May 26, 2023. Barry Ackroyd, BSC will be honored with the Pierre Angénieux Tribute this evening at the Cannes Film Festival. (This interview is part of FDTimes June 2023 Issue 121 – to be published on May 30.)
Jon Fauer: What was your first camera?
Barry Ackroyd, BSC: A 16mm Aaton 7. You had to have a camera and lenses if you wanted to work freelance for the BBC. Lacking kit, it would have been difficult to get jobs. But we were considered mavericks. Though clearly, Roger Deakins, Dick Pope, Chris Menges—all these great names were making documentaries. I was just slightly younger than them.
Did you study film?
I attended art school, which was also a film school. Around 1975, at age 21, I directed, shot and edited a documentary about the making of the film Tommy, which was made in Portsmouth where I was attending art college. All the equipment was there, provided by the school for free. We had Eclair NPR cameras and, of course, Angénieux zooms.
The 12-120 probably?
Exactly that one.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the very industrial part of northern England, a cotton town in Lancashire. It’s now part of Greater Manchester. Our town spun 90% of the cotton that came through Britain. Believe it or not, cotton at one point was a third of the gross national product of the British economy.
Of course, that cotton came from America, Egypt, India and so on. It was shipped from all around the world to Liverpool, up the Manchester ship canal, distributed up to Oldham, which did nearly all of the spinning, and then to the other towns that surrounded Manchester. They spun the cotton and then it was mostly exported from Britain.
My grandparents and family all worked in cotton mills. I knew I had to get out. My good fortune was that by the late 1960s and ’70s, we’d had a good Labor government that invested in free education. They built many beautiful art schools around the country. And so, when I was failing all the exams in high school, because I was pretty dyslexic, my art teacher urged me to apply to art school. He helped me with the application paperwork. I was only 16. The art school said, “You can come here, but you’ve got to pass those exams. I took night classes in the adjoining college to catch up. But I kept failing the exams. I ended up doing three years. Your first year at art college is foundation. But I was still young. So they said, “You’re basic.” And I continued to fail my English exam another couple of times. Then they said, “Oh well, you may as well stay for another year.” S, instead of a one year course, I had three years. My family was supportive.
You had to pass English exams, although you were taking art?
To continue on farther, you needed those exams. I remember passing my sculpture A-levels. I love sculpture and history of art. Ultimately, I think they gave up trying to qualify me in English let me progress. But since then, I’ve written articles for the BSC magazine when I was president and they were not so bad.
It must have been tough balancing all your work and being president of the BSC?
It started with a few phone calls from our then president, John de Borman, BSC, going, “Barry, you should be on the board. You should be on the board. And within a couple of years, when his term expired, “You should be president. You should be president.”
Meanwhile, back at art school…
It started at Rochdale College of Art, which was the next town to where I lived. They taught us every process from embroidery to bronze casting, ceramics, 3D design, painting, calligraphy, sculpture, welding and everything.
Once I finished those three years of my foundation, I wanted to move to another college to do my degree as far away from the north of England as possible. If you saw the place, you’d know why. I got in at Portsmouth, a small fine-arts college on the south coast of England. Suddenly these doors opened for me. By then, I knew that I loved cinema. As a younger kid I’d watched Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal and Ken Loach’s Kes. Those were films that inspired me.
What was it like growing up in Oldham?
It was gray and black because there was so much coal burning from the factories. I got to watch many films late at night, especially on BBC Two. We grew up in this big industrial landscape. As kids, we played in old factories that were decaying, with dangerous holes in the ground and coming to the end of producing textiles. There had been over 300 factories in 100 years of production. It was crazy: you brought cotton to Manchester and then exported it back to India. So crazy. There was an engineering factory, Platt Brothers of Oldham, that made the noisy and fabulous cotton machinery in our town. I was a camera assistant after leaving college for a series of documentary films on China. We were the first people allowed in from Europe. When we were in Shanghai, we visited a cotton mill. It had the familiar smell of cotton and oil, with the sound of moving engines. I went straight up to the machinery and just looked along the line. And it said, “Platts Brothers of Oldham.” It’d all been exported out.
Did anybody teach cinematography in art college?
Yes, we had great tutors. Walter Lassally, BSC came down, I remember. But once I’d picked up a camera, I got the love of it. That’s the thing. At first, there’s a fear of doing something wrong. You have to get over that. When we started to make documentaries, although we had limited film stock all the time, we developed a bit of an attitude to just carry on — shoot, shoot and shoot. Don’t miss anything. We were using 16mm film, which was very precious and expensive. But we still did it—shoot, shoot and shoot. Fortunately, we were backed by all the tutors to keep shooting.
What was your break into the business?
We made an 80 minute feature. Bob Ede, one of our classmates, wrote a feature script in his final year. He got money from the local arts council and his home town. He blagged a few people to put a little bit of money in. We got film stock and we had all our camera gear. We rented a dolly. Bob asked me to shoot it. I had never done anything so ambitious before. So, I shot this feature. It got shown, had a bit of distribution and was successful. It was his childhood story. Bob was great.
What was your first next job in film?
I moved to London. One of the tutors gave me a set of keys and said, “You got to get out of this town, take these keys, go to this address in the center of London, just tell them that Chris says you can have his room.” So, I arrive at the place in Theobalds Road. It was occupied by a lot of people who came and went and crashed there for a few days. There were four or five bedrooms. It was infested with mice. You can imagine a lot of people there. The crazy thing was having only one phone that was shared by everyone. Imagine trying to get your first job with only one phone and so many people. Try explaining that to someone today. There were no mobile phones back then. There was no internet. You couldn’t even get in contact with someone. You had to trust that one of these crazy people who were endlessly coming and going through the flat would write down the number and remember to tell you that someone called.
I couldn’t get into the union. It was a closed shop. It was hard to find new connections. I tried to apply to the National Film School, but I didn’t get in, which was great because I’d already done six years studying. I didn’t want to do another three.
One day, there was a phone call for me and someone wrote down the number. I ran down to the street to get on the pay phone. I had been recommended for a job by Judy Freeman who studied with me in school. It was to go to Belfast in 1977 or ’78, to do a BBC documentary about The Troubles. Of the 50 BBC film units that existed at BBC Ealing, they couldn’t find anyone who would volunteer to go. The next thing I knew, I was flying into Belfast and right into the middle of The Troubles as a camera assistant.
I returned to Belfast many times. And I did those kinds of jobs for four or five years, because you fall into this beautiful trap of being busy. Then I started doing a little bit of corporate stuff, and Channel 4 was coming on stream, which was a big change to our TV network system with smarter, clear ideas. Then, I did a lot of music videos, working as an assistant with Roger Deakins and others.
Then the jobs got more and more interesting. By the time I finished documentaries, I’d been in 50 different countries. America lots of times.
Loading and pulling focus?
Yes. And I still pull focus as a DP much of the time, still shooting documentary style with those beautiful Angénieux zooms. I do the Zoom and the Stop [iris] with my left hand. And I do the Focus if I can. The left hand to me is the jazz; it is the focus and zoom.
What was the first major project you got to shoot as DP?
I’d been working on a film with an independent still photographer, Andrew Maclear. He was one of the “in crowd,” photographing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. One day, Andrew said, “Now I’m going to make a film about Randy Newman who’s going to tour Europe.”
Andrew made the film by paying for everything with his American Express card. I can see how, now that I know how much he must have earned as a still photographer back in those days. Not everyone got paid brilliantly, but he was. We followed Randy Newman around Amsterdam, Paris, Belgium, London and elsewhere. We got some really good images. Then we went to LA and followed him around there. But, the trouble was, if you made an independent documentary, you could only sell it for practically nothing. But, these were also the days of MTV and lot of music videos, so we were kept very busy.
You worked freelance at that time?
All freelance. All the good jobs were done by freelancers. The directors would not want to be working with the BBC crew, and that’s horrible to say, but they were very institutionalized in the fact that they had the permanent jobs, they had their holiday pay and their holiday schedules all worked out, and their pensions and the mortgages paid for, and all that.
We were all the freelancers, really gung-ho. I remember when I first met Dick Pope and Mike Metcalfe, running around backstage at concerts with big bands and making music videos. They were so cool. But, when I got into the music video thing, I realized that I’d rather be back doing documentaries.
So, I carried on with documentaries. The list of documentaries that’s on my CV is just a small selection. I’ve done hundreds them. We were the first to go into Star City in Moscow and film a three-part series. I worked with Nick Broomfield, a famous documentary filmmaker. We did a couple of films in South Africa. One is a classic film of his called The Leader, The Driver and The Driver’s Wife about the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, AWB. We also followed Margaret Thatcher on a book tour of America.
You must have crossed paths with Chris Menges, BSC, ASC?
I met Chris through Judy Menges, formerly Judy Freeman, who was working with him on documentaries. Chris signed my papers and got me into the union. I have called him my mentor and I still stay in touch with him.
Chris and Judy have been very influential in my life. It was Chris who got me started with Ken Loach. By that time, I’d done all kinds of documentaries and a feature. But Ken, obviously, didn’t want someone who came with a lot of “This is how I make films, this is my style, this is what I do.” He wanted a clean slate and I was a clean sheet. I guess I was also politically aligned with how Chris and Ken thought, having lived through the ’70s. We were all political, with demonstrations, marches and all the rest of it.
It was Chris who put me there in the frame to work with Ken Loach. Ken started me off with a couple of little documentary things that set me up to make sure I understood how he liked to work. We had a conversation about style. It went mostly like this [Barry acts out shooting handheld documentary style] with Ken saying, “Isn’t that the right headroom? A little bit more, don’t you think? Yeah? And when you do a pan, you think golden ratio and you stop and they exit on the back third of the frame, you don’t follow them too far, you don’t let them out frame, take it to the doorway and you let them exit the door.”
That’s an example of Ken Loach directing?
Yes. Ken put all that in my head and then we set off making films. The first one I did with him was Riff-Raff. It turned out to be really good, went to Cannes, ignited Ken’s career again, and it was an amazing film to make. For me, Riff-Raff, Raining Stones and Ladybird, Ladybird were all like school. I was learning. Ken would say, “Don’t you think this is where we’d put the camera?” I’d reply, “Yeah, okay.”
He was so interested in camera placement?
Yes, he knew exactly where the camera should go. He would say he learned so much from Chris Menges. He has a distinct idea of how to make films. Ken is very classically minded—framing, proportion, lens size are all very critical to him. That’s what I learned.
Can we digress? You are receiving the Pierre Angénieux Cinematography Award at Cannes. Ironically, Cannes is very much about directors, actors and auteurs. You mentioned that you grew up on the French New Wave, but the curious thing about the French New Wave was the auteur theory. How is the auteur theory still valid when film is such a collaborative effort?
It was my dissertation when I was at art college. The idea of an auteur is great, but film production is a collective. It very much is a collaboration of people. Inside that collective is a hierarchy. Let’s remember that cinematography is the only art form in cinema that is unique. Editing is the sister to it, or brother. If there were no moving image, if cinematography hadn’t come about, you’d still be performing plays and radio shows. The camera and lens are the crucial things. Whether it comes from Hollywood or out of the auteur theory, cinematography is still considered a minor art form. In fact, it’s not even looked on as an art form by some people, by some film critics.
Why is that?
Cinematography is a minor part in some minds at Cannes, for instance. There’s a lot of respect on the set, there’s a lot of respect from the directors with whom you work over and over again. But then they draw a line. Literally, you are below the line. You might say, “Well, the contribution I made is greater than the still photographer who gets residual payments and can show their art because it’s considered an art.” At least in Europe, still photography is classified as an art form. Cinematography isn’t. I’d love to bring all this up more often. I’d love for it to change.
Let’s talk a bit more about art. Considering technique and technology, how do cameras and lenses influence style and the other way around? Did you start with a camera that influenced your style?
It was an Eclair NPR camera. Mind you, Chris Menges also loved the NPR camera. It had a flat back; you could go handheld and lean it against the wall. I only knew how to make films with handheld cameras. By that, I mean 16mm, lightweight cameras with an Angénieux lens on the front of it. Those were all the tools you needed. That was the French-European progression through Eclair and then Aaton. In America, it was Leacock, Pennebaker and Drew with their modified Auricon cameras, stripping them down, making them lighter. These were two different ways of coming at the same style in our industry.
As a Cinematographer, you have to remember that you’re not the first; there are other people doing the same thing. When I did the Jason Bourne film, Paul Greengrass asked me write something for Universal to explain what style we were going to do. I added a quote from Robert Drew, father of American reality filmmaking (Direct Cinema, cinéma vérité) about avoiding the dolly, the tripod, the crane—just shoot, shoot and shoot.
I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that, but it’s not bad to keep that in the back of your mind. You should have a good camera, a flexible camera. I never worked with big box cameras. I like lightweight cameras. We had to start shooting Ken Loach’s films in 16mm and Super16. When it came to Land and Freedom, they wanted it to be shot in 35mm. That’s when I moved to the Moviecam, which was the most versatile camera at the time. Ken would have you in the back of the room. Where are you going to put the camera? You’re in a closet, at the back of the room, facing the windows. And then your complimentary shot would be on the other side of the room tucked into the corner there. You had to have everything as small as possible and those cameras were best for that. But I never progressed onto anything bigger. Anything that was in studio, when they said studio camera, I kind of shuddered inside, thinking, “Now, you’re tying me down.”
I’ve just been in America doing The Sympathizer with Robert Downey, Jr. for HBO. You walk onto the set, the dollies and cranes are all there, piled up in the middle of the room. You ask for a dolly shot. They leave a yard of gap between you and the wall. I ask, “Why are we wasting all this space? Why don’t we just make it a bit more uncomfortable for ourselves?” And they say, “Why would you do that?” I reply, “Because you can put the camera farther back and instead of a 35mm lens, you could use a 40mm or 50mm—it would be a nicer shot and it will look little less wide angle.”
But there’s no room for the dolly grip up against the wall.
I like to keep it light. I’m the one who jumps in the back of the car and does the over-the-shoulder shots, and I’ll find a low angle shot and I’ll do the handheld shots myself.
What camera did you use on The Sympathizer?
We used the new ALEXA 35. Which is nice because I can use the Angénieux 24-290 Super35 zoom rather than the bigger, “grown-up” Optimo Ultra 12x 36-435mm T4.2 Zoom in Full Frame mode which is longer and heavier. When I have the 24-290, it feels like the documentary camera that we had when I was at art school. Your fingers can roll across the zoom from wide to close.
Do you still zoom by hand?
Not even a zoom motor?
Definitely not a zoom motor. If I work with new crew, I have to begin by asking, “Let’s not put that zoom motor on, you don’t have to worry about that.” I ask them to leave off the handle bars that spread your hands way out to the side like wings. [Barry goes through the motions of his handheld style—elbows tucked into his waist for stability.] I have my own handgrip on the camera right side. It’s modified from a gear shift of a car and it’s flexible. I put that on the bars, just on the right side. You hook your arm in, you hold the camera there, that’s exactly how it’s meant to be. You keep looking through the eyepiece; don’t use a monitor. Now you’re at the focal plane. I mean, there’s a reason for all of this and how it works.
So, the camera’s to your eye, scanning the scene. Your other eye is looking around to see what’s coming in from the side. I’ve got my left hand on the lens, doing the zoom. I’ve got my thumb on the stop [aperture ring]. Documentaries informed all of that, running around Cambodia in the jungle. You don’t have an assistant to come and pull focus for you. You’re there, you’ve got your finger on the zoom, you can crash in, find focus, pull out again, and make it look elegant. That style became popular in commercials, and that’s how I transferred to doing commercials and features.
Now, it’s a camera body like the ALEXA 35 with the long Angénieux zoom on a three-foot slider. Maybe it’s on a dolly or maybe it’s on boxes on the ground. Looking through the eyepiece, there I am. I’ve got my hand on the zoom. It’s your eye, it’s your brain. I enjoy being behind the camera to pick up the imagery that tells the story. It’s emotional, it’s sculptural.
You’re still operating, I assume?
I’ve always operated, on every film I’ve ever done. When I went to LA this time, the union came back and said, “No, you’re not allowed to operate.” And I go, “Well…” And then they said, “Can you tell us why you want to operate?” And I just said, “Here’s my list of films. Maybe you’ve seen one of those. I’ve been brought out here especially for this one episode because I have a thing that I do, and that thing involves me being behind the camera. Of course, we can employ two other operators, so I’m not stealing anything from anyone.”
And then you pass on your skills to the other operators and focus pullers, the first ACs. Sometimes they’ll say, “I’ve seen your films and I don’t know if I can do that.” I’m like, “You can. The only way you can fail is to not try. If you fall out of focus, you can bring it back in, especially now you’ve got all those new tools.”
You usually had a focus puller once you started doing features?
Yes. And that was a big step forward. On documentaries, you’re trying to do everything all at once. You’re trying to keep up with the story, you might be loading magazines on the run. Sometimes it was literally on the run. I remember assisting for Dick Pope, trying to grab the focus knob, running backwards through a field with Maasai women. Part of the job, when you went to all these places, was “Where do we get our water from? Who’s going to clean the filters? And can you cook anything?” It was lots of fun.
You mentioned the 24-290 on a slider. What head do you use?
I use the OConnor fluid head. I’m rarely on wheels except for the occasional remote head on a crane shot.
Do you use the shorter Angénieux Optimo zooms for handheld work?
Yes. We use the 15-40 and the 28-76 lightweight Super35 Optimo zooms.
Do you ever use primes?
Yes. We always order them. They’re always there. They usually just sit there in the camera truck for three months on a film. When it comes down to it, usually there are two or three cameras and you want them to be absolutely complementary.
Documentary style with three cameras?
Here’s an example. We shot with three cameras recently, and you called them “A”, “B,” and “C.” And I go, “I’ll be C then.” “A” Camera can get the tracking shot. Sarah on “B” camera has a complementary angle. Then they ask, “Where are you going to be, Barry?” I say, “I don’t know yet, just a minute. I’ll just check the lighting so please put my camera over there with the long zoom, with the Optimo.” I just call it the Optimo. When it’s all ready, they ask, “Shall we do a rehearsal?”
“No,” I say, “Let’s just shoot it.”
Shoot the rehearsal.
Some directors, Paul Greengrass, Kathryn Bigelow, Adam McKay and Jay Roach, all those people were saying, “Come on guys, let’s just shoot the rehearsal.”
The actors like it. I’ve worked a lot with Charlize Theron and you might imagine her to be someone who’s very Hollywood-ish. But she enjoyed it. Robert Downey Jr. loved it straight away, as did Tom Hanks.
On Hurt Locker, why did you decide to shoot in 16mm rather than 35mm?
I got a call from Kathryn Bigelow. She liked United 93 and I had just finished Battle in Seattle, directed by Stuart Townsend. Charlize Theron and a lot of very good young actors, who are now big in Hollywood, were in it. It’s about the protests in Seattle during the WTO Conference in 1999. The budget, style and the look wanted to be 16mm. It was quite easy to convince Stuart and everybody about that.
It was just after that when I got this phone call from Kathryn and as she’s describing what she wanted to do, I said, “You’re talking 16mm here.” She replied, “That’s exactly right, you said the right thing, I want to do it that way.”
It’s not necessarily about a particular style or whatever. It was to move quickly and be in the moment. That film did very well, and you couldn’t tell it was 16mm because it was appropriate. With bigger cameras, we would have been restricted.
What cameras were they?
They were all Aaton Xtera cameras, the final version, with the best video assist that we had at the time. But poor Kathryn had to watch four cameras on a very poor monitor. We had four cameras running and we kind of danced around each other. Everyone had zoom lenses. We all stepped back a little bit, and found the shots.
What did you have on Captain Phillips?
Captain Phillips is an interesting one. It was 16mm and 35mm. I think it’s the last film I shot on film. I’d worked with Paul Greengrass before. In prep, he began by saying, “Here, this is what I’m going to do.” And I wondered, “How do we do that?”
We looked around the world and got news that the Alexander Maersk, a sister ship of the Maersk Alabama, was going to be in the Mediterranean, and would be in Malta. I knew that we going to be filming in the water at high speed in these little rubber dinghies called RHIBs (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats) chasing a real live container ship.
We attached a little scaffold tube rig at the back of the RHIB with a short bungee to hang the camera on. And then you need a camera with a long zoom lens. The camera sits on your shoulder, with a rain deflector added on, supported by the bungee to take the weight off, but it’s still going to feel like you’re in the boat. I was at 12mm at the wide end of the 16mm zoom when the pirates are up close. I can see what they’re doing. And then they go and board the Alabama which is physically in front of us. You can push the zoom in. And then zoom back out to the guys in the boat, with spray coming up over the camera. We had rain deflectors.
The obvious thing to me at that time was that it had to be 16mm. The logic of the script was to just cover everything that happened with the Somali pirates in 16mm until they climb that ladder and they’re on the big container ship. Then it’s back to 35mm. It was a conceptual thing as well to say it’s a slicker, more defined world of Western Europe and America compared to what was happening in the Somali Village.
What camera did you use for the 35mm scenes?
Aaton Penelope and others.
It’s interesting—current digital cameras are not as ergonomic as those handheld film cameras?
They’re all boxes. And now, with so much stuff hanging off the side of them, the camera fades from view pretty quickly. I’m going to go handhold. The assistants ask, “Do you want a pad for your shoulder?” No. The camera should be designed to be there, directly on my shoulder, without hurting.”
Gabriel Bauer, inventor of Moviecam, said, tongue in cheek, that a camera’s just a box onto which you put good lenses.
The lens is the key, isn’t it? The lens is the most important. It’s our eye. It’s the magic. I’ve got to say, the zoom lenses gave me my expression. How I see the world is not in a fixed lens. It’s in sculptural, three-dimensional movement and repositioning. When someone says something very interesting, I only see a part of the face. When a group of people get together, I see the room. I don’t want to stop to change lenses to do that. I want to make it fluid and sculptural and that’s become my signature. It’s what I do. I always tell students to try and find some kind of signature. It may be a borrowed piece from someone else, but it is the path to a signature. Great cinematographers have this signature style. When Chris Menges walked around with a handheld camera, it was his camera work I was in awe of, as well as the story and the way it was told.
A rhetorical question: if you’re handheld on a prime lens, could you not easily move in onto an actor, or move back? What is the advantage of being able to zoom in and out?
Because the thing that influenced me in the British style of documentaries, and the Ken Loach style of shooting, was to be fixed on a subject. You’d probably want to lean against the wall. The sound recordist—and there were some great ones, fantastic people—would be going in with their Nagra recorder and Sennheiser shotgun mike or sometimes a boom. They would wander around, discreetly, go up to the subject and then look at you because you probably can’t hear it so well. You roll camera from your position against the wall, and push in on the zoom. Then you might reposition to get closer and then a little bit closer. But we never walked into someone’s face.
That came about when the small digital cameras came out and there was one person who became producer, director, camera operator and sound recordist. They had to stand right up close because they were listening and shooting. They had to shoot on wide lenses because they couldn’t focus—they could only point. What’s cinematic about using a long zoom lens is the audience is drawn in, in a special way. They’re not in the group with them. You are out of the group, but you are the observer. You’re an observer and you’re so intently drawn into it that you feel that you witnessed it.
When I’m shooting, if I don’t feel the reality of it, it’s not working. It’s about putting yourself in the right place. That’s difficult sometimes because it can be very staged. I just want people to think that it really did happen. Hurt Locker is a brilliant example. This is what Kathryn taught me as well. We were able to cover multiple actions with multiple cameras and have different perspectives and then cut them together. Before that, I was mostly shooting with a single camera, documentary style. Obviously, I had experimented with that on other films as well. But a great director makes for great cinematography.
You have been an advocate of proper working conditions on set.
I don’t want people to work excessive hours. A cinematographer can help control the rhythm on set. It should be good for lives and family. But you still have to provide the right look for the film and an interpretation of the story for the director. You’re working. I said earlier how the cinematographer is so important, but you’re working for a director. What I want do is to surprise them. For example, on The Old Guard 2, Charlize Theron said, “Barry, come on, you’ve got to do this. I need you to come and do this.” We started working together on Battle for Seattle and I’ve done some good films and some not so good films with her as well. Bombshell was good.
Bombshell was great. I really loved working on it. I thought Jay Roach was absolutely brilliant to work with. The crew, the design, everybody. We managed to reproduce the Fox News offices. When you think about a news organization, everybody thinks of “All the President’s Men.” Hanging lights going on forever. And giving fantastic weight to the story.
On Bombshell, we ended up in the bottom of the LA Times building in a crummy office that had some recessed fixtures that couldn’t be ripped out because of all the wiring. In the end, we just had the hardware store deliver a bunch of 2-foot by 2-foot and 2-foot by 4-foot inexpensive LED panels. The color temperature wasn’t great, but we had to fill the entire room. I think we called them “8.99 lights” because that’s what they cost at the hardware store. We just put them up on the ceiling and lined them up as best we could. You adjust the color temperature in the camera, and add color correction gels to any additional lights.
The way we controlled it was with what we call “teabags.” We had loops of material to hang below the ceiling panels around the area where we had Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and many other incredibly beautiful actors. We wanted to make it slightly softer, to take the edge off.
Did you have lights on the floor as well?
Occasionally. But when you start to work with multiple cameras, the stands get in the way and you end up taking them away and just working from overhead.
Do you usually try for a documentary style, available-light look?
Yes. As Ken Loach said, the best thing in documentary is usually switching off the lights when you walk into a room.
Ken didn’t want light inside the room. He didn’t want it to be seen as a thing. On the first week of Riff-Raff, we shot a scene in a big room at a building site. It had some scaffolding outside. In the morning, we had some sunlight that came in and gave it that nice little lift. Over lunch, I thought, okay, well Ken’s away, let’s just bring in a little 2K and add a little bounce there on the floor.
The first thing Ken said when he walked into the room was, “Ooh, ah, ooh. Don’t you think the actors might… Ooh.” I quickly said, “Take it away, take it away.” That’s how Ken taught people. That’s how he would get actors to do the things that he wanted as well as things that were completely his idea. To the actors, he would just say, “Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Very good, very good. Wouldn’t you sit? No, no, no. Very good. We’ll do it again. Do it again.” And, of course, then the actor says, “I’m going to go sit over there.”
When you’re lighting beautiful actors, you probably prefer beauty lighting?
If I can get away with it, I will. I like the Kino Flo 4-foot 4Bank fixtures. Usually whenever you get to do some testing, that’s when you do a little bit of beauty lighting because you want the studio people, who are going to look at it, to say, “Oh, that looks like he knows what he’s doing.” And then I go off on our own tangent. Go shoot and shoot and shoot. Nothing’s going to stop us. As I said, Charlize Theron and other directors like it.
Do you use filters?
Sometimes I want a little softness with these digital cameras. I’ll add a little Tiffen Glimmerglass just to soften it a bit. But I don’t like fiddling with the camera.
Do you prefer lenses that are softer or pristine?
Well, do we see things pristinely? I think we see things through a glass darkly. We see it vague.
Okay, these are the tools that I think are the best in film. It’s the lens, the exposure, the focal length you choose, and the depth of field that you can give it. People are now very keen on using wide lenses wide open at T1.5 or whatever, being wide and close, and 30 degrees higher than the subject, softly lit. But you’re so close, it’s got to be cross-lit. And then you’ve got no depth of focus behind. You could help that by stepping back, don’t waste that space and put a longer lens on. Then you’re in control of depth of field. I don’t think it isn’t as beautiful. I just think it’s appropriate. And I think appropriate is probably better than beautiful. When it comes to making a film, you are better off considering the whole subject rather than just the cinematographer’s perspective on it.
I’d like to invent something new. I think I helped Ken Loach move forward a little bit. I think Big Short was especially good, because it was not the kind of film you might have expected. And Bombshell. Also a couple of other films, even smaller, independent ones.
What did you especially like about Big Short and Bombshell?
Adam McKay called me directly. I was in Australia on holiday. We chatted a bit, like we’re doing now. He said, “I really liked United 93. I liked how crisp that was.” I didn’t see it as being crisp. He mentioned all kinds of things that I didn’t see in it myself, the kinds of things he wanted to apply to tell the story he needed. He wanted to add something—life, movement, simple things. He said, up until that point, his films were lock-off shots with two comedians, telling jokes to each other. He’d sit there on set, on a microphone, adding a few lines like, “Say this to him now. Go on, say that…” He just liked playing around.
But I think we found something that expressed it. Also it had very good editing that added all those layers.
It was allowing the scenes to run and play out. I think it was also because both those directors just encourage you to do what you do. When they see it, they say, in a very subtle way, “Yes” or “No”, or “That’s it” or whatever.
The first time I worked with Paul Greengrass was on United 93. I’d offered up an idea that we could shoot continuously, like a documentary. You’re in the scene, you would keep running, especially with a 16mm Aaton camera. And even when you ran out of film, you just swapped the film magazines, put the new one on. You missed 15 or 20 seconds at most, but then you’d keep shooting. But we had to shoot on 35mm. I had ZEISS Variable Primes, Angénieux zooms, some wide lenses, and two cameras. We staggered the cameras so there would be overlaps during magazine changes. I kind of suggested that, not knowing that we were going to be in an airplane cabin on a big gimbal, being thrown around on the plane, in a studio. I did some shots with the long-range Angénieux 24-290 on a monopod resting on my shoulder while we’re being thrown around, because I wanted to get that long lens feel to it. But it was hard work. The story was film length. It was 90 minutes of events. We wanted it to feel like it just happened. That was special, that film. That is a massive feat of energy and sheer perseverance.
This has been fascinating.
I hope I didn’t ramble on too much.
No, rambling is much more interesting. You’re very articulate and interesting. Thank you.
I’ve got some great stories. When I was on Old Guard 2, I kept the producers up in the evenings sitting around, telling stories. They said, “Write a book. Write a book.”
You should. “The Life of Barry.”
It’s the greatest job ever, isn’t it? After art college, it was a dream to travel to 60 countries and film the most interesting documentaries. You went because it was interesting. And now you make films because they’re good scripts, and they’ve got great actors. You meet people, and they’re all ordinary people. I’ve been lucky. Directors have been wonderful. And crew are great, the same all over the world. We’re a type, but a good type, and surround ourselves with good people and get paid for it. It’s amazing.
It beats working for a living, right?
Yes, definitely. But residual payments for cinematographers would help. Anyway, that’s another story.