Abraham Joffe offered exquisite images of animals and vistas and him against a sand dune. But I think this picture, brutally cropped to our standardised shape, says something about his sense of joy.
The Cinematographer of the Year Award for 2017, the key honour from the Australian Cinematographers Society, went to Abraham Joffe. He is in extraordinary company since last year’s winner was John Seale, fresh off Fury Road.
His project, Tales by Light, is a 12 episode series of half hour films, each about a different wildlife filmmaker or team. This award cites Darren Jew: Submerged. It was shot in association with Canon and broadcast in 2015 by National Geographic and seems to be on Netflix now. He also picked up an Award for Distinction in the wildlife and nature category, and a Gold Tripod for documentary, with the Distinction in that category going to Dan Jackson for In the Shadow of the Hill.
“Its such an amazing honour,’ said Joffe. ‘I look at the list of winners and I feel like a bit of a fraud. I’ve crashed a feature DP party. I was happy with the documentary Gold Tripod and then this happened.’
As national president Ron Johanson OAM ACS said, ‘We’ve done this before. David Parer out of the ABC won this three times. Peter De Vries won for a documentary on rats in New York City. The main reason is the incredibly high standard of Abe’s work.
‘We put it against all the other entries as we do, and his work is mind-boggling. It is not the importance of the work but the quality of the cinematography.’
Joffe had an adventurous childhood, and spent three years travelling in a caravan with his parents. He was just twelve when he started diving, which led naturally to cinematography. He has this lovely story on Facebook about his early fascination with wildlife:
‘In 1993 I met naturalist David Fleay – the first man to breed platypus in captivity, among many firsts. He also had the incredible distinction of having been bitten on the backside by that last thylacine – whilst working in its cage. Meeting Mr Fleay, and hearing him discuss his work with the last thylacine – was certainly part of what first sparked my interest in the natural world.’
Joffe trained modestly at North Sydney TAFE. ‘Straight out of tech I went to work for Michael Douglas, my idol. And then to David Ireland on diving. It one hundred percent fuelled me creatively, but it was tough to make a living’. He started his Sydney production house Untitled Films in 2000, which is thriving partly on wedding videos and corporate work for Canon, working partly with people from TAFE courses.
However, his wildlife work is the centre of his professional existence, and he has slowly moved beyond working for hire to initiating his own projects. ‘My work in the last few years has been self-generated from scratch. You make your own work and get nothing on a platter.’
He is closely connected with Canon and is part of its Masters promotional system, which leads to this video. He loves the glass and is having an absolutely excellent transplendent life. As he said, ‘you’ve only got one life.’
His own work has mostly been in a team of three, with a lot of travelling. ‘Everyone is multiskilled and wears a lot of hats. We can all shoot and direct and drone and run sound so we can rotate between roles when needed.
‘It is certainly very physical. You have to love wildlife and if you do you can go all day. Someone from a studio background doesn’t have that buzz and they can’t always get through the day.’
At least the demands of moving images demands a group. Most of the people he documented for the series ‘were quite solitary. Most of them had never had a camera crew following them around. Very few people had experience in front of a camera.’ Those that did, however, were very comfortable with the process.
He is leading an extraordinary life. He has walked the Kalahari Desert with the Masai, and filmed divers giving tiger sharks a nose rub, and faced the despair that comes from filming the ruins of a natural world violated by desperate people. ‘It mostly seems to be bad news, but I love that quote, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” I am so happy when I meet a group of people who are really getting out there and hitting goals and doing amazing work.
‘You have to have hope and you can’t give up.’
At the end of 2016 he started Awestore, which uses the skills of a wildlife photographer to provide intense encounters to wildlife around the world for tourists. He sees it partly as a way to give back to the guides and fixers who are so valuable and generous to him on location.
What is he looking for when he works with new people? ‘Attitude. Consistently wanting to improve, and I think that is true of the other great cinematographers I have met. They are always adding to their craft, hungry to ask questions, not sitting back on their laurels but learning new skills and techniques.’
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