Today, we have a guest post from Abraham Joffe – whom we highlighted a while back in this post: “iPhone cinema – exposed!” (i find it funny that we posted that last year on the same date – Oct 31!) – he's sent us his latest effort – a film about “Iconic Images” (one of the most respected photographic safari companies in the world) which he shot solo in Namibia
Let's start with your background in nature/wildlife documentary video. How much of this kind of work have you done in the past? I believe you told me that shooting wildlife documentaries was your filmmaking passion. Have you shot anything like this commercially before? Do you have other clients in this area?
My passion for wildlife and the natural world developed as I was taken on a three year journey around Australia with my parents in my early teens. It was an upbringing that was really quite special.. my parents packed up the four kids and headed off on an adventure, living on the road. It was on this amazing adventure that I met Malcolm Douglas. He is really the original crocodile man of Australia. He was making films since the 1960’s throughout the top half of Australia. After we stayed at his crocodile farm in Broome in 1993, I spent the next several years pestering him with videos posted in the mail.. hoping to wear him down enough for a job. Finally in 2002, he called me while he was in Sydney and asked me to join him to shoot a new series in the Kimberlies, in Western Australia. That is where my wildlife filming began. After a few months living in Broome and some fantastic shooting experiences, I returned to finish my film studies in Sydney. The next gig was working for the next four years for another wildlife filmmaker called David Ireland. Our time together involved film expeditions to East Timor, the Solomon Islands and many parts of Australia. The series aired in Australia on Channel 9 and in the US on Discovery Channel HD. Many of these films had large underwater components – diving shipwrecks, swimming with sharks and catching pythons in rivers. Fantastic stuff. Most know me from my wedding and commercial work, but it is with wildlife where my number one passion lies.
What is Iconic Images and how did you come to work with them? Had you done any work with them before?
The idea that your mind can create things, is a strange but true phenomenon. I had only started to discuss my love for documentaries again when a friend at Canon Australia suggested I meet Denis Glennon. Denis has run Iconic images for the past several years taking avid photographers to some of the best places in Africa. I had him around the studio and we chatted for a good couple of hours. By the end of our meeting I think my genuine enthusiasm for an African film gig convinced him to take me on. Essentially a film would be the ideal way to show people his amazing photographic tours. Text and images just weren’t cutting it on the website.
What were the parameters of the project when they hired you? Was the plan for you to go along on the entire safari, do interviews in the down time, and basically shoot what the photogs shot?
Denis to his credit is a big believer in trusting people’s abilities once he chooses to employ them. He pretty much trusted my judgement on how to capture the trip and deliver his messages to the screen. What was great about actually experiencing the journey is that I was able to honestly portray it to screen. I chose to shoot the master interviews at the conclusion of the trip knowing full well that by that stage I would know everything I wanted to hear. We also shot over a dozen on location interviews along the way, usually specific to the current experience.
Was the client very clear on the message and intent of the video and how they wanted you to put it together to convey it?
Denis knew he wanted this film to get the “mission statement” of his photographic safari company across whilst also presenting the specific tour we were on – Namibia. I initially showed Denis a range of previous films, from past documentary work, to commercial and even weddings. It was the storytelling thought the wedding films actually that Denis was most impressed with. Its nice to see that weddings seem to have lost the stigma that they used to carry.
I love the variety of shots you got, from the wide landscape shots to the tight closeups of the animals and the shots from the hot air balloon. What were you shooting with out there, in terms of cameras and lenses?
Whenever you travel its always a battle between taking everything with you, to stripping back to the bare essentials. I HATE being on location and not having the exact lens or piece of kit I think I need at the time. This attitude doesn’t bare well for flying! But I still usually prefer to walk like a pack-mule and know that I have everything I want. I was hoping to take a C300 or possibly a 4K camera on this trip but in the end I realised that the Canon EOS 5D Mark III could do the job nicely. I was lucky enough to be lent a superb 300mm 2.8 L II from Canon Australia which proved to be fantastic. Its a razor sharp lens, optically almost perfection. But with the wildlife being so close, I found myself often reaching for the 70-200mm II or wider. Next trip I would love to take a high speed camera with me, something like the Sony Fs700 with its 240 FPS. That would be great for kills and waterhole work. Other lenses that I made good use of where the 24mm 1.4, 35mm 1.4 and the 50mm 1.2. Never leave home without them. (although the release of the new 24-70mm 2.8 II is looking like a serious alternative!). The other lens that I was very grateful to have brought with me was the 14mm 2.8. It proven the perfect nightscape/time-lapse lens and it features in the finished film piece. Other gear included a Miller Carbon fibre tripod and Manfrotto Monopod. I did take a compact slider but never once used it. The glidecam 4000 was extensively used. Audio included sennhesier lav kits for the interviews, and Rode Video Pro top mics. Recorder was the Roland R-26 (the brilliant new ZOOM H4n killer.) I captured as much ambient/atmos audio as I could at each location. I was very thankful to have gone to the trouble once we got to the edit.
What was it like shooting the people in the video? Were you able to communicate with them at all before you started shooting video of them?
I really didn’t have to direct anyone who was being filmed except for the interviews. I much prefer shooting at-hoc, it keeps it real. I guess the experience of shooting countless thousands of people at weddings over the years sharpens your ability to get the shot first without people knowing you are shooting. I find once you ask a person to do the simplest thing on camera it just ends up looking fake. You have to get it the first time, for real.
Was it just you on safari, or did you bring a crew?
It was very much a one-man-band trip. I wouldn’t recommend the single op method for such a big trip, I really had to work incredibly hard. Hopefully next time I can take a second operator and we can collaborate and share the shooting load. Unfortunately though my argument that I second person is really required might be hard to make seeing as I have now done one trip solo!
What was the deliverable from the project? Other clips besides the film that I saw?
The main deliverable was the Iconic Images Namibia film. I also promised to cut another beauty reel of the other footage captured on the journey. There also is interest to but a longer rough cut of all the footage to give to the clients who actually paid to be on this trip.
You mentioned future projects with Iconic. Would this be the same sort of work, but focusing on their offerings in different parts of the world?
It was really nice to be told even before any footage was seen that they were impressed with my work ethic and would like to invite me back. Iconic has trips to several other amazing destinations currently slated for 2013 and 2014. East Africa and Antarctica are what seem to be the top of the list at the moment to have captured. I’d be thrilled to go to either, its really a dream come true to be back shooting what I love.
Were there any particular challenges to shooting wildlife video in Africa that you hadn't encountered before?
It was the first time I had encountered land mammals that will actively seek out to kill you if you get out of the vehicle. Australia has venomous snakes and spiders, but nothing much that has the prey instinct built in. So that takes some time to get used to! But the great thing about these tours is that you are always surrounded by people who know what and how to treat the environment and the creatures in it. You would really have to do something dumb to get taken – like get out of the vehicle when there is a pride of lions nearby.
What about shooting wildlife and safari video vs. other types of location work you do, in terms of the challenges as a filmmaker?
Its a great challenge to film wildlife. They say don’t work with children or animals for a reason. They really have no regard for the best light, the best angle or when to take flight. A great wildlife cameraman is someone who has a great understanding of wildlife. If you get to know an animals behaviour, you can anticipate when they will move, be spooked or react. That’s when you get the magic moments. One rule I always remember when approaching an animal that may take off is to get a shot first from your first position. Then edge closer improving your shot. Film again. Then move closer still. An easy mistake is to go for the best position possible first but you are much more likely to miss the shot completely. Of course filming from hides is the best scenario. We were fortunate to shoot from an incredible hide in Botswana at a water hole. Over 50 elephants turned up and put on an amazing display of mud baths, interactions, baby play and some tussles. The film can be seen here:
Besides possible future safaris with Iconic Images, do you have any other projects of this sort in the works?
I am really hopeful that not only will this experience lead to more successful films for iconic but also open the doors for similar assignments. There is also talk of developing a television series. I am excited to see what 2013 brings.
What advice do you have for readers who come from the corporate or live event world that want to get into tourism, travel, or wildlife video as part of their businesses?
There is certainly no easy entry into any new field you want to break into. This is usually because people do like to pigeon hole your work into one area. If you dont currently have tourism/travel/animal showreels or past films to show, it can be hard to convince someone you are the right person for the job. But you can think creatively. Perhaps shoot some relevant material on your own time and combine this with your previous reels. It can take a leap to secure your first foot in the door, but once you do, it can only grow. Having great fundamentals to your work – striking visuals, tight editing, punchy grading and great storytelling will all help attract the sort of work you yearn for. I think following your passion is always the best move – people do react to seeing drive. I certainly dont forget sending all my little short films to Malcolm Douglas. He couldn’t ignore me forever. J
Is there anything else our readers should know about travel/tourism/wildlife filmmaking?
I think its an exciting time for this genre. Of course there is still the immensely powerful BBC and National Geographic productions, but I think there is definitely going to be a growing number of high quality series and films coming from small producers. The huge variety of affordable cameras now available (including the ever growing high speed, raw + 4K cine cams) means the tech is no longer only available to the big guns. A great idea, told and shot well will always stand a chance.
(cover photo credit: snap from the video)