Australian cinematographer and f-stop ICON Ambassador, Abraham Joffe, ACS has achieved international acclaim for his masterful imagery and storytelling and in 2017 was named Australian Cinematographer of the Year by the Australian Cinematographers Society. He is a family man and enjoys being a dad at home. His biggest challenge is finding the right work/life balance. He considers himself lucky to be able to do the work he does.
Words by Abraham Joffe, ACS
Images by Abraham Joffe, ACS, Alex Ames, and Dom West
The goal of this trip was to travel to South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic Ocean with photographer David Yarrow to film the stark beauty of the landscape and document David’s creative process and work. Also, on this trip were fellow cinematographer Dom West, producer Louis Cooper Robinson, and David’s assistant Alex Ames.
There are few places left in the world where you can find yourself immersed in such a spectacle of nature. The staggering sight of hundreds of thousands of penguins and seals, encircled by a cathedral of mountain peaks and hanging glaciers would leave even the most jaded person in total awe. As David says in the film, you can really become quickly dumb-struck by the sensory overload and it can be hard to know where to start. What made it even more special is that we had this place all to ourselves for several days.
For our team, the aerials we documented were particularly rewarding. We went through the very involved process of gaining official permission to conduct drone operations on South Georgia's beaches. The importance of not affecting these areas is understandable, since they are home to sensitive breeding rookeries. It was of the utmost importance that we had no impact. This extremely rare access gifted us the most powerful drone footage we've ever captured, and I think added tremendously to the final film.
David was there with a big challenge, to capture singular frames that would somehow do justice to what we were witnessing. In some ways, our task as filmmakers seemed less daunting. As the medium of film is almost always a visual assembly, we could gather numerous shots to bring the story of David's creative process to life. What I appreciated most about filming David, was his willingness to be vulnerable. As an artist, he is his harshest critic and is very willing to accept when he hasn't managed to get the job done. This self-deprecation, paired with an enormous drive for perfection, I would argue, are two of his most powerful attributes as a world-class creative.
I think it’s encouraging for younger image makers to know that even the heavyweight veterans have their bad days, miss shots, and flat out screw up. But it’s the doggedness to keep striving, to keep grinding, that separates the good from the great.
As David says in the piece, the beaches of South Georgia are so incredibly breathtaking that it is really hard to know where to start shooting. Tens of thousands of penguins everywhere you look is a sight to behold! Not to mention the challenges of the bitter cold, roaring winds, and of wading through deep ponds of seal and penguin poo. And the weather can change in an instant. But, of course, these challenging conditions all transfer to the film, so it’s worth it.
The attitude and experience of a great team around you is how you overcome challenges. We were supported by an incredible crew on board our vessel, the Hans Explorer. They got us safely ashore and kept us very well fed and rested back on ship. On the beaches, we had veteran Antarctic guide Matt Brennan, who more than once kept us out of the jaws of an elephant seal.
I have been fortunate enough to visit South Georgia more than once. But this time was very different. We had these unrivalled locations all to ourselves. With seven billion people on the planet, we felt incredibly lucky to be there without others. It’s very hard to find places today without other people. I encourage anyone with a sense of adventure to visit the Antarctic region at least one time.
For our team, any shoot begins long before we set off. Apart from the obvious logistical planning, the packing of equipment is a long and detailed process. Choosing the right tools for the job and enough backup equipment to ensure you keep shooting is critical. Of course, you can’t take everything, so hard choices need to be made. Extensive lists are key to this process. We also refer to previous shoots. Knowing what we took the last time we shot in a similar location is helpful. Also reviewing what might have failed the last time, and what we didn’t take enough of, e.g., hand warmers for batteries.
The polar regions are extreme, so it’s tough on the gear. Luckily, for this shoot we got everything there and back in one piece. I would be remiss if I did not to mention the f-stop bags we use on trips like this. They are, of course, my number one choice. They are tough, comfortable, and water resistant. We also find additional ICUs are ideal for packing into the suitcases. They are great for taking all the chargers, radios, extra lenses, etc. They really keep things organised and well protected.
I’d like to think I am strong in combining shooting styles when it comes to documentary filmmaking. Of course, I love the big dramatic shots that establish the location – often with drones – but also I know when to shoot gritty and real when the scene calls for it. It’s a delicate balance to stick to your story and adapt to what’s happening in front of you. If you chase the cinematic all the time, I feel your story capture can suffer. It also helps to learn how to shoot in various ways – aerials, underwater, etc. These skills have come in very handy for the type of varied work we do.
I’m blessed to have great variety in the stories we work on and locations we go to. We have produced natural history shows, such as Big Cat Tales, and human-interest stories, such as Tales by Light. I love the mix of human and nature subjects. It keeps our year packed full of different challenges. Series have been our focus for the past few years, but I am very keen to look into documentary features. Having more time and a bigger budget to follow one story is a big dream for all of us.
You can find more of Abraham’s work at www.untitledfilmworks.com.au. His ongoing series Tales by Light can be seen on NETFLIX and Big Cat Tales can be watched on ANIMAL PLANET.
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Everywhere but Europe