BARRY ACKROYD ZOOMS IN ON THE BIG SHORT

The Big Short dramatizes the 2007-‘10 financial crisis through the story of a group of countercultural whiz kids who bet against the housing and credit markets and won. The film is based on the best-selling Michael Lewis book and stars Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. The director, Adam McKay, is best known for a string of hit comedies that includes both Anchorman movies; Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby; and Step Brothers.

All around the world, I’ve met people who love cinema, like the people at Panavision

The majority of The Big Short was made over the course of about 50 days in Louisiana, almost all on practical locations, with a few scenes shot in Las Vegas and New York. To supply his equipment needs, Barry Ackroyd, BSC continued his collaboration with Panavision, as he had on his previous assignment, The Last Face, which was directed by Sean Penn and made in South Africa.

On The Last Face, Panavision London developed a specialized follow focus system that would work for a handheld camera equipped with shift-and-tilt lenses. If you think of any idea, the people at Panavision will make it work,says Ackroyd.

During their earliest conversations about The Big Short, Ackroyd asked McKay why he thought the cinematographer was right for the project. Ackroyd is best known for shooting naturalistic dramas like Captain Phillips, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, United 93, and The Hurt Locker, the latter of which brought him an Oscar® nomination.

“Adam was very clear, and his answer shocked me a little bit,” says Ackroyd, who is also president of the British Society of Cinematographers. “He said that he thought United 93 was a masterpiece, with a clean crispness and incredible energy, seen from the character’s point of view rather than mine. The Big Short is a dark comedy, but Adam was coming at it as a portrayal of one of the most dramatic moments in U.S. history.”

Ackroyd says that this approach encapsulated the documentary realism he’s known for. “I wanted to make it not too beautiful and not too arty,” says Ackroyd. “I wanted to bring clarity, while also keeping the intricate explanations from becoming too boring.”

To make these explanations engaging and understandable for the audience, the script called for clever, direct vignettes that are set apart from the majority of the film but visually part of the whole. In one example, supermodel Margot Robbie reclines in a bubble bath while breaking the fourth wall. These scenes required a more “glossy, fluffy, magazine-ad” approach to the imagery, in contrast to the scenes set in more mundane office surroundings.

“A lot of what we had to shoot in had a very generic American office look,” says Ackroyd. “It wasn’t conducive to making the most beautiful images. You have low ceilings, fluorescent lights, and imitation wood desks. So we played around with reflections, and shot through windows, Venetian blinds and table lamps to break it up.”

If you think of any idea, the people at Panavision will make it work

McKay wanted to shoot film negative from the beginning. The format was Super 35, which uses spherical lenses and results in a widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Zoom lenses were one key to the look.

“I’m one of the few directors of photography that actually likes zooms and uses them within the story,” says Ackroyd. He used an Angenieux 24-290mm on a slider, to keep it feeling like a handheld shot, with the camera moving backwards and forwards, and in and out. In situations where a shorter zoom was required, he made use of the 17-80mm and 15-40mm Angenieux models. The package also included a range of Cooke prime lenses. Ackroyd’s familiarity with the lenses improves efficiency. “The zooms give you an observational feel,” he says. “When you hear something that shocks or interests you, your mind closes in and listens. That’s how I use the zoom, and it’s one of my favorite tools. I’m comfortable with those lenses. I can achieve an awful lot in one shot, and often can deliver 90% usable material.”

Ackroyd operated one camera, and Josh Medak operated a second camera at all times. “That’s how people communicate, really,” says Ackroyd. “You’re constantly trying to find a better perspective, based on the actor’s performance. Should I be closer? Should I be a little bit intrusive now? Should I pull back a little? Are people feeling anxious or comfortable? That intense listening and sensitivity brings the audience into that world, and results in a way of seeing it that is very successful for this film, I think.”

Ackroyd is working with Panavision on his current project, the untitled Bourne sequel, which will take him to far-flung locales. “All around the world, I’ve met people who love cinema, like the people at Panavision,” he says. “They continue to design and invent things. Along with the actors, the designers, the directors and the producers, they are essential partners. They’re always courteous and the equipment and their support are fantastic. And that allows me to focus on the process of making the film.”