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Being There: ‘Detroit’ Takes Viewers Through the City’s 1967 Riots

In this project for Annapurna Pictures, director Kathryn Bigelow reteamed with her "Hurt Locker" director of photography, Barry Ackroyd, BSC.

Produced with a documentary-style “you are there” approach, the 1966 historical war film The Battle of Algiers is considered a classic example of cinematic neorealism. Not long after that film’s release, a different “battle of Algiers” took place, one centered around the Algiers Motel in Detroit, Michigan. In July of 1967, during rioting, police and national guardsmen seized the building’s annex. Certain officers practiced extreme interrogation on suspects within, with tragic—and in some cases fatal—results.

The film Detroit from Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) looks at the events of that turbulent week through the eyes of security guard Melvin Dismukes, played by John Boyega, who becomes caught up in the conflict between angry cops and bewildered civilians.

Security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) in Detroit

In this project for Annapurna Pictures, the director reteamed with her Hurt Locker director of photography, Barry Ackroyd, BSC, who had been recognized with an Academy Award nomination for his work on that film. The Hurt Locker wound up with six Oscars, including awards for best picture and best director.

“I was very keen to work with her again,” Ackroyd reports. “Kathryn’s work has a great sense of wholeness in that there’s a context for even the most isolated events. It’s intimate but also epic. These qualities are found in the best stories—you show the struggle humanity faces in a personal way while showing the consequences on a larger level. Also, her films ask questions that don’t necessarily get answered, which for me is quite important. Hollywood films have a tendency to not question and just offer quick satisfaction, like fast food.”

Several policemen brutally interrogate guests at the Algiers Motel in an attempt to force confessions for a reported shooting in the area. At center is Philip Krauss (Will Poulter).

Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, shot during the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, was among the stylistic influences on the filmmakers, but Ackroyd also cites documentarians Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, plus cinematographer Chris Menges, whose credits, like the DP’s own, include both documentary and dramatic features. “I looked up to those people. They dared to do the impossible, taking amazing risks with their lighting choices. They’d knowingly employ an approach that might not look beautiful but would work best for the story. I like to embrace the hazards and chance moments that present themselves for the same reason.”

The film’s documentary style was part of what fueled the plan to shoot in Detroit, but when the tax breaks were awarded to another film, production moved to north Boston. “Within the boundaries of that city [Boston], we found the city center and other areas with a period feel,” says Ackroyd.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd

“Street lighting was an issue. Until recently you could count on sodium for the streetlights, but now LED is prevalent, which is very clean and would clash with the desired look. We knew going in that archival newsreel footage of the actual riot would be used,” Ackroyd continues. “That became our main reference during prep, so we were able to re-create some of that same feel with our shoot.”

Ackroyd had shot The Hurt Locker on Super 16mm film, largely because of his preference for the lightweight zoom lenses available in that film format. “Humans don’t see things in a fixed lens way,” he offers, adding, “I can never just make a slow pan across the landscape. The eye looks out, then whip-pans a bit before zooming in to a detail. We glimpse and register certain details, which I think can be [mimicked] through use of a zoom. The zoom lets me change focus rapidly to emphasize a particular element.”

Anthony Mackie plays Greene, a Vietnam vet who lives at the Algiers Motel

The production team initially considered Super 16 format for Detroit as well, but Ackroyd was persuaded to shoot digital when ARRI engineers devised a way to adapt 16mm camera lenses for theAlexa Mini. The solution represented a perfect marriage for him. “Using small 10:1 zooms on the Minis gave us the best of both the film and digital worlds. And the camera size was very important because Kathryn wanted to use three and sometimes four cameras simultaneously, so that made our brief a bit more complex. With so much of the film taking place in small motel rooms with several performers, that meant we were slotting cameras behind doors and in closets, but that all contributed to the immediacy and the sense of capturing a real event.”

The Mini’s resolution was reduced as a result of the 16mm zoom lenses, bringing it down to just under 2K. Since Ackroyd didn’t want to down-res the image further through adjustments to the ISO, he kept the settings at 800 throughout the shoot. “Having to use more light on night exteriors and other low-light situations didn’t bother me because I always like to protect the sensor, adding a bit more light rather than taking away,” he says. “Not everybody agrees with this philosophy, but for me it was the right call.”

Fred (Jacob Latimore) in Detroit

The scenes that take place in the Algiers Motel annex were shot in an old rectory. “It didn’t look quite like a traditional hotel, but it did have that neon look and period feel,” says Ackroyd. “There’s a hallway used for a lengthy interrogation of several characters, and we did have to find the right kind of period fixtures to complete the look. Once we had the look and wattage right, I used LEDs to enhance and extend the spill from those practicals to light the rest of the scene. I’d put them on the ceiling or high up on the walls, and we’d make tiny adjustments, shot by shot and angle by angle. We had to control that light because these were supposed to be small sources, plus the dark parts of the set had to remain appropriately dim and moody.”

Though most of the film’s action takes place in and around the motel, Ackroyd’s favorite scene has Dismukes being interrogated by a pair of plainclothes police officers. “That was shot in a real police station, all taking place in what must have been a 10 x 18 room,” he recalls. “We again shot with three cameras to cover the three actors. While the lighting is very simple, the scene is utterly beautiful owing to the performances. The camera captures all that in an elegant yet economical way, which in my mind is a mark of good filmmaking.”

Ackroyd films a scene

The cinematographer cites DIT A. Kyo Moon’s contributions, along with 1st AC Markus Mentzer, who looks after a variety of details. “I’ve never been technically minded,” Ackroyd admits, “so it is mostly about the camera being an extension of me. [Ackroyd operates his own camera for most features.] My view through the lens is my thought process made visual. But there are so many other aspects to image-making today that it isn’t about individual genius. Filmmaking is about collective genius, and harnessing that in service to the story.”

The digital intermediate was handled at Deluxe’s Company 3 in Los Angeles. “The 16mm archival footage got up-resed and degrained somewhat to get everything working at a 2K grade,” says the DP. “Then we added a bit of grain to our production footage, though not anywhere near as much as I first expected. The feeling came across without having to do all that much to change what we captured on set.”

Actor Will Poulter, who plays a violent police officer in Detroit, and director Kathryn Bigelow

Colorist Stephen Nakamura remarks, “Barry shot his part of things so well, it was easy to get all of the footage to live together. Honestly, though, I didn’t try to match it up precisely. You can still tell the stock footage for what it is, and that’s as it should be, since there is a distinctive look and feel to the stocks of the period. People can recognize some of that rawness—’Wow! This is the real thing!’ I did color-correct the documentary footage from various sources to achieve a consistent feel, but if the exposure was off or there was a hue shift, I left that as-is. Also, we might be cutting from stock of buildings on fire to a production shot, so the overexposure on the archival flames registers differently, but I’m good with that as well.”

The colorist reports that Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve includes all the tools he needed to keep things looking organic throughout—a must with Ackroyd’s shooting style. “Every one of his camera angles reinforces the voyeuristic feel of you being there, handheld, peering over a shoulder,” Nakamura relates. “My job was making sure that nothing in the lighting distracted from the drama, just helping craft the image a bit further on occasion. Barry is such a master that it was actually pretty rare that I had to do much. The whole movie features African-American actors at night and in small rooms, but there are no errors of overlighting or letting everything go dark.”

Nakamura describes some of his work on the film, saying, “With dark-skinned performers against a wall, Barry might use a light on the ground to give the actor some illumination. But if that light spills onto the wall briefly, it might distract, so I would take that down. One actor might cross another and block his light, so I would dig the guy behind out with windows.”

Nakamura thinks Detroit‘s naturalistic, understated approach to lighting deserves recognition. “The whole movie looks a little chaotic, with none of that modeled key/fill/backlight, slick look that wins a lot of Academy Awards,” he declares. “The average filmgoer won’t think anything special was done, but a less skilled DP in Barry’s position would have produced something really awful looking, with underlit performers and movie lighting spilling out everywhere, which would have turned into an enormous salvage job for me. For a cinematographer to craft the light for this kind of movie and sustain it—that’s about as difficult an assignment as I can imagine. I’d like to see people recognize the skill set. Maybe the next time they see a really organic movie that looks unlit, they’ll realize the real genius of a cinematographer.”

As for the finished product, Nakamura raves, “Once past the logos, you can’t move till it is over. It is just riveting. Even during color-correction we’d find ourselves getting caught up in what we saw. Kathryn trusted us to help tell the story her way, and that’s what is up on screen. It is a great credit to her vision.”

Given how the hot-button issues of institutional racism and police brutality seem to have grown hotter as of late, Detroit seems likely to become a watercooler topic for summer filmgoers. “Generating the right attention for a small-budget film is a real trick at times,” Ackroyd admits. Nobody thought The Hurt Locker would win all those awards. Often it is as much a matter of good fortune as hard work.” 

Download the September 2017 issue of Digital Video magazine