Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd teams up with Kathryn Bigelow again (The Hurt Locker) to shoot Detroit, a harrowing view into the 12th Street Riot of 1967 and the violent police raid on the Algiers Motel. Ackroyd’s tension filled style is reminiscent of American ‘Direct Cinema’ documentary filmmakers of the 1960s and 70s.
The handheld movement follows the action the way one would view the events if they were actually present. The camera has a point of view in the moment, like an observer. Ackroyd’s philosophy on camera movement goes back to his days in art school, where he studied sculpture. He likes to move a handheld camera from a “sculptural point of view,” in the sense that one can walk around a piece of art to view it from different angles.
Ackroyd wants the camera to respond to the created world within a film as if seeing it for the first time, which requires really listening. He might reposition the zoom or frame to adjust to the character’s movements or emotions. “It isn’t good knowing. If I know what’s about to happen, then I’ll change the camera position and move to a new place. You’ve got to keep alert.” When shooting the riot scene, the four camera operators, one of which was Ackroyd, were “constantly moving, changing, readjusting and sometimes switching from one side to the other so there’s a freshness to each shot.”
This style of shooting works seamlessly with Kathryn Bigelow’s sensibilities: her “sensitivity, vision of the world and her unique approach to making films,” noted Ackroyd. The cast included a big ensemble of actors, so the filmmakers needed to establish how all the stories would be interwoven, and how to make all characters very clear. It’s shot with a “kind of intimacy from the camera itself,” as Ackroyd stated. You “put the camera in your hand and stand in front of a scene, whether it’s a real documentary or, as we’re doing here, reconstructing life. It’s all about the relationship you build between the camera, the lens and the subject.”
Ackroyd likes working with a “stripped away camera with a small profile, so you’re not interfering in the whole process around you.” His early influences come from the verité filmmakers Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, in particular, as well as his collaborations with director Ken Loach. Ackroyd did use a crane, a slider and steadicam to add movement throughout the film, but it was mostly handheld. He likes “working with people with the kind of attitude that’s similar to yours.” Having worked with camera operators Chris McGuire and Josh Medak on previous films, they were able to “keep the communication down to a minimum.”
According to Ackroyd, “Katherine doesn’t like to work with storyboards. If you’re going into it with too much of a preconceived concept, you’re going to start missing something in the situation.” Katherine’s method might seem to be laissez faire and easy going, but there’s an intensity to what she wants.” The plan was to light whole scenes and try not to break up the story. When shooting the harrowing scenes in the Algiers annex, Ackroyd “prepared to shoot in just about every piece of that building, interior and exterior, so we could continue the story – take it from one room to the next – and then back again.”
Initially, Bigelow wanted to shoot Super-16 on film, for the ease of mobility and to get the feeling of the 1960s documentaries. Ackroyd reasoned that they could get a similar quality using a digital camera, so they chose the Alexa Mini, rated at 800 ISO. They also employed Arriflex software, which allowed them to shoot with Super-16 lenses at a lower resolution, where only part of the camera’s sensor is used to record ProRes 1600 x 900. This “satisfied all the things I was interested in.” In addition, Ackroyd had Panavision strip the anti glare coatings off the Super-16 lenses so they would approximate more closely the look of the authentic 1960s lenses by “breaking down the image.”
The crew did consider shooting the film in black-and-white, but decided that it would be harder to distribute. Ackroyd added, “In the 1960s, color film was being shot in newsreels and such. So we kept that in mind in the grade, and then the archive film dropped in very nicely. There’s one or two pieces that were so damaged, but still in the film, at a slightly lower resolution.” They did add grain in post throughout the film, which helped lend to the quality of look of the old footage, and “because the digital format tends to be a smoother image, so just being able to take the edge off it helps. It’s done very subtly. Our colorist, Stephen Nakamura was brilliant.”
The film was shot in Boston, as the city of Detroit looks very different than it did in the late 1960s, and Michigan has no tax rebate. Ackroyd believes that “so much of the costumes, set design and location gives you the taste for the period.”
For the street riot scenes, they used “balloons to get a bit of that overall light above.” It was important for them to be able to shoot in all directions, especially with four cameras, so the larger lamps were set up on top of nearby buildings. To recreate the light from fires, they used a combination of covered wagons (home made soft box) run through a flicker box, and flame bars in a “great cooperation with the special effects team.”
For the scene outside the Algiers Motel, the “neon was so incredibly bright, to expose it properly, you would have to shoot at like a T5.6 or T8. I’m not the kind of person who could light up a night scene to T8. We were told, at one point, that these lights would be dimmable. They worked for the first hour or so every night, but over the nights we shot that scene, they would get out of control and just stay on at a very high intensity. So we tied bobinettes next to it,” to reduce the intensity. “Neon is hot and difficult to power, but they are wonderful things, aren’t they? You know, neon and America go together; it’s almost like a symbol of America.”
Ackroyd used his signature ‘tube’ lights for the gut wrenching scenes at the Algiers Motel, where actor Will Poulter, as rookie cop Krauss, terrorizes innocent victims by playing a ‘death game’ to force a confession. Typically the tubes lights are made by rigging KinoFlo tubes inside PVC drain pipes, with a section of the pipe cut away, but this time gaffer Harry Pray made them with LEDs. The fittings are inside the white pipe,“which reflects light on the inside, and is painted black on the outside. You can stand the light somewhere deep in the set, or throw it under a table or a chair or something. It just adds a little glow, maybe from one room to the next, or down a corridor,” Ackroyd explained.
Harry Pray also made some “very interesting ones we used for night exterior scenes, like 15-20′ long strips of very good quality LED lights. Regarding his crew, Ackroyd stated emphatically, “Everyone was absolutely great. They all had such passion for the film and the story; the gaffer, the lighting and grip crew, the sound team and the camera team. I had a really good relationship with my DIT, A. Kyo Moon.”
Ultimately, Barry Ackroyd wants the viewer to disappear into the story. Although the film is primarily about the victims of the Algiers incident, it also addresses the systematic racism, bigotry and inequalities of 1960s which still exist today. “Hopefully in the end you come out enlightened in some way, and that’s why it’s important to see as many sides of a story as you can portray.” The film also tells the story of the police, “who have a point of view. I like when the camera is balanced and equal. In an ensemble piece, I try to think of everybody with the same value in the shot. The camera is not neutral, but it’s not intrusive. Let the audience make that decision later.”
Ackroyd concluded, “The film gets you because it doesn’t give you room to escape. And at the same time, it invites you to be there through the most uncomfortable thing, because it needs to be seen and you need to be told. That’s Kathryn all over.”