Milli Award-winning Abraham Joffe follows the world’s best photographers, from around the world in Tales by Light, as they push the limits of their craft.
Interview by Corey Hague.
Yes, there is plenty of amazing content to indulge yourself and enjoy on Netflix, but there is simply no excuse for not having watched Tales by Light.
Now in its second season, the show is a collaboration between the National Geographic, Canon and Netflix. Tales by Light goes behind-the-scenes with master photographers as they travel the world searching to capture the most memorable images. Shot in glorious 4K, there are plenty of things to marvel at while watching the show, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about the project is that it was made by a tiny crew of Australians.
Director and Cinematographer Abraham Joffe along with fellow shooters Dominic West, Blake Castle and Toby de Jong have delivered a product that demonstrates what can happen when a team has a clear vision and the willingness to get their hands dirty (or at least swim with sharks). After recently winning the prestigious Milli Award for ‘Australian Cinematographer of the Year’ for his work on the series, we caught up with Joffe between shoots to discuss his work on the show.
AC – Where did the idea for Tales by Light come from?
AJ – We first produced some content for Canon, about four years ago. One of the very first projects was to profile some photographers for Canon. Darren Jew was one of the first. The idea originally was just to interview Darren and showcase some of his photography. I said ‘better than that, why don’t we go to Tonga? For the same budget I’ll go over to Tonga and spend eight or nine days with him in the water, filming him photographing whales’. The piece of content that we created was one of the most successful short pieces Canon ever had because it was inspirational. How can you go wrong with whales?
It was off the back of that when I sat down with Jason McLean from Canon Australia. I pitched him the concept that if we extrapolate out from the success of that small piece of content and used the feedback that we got about people loving seeing things shot in the field, along with the passion of the photographer; what if we made that a series? He very quickly gave it the green light, which was amazing. It was a bit of a leap of faith by him in our abilities as well, because we hadn’t produced a series at the point, although I’d worked on other projects and other series in the past.
AC – How closely did you work with Canon on the series?
AJ – Canon was fantastic about letting us produce the series we wanted. It wasn’t about the gear at all, they were very strong on that. The concept was to profile Canon photographers, but to focus on their journeys. It’s all about exploring the motivation behind their work. So that purity was really nice.
Each episode documents the field work of an individual photographer and it was imperative to both Canon and I that we kept it authentic. The last thing we wanted was an artificial project that we ‘dropped’ a photographer into. The subject matter has been very diverse; from wildlife, underwater, culture and extreme sports. I believe this is the key reason people of all walks of life have enjoyed the series, not just photography enthusiasts.
AC – Unless you were a ‘camera nerd’, I doubt the audience would even notice what the photographers were shooting on. You don’t make a big deal of it.
AJ – That is what we wanted. If people don’t notice at all that’s good. The fact that Netflix took the series says it all, because they don’t run branded content, they only run legitimate documentaries. It may have had funding from an organisation, but it’s not heavily branded. It’s really about inspiring people.
AC – What has feedback from the series been like?
AJ – The feedback online has been amazing. I don’t know exactly how many are watching, but I jump on twitter, and every couple of minutes there is a tweet about the series from somewhere around the world. So that tells me people are watching in big numbers. The best feedback we receive is when young people say that it has inspired them to pursue a career in photography, filmmaking or conservation. We cant ask for more than that!
AC – They came back for a second series, so that’s a good sign. How challenging did you find it to make ‘real life’ look so good on the screen? The 4K capture really looks great.
AJ – Everyone involved in Tales by Light is a very visual person. We are filming photographers and the crew is there to tell a story visually. So we wanted to produce cinematic work with appealing visuals, and I think everyone was striving towards a common goal. We never wanted to create ‘filler television’, we wanted every minute in the show to mean something. So there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make it.
For example with the Steven DuPont episode, we spent about 9 days in Bangladesh, trying to get into the shipping yards to film the idea of dying industry, but we just couldn’t quite get the story working, so we had to walk away from it.
AC – Visual stories don’t always manage to make for compelling narratives. How did you approach that?
AJ – For the second series, we tried to make it a little grittier, so there was a lot more fly-on-the-wall coverage which tends to be less ‘cinematic’. In between that when we were doing establishing shots of locations or spaces, we would enjoy the chance to shoot cinematically.
When dealing with reality, we went back to rolling and covering the scene. That way you’re getting great visuals but more importantly, you’re getting the story. If you don’t have a story, no one cares. You can watch a beautifully shot film, but if it has no story you forget it. You don’t want to make forgettable content. The key to it all really is having the right expert photographer, which we had in every case whether we were diving with sharks or dealing with native tribespeople.
AC – What is more difficult; dealing with people or sharks?
AJ – Good question. Stephen DuPont is really very good about knowing how to deal with people, and he’s been through chaotic situations so he is good at approaching that. He’s been through war zones and genocides.
Wherever we go, we rely heavily on great fixers and good people on the ground. We had someone in Varanasi, who had really good access to the Ghats and knew the people who ran the Ghats. So through him we got all the right permissions, we even had a policeman with us on the scene. We went through all the right channels. We also use common sense and know when to shoot and when not to shoot. The vibe of the crew was that we had good intentions, so I think people recognised that we were being respectful and had good intentions. People were really open to letting us film.
AC – You mention common sense while shooting, but not every crew has it…
AJ – Even if you don’t speak the language, having eye contact with people is really important. Acknowledging people’s presence and just using body language, that’s a huge part of it. It’s not always shooting straight away, coming in and looking at people and giving them a nod. There were a couple of people who didn’t want us to film and we respected that. And you can sacrifice a good shot and a good position for a more respectful position. That way you’ll keep shooting, rather than pushing in and getting in the way.
AC – It’s a story for us, but it’s a life for them…
AJ – It’s like DuPont says in his episode, “You don’t take photographs, you’re given them.”
That’s a nice way to think about it. We want to leave a place better for the next crew. The worst thing is going in and getting away with it, shoving cameras into people’s faces and getting the shot and leaving, giving crews a bad name. The next people coming through will have a hard time, or they might not even be able to get in. I think it should be a common code for film crews.
AC – How many are in your crew?
AJ – Three including myself, sometimes we’d have four but no more than that. We’ve even done some shoots where there’s only two of us. I like to travel with two. The guys I travel with are Dominic West and Blake Castle, they both shoot, they can both run audio, they can both run drones, and we can all scuba dive. It’s good to have all those skills, so then we can mix up what we do.
In Varanasi, West and Castle alternated between sound and second camera, so everyone gets a go. I tend to shoot all the time, but it’s good. It keeps us small. Travelling with three people, excluding talent, also means we can all fit in one vehicle, depending on the luggage. It’s a challenge, but I think some of the places we shot in, it wouldn’t be easy with more people. There’s also the cost factor, but blending in is important. If you arrived in Varanasi with seven people it would be hard to blend in.
I think we enjoy the challenge, but it would be nice to travel with a full-time producer. I’ve got a full time producer back in Sydney, Louis Cooper-Robinson, and to travel with him would take some of the pressure off me running the logistics. Not only are you shooting sunrise to sunset, you’re also trying to organise bottles of water, meals, accommodations and flight changes. So having someone come along would take pressure off, but we’ve managed to date.
AC – Is it an exciting change from the idea of a hundred people and a truck, especially for non-fiction?
AJ – The speed that you can travel when you’ve got a small crew is great. The logistics of a large crew is tricky. If things aren’t working out, we can just jump in a car. By having a smaller outfit it forces you to make decisions about gear, you always want to take everything. You do need to have redundancy, but how much do you take? You have to decide what’s likely to fail, so there’s a lot of prepping before you go.
AC – And lots of battery charging…
AJ – Yeah! I just got back from the Arctic. I love the variety of the locations; we’ve shot on all seven continents now, from tropical to underwater to Antarctica to deserts. But it’s very tough on the gear. When we get back, everything has to be stripped down and we often need to send items back for repair.
AC – Watching photographers struggle with their gear in the show, were you behind the camera dealing with even more equipment than they had?
AJ – I used to think the same thing while watching Bear Grylls. He would complain about climbing up a mountain, and I would think… what about the camera operator! You carry so much gear, we’ve all got backpacks. But we will get locals to help wherever we can, local porters and local assistants. Even just for security; having all the extra lenses, where do you put them down? So we’d have locals standing by the gear.
I remember shooting gorillas in Uganda, you’d have to walk through the jungle for hours, so we had local porters come and help with gear. Diving trips aren’t so bad, once you get everything on the boat you’ve got a floating studio. I try to pick the path of least resistance wherever we go, you don’t want to wear yourself out.
AC – How lean can a kit really be?
AJ – Someone is running a boom with a compact audio recorder and a hand boom, just to be inconspicuous. Then I guess camera in hand, backpack with lenses and batteries, some lens pouches. We use a brushless gimbal, so the second shooter will be set up on that. If you’ve got a vehicle where you can store stuff, you try and go out with the least amount as possible, maybe a tripod.
I like to use a lot of movement, so there’s a lot of movement even if it’s just a drone. I love drone shots that don’t appear to be drone shots, low to the ground stuff that almost look like a jib. So we’d use the Ronin, plus handheld stuff. Underwater you become the jib, the dolly. That’s why I love shooting underwater, it’s freedom.
AC – What are you using when you shoot underwater?
AJ – I’m a big fan of Nauticam housings, which are beautifully built. We’ve used a variety of different cameras but one thing remains consistent… top quality lenses and optical glass ports. A lot of our work has been with big marine animals; whales, orcas. Wides like the Canon 16-35mm 2.8 III and the 11-24 f4 lenses-of-choice. The Bahamas was an amazing shoot because the action came to us. The tiger sharks would just cruise in. But we were chasing whales with Darren Jew in Tonga, and you’re pushing and swimming hard. You don’t want a big housing because they’ve got an incredible amount of drag. We want to get great shots, but at the same time we can’t get in the way of the photographers, that’s what the whole show is about. Although I’ve got a great collection of shots where I’m in the way with an animal.
AC – How do you approach being in new locations so often?
AJ – It always starts with the environment, so I always start wide because you want to establish where you are. Before you enter the scene and disturb it, or become a part of it. So covering a scene is really important. If you watch the show, some of the key shots are the wide shots. People get drawn towards tight telephoto lenses, everything looks great and it’s alluring to start shooting tight.
My first inspiration comes from National Geographic magazines. If you look at the photos, there are very few tight shots, they’re often wide. So naturally lit, wide shots that help you show the relationship between the people and the environment. That’s the top of my mind, establish the scene. If you shoot too much tight, you have no reference. That’s my advice I give to people; you want to cover everything just don’t forget the wide.
AC – How did you evolve between series one and two?
AJ – You’re always trying to improve, you want to do the next project better, so we tried to review and look at other inspiration. There’s so much great photography and cinematography out there. Sometimes getting gear can drive you, but I think we’re so spoilt for gear now. Even if they stopped making things, you could probably go out and shoot forever with what is available today.
One big, positive change was increasing the episode length. This allowed us the time needed to expand on the detail we could bring to the view on each journey. Each episode of the new series hones its focus on one central theme. I am drawn to people who use their craft to shine a light on important causes that need attention. Whether it be the Scotts’ bringing their philosophy of ‘Sacred Nature’ to the screen, Stephen Dupont’s rediscovery of the theme of death, or Eric Cheng’s mission to demystify misunderstood marine predators, each have a purpose for their photography. These individual goals formed a strong guiding light for each production.
AC – How did you stay on top of all the data while travelling?
AJ – Portable hard drives have gotten bigger, so 4 terabyte drives are a good friend, we used up a lot of those. We try and do calculations before we head off for a shoot. We do double backups and travel with the drives separately. The drives become more valuable than the cameras if there is data on them. I always laugh when photographers complain about having data to back up. Some days we’d shoot 2 terabytes a day, so it adds up pretty quick. And sometimes you have to transcode, like with the DJI Inspire, that can take hours. So you’ve got to keep on top of it, you can’t miss a session.
Because we were chasing magic light a lot of the time, sometimes we’d take a break in the middle of the day and backup during lunch. But it means you’re never stopping. You’re cleaning gear, you’re cleaning sensors, you’re backing up, verifying data, keeping notes which are really helpful for later on. So yeah, it’s full on. But there’s nothing more satisfying than having heaps of data to dump, and all your batteries are all flat. That’s a nice problem. Sitting back with a beer, that’s a great feeling, it means you’ve had a good day.
The hardest thing is the mental exhaustion, your mind never stops until you get on a plane to go home. And even then you’re probably planning the next shoot. But I’m not complaining as I feel like I’ve got the best job in the world. I love it.
AC – Were the photographers who were featured happy with the show?
AJ – Yes, now that we have actually worked with some great people, it hopefully opens up some more doors. I just met David Yarrow in the Masai Mara; he’s one of the most successful photographers in the world at the moment and he reached out to us, so that’s brilliant.
We wanted it to be authentic and a bit timeless, and that’s why it’s so important the stories come from the photographers. You want them to lead you through the journey. That’s why when we sat down with Stephen DuPont he decided to go to locations he’d never been to. I think half of it is choosing the people you work with, the locations and the time of year. If you get all that right, you’ve got all the ingredients on the table and you can cook a lovely dish. But it’s nice to be surprised when you get to places and other things happen.
AC – And you’re ready for anything…
AJ – That’s the hope!
Corey Hague is a digital content creator working freelance after half a decade with the ABC. He is a valued and ongoing contributor with Australian Cinematographer Magazine.