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How to make the movie that feels real? How to make a war movie to make the audience have a feeling of total immersion? What is the style that delivers the most realistic picture of the events? Let’s have a look at The Hurt Locker which, in my opinion, answers all the above questions perfectly. Kathryn Bigelow, the director of the movie, together with the DP, Barry Ackroyd, used various techniques to take the audience to the war field. The director said in the behind the scenes material:

My intention was to put the audience into the soldiers shoes, into the humvee

When I was a young boy I decided to learn how to play the guitar. At some point, I was not able to listen to guitar songs the way I used to ever again. I started analyzing the technique, thinking about the timing, the rhythm, the key, etc. When I started playing in a band it got worse. I had to deconstruct all the instruments in my mind while listening to music – drums, bass, all the sound layers. Now I don’t even remember how it feels to listen to music in a regular way.

A similar thing happened to the movie watching experience when I got into filmmaking. I find myself constantly looking at the framing, composition, production design, lighting, lenses, camera movement… Luckily, there are movies that can make me forget about that and make me focus on the story entirely. Usually, these are the movies that have the biggest impact on me. The story is strong enough to keep my interest and refrain me from looking at the technical side of things.

I don’t exactly remember if that was the case with The Hurt Locker, but in the next few sections I will try to do exactly the opposite — ignore the story and focus on the technical aspects, especially from the perspective of achieving the pronounced style.

Documentary Style

The first obvious thing that we see in the movie is the use of a handheld camera with a lot of unstable moves, sudden pans, and jittery handling. We can also notice the extensive use of zooming in and out, quick focus changes.

In the pictures below we can see the change in the exposure. The camera operator most likely adjusted the aperture ring to lower the brightness.

All these techniques are rarely used in the narrative filmmaking and give the impression of the documentary shooting style. Feels almost like a material shot by a reporter in the war zone. And that was the goal.

From the behind the scenes video and the DVD commentary, we find out that 4 camera crews were shooting at the same time. Jeremy Renner mentions in the BTS video:

We got cameras everywhere, we call them ninja cameras, hiding all over the place, we never know where anything is, freaks me out sometimes, (…) oh, there’s camera, all the time.

All 4 cameras were covering the same line of action so they don’t break the 180-degree rule. This way footage from all the cameras could be used all the time during the editing phase. Ackroyd commented:

There has to be an integrity because the only way the editor gains is when you have the right shots. When I finally saw the film in Venice, Kathryn told me she could use every angle all the time.

Gear & technicalities

In order not to exceed the budget, the director with the DP agreed to use Super 16mm cameras as only then they were able to have 4 crews shooting simultaneously all the time. In fact, after 45 days of shooting they came back to the US with over 200 hours of material. They used Aaton cameras with Fuji stock.

In the behind the scenes picture above we can see that the DP used canon zoom lenses which allowed them to change the focal lengths quickly, and create the documentary feel easily. The slow-motion sequences were recorded using digital Phantom HD camera allowing them to capture up to 5000 frames per second.

In the frames below we can see how the film held the exposure changes. The difference between the bright spots and the shadows is quite big, but the stock keeps most of the information and can be used. Probably most of the digital cameras wouldn’t perform that nicely in such situation.

Ackroyd said that he shot 500 ASA film and underexposed it a bit. This is certainly one of the reasons behind the gritty look of the movie. The DP also said:

I know the grain is going to be so much but not too much.

The Look

The film was shot in Kuwait and Jordan within miles of the Iraqi border. This definitely gave the middle-east feel and authenticity.

The movie consists of a few scenes where the EOD team goes on a mission to defuse the bomb. Each scene takes place in a different location and it’s important to use an establishing shot to show the area where the action takes place:

All of the establishing shots are shot using wide-angle lens, and usually they are taken from a higher perspective (probably from the rooftop of the nearby building).

The whole movie starts with the Point Of View shot, and the technique is used throughout the movie where we go inside the suit or look through the rifle scope.

Almost every scene contains shots showing the observers — citizens looking through the windows, or from the roofs and observing the soldiers. This creates the feeling of a threat and uncertainty.

Another group of shots is the Point-of-view of the observers, usually showing obstructed view of the characters as can be seen above on the right side.

Intense moments and situations requiring suspense are oftentimes depicted using extreme close-ups. Memorable taxi-driver scene, where the camera is zoomed in showing the driver’s eye or the scene in the desert where the extreme close-up is used to show the falling bullet shell and, again, the eye to increase the tension and show the character’s magnified emotions.

Although the mentioned before slow-motion sequences make up only a small percentage of the overall movie their impact is powerful. It definitely creates the effect and shows the explosion in a great detail and visualizing the shock wave to make the audience “feel” something that normally cannot be shown, it also contrasts with the shots following the explosion that are cut in a chaotic way and in a very fast pace.

The film is also a good example of how to use multiple cameras creatively. Throughout the movie, we can see countless different angles and cameras placed in various places, like car trunks, inside a humvee, low angle perspectives and really tight spots thanks to the small size of the cameras. Shooting 4 cameras simultaneously also gave the camera men more freedom and they could use the angles that would be normally skipped in one camera setup due to time constraints and the necessity of doing another take.

Most of the movie is shot during the day and using natural light as much as possible. However, the last part of the movie is shot during the night and while the DP didn’t want to bring too many artificial lighting into the scenes, sometimes there was no other way. In such situations, the crew used Chinese lanterns and Kino Flo tubes.

In the frames above we can see some practicals with mixed color temperature. Some of them were probably the mentioned fluorescent tubes placed in the dark areas to up the exposure a bit.


I think it’s worth mentioning that out of 9 nominations the film actually won 6 oscars. While the movie is ripped apart by war veterans who point out many inaccuracies and lack of research I think that from the cinematography point of view it’s a great resource to study the used techniques and learn from them.

Behind The Scenes

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