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55th BFI London Film Festival: Masterclass: Barry Ackroyd

55th BFI London Film Festival: Masterclass: Barry Ackroyd

Masterclass: Barry Ackroyd

“The most peaceful place you can be on a film set is when you put your eye to the camera.”

On Monday night at the BFI, British cinematographer Barry Ackroyd talked to Screen International Editor Mike Goodridge about his 30 years in film and TV. It’s a shame there wasn’t a full house in NFT3 and that I had to sit at an uncomfortable 45-degree angle to see the discussion. The good news was that Ackroyd’s eloquence matches his skills behind the camera and he sounded like a poet as he alluded to the “flow” of his work.

If there’s one word you probably wouldn’t use in association with Ackroyd’s recent films it’s peaceful. This is the guy who shot Ralph Fiennes’s Balkan-set Coriolanus, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and United 93. Given his talent for depicting war zones, it’s perhaps not surprising that he cites Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal, a film about the Warsaw Uprising, as a key influence. But he learned his trade and travelled the world making corporate documentaries, so he also admires DA Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers and his mentor, Chris Menges.

Beginning with Riff-Raff, Ackroyd has so far made 12 films with Ken Loach – the same number as Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Burks. (He was due to shoot Route Irish, but was bumped in favour of Menges.) Ackroyd chooses his words carefully, but you get the impression that while he greatly admires Loach, he finds his approach quite rigid in terms of lighting (naturalistic) and camera positioning. After we watched a harrowing confrontation from Raining Stones (1993), Ackroyd said he could still recall the pungent aftershave worn by loan shark Tansey (Jonathan James).

He talked about the technical challenges of choreographing multiple camera operators, working in relay, on Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and Green Zone. Watching a clip from the end of United 93 you could see that the actors had almost forgotten about the presence of the cameras, as they dived around the mocked-up fuselage. Apparently, some of them later disappeared off into a dark corner and cried.

He didn’t meet Bigelow before starting work on The Hurt Locker, though she’d obviously been impressed by his work with Loach and Greengrass. Shooting on a low budget using Super 16, the emphasis was on verisimilitude (one of Ackroyd’s favourite words) and making viewers feel what it’s like to be in the kill zone. Ackroyd said a key element of capturing the opening explosion that kills Guy Pearce’s Thompson, was to convey the full force of the blast. There’s something almost balletic about the slo-mo shots of gravel, dirt and body being hurled into the air.

What surprised me most about Ackroyd is that he seems so emotionally invested in the intense cinematic worlds he helps to create. I’d always imagined the cinematographer to be a remote figure, whose role was to translate the director’s vision onto film. He said he could still recall how he trembled when he first picked up a camera to capture some Letraset titles for a film-school colleague. Despite his impressive list of TV and film credits, that mixture of anxiety and excitement has obviously stayed with him.

A session of 100 minutes was only long enough to do justice to one aspect of Ackroyd’s work. Though he relished the challenge of doing Dominic Savage’s Out of Control (2002), there was nothing about his TV movies with Stephen Poliakoff. I would have thought a sedate period drama like The Lost Prince was about as far removed from The Hurt Locker as you could imagine.

I haven’t seen Coriolanus yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

– Susannah Straughan


Visit the official website for the 55th BFI Film Festival