Australian cinematographer Abraham Joffe recently embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, venturing to the freezing Arctic in the hope of seeing an elusive polar bear up close. He and the team at Untitled Film Works captured the journey on film, resulting in the hauntingly beautiful short, Ghosts of the Arctic.
“Planning for the shoot began about two years ago,” Abraham tells Lonely Planet. “I’ve had some brilliant polar bear filming expeditions in the past, but these have all been from vessels. The allure of encountering bears on foot, on the ice, was too much – we had to go for it. Joshua Holko is a polar photographer and we teamed up to bring this shoot to life. Wherever I travel in the world, I rely heavily on the knowledge of local fixers, it’s absolutely critical to success. Svalbard is, of course, no different. If it wasn’t for our Norwegian local guide Frede, we wouldn’t have been able to navigate the frozen landscape and track down our bears.”
Abraham has always been drawn to the image of the polar bear. “I think they’re some of the most beautiful animals in the world,” he says. “It’s truly amazing to see how they survive in such conditions out on the sea ice. Being up close to them in the wild, especially from sea level, on the ice, is an experience like no other. Their power and size is confronting – you certainly want to have a snowmobile in good working order that will start every time, should they decide to head your way! The threats to the bears’ survival are numerous. Hunting and climate change have seen their numbers fall significantly, and there are now less polar bears roaming the Arctic than rhinos on the plains of Africa; a fact I believe many people are not aware of.”
In order to successfully track the bears, Abraham and the team had to really tune into nature. How would he describe the experience? “There are few places on Earth that feel as remote and awe-inspiring as the Arctic in winter”, he says. “Once we left the small town of Longyearbyen behind us, we saw very few signs of human existence. The temperatures we were working in were always well below zero, with some days as low as -30C. At times I felt like I was cruising across the surface of another planet – nothing looked and felt like this world. It certainly is a great place to centre yourself, if you can cope with the cold.”
Unsurprisingly, given the extremity of the weather, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the crew. “A film shoot with a small team is always challenging, but doing so off the back of snowmobiles takes things to a new level. Firstly, your cumbersome Arctic clothing makes moving freely much more difficult. We tend to use lots of moving camera work, and the gloves, goggles and thick layers really test your patience. On top of this, the cameras, gimbals and drones aren’t all rated to operate in such temperatures. We had numerous failures with cameras not turning on, LCD screens shattering and of course, batteries not holding their charge. We resorted to stuffing the lining of our coats and trousers with batteries and hand warmers to mitigate the effects of the air temperature. But of course, all this was worth it – being able to return with footage that’s rarely captured, in one of the world’s true wilderness areas.”