Filmmaker & Cinematographer
Above the Clouds, Below the Surface
By Christopher Tuazon
In the arid heat of the Congo, a central village roars with vibrancy. The middle of an open square gathers a crowd. It surrounds two rows of women, swaying shoulder to shoulder in a shared cadence. Their palms strike long tam-tam drums while their voices fill the air with exclamations of “Freedom!” Among them, an artist in rolled up sleeves stands at attention. He observes, analyzes, and then galvanizes the band to play. He scans the crowd for moments – opportunities to share a complete story. This is a man locked in complete focus. This is a visionary who considers every frame of footage as an individual picture.
This is Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
With a career that includes photography, filmmaking, and lifelong activism, Yann is an individual for whom satisfaction does not exist. For someone like him, success is purely a raw fuel to take on new challenges, start from scratch, and move forward with purpose.
Yann first gained international acclaim as an aerial photography pioneer, long before the medium was established. With his telephoto lens peeking from a hot-air balloon or helicopter, Yann collected snapshots of landscapes and wildlife below. The constant bird’s-eye view allowed him to express a vision unlike his contemporaries, work in an environment of risk-taking and imagination, and present a story in a perfect frame. It also inspired a life-changing realization: the earth itself is truly a work of art.
“I didn’t invent the beauty of the world; it’s always been here. I just have to press a button to show something that surrounds us but we never really get to see.”
Released in 2005, Earth from Above is a ten-year collection of Yann’s aerial images. With over four million copies sold, this book represents a groundbreaking shift in photography, inspiring artists to reimagine their medium through a new perspective.
A Photographer at Heart
Following the success of Earth from Above, Yann turned to filmmaking, specializing in feature documentaries. His oeuvre showcases both the vibrancy of nature and the human condition, with his 2015 film Human receiving numerous accolades and acclaim.
In every second of Human, the photographer in Yann is gorgeously apparent. In one moment, a static shot is focused on a single individual. Staring and speaking directly to the camera, the interview is a classic portrait coming to life. In between interviews, scenes show crowds of people encapsulated in a perfect image, slowly pulling back to reveal a massive population squeezed in tight spaces. The slowly-widening shot ends as a dramatic aerial, turning the throng of thousands into a single painting.
Currently, Yann is completing Woman, a film that interviews three thousand individuals from 40 countries. This film will showcase the female perspective from a spectrum of cultures, ages, and experiences. A bittersweet project, Yann is considering this documentary his final feature film.
When looking back on a career that spans decades and continents, Yann often recalls a particular kind of shot: one that never was.
“I only remember the pictures that I did not take. These are shots that I failed to capture, others that I had not noticed. I suppose these moments are so vivid to me because deep down, I’m first and foremost a photographer.”
Embracing the Aerial Evolution
Throughout his film career, Yann has relied on conventional aircraft to demonstrate his unique vision. Fortunately, the rise of drone technology has opened new doors, reigniting his lifelong passion for aerial photography.
“Drones are completely revolutionizing the industry. Nothing can be more amazing for a filmmaker. To be able to move close, pull back, get higher; it's magic. It’s what all filmmakers have been dreaming for.”
Despite his vast experience, Yann is using this latest project as an opportunity to take on new challenges. This film will mark Yann’s first time incorporating drones for aerial footage, collaborating with DJI to help bring his vision to the screen. From a series of monitors in one setting, Yann hurries back and forth between camera and drone operators, commands every movement, energizes his subjects, and ensures that every detail is in the shot.
Let the Story Unfold
Yann’s photographer’s spirit and hunger to take every opportunity dictate a maverick shooting style where preparations are sparse. His films always begin with a clear goal that is carried purely by his instinct. With 30 years of visual storytelling under his belt, it is an intuition Yann trusts wholeheartedly.
“We worked on an entire series of women who undressed. Without preparation or hesitation, the women took off their clothes in front of the camera. Some were old, shy, had undergone surgery, or were simply embarrassed. Every single one made a beautiful shot full of emotion. These are the moments that define the story because they happen completely naturally. They are sudden, unplanned, organic scenes that simply unfold.”
It is in these intimate, vulnerable moments that Yann understands, with no uncertainty, his true craft. From the film studio to the hot-air balloon, through his thousands of aerial photographs and countless hours of spontaneous footage, Yann has always used his artistry as a vehicle to explore the depths of humanity. Whether it is to reveal the detriments of wasteful living or put a face to inequality, Yann is capturing a story that must be shared. By his own accord, the goal of his life is to, no matter the size of the impact, change the world through his work. It is also a goal anyone can achieve, regardless of their calling.
“I believe that everyone in their own way can try to change the world; whether you are a baker, an architect, a mechanic, or a mother. That's it, simply put. And I say this with humility.”