"Ghosts of the Arctic was the type of passion project that my boyhood dreams were made of," said Abraham Joffe, director of the recent Vimeo Staff Pick. But it was a hard-won battle.
Together with cinematographer Dom West and photographer Joshua Holko of United Film Works, Joffe trekked over 120 miles per day in the Arctic region of Svalbard to capture a glimpse of the elusive polar bear. They spent 16-hour days in the frozen tundras, braving -30º and enduring frostbite. Often, their equipment failed; they suffered the death of at least two cameras and had to find creative solutions to keep the others alive and running.
"As anyone who shoots in the outdoors knows, it can be hard even at the best of times. This was next-level."
"In spite of the conditions, it was one of the most rewarding shoots we have all been involved in," Joffe told No Film School. "I’ve always been drawn to places that are hard to get to. The polar regions fit those criteria like nowhere else."
Watch Joffe's film below and read on to learn about the equipment he brought with him to the far ends of the earth, how he and his team managed to get some of their favorite shots, and more.
No Film School: Which gear did you use?
Abraham Joffe: We used four different camera setups to shoot Ghosts of the Arctic, each having their own strengths:
- RED EPIC-W with Canon 50-1000 Cine servo zoom for wildlife shots with Miller Arrow 40 100mm tripod. The bear sequences and reindeer were all captured with this setup.
- Canon C300Mkii with Canon 18-80mm Cine for presenter shots. The onboard sound and hand held nature of the C300 were great for this.
- Sony A7Sii into ATOMOS Shogun on a PilotFly H2 for gimbal shots on the back of the snow mobile. 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.
"We rolled one of our snowmobile trailers and crushed the DJI Inspire."
NFS: How did you protect your gear from the harsh weather conditions?
Joffe: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—the still air temp was -29C. It was bitterly freezing. We soon realized we were going to need a lot more hand warmers. 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. These temperatures are well beyond manufacturers' operating range!
We experienced ghosting (no pun intended) and blackouts on the LCD screens. The drone failed to launch. Then, the LCD on the c300 blacked out. Oh, and on the last day, the 7-inch LCD stem on the EpicW shattered.
On the set of 'Ghosts of the Arctic'Credit: Abraham Joffe
NFS: What was the biggest challenge you encountered?
Joffe: 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 who shoots in the outdoors knows, it can be hard even at the best of times. This was next-level.
The terrain on the last day was rough, and this was coupled with very low visibility. What happened as a result was we rolled one of our snowmobile trailers and crushed the DJI Inspire. It was frustrating, but we accepted it as a hazard of the shoot. Thankfully, we had already shot all our aerials by that stage.
"A great camera is not all about resolution. Dynamic range and Bitrate are perhaps even more important."
NFS: What was your post-production workflow?
Joffe: The film was shot in resolutions from 4K to 6K and outputted in 2.35:1 at a resolution of 4096 x 1742.
NFS: You adopted 4K quite early. What would you say is the biggest advantage of shooting 4K?
Joffe: 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. You can crop and adjust horizons and framing. This was not possible before!
But for me, a great camera is not all about resolution. Dynamic range (the 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) are perhaps even more important than resolution. At the end of the day, a filmmaker wants the most visually striking and true images recorded.
On the set of 'Ghosts of the Arctic'Credit: Abraham Joffe
NFS: Is filming in the Arctic is different from working in other climates, with regards to technique?
Joffe: The cold certainly pushes your body and your equipment to the extreme. Our bodies are not designed to last very long in these temperatures, so of course your clothing has to be up to the job. This means you wear cumbersome tops and bottoms, gloves, and several layers of headgear and goggles. All this clothing limits your mobility, which makes pulling off dynamic camera moves a challenge.
NFS: What is the best time of year to film in the arctic?
Joffe: While most people do travel there in the summer months when the 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. The fjords were frozen over. This allowed us to embark on long-distance snowmobile runs to find and hopefully photograph the polar bear.
NFS: What drew you to the polar bear?
Joffe: 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.
Filming polar bears for 'Ghosts of the Arctic'Credit: Abraham Joffe
NFS: Were you at all scared of the polar bears?
Joffe: 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. It's 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. So no, we were never scared. We were hugely respectful!
NFS: To your eye, the best shot you have ever filmed?
Joffe: 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 camera man 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,” 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 in moments like this, when you swim past and look into a whale's’ eye, that the whole world seems to stop. It’s like nothing else!
'Ghosts of the Arctic'Credit: Abraham Joffe
NFS: Do you find it easier to work in a team or solo?
Joffe: 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 six 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 take extra experience to operate. Like many pursuits in life, it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people.
NFS: How much does having the best new gear matter?
Joffe: 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!
NFS: In your travels, how have you noticed climate change physically changing the environment?
Joffe: Having traveled and filmed in over 40 countries, I have been in a unique position 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 scientists predicted. I feel very strongly that I must 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.
Check out more work from United Film Works on their website. You can find Abraham Joffe on Instagram at @abrahamjoffe.