“If you want people to believe what you’re doing when it’s a fiction, you shouldn’t be trying too hard to distract them from that truth,” begins Barry Ackroyd, BSC. The cinematographer is speaking with AC about Jason Bourne, his latest collaboration with director Paul Greengrass. The feature sees the return of Matt Damon as the titular hero, putting him alongside co-stars Alicia Vikander and series-stalwart Julia Stiles to explore the dark secrets of Bourne’s difficult past.
Ackroyd’s approach will be well known to anyone familiar with his previous work alongside Greengrass: United 93 (AC June ’06), Green Zone (AC April ’10) and Captain Phillips (AC Nov. ’13). “Paul and I are so much on the same wavelength, there’s hardly any conversation necessary,” the cinematographer offers. “The reason we get on so well is that we have a very straightforward kind of creed, which is to keep it simple. We both come out of a documentary-style background. Documentary is our inspiration.
“I was shooting documentaries and some music videos in the Seventies and early Eighties, and I’d assisted on many documentaries,” Ackroyd says of his own background. In his documentary work, he found himself confronting difficult subjects. One project covered the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, during which members of the British Army killed unarmed civilians in Northern Ireland; another examined the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 people were killed in a human crush at the eponymous football stadium in Sheffield, England.
“My break into [narrative] filmmaking was Ken Loach — social realism, natural ways of capturing things, simplicity of style,” Ackroyd adds. “I tended towards British documentary camera style, which means long lens, very observational, with a kind of intimacy we’re good at getting, [and Loach] knew my background with social conscience.”
Preparatory work on Jason Bourne began in early June 2015. Despite the scale of the film, Ackroyd and Greengrass worked hard to maintain their documentary style, trying to “rein everything in, to stop thinking it’s a huge film,” the cinematographer recalls. “Paul asked me to write a piece to send to Universal, which would be our mission statement about how the film would look.”
The resulting document referenced films such as The Parallax View and The French Connection. However, Ackroyd feels that these features had in turn been influenced by the work of documentarians Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. Ackroyd’s favorite films include Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back, the 1967 Bob Dylan tour documentary; and Robert Drew’s 1960 political documentary Primary, with cinematography by Leacock and Albert Maysles. “These were the first films to set the camera completely free in terms of movement, and that in itself is a political statement,” Ackroyd enthuses. “Once they put the camera on their shoulder, they walked into this world of truth.”
For Bourne, the cinematographer notes, “We shot a lot, but we still used technique. Occasionally we used dollies and even cranes, but we mostly put the camera in the hand. You get into the story by being physically there; we followed the chase and we followed the story.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bourne was shot with “three and sometimes four cameras,” says Ackroyd, who operated one of them. He avoids formally designating A, B and C cameras, with the idea that every frame of footage from every camera is potentially a contribution of equal value. “I have a mind-set that we’re shooting 100 percent. Every moment, every frame is crucial to this film. People say, ‘Why are you doing this running around? They’re only going to use six frames.’ The answer is, if you know which six frames they are, well, you can shoot six frames!”
Principal photography began on Tenerife in August 2015, with the Spanish island doubling for Athens, Greece. Moving to the U.K., the production proceeded to shoot locations in London and interiors at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden, then moved on to Berlin and Washington, D.C., all before the end of the year. Sequences set on the Las Vegas Strip went before the camera in January 2016, with some final photography in the U.K. in February. Throughout this schedule, the production maintained “predominantly British crew wherever we went,” notes Ackroyd. Core collaborators included Greengrass regulars such as editor and co-writer Christopher Rouse, and co-producer and 1st AD Chris Carreras.
Ackroyd’s team of operators included Christopher TJ McGuire, who also operated Steadicam; longtime collaborator Oliver Driscoll; and Josh Medak, an American who was brought on for the Las Vegas shoot. The operators frequently switched out camera positions in order to bring a fresh approach to each angle. “Often you rotate around,” Ackroyd explains. “[Greengrass] might say, ‘Barry, take that position and do it your way.’” One memorable piece of direction, however, came toward the end of the shoot at the end of a long day; the cinematographer remembers the director saying, “I can see just what you’re thinking when I look at the shot. You’re not thinking the right thing.”
The filmmakers inevitably embraced the happy accidents of handheld camerawork, but without making any attempt to cause them deliberately. “The first thing I tell people is, ‘Don’t get hung up on right and wrong. Just try,’” says Ackroyd. “It’s often the time you’re trying hardest when you get the magic. If you f--- it up on purpose it will look like that, but if you really try hard and it’s on the edge, that’s when it’s exciting. That’s the stuff that Chris [Rouse] will pick.”
Regarding formats, Ackroyd says the original intention was to shoot entirely on film, but with the final script it became clear that there would be significant night exteriors with complex stunts and physical effects. Bourne was therefore shot approximately half-and-half on film and digitally. For the film portions, the production shot both 4-perf 35mm and Super 16mm, using Aaton Penelope and XTR Prod cameras, respectively, and framing for the 2.39:1 aspect ratio; Ackroyd shot with Kodak Vision3 500T 5219/7219 for interiors and 250D 5207/7207 for day exteriors. The 16mm stock “was used for flashbacks and some elements of the Athens riot sequence,” Driscoll notes.
Arri Alexa XT digital cameras were employed “for the night stuff,” the cinematographer explains. “It comes from the second unit wanting to shoot digitally so they could have instant replay on the technical stuff, and multiple cameras.”
The Alexas recorded ArriRaw files to internal Codex XR Capture Drives. Film negative was processed at I Dailies and scanned at Pinewood Digital, the latter of which provided dailies in Pix format. Clive Noakes served as dailies colorist.