“Less is more” and “personal art sacrificed for the greater whole (the film)” are the two catchphrases that Barry Ackroyd often quotes when describing his own artistic style. ‘Captain Phillips’, Paul Greengrass-directed dramatisation of real-life hijacking of the Maersk Alabama ship by the Somali pirates in 2009 is full of urgent hand-held camera work which is a cinematic trademark refined and perfected by Ackroyd. It lends an air of pseudo-documentary authenticity to carefully staged reconstructions, putting us right there in the huddle of the action.
Growing up in the 1960s’ industrial North of England, Barry was part of the disillusioned post WWII generation that wanted to challenge the status quo and change their surroundings. He attended art school studying sculpture but was drawn to cinema through films, such as Ken Loach’s Kes, the cinematography of Chris Menges, British Free Cinema and French New Wave – these were films ‘made about people that he could relate to.’ He started working with the influential documentary film makers Chris Menges and Nick Broomfield in an attempt to create a new type of documentary which is more than just a factual account and could be used as a platform from which to reflect and discuss the views with the audience.
It was Barry’s work in documentary cinema that got the attention of the social realism director Ken Loach in the early 1990’s. This encounter established a celebrated partnership which led to over a dozen films being made over the next two decades, including Raining Stones, My Name is Joe and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, and most recently Looking for Eric. Ackroyd’s camera style helped refine Loach’s naturalistic yet pictorial, semi-factual/semi-fictional, unassuming, anti-melodramatic style of storytelling. In return, Ackroyd perfected his very British style of standing back and quietly listening while remaining close to the face and inside of the subject, and applying it to feature length fictional narrative cinema.
Ackroyd states that the limitations of his own equipment helped him create a very different look. He did not have enough money for the full kit of lenses, so he bought a second-hand AATON camera and three stills-camera lenses, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. Without the standard required kit of wide-angle lenses, I had lenses that were more varied. He hand held the long lenses, creating a more dynamic kinetic that provided more choice for the editor and director. It was this more dangerous approach that helped him form his distinctive style, and led to his understanding that the best visual effects are focus, exposure and choice of lens.
With a modest £11m budget for The Hurt Locker, Ackroyd chose S16mm Aaton XTRs, cameras, four in total, supplied by ICE Films in London. “It’s a documentary-style camera that I am very familiar with. The great thing about S16 mm is you can put a fantastic range oflenses on the camera. My main lens of choice was a Canon 11.5-165 mm T2.7 zoom that let me crash into huge close-ups or go wide, whilst doing handheld work.”
For Green Zone, which had a much larger budget and was shot on 35mm, he selected ARRICAM Lite (LT)s and ARRIFLEX 2Cs, as part of a camera and lighting package from ARRI. In keeping with the notion of continuum, he opted for the equivalent zoom for 35mm, an Angenieux Optimo 24-290mm. “It’s a phenomenal lens, but it’s 11 kilos in weight. The approach was the same as with the S16mm on The Hurt Locker, but then the challenge is to give the camera the same freedom.”