Sean Viljoen is a director, cinematographer and photographer whose heart lies deeply rooted in nature and wildlife conservation. His introduction to photography was through his father by spending countless family holidays in the bush. After school he decided to pursue a career in finances but two years down the line, imagining what the next 10 years of his life would be like, he switched direction.

“I want to live a life with adventure and unpredictability.”

Sean Viljoen

Uganda Bwindi Gorilla by Sean Viljoen

“I no longer make distinction between ‘life’ and ‘work’.”

After quitting his job in finance, his goal was to find a career that would allow him to get paid for what he likes doing. Now that he’s finally found a path that is truly meaningful, he pours his heart and soul into keeping that dream alive. Besides being behind the camera, he climbs, hikes, runs, enjoys deep sea scuba diving and explores what nature has to offer as much as possible. He also reads a lot about philosophy and tries to learn as much about as many different topics as he possibly can.

“Freedom is what I’m after”

Sean has travelled extensively and so I was curious as to learn some of his most memorable memories: “To be honest, some of the best memories have been when I haven’t had a camera on me.” In Uganda, a massive silverback gorilla brushed right past him on a narrow path and he’s even been charged by a lion and an elephant while on foot. He says that with any of the experiences that have been truly magical, he’s never been able to do it justice on film, even if he did manage to capture it. “Sometimes it’s important to put the camera down and take in the beauty of the experience.” If he had to choose one memory, it will be a trip to Chad with his dad. “I’ve never seen a landscape like Ennedi before and that, in combination with the Toubou people, was something quite unique. We slept under the stars every evening and we didn’t see a road for close to three weeks. That sort of freedom is what I’m after and I was in awe the entire time I was there.”

Sean Viljoen’s photo and video gear

He’s been shooting with a Nikon D810 for the past few years. It has incredible dynamic range and due to the amount of time-lapse that he does, the built-in intevalometer is really helpful. It’s a great all-purpose camera, but he’d love to get his hands on the new Nikon D850 if possible!

Besides recently filming a project using the Black Magic Ursa Mini Pro and Ursa Mini 4.6k, he’s filmed extensively with the Sony FS7 and Sony a7S II and enjoys both for different reasons. They’re both incredibly hardy which helps a lot for the sort of work he does: Always being out in the sun and dust isn’t ideal for camera gear, but both cameras seem to hold up well and the image quality is great. For epic motion time-lapse, he uses the Syrp Genie. Additionally, he shoots aerials using the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, which has incredible image quality and uses the Aquatech Underwater Housing for his Sony a7S II camera with a 16-35mm Zeiss lens when diving.

Underwater photograph by Sean Viljoen while freediving with sharks in the Bahamas

How the story unfolds to become a reality…

Cinematography, technique, sound, design and post-production are all tools that are there to serve the story. This translates across all art forms and the truly powerful stories have universal elements that transcend culture and language. “I try to find the universal in the personal and build from there.” For Sean it all begins with interest – when he’s interested in the subject, he’ll automatically have a lot of creative ideas as to how the story could be told.

He loves a quote by Werner Herzog that says: “There are two stories playing at the same time. One on the screen and the other in the viewer’s mind.” Filmmaking techniques need to be used in a way that achieves a desired goal or creates a certain feeling for the viewer. It’s often incredibly subtle if done effectively. “Nuanced points like creating space for a viewer to think about what is going on and leading them to the conclusion you’d like them to make is where I think the art of filmmaking lies.”

Plans for 2018

When it comes to 2018, the first half is spent wrapped up in production and post-production of Disunity – a feature length rhino documentary that aims to unravel the complexity of rhino conservation. They spent time on the frontlines with the men and women fighting to save the species through both anti-poaching efforts and dealing with orphans as a result of poaching. He’s also planning on filming a lion translocation of a pride of 25 from Zimbabwe to Mozambique, and spending a good amount of time in Kenya. “Apart from that, I’ll see what opportunities present themselves and take it from there.”