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Having shot the critically acclaimed THE HURT LOCKER, as well as movies like UNITED 93, LOOKING FOR ERIC and GREEN ZONE, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is in demand. But, he explains, that will never stop him choosing substance over style.
When Barry Ackroyd collected the BAFTA for Best Cinematography earlier this year, it was due recognition for his work on Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. But it also offers a fitting recognition for a varied career that began shooting documentaries for Nick Broomfield-in one of which he was famously menaced by the late Eugene Terre’Blanche-and a succession of acclaimed dramas for Ken Loach. In recent years he has shot a clutch of fine-looking Stephen Poliakoff films, and struck up a fruitful partnership with Paul Greengrass, finding expression in the poignant United 93 and the genre-driven Green Zone. He recently wrapped on The Special Relationship for HBO, and is currently in Serbia shooting a modern-dress version of Coriolanus, with Ralph Fiennes starring and making his debut as director.
It’s been a wonderfully varied journey to this point, but through it all Ackroyd has maintained strong principles in his choice of material. He is not a man to attach his name to a frivolous romcom or disappear to Hollywood for a round of meetings. Success will not change him but, you suspect, the DP can afford a smile at the thought of the modestly resourced The Hurt Locker beating other, far more expensive films at both the BAFTAs and the Oscars.
“In a way I’m still proud of the fact that it’s the lowest grossing film to ever win the Oscar,” he agrees. “It’s certainly making money now, though probably nothing like Green Zone’s opening weekend. I was just delighted that a small film can actually be considered good enough to be recognised by the Academy. The Producers Guild gave it their prize, when you might have thought they’d have gone for the big moneymaking film. But they didn’t, they chose the little film.”
Ironically for a man whose political principles remain ingrained-as well you might expect from a man who works so often with Ken Loach-his approach to his craft is more fluid. Where some cinematographers might eulogise film, and Ackroyd clearly loves the medium, he is not one to dismiss the possibilities on the digital horizon. “Except for one or two documentaries I’ve never shot on anything but film,” he says, “so I’m comfortable with film because I know it inside out; it’s the tool I use. But having said that I don’t have objections to digital cinematography at all.”
The underlying influence on Ackroyd’s cinematographic style must, inevitably, stem from his days making documentaries.
“I’m used to having the minimum resources and making the film in the camera, that’s always been my tradition. That’s what we’re doing here in Serbia, basically. On The Special Relationship [director] Richard Loncraine’s approach was that we didn’t have to do that; we could have a very complicated and clever crane shot to tell the story. And of course it was a great experience for me to use all that stuff.
“But in making documentaries the subjects weren’t given to you, you went to find them. They weren’t from a script that was written, that said, ‘This scene is interesting because this body has a medical problem’. We went and looked for stories all over the world. I travelled to 50 countries as an assistant and a cameraman on documentaries. We were just exploring the world, and it was great when you came to know that whatever the language, whatever the culture, you would find a story to touch you even though you didn’t necessarily understand every last thing. It’s about all humanity in the end, that’s what you put into it. That’s what I think is even recognised in something like The Hurt Locker. The way that people have talked about that was that it had achieved a level of understanding; it goes deeper into the psyche of these characters. And it’s purely down to the work we did on documentaries, because that’s what we did there, we tried to find a story within everyday life.”
That, you might say, is what any filmmaker worth his salt ought to be doing. But even if that ethos is shared on a film production there is a further challenge in having every department working together as a team to achieve this aim. When any single element distracts from the rest-rather than complementing the whole-it has failed. “I realised very early on that I wanted to be part of a team of people who created something,” Ackroyd reveals. “Film is the most immaculate form of that really, because all of these incredible talents come together. It starts with the people who design the cameras, to the people who make the film stocks, to the loader of the magazine. Then there’s the grading and processing, the lab work, and all that. It’s an incredible collective.”
Which is not to say that there is not the opportunity to shine, occasionally. “When you’re at the epicentre of it all with a camera in your hand you feel like ‘this is all for me,’” Ackroyd grins. “You do feel very selfish in a way. That everything that’s happened through the whole history of film is for me, today, in this moment. Now I can look through the camera, and when someone says ‘action’, it’s all for that moment. And it’s great. That’s what I enjoy about it.”
Analogies are often made between filmmaking and other art forms, and when Ackroyd speaks of the rhythm of shooting a film, it suggests a musical sense he claims not to have. But Patti Smith, the poet and rock star who visited the Coriolanus set in Serbia, had other ideas.
“She said to me ‘Your music is in the camera’, and that the rhythm and lyrics are in the way I make the film. That’s how I’ve always thought about it. It’s not just cinematography. I see it sculpturally, and it was interesting to me that she said this style had music in it, for her. I think the picture should satisfy your senses but the reason it does that is because it’s telling the story.”
More than that, Ackroyd recognises that if his work is done well then others can also benefit too. “It’s not about cinematography for its own sake,” he adds. “It’s about the design, the costume and, of course, the acting performances and the script, which give you this overall picture. I keep choosing films which have got battles in them for some reason, but that’s because I like that; that’s a peak and that gives you plenty of space. I like that kind of thing, where you’ve got variation in a film. The biggest challenge would be to make a film-and people do and they’re absolutely superb-which have very subtle tones. In a way it’s the big splashes I like; I like to make the big splash with a little bit of tone to it.”
Look at the films that inspired him, and the cameramen who influenced him, and you get a sense of who Barry Ackroyd is. He explains that he admired documentaries shot by Chris Menges before he had any idea who Chris Menges was. Later he learned Menges’ style ‘by osmosis’ when he took over from him as Ken Loach’s cinematographer of choice. Films such as Kes, The 400 Blows, Bicycle Thieves and The Battle For Algiers remain totems of quality in his cinematic hinterland. He continues to learn, of course, to face new challenges and embrace new technologies, but the values he learned from these films never alter.
“They might not have happy endings,” he says, “but it doesn’t stop you being totally enthusiastic, or inspired by them when you leave the cinema. I’m completely inspired by these stories, films that start off by looking for the story in the first place.”
What you do with that story once you’ve found it is another issue. All you can do is have the tools ready to tackle it and then-who knows?-something very special can emerge. “If I hear Bob Dylan lyrics or Patti Smith’s poetry, I might think, ‘that’s so wrong, you shouldn’t do things like that, music isn’t meant to be that abstract’. But because they dared to do it that made it right. That’s always what influenced me. The art that I’ve loved and enjoyed has always been like that. It’s stuff you shouldn’t do, but I’m glad someone did. That’s the kind of influence, and that goes back to cinematographers.
Like Raoul Coutard, with the first hand-held cameras, being able to make films that looked like real life. Or the cinematography in Pasolini’s Gospel According To St Matthew by Tonino Delli Colli, going right back to Dziga Vertov and The Man With A Movie Camera. He did everything with a camera and film stock that you could possibly think of doing, and that was in 1929. There’s a limit, but you have to play with that and take things to the very edge of it.” •