Acclaimed cinematographer Barry Ackroyd said his documentary background informs the ‘verisimilitude’ in the way he shoots narrative films today.

“My background was documentary so that’s critical to the way I look at the world,” said Ackroyd on Monday evening at the BFI London Film Festival (the Swarvoski-sponsored masterclass was presented in partnership with Screen International and Screen editor Mike Goodridge hosted the talk).

Ackroyd has become famed for the way he shoots war environments – whether in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker or Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone.

“The method I try to use, I would never dictate a shot. I like to step back, as in documentary, see where the scene will happen and then offer up the shots,” he said of his way of working on a film such as Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus. “The important shots for me are the ones that have never been planned, that’s part of the realism and the reacting,” he added.

Ackroyd grew up in a working-class community in Lancashire and said his life was changed when he saw Andrzej Wajda’s 1956 Kanal (about the Warsaw Uprising) on television. “It just opened up my mind. It’s like falling in love. As an 11 or 12 year old, your heart starts racing.”

He then went to art college before starting to work shooting TV and corporate documentaries. “We went everywhere – it was a golden age. In those days you didn’t have to have a story, they just hoped something would happen. It could just be a cameraman and an anthropologist.” In those days he travelled to oil rigs in the North Sea, China, Lebanon, Sudan, India and beyond. He has also shot documentaries for Nick Broomfield.  “I use all of that as my Rolodex of information,” he noted.

He is also inspired by the more freewheeling, rule-breaking styles of the 1960s documentarians such as DA Pennebaker [especially his Don’t Look Back] and the Maysles Brothers. And of his mentor Chris Menges, Ackroyd said: “He gave us a visual language that still resounds.”

Ackroyd has a long-standing relationship with Ken Loach, for whom he has shot 12 films, from Riff-Raff to Looking For Eric.  Loach has a very specific way of shooting, Ackroyd noted. “He has a very classical view of the world, it’s very organised and very sensible. Also the lighting has to be very naturalistic and unobtrusive.”

Someone like Paul Greengrass [who he worked with for United 93 and Green Zone] likes to take more risks, he said. “He has a brave way of looking at the world…He wants that feeling of realism but applied as a visceral thing.”

Even with the controlled studio environment of United 93, Ackroyd remembered: “We created this condition of energy, it’s the same kind of energy as in a documentary, and that’s very rare.”

He said he also relished working on more experimental films such as Dominic Savage’s Out of Control (the one that inspired Greengrass to reach out to him) and Carine Adler’s Under The Skin (“that was one of the first films where I was really expressing myself.”)

On The Hurt Locker, which he shot on super 16mm, one goal was to make the audience feel like they were in that ‘kill zone’ themselves. He talked specifically of using slow-motion in the opening explosion scene not just for the explosion but also to show the effect of dust on a car, or gravel on the ground. “The camera is there, I wouldn’t say to fool or cheat, but to convince the audience. You can help them believe,” he said.

Even when working with tough conditions or tough emotional storylines (such as on United 93 or war films), Ackroyd said that concentrating on every single frame keeps him focused: “The most peaceful place you can be on a film set is when you put your eye to the camera, everything else disappears.”