Barry Ackroyd: The cinematography of Captain Phillips and more

With Captain Phillips out on Blu-ray now, we talk to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd about filming at sea, documentary filmmaking and more...

Filming at sea or on water always comes with its own unique set of technical difficulties – just look at the production stories behind Jaws, Waterworld or The Abyss. So when it came to Captain Phillips, the true story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking of 2009, director Paul Greengrass had a difficult shoot ahead of him, requiring the careful planning of ships, makeshift skiffs, lifeboats and US navy battle cruisers.

Fortunately, Greengrass had cinematographer Barry Ackroyd on hand, whose long list of screen credits includes Nick Broomfield documentaries, Ken Loach dramas and mainstream American hits like The Hurt Locker. Although Captain Phillips‘ technical challenges were daunting, Ackroyd’s experience as a documentary filmmaker – not to mention his previous collaborations with Greengrass, United 93 and Green Zone – meant that he was the perfect choice for the director’s complex, fast-moving drama.

With Captain Phillips out on home release now – and nominated for no fewer than nine BAFTAs, including Best Cinematography – it was a pleasure to speak to Barry Ackroyd about the making of the film, and also his early collaborations with documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield.

Shooting at sea can’t be easy. What was your first reaction when Paul Greengrass came to you with the project?

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I just spoke to a colleague, a cinematographer, and he said he remembers me saying, “I don’t know what I’m letting myself in for.” It’s all shot at night, it’s going to be shot at sea, I’ve never done that before, there are all these different skin tones… all that stuff that cinematographers tell journalists.

So I guess that was my first reaction, yeah: how are we going to do this? It’s not in my comfort zone as they say, you know? But we’d work it out, I was sure of that.

Logistically, it must have been very difficult to organise. So how did you begin to plan for it from your end?

Well, when you build up a rapport with a director, there are key people you need by your side – certainly from Paul’s point of view. One of them, at this stage, was Chris Carreras, who’s the first AD [assistant director]. So we travelled around the world looking for locations, and we originally started in New Orleans – which was a non-starter, really, but it was presented to us. We sat there discussing how we’d do it, whether it was possible with the logistics of the ships, how we’d build the skiffs, training people, what the personnel would be like – that’s all the basic stuff you need on any film.

But then you sit next to someone like Chris Carreras, who’s a genius at organisation – in a real world situation, like with boats and support deckings, and moving huge navy ships through the sea at night. So that was all the initial process. But technically I had to work out, as soon as I could, how we were going to do the night shooting at sea, which the script calls for – practically no lighting, just the lighting from helicopters and boats, things like that.

Those were the difficult things. But to answer your question, you put together a team you really trust, that you’ve worked with before, and you work out the problems, you know? 

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I get the impression from what I’ve read of the production that setting scenes up took a huge amount of time. Did that force you to try to shoot everything in as few takes as possible?

That’s always my method. Obviously, you know the script, but not off by heart. And I don’t expect the script to be anything more than a guide, basically. I always look at it like that – our aim is to list whatever words there are on a page and turn them into what feels like a reality.

So my memory of it was that we didn’t do much rehearsal – we don’t often do rehearsal. But everyone’s walking around, we know pretty much what we want to do, and everyone’s trying to get into the swing of things, like Tom Hanks and his crew on the ship, or the navy crew, or Tom Hanks and the pirates. It’s just getting into the flow, really.

Then you reach that lovely point where you say, “Let’s put the camera up,” and you throw it over your shoulder, and see what happens. Because the working method I’ve had with Paul and other directors, from Ken Loach onwards, is to get in there and get involved.

I heard Tom Hanks say on a TV show – he was being interviewed – he said, “Barry is in the room, and it’s a physical presence, but it’s not a mental presence.” And I think that’s what I aim for, which is to capture everything, to be the perfect observer.

The themes of the film are interesting. Paul Greengrass once said it was a crime film. But it’s also about economic hardship, and it’s careful to show the motivations of the pirates, and the difficulties they have. What was your response to the themes in the script?

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I always feel that one of my roles is not just to make a film look good or be technically proficient or whatever, but that it has a point of view. My background in documentaries means I have points of view on the world, and I don’t believe we should be one-sided on things. We have to show sympathy and empathy for all the characters in the film. Looking back on the things I’ve done… even though Tom Hanks is, in quote marks, the big star, when there are five people in a lifeboat, each one has a character and has a power. I couldn’t find it in myself to give any one of them less importance from the positioning of the camera.

That in itself is a political statement – that’s what I look for. Paul would look for the same kind of thing – there are two sides to this story, and we have to know, even if it’s in a very subtle way, that there are two sides to this story. It would be very easy to make a film like Captain Phillips and make it into some gung-ho film about the US navy. 

It could have been Under Siege, couldn’t it?

It could be that. For every film where we try to do this, there’s half a dozen films where they try to turn [the story] into something different. Where people take the same subject matters and turn them into something that’s more like propaganda. Hopefully we’re not making propaganda.

Was it that approach to storytelling that made you want to make the jump from being a sculptor to being a cinematographer?

That was a kind of visual reference. I was never a great painter when I was at art school, but I saw the world in a three dimensional way, so I’d build something and move around it. You see it in a different light. And that’s where I draw the influences from the camera. If you want to find the best light, you sometimes have to move the camera relative to the subject. That’s what lighting is. If you paint with light, you set up the frame, with the four edges of the frame, and then you can push light in and move it around, and make it look like a beautiful painting.

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But the way I see it, life is… I hate to say 3D, because 3D’s being used as a technical device. I mean three dimensions. I think what I do is 3D, but using regular film. And I think it’s more powerful than 3D, because it’s sculptural and it’s kinetic. I think you miss things when you watch a film in 3D.

It becomes a spectacle.

Yeah, and that’s not what I do, because you lose a human scale. You’re throwing away the human scale for a technical achievement. And what I try to do is marry this physical connection to the subject – going to what Tom [Hanks] said – being physically in the room. But mentally, he’s not aware of me, but he’s conscious that there’s a camera there. So it’s forming this pure observational thing, which definitely comes out of documentaries.

And it comes from what I just said about sculpture. It comes from that. When you see a beautiful Rodin sculpture, you want to walk around the back and look at the texture. You want to feel that human beings made those  marks, and produced this immaculate thing. I think that’s what my inspiration is. 

And you perfected that technique when you worked with people like Nick Broomfield?

Exactly, exactly. It’s where it comes from. Nick had his particular method and I fit into that. But you can’t pin it down to one moment. I used to go out and make documentaries with a small crew, a sound recordist and a camera assistant, shooting on 16mm film – as I did on Captain Phillips, that was partly shot on 16mm film – and I started setting up lights in the middle of a scene that was very emotional, and you’ve spoilt the scene.

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So I started learning how to make beautiful images just from the basics, which would be light from a window on the subject. If I teach lighting, that’s what I talk about – that relationship between the subject and the light, and how you capture it on the camera. That’s what lighting is. But it’s not just lighting – it’s camerawork itself.

What are your memories of working with Nick Broomfield? Was he a collaborative filmmaker to work with?

Yeah. When you’re working with three people on films like Tracking Down Maggie or The Leader, The Driver, And The Driver’s Wife, it’s ultimately collaborative. There are only three of us, and we’re making decisions, minute by minute. Nick is the director and he’s the leader of all that, but we made those films, and you have an influence. To bring it back to the feature film, there’s always a group of people who influence the director and the director’s point of view.

And I do that through the way I use the camera. Chris Carreras, the first AD, he influences through his ability to coordinate and understand Paul’s thinking process. He puts that in front of us all so we can capture it. And the fourth person in Paul Greengrass’s films is Chris Rouse, the editor, who can assemble this whole world that’s in Paul’s head. Chris Rouse can take it and make it into a work of genius. I think all filmmaking, from documentaries to features, is collaborative.

Look at Gravity – the relationship between Alfonso [Cuaron] and [his crew]. That’s how important all that stuff is. 

In terms of telling a story with lenses, I remember reading in an interview that when you made The Leader, His Driver, And His Driver’s Wife, that you filmed Eugene Terre’Blanche with a wide-angle lens, so you didn’t empathise with him too much. I was fascinated by that.

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Yeah. That’s the opposite of what I was saying before. You’re trying not to empathise with the subject, and that’s an example. As the villain of the piece, you’re trying not to put the sympathetic lens there, the sympathetic eye there. Mainly, you can see that when he starts to attack the camera, and you don’t turn the camera off when you’re told to do the opposite. It’s like being a child, “I’ll get my own back and I won’t do what you say.” But you do that sometimes with a subject, yeah, in a documentary sense. We didn’t want Terre’Blanche have his way. Our film had to be our view of what was going on in South Africa at that particular time.

So to wrap up then, what was the single biggest technical challenge on Captain Phillips?

Being on the water at night, where the script calls for a lot of stuff to happen. We had to coordinate things so at dusk, between 7:05 and 7:20 where there was enough light on the water to make it look night-like, and enough light in the sky to make silhouettes of ships and things like that. But also you could see helicopter lights and boat lights. The complexity of that was incredible. I try to keep it as simple as I possibly can – handheld cameras, cameras in real places from real positions – and then live the experience through the lens.

Barry Ackroyd, thank you very much.

Captain Phillips is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.

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