I’ve always been drawn to places that are hard to get to, or get little visitors. The polar regions fit that criteria perhaps like nowhere else. The first time I visited Greenland, and saw the ship we were on pass icebergs as long as 5 city blocks - I was hooked. These unique places make you feel like you are on another planet. I think the cold is just something that comes with the experience. It certainly makes the filmmaking much more challenging - but it’s all part of the adventure.
Would you say filming in the Arctic is different to working in other climates, in regards to technique?
The cold certainly pushes your body and your equipment to the extreme. Our bodies are not designed to last very long in these temps, so of course your clothing has to be up to the job. This means you wear cumbersome tops and bottoms, gloves, and in the winter time like we were in - several layers of headgear and goggles. All this clothing limits your mobility - which makes pulling off dynamic camera moves a challenge. Then you have the affects on your equipment. I don’t think there is any camera manufacturer who rates their products to work in -20C to -30C! We had multiple camera failures whilst filming Ghosts of the Arctic. The liquid crystal displays either ghosted or blacked out, batteries would freeze up, and even parts of our cameras actually shattered. We found the best way to mitigate the damage was to tape hand warmers to much of the gear and keep things wrapped up until the moment you needed to use them.
When is the best time to shoot in the Arctic?
While most people travel there during the Summer months (when access to more of the coastline is possible via ship) we were very much drawn to film there in winter. The freezing temperatures provided us a landscape that was snow covered, and gave us access to the frozen fjords. This allowed us to embark on huge distance snowmobile runs to find and hopefully photograph the Polar Bear.
What drew you to the Polar Bear?
Polar Bears are considered a marine mammal which I find really interesting. They are magnificent and powerful animals - the World’s largest land predator. They are simply beautiful and incredible creatures and it’s so special to be able to encounter them in the wild. Some estimates put their numbers today to around 18,000 individuals. This is a smaller number than the remaining Rhinos in Africa, yet the Polar Bear gets less international attention. My hope is that the work we do can draw more attention to their plight.
Were you at all afraid of the Polar Bears while shooting in their habitat?
We had the help of an experienced local guide, who by law had to be armed during our journey. His experience meant that we never crossed the line in terms of getting too close. There is a safe “flight distance” required when working with any animal in the wild - which means the closest you can be and still retreat safely if the animal decides to rush at you. You see antelope in Africa employ the same survival instincts in Africa. So no, we were never scared, but hugely respectful.
Abraham, what triggered the move from the corporate world to the world of wildlife filmmaking?
I was fortunate to have a very special childhood - my parents traveled Australia with me and my three siblings for 3-years. I feel like I grew up in those formative years, exploring the wonder of the outback and coastlines of our great country. This definitely planted the seed in me to be curious and exploratory. Filmmaking is a craft like no other. It allows you to transport someone on the other side of the world to the experience you are having. It has always been my desire to make this a full-time career and over many years I have finally seen this dream become a reality.
What is, in your eyes, the best shot you have ever taken?
As a wildlife cinematographer, I am always searching for that moment when something truly remarkable occurs. Capturing rare animal behavior, with the right camera and lens, and in the right light is what any cameraman will tell you is the ultimate goal. I’ve been fortunate to have had several occasions when the stars align and everything comes together. One land-based moment was recently in Kenya when I filmed a cheetah engage in a 7-minute battle with a large male impala. Cheetah kills are often over in a blink of an eye, so when a protracted fight happens it’s pretty unusual. The sequence is out of this world. An underwater such moment happened for me last year whilst filming Humpbacks in Tonga - I dove down and swam through what is known as a “heat run”. This is where up to a dozen or more male whales will be chasing a female across the ocean. This particular heat run was made that much more spectacular as it occurred in very shallow water. It is moments like this, when you swim past and look into a whale's’ eye when the whole world seems to stop. It’s like nothing else!
Do you find it easier to work in a team, or work solo?
Filmmaking at its best is a collaborative venture. Sure it’s possible to shoot alone, but when you have the support and skills around you of a small team, the results can be far greater. We have been recently filming a series on the big cats in East Africa where we have 6 camera operators in the field at once. This enables me to have incredible coverage on more than one species of cat at one time. We will also utilize the power of drones, and other mobile cameras which all extra experience to operate. Like many pursuits in life, it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people.
Is a great photo dependent on the quality of the camera or is it the work of the photographer? Can the same photo be taken with any kind of camera?
Well they do say that a camera is only as good as the person holding it, but I think you want both. You want to acquire the skills to produce the best footage you can, whilst operating the highest quality recording device you can afford. I never stop buying new gear!
Abe, you adopted 4K quite early, what would you say is the biggest advantage of recording at higher resolutions?
Higher resolution shooting, whether that be 4K, 6K or even 8K offers a lot of flexibility to a filmmaker. Firstly you can record incredibly sharp images, for example 8K offers each frame at a 32 megapixel photograph resolution. This high resolution enables adjustment in post production, to be able to crop, adjust horizons and framing. This was not possible before this level of quality was available. But for me, a great camera is not all about resolution. Dynamic range - ability of the camera to resolve detail between the darkest and brightest part of the image, and bitrate - the amount of data used to capture the images, is perhaps even more important than resolution. At the end of the day, a filmmaker wants the most visually striking and true images recorded.
Have you both used 360, VR or drones in your work? If so, do you like working with them?
I have dabbled in 360 and VR, but I must say my love lies squarely on the power of drones! I was completely hooked as soon as I saw my first aerial footage taken by a friend using a home-built hexacopter. I since have learnt the skills to be able to fly them myself, and we have never looked back. Drones offer a freedom and visual that we could only dream of a few years ago.
Lastly, in your travels have you noticed climate change altering the environment?
Having traveled and filmed in over 40 countries, I have been in a position perhaps more than most to see the effects that climate change is having on our planet. From the droughts and famine ravaging East Africa, to the retreating glaciers in Greenland, the changes are evident in all corners. I am actually heading back to Greenland this September to document the current ice retreat, which is now being seen at rates much worse than scientist predicted. I feel very strongly now to use whatever visual skills I have to help shine a big light on what is happening. People care about what they know, and the first step in knowing - is seeing. We have one very special planet, with “one” being the operative word.
We used 4 different camera setups to shoot Ghosts of the Arctic, each of which having their own strengths we relied on.
- RED EPIC-W with Canon Cine-Servo 50-1000mm zoom lens for wildlife shots with Miller Arrow 40 100mm tripod. The bear sequences and reindeer were all captured with this setup.
- Canon C300 Mkii with Canon 18-80mm Cine for presenter shots. The on-board sound and hand held nature of the C300 was great for this.
- Sony A7Sii into an Atmost Shogun display on a PilotFly H2 for gimbal shots on the back of the snowmobile. Nimble and one-handed operation ability made this a great setup for this purpose.
- DJI Inspire 1 RAW drone. All aerials output through DaVinci resolve.
- PolarPro X5 Filter 6-Pack.
How did you protect your equipment from the brutal weather conditions?
The biggest issue was batteries losing their charge if exposed to the cold. Every morning we would tape hand warmers to all our batteries and we would load up our snow suit pockets with them close to our bodies to keep them warm. This made it even harder to move around on top of the layers of clothing we had on already.
The first day of the shoot was actually the coldest where the still air temp was -29C. We did experience ghosting (no pun intended) on the LCD screens.. and the drone failed to launch. Then the LCD on the C300 blacked out. Bitterly freezing. We soon realized we were going to need a lot more hand warmers and keep cameras wrapped until the very last minute. These temps are well beyond manufacturer's operating range! On the last day the 7 inch LCD stem on the EpicW shattered.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered?
The effects of the cold on our bodies was the toughest challenge. We needed our fingers to operate the touch screens yet we could only suffer for about 30 seconds without gloves before the frost bite started to set in. The cold worked its way onto my cheek which was super painful. As anyone knows shoots in the outdoors can be hard at the best of times - this was next level.