Cinematographer Ashley Barron on shooting ‘One Less God’

The Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 shocked a nation, and the world. Inspired by these events and shot by award-winning cinematographer Ashley Barron, One Less God tackles the the tragedy head-on, picking up multiple awards along the way.

Interview by Heidi Tobin.

AC – So Ashley, how did you get this job and what attracted you to it, and why?

AB – The director, Lliam Worthington, is an old friend of my partner who at the time was helping in the script development stage of One Less God. He knew I was looking for a feature and suggested that I read the script. It was the first feature script I’d read that I was gripped by. It was a powerful page-turner. 

AC – The film has aspects of thriller, drama and tragedy. A story which ‘ebbs and flows’ in some respect. Was that difficult to shoot? 

AB – With nine to fifteen characters to follow, it’s very easy to lose the audience. So care had to be taken in the way we let each story arc unfold.

AC – Is story important to you when you take on the job?

AB – It’s a crucial part of the job. If you don’t know what you’re trying to say, how are you going to say it? An image that isn’t faithful to the story always feels wrong. Audiences are sensitive to anything that seems artifice or forced and it’s not enough for me that the film just ‘looks beautiful’. 

Cinematographer Ashley Barron on location shooting ‘One Less God’ – PHOTO Nelson Lau

AC – Did that mean that you had a mood or tone for each character, or was it simply ‘the tourists versus the terrorists’?

AB – A significant point of difference for the story is that the terrorists were treated as humanly as the victims. The story doesn’t tar anyone with the brush of villain or hero. Everyone is relatable, even as antagonists. In order for the audience to truly experience and understand the event, we had to take them on the journey of all of the characters. So it was important that each character was treated with respect and photographed based on their internal process as an individual.

AC – Was that a lot to juggle, nine to fifteen characters?

AB – Only when you had them plus crew and gear in one small hotel suite!

AC – Would you make notes for each character, so you’re constantly reminding yourself as to the approach each scene?

AB – I created a ‘visual progression bible’ after breaking down the script and characters with the Director. Each character had an arc; emotional, story, et cetera. Each scene needed to change the characters in some way. This all then fed into the overall arc of the film. I brought this on an iPad to set each day so my collaborators could review at the beginning of every day. 

No plan survives contact with the realities of filmmaking, of course, but when each new challenge comes it’s as well to have a shared understanding to build from.

A scene from the film ‘One Less God’ – DOP Ashley Barron

AC – That’s interesting. Is that scheduled in pre-production, and do you do this in collaboration with the director?

AB – I feel strongly that a film is made in pre-production. On set you’re executing the plan; open to new ideas and adapting to the day, but guided by your blueprint and formed in collaboration with a director, production designer, and so forth.

I start with listening to a director’s point of view on the story, what drew them to it, their ideas on the overall script. I pose questions as we break down the script’s story and emotion. I review their references. 

I have ideas the moment I read a script but I tend to hold back until I’ve developed an understanding of what a director is looking to achieve and why. Then we look at references, and I start to suggest an approach and from there we build together.  

Worthington had been with One Less God for a long time before I became attached so he had a very deep understanding of the script’s world.

AC  – It’s a fairly low budget film?

AB – Yes. Worthington invested in camera and lighting gear, and we received support from ACS sponsors Digital Logic in Seven Hills.

AC – When you’re breaking down each scene, were there some you were adamant you had to have the budget to do to tell the story, versus others where you were like willing to compromise?

AB – I like to start with figuring out what the emotional crux of each scene is. Then I explore the most efficient ways to show it, while being true to it. It’s always a balancing act of picking your battles between each scene, taking from one so you can feed the other whilst making sure that all cast and crew are looked after as well.

Director Lliam Worthington with Cinematographer Ashely Barron, on location filming ‘One Less God’ – PHOTO Nelson Lau

AC – How many different locations did you film?

AB – We shot over ten locations within Katoomba, Rockdale and Callan Park in New South Wales.

AC – You said the production purchased lights. What lighting did you use and did you use the same lighting kit for each of those locations, in different ways?

AB – Worthington had purchased some Fresnels from the United States and we rented some small LEDs to create ambience later in the shoot. The primary light source that we used were China balls. I enjoy the quality of light they produce, and found them most versatile when filming with very reduced crew and gear within confined spaces and many actors.

I was very fortunate that our sound recordist, Ben Yeadon, is a former electrician who wired up a number of pendants for us to use within the China Balls. Unlike in the United States, where you can you can buy them ready-made with which you pair a bulb.

It was a fun challenge to figure out how to light each location using what our locations and resources offered. We didn’t have the budget for generators or HMIs.

AC – How much cutting and masking did you use to control your lighting? 

AC – We barely had any cutters or C-stands, so I had to get creative as much as I could. There’s certainly a challenge in lighting nine people of different skin tones in a yellow room with one light, one c-stand and a cutter. Our Colourist, Jamie Hediger at Spectrum Films, saved us here. There were many a vignette and power window.

I’m a strong believer in capturing everything in camera, however when you don’t have the resources for this it’s imperative that as cinematographer you are aware of what is possible and available to you in post-production, and fight for that to be in place. 

Nathan Kaye as Oz and Joseph Mahler Taylor as Sean in ‘One Less God’ – DOP Ashley Barron

AC – There are extensive sets of resources available during post-production. What was the post-production pathway for One Less God?

AB – Worthington and one of our co-producers, Joel Hagen, edited the film on Adobe Premiere. Worthington conducted much of the visual effects and co-ordinated the rest. It was then brought to Post-Production Supervisor Catherine Armstrong who brought together Online Editor James Cowie and the team at Spectrum Films. They were all integral in finishing the film.

AC – You shot One Less God with a RED? 

AB – Yes, a RED Scarlet that our Director invested in. We rented an Epic on the few occasions that we wanted to shoot high speed. I’m a believer in horses for courses when it comes to camera formats and the RED’s form factor alone made it a strong fit for this project.

AC – What glass did you use?

AB – Vintage Zeiss Contax primes and a Tokina zoom. 

Behind-the-scenes on ‘One Less God’ – PHOTO Nelson Lau

AC – Who was your Focus Puller?

AB – Our schedule rendered a malleable camera team which included the outstanding talent of Dale Bremner, Edgar Deluen, Joel Eames, Charles Morri, and Lizz Vernon to name a few. I do love my team! It wasn’t for the faint of heart; no focus marks, predominantly shot on a MoVi, improvising actors. 

AC – Single-take shots are used for key scenes in One Less God. What preparation did you put into these?

AB – We plotted a few of these shots in pre-production, drawing overheads et cetera. After seeing the dynamic that came from covering scenes this way, however, we added more  of these shots during production. This improves your ability to work on the fly.

When you combine something as intensive and as precise as a single-take scene, everything else has to play out just as precisely. It is a credit to the team that we were able to pull it off, allowing us to create some very powerful moments in the film.

AC  – Did you run rehearsals for the ‘oners’?

AB – Yes, you have to. Especially when you have at least nine actors in one space. The logistics of working around crew alone was rehearsal enough!

A scene from the film ‘One Less God’ – DOP Ashley Barron

AC – Why is eye-light so important to you?

AB – For a story that hinges on characters, you want to have access to them, and the eyes are where it all happens. I think eye-light is a huge character development tool. It says a lot about where the character is psychologically. The audience feels something when there’s a glint in the eye or not, and the quality and shape of said glint.

AC – Regarding the scenes then, in One Less God, between multiple characters in a single room… you can see they’re all struggling with choices and decisions. Would the eye-lights change as a character’s opinion may not have been as welcomed as another?

AB – The eye light would change based on what we want the audience to know and feel about that character’s internal experience, and it’s relation to the scene. 

AC – What other challenges did you come across during filming?

AB – The lack of crew, particularly toward the tail-end of the shoot where availability became a lot more limited. A cinematographer is only as good as their crew.

AC – The Director, Lliam Worthington, has said of working with you: [reading]Barron has the sensibility to understand what you’re trying to emotionally elicit, the skill to help translate and execute it, and the will to not give up before that happens. Especially in the face of limited resources the burden that puts on independent films.” If the Director asked you to do another independent film with him, would you?

AB – Absolutely. Lliam has a real sensitivity to the art of storytelling, and his passion and drive are infectious.

Cinematographer Ashley Barron on location shooting ‘One Less God’ – PHOTO Nelson Lau

AC – What was your pathway of getting to a point in your career where you could shoot your first feature film? Why did you feel ready to take that on?

AB – I attended the American Film Institute (AFI) Conservatory, Cinematography discipline. Storytelling through Cinematography was the primary focus. I worked on a number of films with different directors during my time there and took what I learned to the films I shot after. I was lucky enough to get time on set with cinematographers like Dion Beebe ACS ASC and Mandy Walker ACS ASC. All of this helped build not only my ability but also my artistic voice.  

In terms of storytelling, it’s the same on a feature as a short. I pride myself on being able to tell a story visually and to understand how to translate emotion into an image. 

AC – Dion Beebe ACS ASC and Mandy Walker ACS ASC are cinematographers with a lot of diverse and interesting experience. What did you learn from working with them on set?

AB – Both command a set with such zen and a wonderful attitude. Their ability to light a scene for story is, of course, undeniable.

AC – If you could go back in time and talk to your seventeen-year-old self, what might you say?

AB – I think I’d like my seventeen-year-old self to talk to me now! I was so fearless. I would remind myself to keep being that fearless.

Ashley Barron is an international multi award-winning cinematographer. ‘One Less God’ became the first film to be awarded both the Grand Jury and Industry Choice Prizes at the 2017 Dances with Films Festival, followed by receiving Best Film at the Byron Bay International Film Festival.

Heidi Tobin is the Associate Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine, and Marketing Manager for Videocraft Australia.

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