Barry Ackroyd, BSC, rvteams with director Paul Greengrass on Captain Phillips, which dramatizes the real-life hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship.
In 2009, four Somali pirates managed to hijack the U.S. cargo ship Maersk Alabama. What followed was a dangerous game of cat and mouse that grabbed international headlines.
The container ship had nothing but fire hoses and flares to fend off the armed attack. When Captain Richard Phillips saw the pirates successfully board, he instructed his crew to let the ship “go black” and hide in the bowels of the engine room while they awaited rescue. The pirates seized Capt. Phillips at gunpoint on the bridge, but below deck the crew captured Muse, the Somali ringleader, when he came searching for them to help control the ship. During a negotiated swap, the pirates reneged and took Capt. Phillips hostage as they fled on a lifeboat. The destroyer USS Bainbridge, later joined by the USS Halyburton and Navy SEALS, used both carrot and stick to rescue the captain.
Based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Phillips and Stephan Talty, this was precisely the kind of factually based, geopolitically relevant story that director Paul Greengrass and director of photography Barry Ackroyd, BCS excel in. Like their two previous collaborations, United 93 (2006) and Green Zone (2010), it blends a knuckle-biting pace with a fidelity to fact, the latter an outgrowth of their mutual beginnings in documentary.
“We have a very similar vision of the world, and our backgrounds are about using real locations,” says the British cinematographer, also known for his collaborations with Ken Loach and for his handheld Super 16mm work on Hurt Locker, for which he garnered an Oscar nomination and BSC award. “So whether it’s the interior of an apartment or the inside of an airplane or lifeboat, we have to get inside the real thing and shoot the truth of the matter.”
For Captain Phillips, which stars Tom Hanks in the titular role and Barkhad Abdi as Muse, that meant real ships on the open sea. Only 10 days of their 60-day shoot was on solid ground—primarily for lifeboat interiors at London’s Longcross Studios, where the 5-ton fiberglass craft was rocked on a gimbal. During April and most of May 2012, they ferried five miles off the port of Malta to shoot on the Maersk Alexandria, a virtual clone of the Maersk Alabama, or else plunged into a Malta water tank to shoot Hanks performing his own stunts. Then came two weeks on the swells of the Atlantic, 10 miles out from the Norfolk naval base in Virginia, where they filmed the rescue operation with real Navy battleships and personnel.
“You can imagine how difficult this was for Barry and his crew,” Greengrass says. “There were two primary challenges. First was shooting on water and everything that means. There’s motion through every single plane: up and down, side to side, and everything in between. You’re at the mercy of the weather and trying to create stability where there is none. The second issue was the confined spaces, especially the lifeboat, which was very tiny.” Plus, the days were long, often extending well into night, and getting around the ships was physically difficult. “It was a tremendous feat of concentration and endurance,” Greengrass says of Ackroyd’s work. “But there wasn’t a thing Barry wouldn’t do, not a place he wouldn’t go.” [...]
Published in the November 2013 issue of American Cinematographer.