Ishka Folkwell: The Man Behind The Camera
Most image makers will have surfers they'll prefer to work with. And, if circumstances conspire, the two may strike up a relationship, do the odd trip together where they can work symbiotically, each contributing to the other's success.
Such a relationship only partly explains the pairing of Ishka Folkwell and Torren Martyn. You see, these two didn't get together by design, guided by some notion of professional instinct. No, they're simply mates. They knew each other before they were famous, and they've carried on as mates even as their careers have blossomed.
Considering the nature of their films, it couldn't be any other way. When you're somewhere north of the Arctic Circle enduring all manner of privations, including sub-zero temperatures and an atrocious run of surf, a familiar face and temperament can be all that stops you hopping the next plane out of Reykjavík.
Ishka and Torren's 'Lost Track' films champion the anti-strike mission. The ethos is simple: Don't look at the charts, just carve a good chunk of time out of work or study and travel slow, immerse yourself, and take all that comes your way: flat spells, car crashes, bad weather, pumping waves, with humour and good grace.
Their most recent trip involves travelling by boat around Indonesia, with Torren spending almost a year adrift. Ishka, however, is a new father and the adventures have to be balanced with his responsibilities back home.
Chris McDonald recently chatted to Ishka about this juggling act and the Folkwell/Martyn travelling dynamic.
(Parts of this interview appeared in a needessentials mail out)
Chris: Where did you grow up and how did you discover your vocation as a photographer and filmmaker?
Ishka: I grew up in Byron and I'm still based there now, but a bit further out of town. Early on I'd been inspired to take photos by my mum - who's a brilliant photographer herself - and the unfamiliar, fascinating landscapes and faces I saw travelling.
Back home at the beach, I realised that with the way things had developed online, people were keener on video so I started getting footage of mates when I wasn't surfing myself. Fortunately, some of them surfed really well and this led to a few opportunities to go on trips to make surf edits. The first overseas one was to Mexico with Torren Martyn, and since then pretty much every trip to this day has been with him.
How does your collaboration work with Torren?
It's just a natural process that developed during the first Lost Track trip we did around Australia, retracing a journey Torren did as a kid with his Mum and her partner. Sitting around the fire as we were getting closer to home, we started talking about how cool it would be to continue making films by taking longer trips and using different modes of transport, not just flying in for a swell, and instead taking the time to experience all the other aspects of surf travel that make it so rewarding.
Around this time, Torren and I became friends with Ryan Scanlon [needessentials founder] and he started supporting us with some wetsuits and fuel money. That led to needessentials funding and producing all our films. We've been really fortunate that not only have they given Torren and me ultimate freedom and trust while making the films, but Ryan also has a lot of valuable input in the editing and production stages.
Music has been a key aspect of all your films...
We've always preferred instrumental music since the start. I believe it brings you deeper into the film and doesn't distract from what's on the screen. We're really fortunate to work with incredible independent musicians like Murray Paterson and Headland, Nick Bampton and Maanyung. We're all mates, so I have the opportunity to talk, show a rough edit, and then basically have them create music for the films.
It always blows me away just how good they are at writing music that suits the story and surfing.
You and Torren have enjoyed significant adventures while on a humble budget, don't you think?
Basically, before the whole filmmaking thing started, that was how I liked to travel - without a lot of money, just making it work. I find it often puts you in situations you otherwise would never have encountered if you were down the road in a hotel.
Making these films: sleeping in tents, van, and boats, wouldn't have worked if I'd tried to do this with someone I didn't get along so well with - it'd be a different story. Torren and I never argue and we get each other without having to vocalise it.
We've been doing these trips together for so long now that each of us just knows what the other is thinking. Even when morale is low, when we're getting skunked or dealt with by the elements, we always come out the other side of it pretty quickly.
And you've endured some extreme elements along the way.
I love being put in extreme scenarios, it makes it exciting and challenging. In a place like Iceland, for example, the most challenging aspect, even more than the cold, is the wind. And when the two combine it's pretty brutal.
The guys in the water, they're warm in their wetsuits, but hiking into places, setting up in the snow then trying to keep the camera steady…that can get intense. Walking around in circles and jumping up and down to keep warm and trying not to miss a wave at the same time.
Working on this latest film from the sailboat has possibly been the most challenging, though. In other situations, even if it's really cold, I'm already on land with my gear. But with this trip, I've found getting to land is the most challenging aspect. They're remote islands so sometimes I'm paddling in on a surfboard through the impact zone with a tripod and all my camera gear on my back in a dry bag.
I think one day when the surf was really pumping, I filmed for about twelve hours straight. Ryan was bringing food and water to Torren and Drew who were paddling some over to me.
Talk us through your day when the swell is on during one of these trips.
On that last trip, we hadn't had proper waves for about five weeks, so when it was finally on everyone kinda hit panic mode. Up in the dark, Ryan or Torren are captaining the boat, someone is making coffee, someone is making brekkie for everyone, getting everything ready.
For me, it's making sure I've got everything in the dry bag ready to go. As soon as it's first light, Torren and whoever will jump in the dinghy and go in and have a look at the waves because it's always a weird perspective on the boat behind them. If he's gone too long it's never a good sign, but when it's cooking he's back pretty quick smart and everyone is just scrambling.
Basically, I just take food and water with me and Torren literally surfs all day - till it's either dark or the waves disappear. It's super hot in the tropics, and you get belted by the sun but if the surf's good you're just stoked to be getting footage and you don’t even care.
At the end of the day, it's back to the boat for a beer then offload the footage and make sure it's locked away. Generally, we don't anchor overnight close to waves as it's too exposed and I usually use this time motoring to dump the footage, back it up and convert it while we're en route and the engine is running to keep everything charged. Power supply is always in short supply on a 35ft sailboat.
Then, it's filling your role in the crew, maybe cooking dinner or washing up – everyone puts in equally.
And the setbacks that inevitably occur on the road..?
Yeah, one of the most challenging happened on a trip to Iceland. We'd snowshoed into this fjord in deep snow to check if there were any waves and when we were walking back we saw firetrucks drive past with lights flashing and thought ‘oh no, someone's had a rough day'.
Then as we drove back to the little village where we were staying we could see the lights again, then we got to our street and all went silent as we watched firemen coming out of the top window of the place where we were staying.
We still don't know how it started but the fire blew out all the windows due to a lack of oxygen. Passports, laptops, camera gear, and hard drives all melted to the floor. All the footage up to that point was on melted hard drives and everything that didn't burn was covered in black soot and smelt horrible. Miraculously, the footage was able to be retrieved and we salvaged the trip, but it was a low point for a time.
A lot of the time it seems to be a matter of surviving the location.
On the Lost Track New Zealand trip travelling down that mountain on motorbikes was definitely the most scared I've ever been in my life. It was super windy going up the hill but we were somewhat protected. What we didn't realise was just how windy it was at the top and down the other side.
With all the gear I was carrying, no matter how hard I leaned into the wind I was blown back. One car in particular got so close it really freaked me out. We were very happy to get off that mountain.
Last trip to Indo we got hit by some big storms as well with winds over 50 knots way out to sea. I'm still learning how to sail and generally pretty unfamiliar with boats and although I value the experience, this time it was pretty heavy, I was just relying on Torren and Ryan to get us through it.
Reckon you're inspiring other surfers to travel?
We never set out to inspire other surfers but it's really cool when we get feedback that others are taking similar trips. By keeping it pretty simple I suppose the films remain relatable to the everyday person who likes to travel and surf. But we are always conscious as surfers and filmmakers to try to be as discreet as possible about waves and locations.
Wherever we are we try to talk to the locals and be respectful of waves they don't shoot. We spend time in a location getting to know people and respect their home rather than flying in and bombing a lineup. It's definitely a fine line between wanting to paint a picture of where we are and acknowledging the beauty of the location without giving away where a spot is and rubbing people up the wrong way.
Our intent is to preserve the natural beauty of a place and hopefully help people to value the natural world more.
How do you go about balancing being an adventure filmmaker and a dad?
[Laughs]...it's certainly a balance! So far it's worked well. Torren has been on the boat for close to a year and I've just been going over for stints ranging from two to six weeks then coming home and editing, which suits me great.
There's nothing I love more than shooting the films and through the process, I get a little travel fix, but then it's great to be home editing with the family and catching up on other work.
What work do you have in the pipeline?
The latest film we're working on features a year-long trip sailing in the Indian Ocean. We’re still not certain how we're going to tell the story, but Torren has been doing diary entries and recording calls and notes and I've built up a lot of footage from the journey so far – it'll be another feature-length film and we hope aspects of it appeal to people and they find it as interesting as it has been making it.
// CHRIS McDONALD