Captain's Tales - An interview with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd

Steve Withers talks to the BAFTA-winning director of photography behind Captain Phillips, United 93 and The Hurt Locker

by Steve Withers Feb 12, 2014 at 9:01 PM

  • Movies Article

    Captain's Tales - An interview with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd
    The terror attacks on 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and the threat of Somali pirates - one man has helped bring all these recent world events to vivid life on our cinema screens, and I’m not talking about Paul Greengrass.
    Yes the British director has covered all three subject matters on film but their look, their realism and their visceral impact is as much the result of the photography and camera work as it is the direction. Greengrass’s collaborator on United 93, Green Zone and, most recently, Captain Phillips is cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Like Greengrass himself, Barry came from a documentary filmmaking background and he initially forged a close working relationship with another British master of realist cinema - Ken Loach. Since then he has become one of the top cinematographers for anyone looking to recreate cinematic versions of actual events.

    He helped Ken Loach film the Irish revolution and subsequent civil war in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, he refought the Battle in Seattle for Stuart Townsend and most recently he reclaimed history in Parkland, which covered the events immediately following the assassination of President Kennedy. Barry was nominated for a BAFTA Award for United 93 and he won for his work on Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker in 2010. Barry was also nominated for an Academy Award for the latter film and he has been nominated for a BAFTA again this year for Captain Phillips.

    To promote the release of Captain Phillips on Blu-ray and DVD, Barry chatted to me about his work, his career and the art of cinematography.
    That’s what I’ve done all my life, tried to capture the reality of a situation, which comes from my documentary background.
    Captain Phillips

    I have to start by congratulating you on the last 40 minutes of Captain Phillips, they were some of the most nail-biting scenes I have ever seen.

    Thanks. Yeah Paul kind of specialises in that both in Captain Phillips and United 93, you just don’t know when to catch your breath.

    When it comes to Captain Phillips or United 93, which are based on actual events, how do you approach a film like that?

    Well with United 93 I really wanted to work with Paul and there wasn’t a question of not doing it. So when Captain Phillips came along I didn’t even read the script, I just wanted to work with a great filmmaker like Paul again. Then I read the script and realised that a lot of the film takes place at night, so then you start trying work out how you’re actually going to shoot it. So we went out to Morocco and started shooting some tests in the harbour, you know shooting 'night for night' and trying 'day for night'. Paul kept asking how I was going to do it and eventually it became a mixture of both in the final film. There are definite technical challenges to shooting at dusk and then into the night and we tried to get as much as possible that way, then used visual effects where necessary to make it all look real.

    What sort of methods do you employ to capture that sense of reality?

    That’s what I’ve done all my life, tried to capture the reality of a situation, which comes from my documentary background. It’s often about being in the right place at the right time and on Captain Phillips we had lots of cameras to make sure we got everything. So in the scene at dusk for instance, when they’ve got the helicopter over the lifeboat and they’re attaching a cable and pulling it… we had cameras in the frigate, in the helicopter and in the lifeboat. I always operate one of the cameras because I like to get myself down into the action, although I’ll admit I didn’t want to be in the lifeboat, it was pretty horrible.

    Captain Phillips

    Speaking of the lifeboat and the plane in United 93 for that matter, how hard is it to shot in those confined spaces?

    It is difficult but that’s what gives those scenes their energy. It’s what you talked about when you said you were unable to breathe in the last 40 minutes of Captain Phillips. It’s because the way the lifeboat scenes were shot simulated the real thing very, very closely. You’re being thrown around, the camera becomes out of control, you’re trying to grab it as hard and tight as you can but your hands are literally quivering because of the energy that’s going through your hands to get the camera in the position you want. As a result every frame reflects that and we also shot for long takes, let the action develop and no one expected to be told to cut. So the whole process just goes on right in front of the camera, just like in real life.

    When you're dealing with films based on real events, is there a temptation to overuse handheld photography to get that documentary feel?

    I don’t think it’s overused because although we say handheld, the cameras are often held on with bungies, so it’s fluid but it’s not actually handheld. Or we use gliders so that you’re in a fixed position but you can move a foot or two either way. So it’s a mixture but the reason it’s handheld or has that feeling of being handheld is that it suits that subject and it does give it a greater feeling of reality.

    When shooting on location or recreating certain situations, do you try and capture as much for real as possible?

    Yeah, yeah absolutely and that’s why we use locations as much as possible. I also think that the strength of my cinematography is that it makes you feel that you’re in a 360 degree world, where I can pan the full 360 if I want and the real world is all around you. And that’s how we work and even though there are digital solutions and effects that can be used, they can never fully replace the feeling of being in an actual location.
    I think that the strength of my cinematography is that it makes you feel that you’re in a 360 degree world.
    Captain Phillips

    Whilst much of Captain Phillips is up close and handheld, there are some impressive sequences where you have sweeping shots of Navy frigates and the huge container ship, was that a stylistic choice?

    Yes, this is a film after all and we wanted to move away from it looking like a documentary, especially when you have that scale available. So we had helicopters flying around to get ariel shots of the frigates and to show the container ship in the ocean. However when we had the small skiff next to that huge container ship and you come down to the water, you have four guys trying to throw a ladder onto a container ship at sea. We’re doing this for real with no visual effects in any way, so to shoot that you’ve got to be handheld. There are just too many variables to set up a fixed shot and act it out, the camera had to come alive and be a participant in the action and just do long takes. We actually went up behind the Maersk Alabama and through the water from the fire hoses and right up to the side of the ship. We took it as far as we could take it.

    Do you shoot digitally or on film?

    I shoot on film and I used Super 16 for the Somali pirate attack, everything from them launching the ships from their village to boarding the Maersk Alabama. After that I switched to Super 35 and all the prelude story with Tom Hanks was all on 35 as well.

    Have you ever shot digitally or do you prefer the look of film?

    I have done some digital work but I prefer the look of film and have used film almost exclusively. It’s only in the last year that I’m tried digital but almost all my work is on film. Although even when people shoot digitally, they still want it to look like film, everyone says that. There’s very few people who say they want it to look digital.

    Captain Phillips

    Digital photography seems to have democratised filmmaking to a degree by making it cheaper but do you feel some of the artistry has been lost?

    I don’t think it’s because of the cost because it isn’t actually cheaper to shoot digitally on something like an Arri Alexa once you’ve taken into account all the costs, the extra processing that goes on and other factors. I don’t think a line producer would choose one over the other based purely on cost. It’s different for other types of digital filmmaking like with a Canon 5D for example but not on big productions, so that’s one thing. Rather than democratisation, what I feel we’re losing in the film industry is a degree of control, where producers have more control than ever. To give you an example, the Academy Award for cinematography has gone to 3D films in three of the last four years but those were films that were conceived for 3D and because of that you lose some of the freedom that you would need to shoot a film like Captain Phillips.

    Would you ever be tempted to shoot a 3D movie?

    Ah… no. Films are 3D, aren’t they? I mean you started by saying that the last 40 minutes of Captain Phillips had captured you and you’re inside the lifeboat, which is what cinema is all about. It’s not the screen coming to sit on your lap. To me when I watch a 3D film it's constantly breaking the illusion, like in Life of Pi when birds of paradise fly over your head or the audience. It just doesn’t do anything for me. I want to disappear into the film, I always have even when you go back to older films like Don’t Look Back or The Leopard. With all those great films, you disappear into the story, even if you’re watching it on a TV set in your bedroom, if it’s a great story you get caught up in it. There’s no substitute for that and 3D certainly isn’t that substitute.

    On the films you made with Paul Greengrass you shot in 2.35:1, is that your preferred ratio or does it depend on the story?

    Partly the story, like The Hurt Locker was shot in 16:9 and all on 16mm, which suited that story but there’s a beauty to a ‘Scope aspect ratio. Although I haven’t shot a film using anamorphic lenses, I’ve always used spherical lenses and Super 35, but I’d like to at some point.
    We went up behind the Maersk Alabama, through the water from the fire hoses and right up to the side of the ship. We took it as far as we could take it.
    It seems to me that fewer and fewer widescreen films are being shot with anamorphic lenses.

    Actually no, it’s getting more so and all the lens manufacturers are producing anamorphic lenses and the reason is digital cameras. People are looking for a film-like effect and of course everyone is searching for the oldest anamorphic lenses because they have aberrations in them and they look like film. So you’ll see a lot of anamorphic films coming out in the future or, if they can't get the lenses, people trying to add anamorphic style effects in post, to make digital look more like film.

    There’s a very close relationship between the director and the cinematographer, how was it working with Paul Greengrass on Captain Phillips?

    Well it was our third film, so we had this ease of communication which amounted to us not saying very much. It’s actually a wonderful thing, although he saw in an interview that I said he hardly spoke to me on United 93, so he called me up said he was really sorry but when I set the camera up it was everything he had imagined, the way I held it, the way I framed a shot was just what he was thinking. That’s the kind of relationship that you dream of really.

    Captain Phillips is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download and you can read Cas's review here.

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