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Insights into the Cinematography of the Award-Winning Docuseries “Tales By Light”

We sat down with the DP of Netflix’s “Tales By Light” to talk about his approach to shooting an award-winning docuseries on wildlife and human impact.

In 2014-2015, international award-winning director, producer, and DP Abraham Joffe ACS created the stunning six-part docuseries Tales by Light. The series travels the world “capturing indelible images of people, places, creatures and cultures from new, previously unseen angles.” He followed this with Big Cat Tales, a series following the lives of lions, leopards, and cheetahs on the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya.

Here’s what he had to say about cinematography and the work.

PremiumBeat: Abraham, how did you get started as a cinematographer?

Abraham Joffe, ACS: Cinematography was always my first love. I never set out to become a director or producer, per se — I just loved creating images and shooting. When I was a teenager, my parents traveled around Australia, writing books on the fascinating characters they came across. So, during that time, I sat in on hundreds of interviews, and was exposed to the beauty of the natural world. I think these years infused in me a curiosity for human stories, and the environment.

I was inspired by pioneering wildlife filmmaker Malcolm Douglas. I remember meeting Douglas when I was about 12 years old, and for several years afterwards, I sent him the projects I was working on. One day, he asked me if I wanted to be a camera operator for his upcoming adventure series. I said yes, and then spent the next several months traveling and shooting with him in the remote Kimberleys in Western Australia. I was 19 then, and that whole experience solidified what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Living and capturing life in its extreme, and sharing it with others.

PB: What experiences led you to creating your Netflix series, Tales by Light?

AJ: In the years following my work with Malcolm Douglas, I had further experiences filming around Australia and my first shoots in Africa. It was then that Canon Australia approached me about shooting a series of short profile pieces on some of their Canon Masters. This was originally supposed to be a talking head interview, with a few of their best photos, overlaid. But, I thought rather than just show their work, why don’t we go and shoot these photographers, in the field?

One of the first photographers we followed was Darren Jew, a renowned underwater photographer, who was shooting a series on Humpback whales in Tonga. So, I pitched Canon on joining Darren and filming him doing his day job. This was in the days before DJI had exploded, so I worked with an experienced hexacopter drone operator. So, we were able to capture these amazing aerial shots, as well.

Canon loved the piece, and I was invited to showcase the film at the Sydney Opera House, for one of their events. Afterwards, I found myself face-to-face with the director of Canon Australia, and I pitched him on expanding this concept to a television series for Australian TV. To my amazement, they loved the idea, and the series moved forward. Eventually, we got it in front of Netflix, and they picked it up.

If it wasn’t for passion projects — just going out there and doing it, and not chasing the money — this success wouldn’t have happened. I was passionate about telling these stories. I think that rubbed off on the right people — people who were ultimately able to finance it.

Insights into the Cinematography of the Award-Winning Doc-Series "Tales By Light" — On Location

PB: Tales By Light takes place in many fascinating and remote locations around the world. How are you structuring your shooting days?

AJ: It depends a lot on the subject matter and location. But there are some common processes.

In terms of must-haves, we make sure that we have enough batteries and cards for an entire day’s worth of shooting — this is very important. One thing that does limit us to how “rough” we go is that we do need power at night. With that said, we’ve gone to some pretty remote locations, like up the Sepik River in Papua, New Guinea. We were working off generator power for three weeks, in grass huts, along mosquito-infested rivers.

When we hit the ground on location, we’ve already done a lot of research and preparation. On special occasions, wherein we’re working with high profile talent — such as the case in S3.E1.: “Children in Need,” where we travel with Orlando Bloom through Bangladesh — we’ll actually do a location scout, ahead of time. I do believe in the adage that just getting to the location (and being prepared), you’re 80 percent there.

We max out at about three weeks — or 21 days — of shooting time, for a single shooting period. Each day, we’re getting up early in order to capture that early morning light, and we’re often chasing the light, at the end of the day. This is especially true when working on wildlife shoots. When we’re working in the Masai Mara (S2.E1.), we actually like to be on location and shooting in predawn light. So, that little bit of light before the sun rises. This means we’re up and trying to locate wildlife in the dark.

A double backup always happens at the end of the day — back at the hotel, motel, tent, or hut. We can, at times, shoot up to 2TB+ of data, each day. I run double laptops to two separate SSDs, just to wrangle all of the data we shoot. Of course, it’s always a plus when we have a dedicated data wrangler on set, but this isn’t always the case. We’ve also used a NAS on some shoots, which is able to pull data quite quickly.

Insights into the Cinematography of the Award-Winning Doc-Series "Tales By Light" — Abraham Joffe ACS and crew on boat

PB: At the end of shooting days, are you and your team reviewing dailies?

AJ: I’d love to, but mostly, we simply don’t have the time. For me, I’ll open a few shots just to check for any issues, like sensor dots. I’ll do a quick listen to our audio from that day as well.

PB: How big is your production crew for a docuseries like Tales By Light?

AJ: Typically, our crew is made up of 3-4 people. I do like working with predators — multi-skilled filmmakers who can operate, run sound, fly the drone, etc. I like working with them because you can adapt, you can split into small groups, if necessary. This is good because this allows us to remain small and operate in a low profile. Oftentimes, we’re shooting in sensitive areas that cannot support large footprint productions. It’s also less intimidating for our subjects, as well. Not to mention the cost savings, per location, from having a smaller crew. We keep it casual, agile, and respectful. Our main goal is to leave these places in better shape than we found them.

Insights into the Cinematography of the Award-Winning Doc-Series "Tales By Light" — Indigenous males and photographer

PB: There are so many amazing moments captured in Tales By Light. I’m thinking in particular S1.E2.: “Himalaya,” where you and your team are following Rich I’Anson, as he enters a Buddhist monastery. How are you and your operators splitting up the coverage of your subjects and locations?

AJ: The end goal for me is to find a balance between the beauty shots — the big shots, the hero shots — and what I call the “gritty doc coverage,” where you’re in the scene and letting it unfold as it’s happening. In Tales By Light, we’re trying to create something that is visually striking, that does justice to the locations, while at the same time, shooting real events and trying to document what’s happening.

In the scene where Rich enters the monastery, we certainly filmed that several times. In a scene like that, I would typically start with the drone, especially if there’s a chance that the scene could change continuity-wise (i.e. monks coming and going, villagers might pop in and out, the weather could turn, etc.). After that, I would step in and capture a few follow shots on the gimbal.

So, in general, I’ll start wide and then go in for closer shots. When shooting wildlife, sometimes it’s the opposite.

Insights into the Cinematography of the Award-Winning Doc-Series "Tales By Light" — Abraham Joffe ACS shark cinematography

PB: Are there any episodes, in particular, wherein you found a good balance between the cinematic shots and the more gritty doc coverage?

AJ: Season 3, Episodes 1 & 2: “Children in Need” were good examples of how we were able to combine those strong cinematics with more gritty realism. This was achieved by how we structured our shooting schedule. In that scenario, we actually arrived in Bangladesh, a few days before Orlando Bloom. During the time before he arrived, we went and filmed interviews with some of the kids, and we also filmed coverage of their day-to-day. The shoot involved us going to these factories where child workers suffered in horrendous conditions. We weren’t allowed to stay there long, but when we were there, we shot really hard. We didn’t have to worry about Orlando being there — we could focus 100 percent on getting strong visuals.

A few days later, we returned with Orlando. During this shoot, we were able to focus solely on doc-style coverage (i.e. Orlando’s reactions to the environment, etc.) If we only scheduled a single visit to knock out both doc-coverage and our strong cinematics, we would’ve likely not been able to do both.

PB: What approaches do you take when lighting your subjects?

AJ: We’re using natural light for most of our work. In the field, we don’t do a lot of lit interviews. Having said that, we’re always thinking about the light. We use reflectors, we use cutters, scrims. Sometimes we’re turning off lights, if we’re shooting interiors. If we’re in vehicles, we’re positioning the vehicle so as to make the best use of light.

Insights into the Cinematography of the Award-Winning Doc-Series "Tales By Light" — Abraham Joffe in Svalbard winter

PB: Last question, Abraham. Since season one, what’s been your biggest takeaway from shooting Tales By Light?

AJ: One thing we always want to be doing is shooting on the best sensor, with the best optics. But, if that’s at the expense of our mobility, that’s not good. I think I err on the side of having more flexibility. If we aren’t bogged down with a huge rig, the production is going to be richer because of the improvement of the coverage, and therefore, the story.

As the series has progressed, I’ve begun to prefer the more leaner, meaner setups. I think this is especially important for documentary work.

To learn more about Tales By Light, Big Cat Tales, and Abraham’s other award-winning work, check out www.untitledfilmworks.com.au.

All images via Untitled Film Works.

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