), which reputedly inspired Dziga Vertov’s more celebrated Man with a Movie Camera (USSR, 1929). It has been suggested that the key influences at this early stage of Cavalcanti’s career came from the French realist tradition and, to a lesser extent, from surrealism.
In 1934, at the invitation of John Grierson, Cavalcanti left Paris for London to join the GPO Film Unit. There he worked on numerous films in a variety of creative capacities, including producer, director, sound supervisor, editor, scriptwriter and art director, and took over as head of the Unit upon Grierson’s departure for Canada in 1937.