A motley crew of misfits hunt down an infamous 1980s arcade game that can supposedly control people’s minds. Ashens and the Polybius Heist is a British heist comedy filmed by cinematographer Christian Mario Löhr.
By Christian Mario Löhr and Riyad Barmania.
Ashens and the Polybius Heist is about a heist like no other, as a crew of misfits hunt down a 1980s arcade game. Can our no-confidence crew complete their mission before it’s too late? And what do lawnmowers have to do with it? The clock is ticking.
I’ve known the film’s writer and director Riyad Barmania for about fifteen years. We met at the APA International Film School in Sydney back in 2006. From there we developed a great friendship and I’ve worked with Barmania on various projects over the years, including shooting a documentary in Kenya (featured in Issue #42 of Australian Cinematographer Magazine), as well as being gaffer on his first feature film Ashens and the Quest for the Gamechild (2013).
Before we shot Ashens and the Polybius Heist, Barmania and I worked together on short horror film Another Game (2017) which was accepted into multiple film festivals worldwide and earned number of awards. Another Game was the first film I collaborated on as cinematographer alongside production designer Carys Beard, costume designer Keeley Scothern, makeup and hair designer Katie King, actor and producer Stuart Ashen, editor Linton Davies and technicolor colourist Alex Gascoigne. All of whom worked on Ashens and the Polybius Heist.
When I first read the script it immediately felt like a slick film; lots of locations, energy, movement and all with a large cast. It needed to be stylised while still serving the story, and all this on a very tight budget. As the film was a comedy we needed to strike a balance between humour and the feel of a traditional heist caper. We were ambitious in our approach and wanted to showcase what we could accomplish on a small budget and a tight schedule.
From the beginning, Barmania had a very clear vision for the film. He is very collaborative and we worked together closely to define our look for the film. I’m based in Germany and we shot the film in London, so we did most of our pre-production work remotely. We shared ideas, concepts and references either through email, Google Drive or by phone. We worked through colour palettes, discussed studio and location setups and generally found a creative and positive working relationship despite the distance.
A couple of months prior to filming I flew to London for a few days to scout locations, and then arrived ten days before shooting began to make some last minute adjustments. Beard did a great job as production designer and it was a great pleasure working with her. The speed at which she and her team built and dressed sets without sacrificing quality was amazing.
Barmania and I worked to define the look and we had a couple of films in particular that we used as visual references. The main one was the great Ocean’s Eleven (2001, direction and cinematography by Steven Soderbergh). We loved the use of colour and the way light was used to create real depth in the shots, as well as how it frames the ensemble cast. For some of the action sequences we referenced similar sequences in films such as Rififi (1955, cinematography by Philippe Agostini), Reservoir Dogs (1992, cinematography by Andrzej Sekuła) and Mission: Impossible (1996, cinematography by Stephen Burum ASC).
To help us achieve our vision we shot the film in 2.39:1 aspect ratio in ProRes HQ 422 4K, mostly at ISO 1280 at T2, in order to create as much depth, separation and texture as possible even in small locations.
We had lengthy discussions about what camera to use as there were a few factors to consider other than atheistic factors. Resolution now makes a difference in marketing terms, being able to say your film was shot in 4K, as well as the amount of data generated at that resolution was something we had to consider. Partly for these reasons we decided not to shoot on RED and ended up instead on my own ARRI Alexa SXT, which I purchased shortly before the shoot. The Alexa was perfect for this film. Its low noise floor, dynamic range and sensitivity allowed us to push the ISO without losing any image quality. This was important when considering our small lighting package and often having to work with available light at night. Over a quarter of the film was shot at night.
I’d originally wanted to shoot on Summilux-C lenses as I felt they would have been perfect for the look we were going for, but in the end we couldn’t source an affordable set. I decided to go with Cooke S4 Prime Lenses instead. These gave us a more creamy image than I originally wanted however in retrospect worked out really well. Sometimes things work out that way.
Camera tests were difficult due to time and budget constraints. The only proper test I managed to do was for my look-up tables (LUTs). After talking with the team at Technicolor, our colourist Alex Gascoigne sent me a few LUTs which we experimented with during our kit test. I picked two different LUTs that fitted our visual requirements best; one for present day and another for the film’s flashback sequences.
Most of the film was shot on location. It’s something that the director prefers and on a low-budget film can really add production value. The reality of low-budget filmmaking is that you mostly have very little time and are always on the move. As a result we had very little time for pre-lighting so we had to base the lighting on what each location had to offer. That was always the starting point from which I built the look. If we had windows in shot I based my exposure off that, using neutral density to get to my working aperture and then would light the rest of the set accordingly.
To create additional depth we brought in practicals, often with different colour balances which provided good motivation for the lighting. My go to lights on this film were the Astera Titan Tubes as well as a Skypanel and Aladdin BI-FLEX 1. The flexibility and versatility of the Titan Tubes are truly amazing. I love the light they produce and the ability to control every aspect from tint to colour balance to effects and the fact they run off batteries. You can stick them in a Kino Flo casing with Depron or hang a naked tube from the ceiling within minutes. Without them we would not have been able to achieve the results we got in the time we had.
In one warehouse location, where we shot about a quarter of the film, there were a lot of large windows which production design covered with newspaper. Some with a dark solid background that we put in front of the windows to be able to control how much light would be coming from which window and also to give the windows in shot more structure.
There were also several locations that we doubled up on and redressed or relit in order to serve separate scenes. There is even one scene towards the end of the film that we shot in our catering room, as we couldn’t find a decent location in time. It worked well and one of my favourite shots in the film is from that scene. It just goes to show the benefit of keeping an open mind.
The only proper studio day we had were interior scenes for our ‘heist van’ location, a high-tech mobile command centre. Beard and her team built us a beautiful set in next to no time. I believe they actually did the entire build on the day we started shooting. As the van was full of monitors, as well as a few practicals, I used this as my least controllable factor and lit accordingly. I wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be an atheistic break between the van and everything else we’d shot.
I had an amazing crew in both my camera and lighting department. My gaffer, Julius Dommer, who I’ve worked with numerous times before, really understood the look we were trying to achieve. He’s got a great energy on set, works well under pressure and has lot of ideas and suggestions. Dommer’s lighting team worked exceptionally hard to realise our vision.
Our focus puller Bradley Thomas and digital intermediate technician (DIT) Daniel Salter also did an amazing job running the camera department, helped by the very motivated camera trainee Clarice Henry. I hadn’t worked with them previously but felt immediately very at ease and trusted Thomas and Slater completely. This was the first time I had a camera trainee on a shoot and have to say it was a great experience, something I would love to do again.
In terms of operating the camera, I always try to operate myself as I feel more connected to the actors and to the story.
Gascoigne was involved from pre-production all the way through to post-production. He even came to visit us on set. That really made things easier once we went into the grade at Technicolor. Barmania, Gascoigne and myself were already on the same page the moment we started grading thanks to everybody’s involvement from the beginning and meant that the grading process was a collaborative effort between the three of us.
Skin tone matching became very important in the grade as there are some instances on set where I had to work with what was there and trust to be able to correct them in the grade. It’s not something I would normally do but sometimes there is no way around it. Apart from that it was mostly about matching contrast and colour, pushing more warmth into the mid-tones and amplifying the look we had created.
Overall, considering the time pressure and restrictions we were working under I am really very happy with the end result. There are scenes I would go back and light differently, or that I feel are perhaps slightly too flat, or where I could have been more adventurous in terms of lighting with stronger backlights, or keeping the protagonists more in silhouette. These are mostly night exterior scenes and the occasional corridor shot where my control over the overall lighting was limited. I would also have liked to have been able to move the camera more to emphasise emotions and help the overall flow and energy, but as always, you have to work with the time available.
Ashens and the Polybius Heist has a really nice, strong aesthetic, helping create a really exciting and fun film watch.
Christian Mario Löhr was raised in Tanzania and Kenya, and is currently based in Cologne, Germany. He earned an Advanced Diploma of Screen at APA International Film School Sydney, Australia.
Riyad Barmania is a producer and director, known for ‘The Proxy’ (2012), ‘Another Game’ (2017) and ‘Knighthood and Decoy’ (2012).