Barry Ackroyd, BSC Reunites With Director Kathryn Bigelow On "Detroit"
Barry Ackroyd, BSC
Cinematographer reflects on a story that needed to be told
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Detroit (Annapurna Pictures) marked a reunion for cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, BSC and director Kathryn Bigelow. They first teamed on The Hurt Locker for which Bigelow won the Best Director Oscar as well as a DGA Award in 2010. The film also garnered Ackroyd a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination as well as his first ASC Award nod. (He received his second ASC Award nomination four years later for Captain Phillips).

Ackroyd values his collaborative relationship with Bigelow, one which was sparked by the DP’s work on director Paul Greengrass’ United 93. It was that film that prompted Bigelow to reach out to Ackroyd for The Hurt Locker. Recalling his first professional encounter with Bigelow on The Hurt Locker, Ackroyd related, “We decided to shoot 16 millimeter and to immerse ourselves in the subject of the film. Kathryn has a very good aesthetic and a very brave attitude to filmmaking...something I like to think I share. When it comes to communication, it’s like we have a complete understanding. It only takes a few words to get the right idea and a complete trust in each other’s work and knowing what the final result will be.”

Those same collaborative dynamics applied to Detroit, said Ackroyd. Furthermore, the importance of the Detroit story instilled a strong sense of purpose in all those artists contributing to the film. At the same time, the gruesome, tragic nature of that story made for an emotionally draining experience, one which artists had to put aside so that they could handle their professional tasks at hand. 

Detroit tells the gripping tale of one of the darkest moments during the civil unrest that rocked Detroit in the summer of 1967. The film centers on a racially motivated crime that took place one night at the Algiers Motel. Up-and-coming Motown musician, Larry Reed (portrayed by Algee Smith), six other young African American men and two young white women were terrorized by local police, despite the presence of the State Police, the National Guard, and an African American security guard (John Boyega). Before the sun rose in the Motor City, three of the young males were slain in cold blood. Detroit chronicles the crime and the survivors’ futile search for justice. Reed’s dreams of stardom disappear as he struggles to find a way forward.

Sadly, Detroit takes on an added relevance in light of current events. What happened that fateful night in Detroit 50-plus years ago remains contemporary with police shootings and the racial divide still very much a part of our society. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal wanted their film to help create empathy and hopefully generate meaningful dialogue on the issues involved.

As for the challenges Detroit posed to him as a cinematographer, Ackroyd related the biggest was to “stay honest” and “to try to do justice to those young men and women.” The most difficult scenes, continued the DP, were in the annex to the motel where the brutality took place. “Technically we had to shoot long takes in a confined space with multiple cameras--that was a challenge.”

Regarding choice of cameras for Detroit, Ackroyd shared some backstory, noting, “Kathryn and I had shot on super 16 millimeter film for The Hurt Locker. So it seemed natural to continue that method for Detroit. But as things moved on, I thought that maybe a digital camera rather than film camera could be good. But then I wanted to keep the 16 millimeter lenses. So our ultimate choice was to use the ALEXA Mini, with a super 16 millimeter frame, in effect down-resing the image. This allowed us to use Canon 12:1 zooms, which gave the biggest range of lens for handholding.”

Anthony Mackie, who portrayed Greene, a Vietnam vet who resided at the Algiers Motel and survived the night of violence, noted that the cameras were “never stationary” in Detroit. Mackie was already familiar with Ackroyd’s constantly fluid, unobtrusive moving camera from their earlier collaboration on The Hurt Locker. Mackie further noted that the constantly moving cameras recorded and captured the entire environment in Detroit, which made for a fully immersive experience. “This technique,” he said, “allowed you as an actor to create your own space. You weren’t acting for the camera. You were acting in the scene like a play. Since you didn’t know what camera was on you and when, you had to be in there a hundred and ten percent all the time. It took you out of your comfort zone, which is what every actor needs.”

In terms of his biggest takeaway or lessons learned from his experience on Detroit, Ackroyd said, “Our mantra on set has always been ‘must try harder.’ Perhaps that’s the thing I’d take away from all films. Detroit is a special film. It was a great experience, great film, with a story that needs to be told. What more could you ask for?”

This is the tenth of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 90th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 23, 2018. The 90th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.


Kathryn Bigelow, director; Mark Boal, screenwriter; William Goldenberg, Harry Yoon, editors; Barry Ackroyd, DP; Pat Hindle, production designer; Paul N.J. Ottosson, sound designer/supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer; Victoria Thomas, casting director.

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