Photography & Design
To bring to Captain Phillips the intensity and realism that Paul Greengrass's films are known for,
Greengrass brought in a visual team headed by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, BSC. Ackroyd,
a longtime Greengrass collaborator, was the cinematographer on Greengrass's United 93 and
Green Zone, as well as on Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker , for which Ackroyd was nominated for
an Academy Award.
Greengrass and Ackroyd come from a documentary tradition, and both men agree that there
are certain habits of non-fiction filmmaking that they have yet to shake -- and that have proved
beneficial on the sets of their feature films. "In a feature film, you have many more takes and many
more opportunities to capture a scene than in documentary," Ackroyd says, "so you always have
to remind yourself about the urgency and importance of every frame. If you tell yourself that every
frame is the only time this will ever happen, and it will be the most important frame of the film --
and if you can keep that concentration up throughout a million feet of film -- then you are giving
the editor the best material you can for him to cut the best film."
Greengrass agrees, noting that this style of shooting goes hand-in-hand with the kind of interaction
he wants the actors to have with the material. "You never lose an instinct for what's urgent, what's
real. We work very hard with the actors to get them to play not just the screenplay; the script is
important, but we also want the actors to be attuned to -- and to examine for themselves -- each
situation, and the motives of the characters inherent in each scene. And, as we get the actors to
that place, where they are playing and inhabiting the immediacy of the scene, we have to capture
that intensity -- the looks, the moments."
Producer Dana Brunetti says that Ackroyd's style of shooting not only lends itself perfectly to
Greengrass's direction, but to this film in particular, because of its locations. "Paul and Barry shoot
in a very in-the-moment, urgent, verite style -- a lot of handheld shooting, not a lot of dolly tracks --
which is supremely well-suited to the telling of a hostage crisis story, and uniquely suited to
shooting on a container ship," notes Brunetti. "The ship is so tight and confined, and the hallways
and stairwells are incredibly narrow. Barry put that camera on his shoulder and ran along following
the actors, whipping the camera all around and up and down the ship. The lifeboat was more
contained, so it became about finding the detail and the intensity in those spaces."
Greengrass adds that these locations provided an intense visual and physical challenge -- one that
required Ackroyd to be extremely flexible. "Barry and I had a long discussion before production
began about creating a look for Captain Phillips that is very restrained and highly focused on
character," says the director. "As the film progresses, you are inhabiting a smaller and smaller
space -- so the challenge visually is to keep those tiny spaces very alive and interesting. That
sometimes means putting Barry into some of the most grueling and absurdly cramped positions.
I don't think he could have made this film if he didn't practice yoga."
Ackroyd often had two or three cameras operating for each scene. On the container ship, Ackroyd
mounted his camera on his shoulder, while another camera operator, Cosmo Campbell, rigged a special short-armed Steadicam that allowed him to get through bulkhead doors and small spaces.
Greengrass and Ackroyd do not block the scenes with the actors, giving them free rein to roam
where they like, with the handheld cameras following. Often, this means the actors are running up
and down stairs and in and out of rooms with the camera team close behind.
Ackroyd has noted that this way of working liberates actors. "Once you stop asking actors to perform
for the camera, it gives them a kind of freedom. Even in a confined space like the lifeboat, we told
them, 'Go wherever you want, and we'll follow.' It's a challenge, but it has a powerful effect on the
performances. The actors end up giving more because of that, and what you capture contributes
to the film's ability to move people. If there's something exciting going on in a scene, the camera
gets excited. And when the mood is sad, the camera reacts with sadness. In this film especially, the
camerawork ties into emotional moments in ways that are unexpected and unscripted."
In their collaboration on United 93, Greengrass and Ackroyd experimented with various techniques
intended to obliterate any awareness of the camera -- among the actors as they performed on
set, as well as among the audience as they watch in the theater. They took those methods one step
further on Captain Phillips. "Paul and I both felt that if we successfully did our job, our presence
would be barely felt by the actors," Ackroyd notes. "Our aim in this film was for the camera to
be simply observational and as truthful as possible. At the same time, we were not making a
documentary. Rather the style is a kind of hyperrealism that allows the audience to see many
perspectives on each moment and on the choices that the characters are making. We looked for
the humanity in the shot."
Hanks says he was inspired by the authenticity and immediacy of Greengrass's and Ackroyd's
shooting style -- and that the result was one of the richest experiences of his career. "One of
the questions I asked Paul on this set was, 'Where is the camera?' Because I never saw it," says
Hanks. "They are all about capturing the behavior of real people in the moment, and I think Paul's
willingness to discover the movie as we shot allowed him to capture the full reality of the story."
Ackroyd's photography in the film also makes maximal use of natural light. "I always shoot in
natural light when I can because you can shoot in 360 degrees," he explains. "Having to light shot-
by-shot is like putting a straightjacket on the camera and camera operator. So instead, we planned
our scenes out like a sundial, following the sun around. We had a narrow shipping lane that we
could move in, and so -- unlike shooting in a fixed location -- we could alter course, turn around,
and get sun in the same direction on the ship, no matter which way we went. It was like tacking
in sailing. Chris Carreras, who is Paul's first assistant director, became the proxy captain, setting
the ship's course -- 'Let's go five degrees port now' -- to keep the light as consistent as he could.
It's the same principle you use on land, but because we could move the ship, we took advantage of
that, and Chris became expert at it."
Early in pre-production, Ackroyd decided to employ 35-millimeter film cameras, primarily using
the Aaton Penelope, which is often sought after for handheld cinematography and documentaries.
The Aaton allowed Ackroyd to move nimbly through the narrow stairwells and passageways of the
ship. "When you shoot digitally, in most cases you're only trying to reproduce the aesthetic look of
film anyway. On top of that, when we looked at the conditions we would have to film in -- getting
on pirate skiffs with bungees, getting sprayed and splashed from the waters of the cargo ship --
electronic cameras didn't make much sense," says Ackroyd. "Film cameras are over a hundred years old. It's a simple, classic technology. It's like how cars still use combustion engines -- it's
because they work."
Ackroyd also employed 16mm film cameras for the scenes focusing on the Somali pirates. "I
thought the grain and texture of 16mm would work well for us, and it does -- but the real reason
I wanted to do it was because in a 16mm format, I could choose a 12:1 zoom," he explains. "With
the 12:1 zoom, I could get a wide shot inside the skiff with the four Somalis, or I could frame each
one individually or as groups. And I could use the same lens to zoom into the bridge of the container
ship and find Captain Phillips on the bridge with binoculars, or someone running along the deck,
and I'd be able to link the two shots, moving fluidly from one to the other."
Then there was the film's cramped lifeboat, into which Richard Phillips descends alone with his four
captors. The production used several replicas of the Alabama's 28-foot-long lifeboat, all equally
uncomfortable. "That kind of lifeboat drives like a bowl of spaghetti," explains marine coordinator
Daniel Franey Malone. "It's all over the map. It's top-heavy and it doesn't take much to rock it
around. And it's incredibly difficult to shoot in."
Greengrass and Ackroyd say that the lifeboat was among the most unforgiving shooting
environments they have ever experienced. "The lifeboat is incredibly cramped," says the director.
"Intense heat. Intense seasickness. The thing's tipping on every axis. We had to pull people out
at regular intervals."
Ackroyd operated the camera himself in the lifeboat, as he did in most scenes, putting his body
on the line for the film. But he doesn't mind the struggle -- in fact, he relishes it. "That's how I
know I'm alive!" he says. "All of the physical things, the aches and pains... I like the struggle, or
the sense of struggle. If things become easier, I feel that maybe we're not achieving what we could
achieve. If there's not a struggle, I don't feel satisfied."
"Barry had incredible guts and courage," says Greengrass. "Squinting through that lens, he was
constantly seasick -- but you wouldn't know it watching the movie. How he kept the image as
stable and coherent as it is, I have no idea."
Further articulating the look and feel of Captain Phillips is the work of production designer Paul
Kirby, who had worked with Greengrass and Ackroyd on Green Zone. "Paul Kirby's design on this
film was supposed to be 'invisible.' He provided an environment for the actors to perform in, and for
Barry to shoot in, that was as close to the real world as could be achieved," says Gregory Goodman.
"But the 'invisible' style is extraordinarily difficult. The audience knows when it sees something
phony, even if they can't put their finger on it. On top of that, Paul faced immense logistical issues
-- not least of which was finding, designing, and building a Somali village that would kick off the
movie. He did that and then some -- he made it seamless with the rest of the film."
Greengrass tasked Kirby with designing four different worlds for the film: the Somali village, the
container ship, the lifeboat, and the Navy vessel. "I tried to design sets that would seamlessly join the
real world and the imagined world," Kirby explains. He adds, "In this film, we go from expansive --
the enormous container ship from high above, so high that it looks like a dot in the middle of the
sea -- to increasingly claustrophobic, until we're focused on Tom Hanks' eyes as he thinks his life
is about to end in a 25-foot lifeboat, with the force of the U.S. Navy bearing down on it," says Kirby. "We wanted the audience to feel that journey -- into Captain Phillips' soul, really. Even if they're
not conscious of it, they'll feel it and remember it the following day. And I hope it stays with them."
Another challenge for Kirby was designing the fishing skiffs the Somali pirates use in the attack on
the Alabama. "The skiffs had to look like Somali village boats, but had to be completely seaworthy
and secure for the cast in every respect, even under very rough conditions," says Kirby. Inside the
boat, Kirby and the stunt team outfitted the skiff with straps and footholds designed to help the
actors as they maneuvered on the boat in the swells. He also exaggerated the prow of the boats, a
subtle way of heightening the tension. "We wanted the pirate skiff to look and feel like a weapon
as it cut through the water."
Costume designer Mark Bridges, an Academy Award-winner for The Artist, began his work
by conducting a formidable amount of research, not only digging deeply into the original news
accounts of the hijacking, but exploring both the Somali and American seafaring traditions. He
wanted clothing that would achieve the verisimilitude that Greengrass sought.
Eyl, the Somali village we see in the beginning of the film, is traditionally a fishing port; men
there typically wear shorts or rolled-up pants that keep their ankles free, and a specific kind of
sandal. Bridges and his team created twelve copies of the costumes for each of the pirates. "It
took a month to distress all the sandals, shorts, shirts, and jackets of each costume to the proper
level of wear," he explains. During production, Bridges and his staff had to be in a constant
state of vigilance, or their month of work would be literally washed away. "We underestimated
the strength of the seawater; it took out much of the dirt and distressing that we had thought
was permanently on the clothes. I could see it. I'd walk by a costume and I'd stop short: 'That's
changed color. Let's get it back to the shop.' We had kept four perfect, undistressed costumes
for each of the pirates; we were going to use them after Malta to shoot the first scene in the
film (in the Somali village), and those were useful as a point of reference as we refreshed the
costumes that lost their wear and tear."
"For the Maersk crew's costumes, we interviewed Richard Phillips and Maersk officials, determining
what Phillips wore on his arrival at port vs. what he would wear after embarking," recalls Bridges.
When we first see Phillips as he takes command of the Alabama, he's in his captain's uniform
(the same merchant marine uniform, displaying rank, that Phillips would have worn). Research
into Maersk-issued clothing from the period, in 2009, revealed a technical but critical issue: the
Maersk jumpsuits had recently changed from the all-cotton blend the Alabama crew wore in 2009
to a poly-cotton blend -- a meaningful distinction because poly-cotton does not age well, making
it difficult to give the uniforms the worn look that the period required. "We were lucky to find a
contact at Maersk with some old cotton stock. The boiler suits from the period were made of
cotton, which breaks down well, allowing us to give the costumes a real, lived-in feel that was
authentic to the work wear on the ship at that time."
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