Men We Love: Aaron Lieber

By Anna Griffin, Editor in Chief


I discovered Aaron Lieber’s stunning cinematography on Instagram, and was immediately mesmerized by the breathtaking sight of majestic waves being fiercely ridden by world-class surfers, and aerial shots of the ocean that looked like art. I knew immediately that, whoever was behind the lens capturing this exhilarating imagery, was passionately inspired by nature and cared deeply for our environment. After seeing films for Surfrider Foundation on his profile, @LieberFilms, I was exhilarated and compelled to reach out to request an interview.



When cinematographer, photographer, director and environmentalist, Aaron Lieber, responded and agreed, I was thrilled. Beyond his incredible talent in visual story telling, he is enthusiastically positive about our planet’s health - in particular our oceans - and is working with Surfrider to capture and bring awareness to their initiatives, including plastic pollution.



Despite his brilliant body of work - including his latest big film, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable - and contribution to our environment through Surfrider and other initiatives, Aaron is refreshingly down to earth, possessing a rare and contagious effervescence for his life, career, and our beautiful Earth. We sat down to talk about it all . . .



Coco Eco:

So tell us all about you, and what it is exactly you do.


Aaron Lieber:

I'm a cinematographer and a director. I just finished a big film with Bethany Hamilton called Unstoppable, and in that film, I wore a lot of hats besides just directing and shooting it. I produced it and did a lot of things, and that was my recent really big film. I started as an intern 21 years ago now, so anybody wanting to get started in a career with filmmaking, I really encourage people to get an internship.



Now I am producing content for Surfrider Foundation. I shoot commercial work and documentaries, so I’m available as a cinematographer and director. Recently I bought myself a drone and I've been really learning how to fly it, but then also just the visual experience you can kind of capture with a drone is so unique. And so being able to apply my photography and cinematography skills to that, and has been really, really fun. It's been fun lately to, during the pandemic, learn something new.



CE:

Your surfing shots, your films, are just so mind blowing. Between the majesty of these mammoth waves and then the skill of whoever's riding them, and then your skill in capturing it. It's all so effortless and breathtaking, and it's just a highly exciting visual experience. How are you finding the conversion to drone photography?


AL:

Well, I've been just inspired for so many years in my own career by friends and peers that I used to look up to, and there are so many amazing surf filmmakers and photographers. I feel like I've kind of cherry picked what I like out of all of them and created my own vibe and style, but I think for drone photography, specifically, or even cinematography, I really like to just straight down and I’m starting to see how the earth creates art. I feel like I'm a conduit to capturing the art that is nature, and I'm such a fan of conservation and trying to make a better planet, so I also hope that when people see some of my work, it just inspires them to either go outside, or get engaged with the environment.



I just feel that nature is so important for our soul, and so that visual look of straight down and getting to see the symmetry, all the different formations that the earth is creating, and then even looking at the ocean and the way water moves from that perspective. I've been on a helicopter, but it's a short period of time, so actually getting to hover the drone from different elevations - maybe 100 feet, 200 feet, however high - and just getting to watch water move, and capture that. It's always moving and changing. It's like this really special kind of moving painting, and that to me has been one of the more fun things that I've gotten to indulge in recently.



CE:

You make it sound so easy and effortless, but then you look at your work and it is art. I love how you talk about the canvas of nature, and especially looking at the ocean and how completely different it is from up above. It's awesome, but you've done lots and lots of campaigns, including something for Jeep? What else? Tell us about some of your commercial gigs.


AL:

The first commercial job that I did start to finish was a LifeProof commercial, and we got to shoot surfing, mountain biking and a bunch of other sports, so that was really fun to be able to shoot it and edit it. Then I think they did a $2 million ad buy, and I think they sold a million dollars in product in the first hour it aired on TV, which is pretty cool. So getting to do that was great, but then rewinding back prior to that, I worked for Nike for a few years. They were sponsoring surfers at the time, and they did a commercial at night directed and produced by a bigger agency, but I got to be a cinematographer on it. So getting to work on the bigger Nike commercial - and then I made a surf film for Nike - just having those experiences. Now more recently, I did a piece with another photographer. His name's Tim Tadder, and we shot a piece for Manscaped.



I can't honestly remember all the stuff that I've done, but it's been a lot and I always feel like I'm learning. To me, I've definitely come a long way and I know what I'm doing, but every project has its own set of challenges. I always feel pretty nervous going into every project like, “Oh, I want to do such a good job,” and making sure I've researched all the different options and go in really prepared. But yeah, I still feel like I'm new, even though I've been doing it for 15 years.


CE:

You have a very youthful, effervescent, almost pure energy about all of this. Obviously, I looked you and your website up and saw your photo, but I was expecting someone quite serious to come to this interview, because of the quality of the work. I love the joie de vivre that you have, and that you bring to your creativity and your career. It's very, very cool.


AL:

When I’m on set shooting something I do get pretty serious, but I think part of creating good content is having fun, and also realizing that sometimes it just takes a lot of time. For the style of work that I do, you have to shoot a lot to capture a little. It’s repetition; that idea of 10,000 hours, you know? I've put in so much time that it seems almost effortless, but I still have to put in so much time in the ocean, and nature is always humbling you. No matter how cool you think you are, a big wave comes and knocks you down so you're constantly being humbled, and again it keeps it fun and new.



CE:

I love that approach. Just right when you think you're so popular, the wave will just come and go ping!


AL:

Yeah, ego and waves don't go together.


CE:

Okay, going back to Surfrider, how did you get into that? I want to know also all about your inspiration in and around the oceans, and why ocean conservancy is so important to you.


AL:

Just traveling for the last 10 years and shooting surf films over the years, I really noticed a rise in plastic. I go swimming to film in the ocean, and plastic is floating by me everyday, and I'm grabbing it and putting it in my wetsuit. I'm always swimming in with plastic, so becoming aware of that issue from first hand experience and knowledge, that was my initial thought, “We need to do something about this.” My best friend, he was the former Majority Leader of California State Assembly for the 57th district, and his name's Ian Calderon, and I was talking with Greg Long, who's a surfer and environmentalist. He said, “Man, we have to turn the faucet off. We’ve got to figure out how to not use plastic, and even straws,” and so I ended up coming up with this idea of ‘straws upon request.’ I pitched my friend on this idea, and then a year later he got it into law in California, which is pretty cool.



CE:

You’re responsible for that? That's you?


AL:

Just traveling for the last 10 years and shooting surf films over the years, I really noticed a rise in plastic. I go swimming to film in the ocean, and plastic is floating by me everyday, and I'm grabbing it and putting it in my wetsuit. I'm always swimming in with plastic, so becoming aware of that issue from first hand experience and knowledge, that was my initial thought, “We need to do something about this.” My best friend, he was the former Majority Leader of California State Assembly for the 57th district, and his name's Ian Calderon, and I was talking with Greg Long, who's a surfer and environmentalist. He said, “Man, we have to turn the faucet off. We’ve got to figure out how to not use plastic, and even straws,” and so I ended up coming up with this idea of ‘straws upon request.’ I pitched my friend on this idea, and then a year later he got it into law in California, which is pretty cool.



CE:

In the awesome films you shared with me, I was amazed at the commitment of some of these ambassadors and activists, and then I had a little eye-roll moment when the plastic bag industry turned up to petition against plastic bags being banned. Well, obviously, that makes sense, because it's big business and plastics are made out of petroleum, and it’s all connected. It's just the fact personally, for me, that the plastic bag industry is still trying to hoodwink us, and they still think that we're stupid, including city council members, that they're not going to ban the bag. And it's awesome how ‘ban the bag’ campaigns have been successful all over the world now. I was doing an article last week, and even in Thailand, no plastic bags and grocery stores. That's a poorer country, and even they are stepping up to do something about this. It's great to have Surfrider here helping us with this, and particularly in the United States of America, where it’s all big business, you know?


AL:

Well it's been really interesting to see how change occurs, because if you're not too involved in it, it seems like nothing happens for a really long time, then all of a sudden a big change. But what's interesting is that these small cities or counties will do a plastic ban, and it kind of like trickles up that way. So the big change that we need is at the Federal level and Surfrider has an initiative, Break Free From Plastic, which looks like it has potential to maybe pass this year. It will require anybody creating plastic to be fully responsible for the life of the garbage they create, which will be amazing. It’s crazy to me that for the last 30 years, companies have had free rein to just create garbage without being responsible for it.



On the east coast, there's this chapter leader named Alex, and he's been working in Massachusetts, for I can't remember how long, but they got one victory, and then they got another victory. Then all of a sudden, they have 50 victories, then from those small victories then there’s statewide, and now they can take it to a Federal level. So I think that change is slow at first, and then there's that tipping point where then it goes quicker. The plastic straws upon request, if you really look at the bill, it doesn't have many teeth. It doesn't really do that much, but what it did do was creating awareness to business owners. Sometimes you're busy running your restaurant, or whatever your business is, and maybe you don't even realize that these are issues, or that there's other products that are competitively priced and are more environmentally friendly. Sometimes you can look at legislation or changes, like how do you just create awareness, not to everybody, but to the people who are in charge of day-to-day decisions at businesses?


These issues are very complex and I think it's really easy to demonize the plastic industry, “Oh, the plastic industry are the bad guys,” or even, “Oil’s the bad guy,” but really, if you rewind time, those things were so innovative and helpful for our country and for the world, but then they became a problem. Now it's like, how do we work with these industries to transfer them over to new products, because there are recyclable-type products that look like plastic that aren't, so maybe this plastic industry could just transfer over to new sustainable ideas? I think it's really easy to go, “Oh, it's black and white, good, bad,” but there's a lot of grey, because these businesses also are in districts with people who have jobs there, and all these people are people. It can be easy to demonize one side or the other, but I really try to step back and go, “How can we create a win for everybody?”



CE:

Of course, beyond the people within the plastic industry, there are also still consumers that are demanding plastic products. So while there is still a demand, there is an industry, but I'm with you. One of the things that was fascinating for me writing my article last week was learning how much more possible it is becoming now, to actually really, really lessen our own personal plastic consumption. And, obviously I’m an eco girl, so I’m not big on waste or plastic or any of that stuff, but you know, just the everyday things, that I might purchase in a store that are encased in plastic, and it made me really start thinking outside of the box about packaging, whether it's dishwashing soap or shampoo, then all the way through to clothing.

There are tremendous things going on with recycling of plastic bottles, so at least some of this waste is being put to use rather than being dumped in a landfill. It's only just now beginning to become more easily available, and it thrills me to think what will be possible as we continue to go down this road. I'm really excited because it's a massive inquiry in my life now. I always thought I was so conscious already about things, and then when I was writing that article, I was like, “Hmmm.”


AL:

Yeah, like I said, these issues can be a lot deeper than you think, and it's nice that there are so many companies now. If you want everything to be kind of a sustainable for, say dishwashing soap or whatever, there are companies now that have created a marketplace for themselves by you signing up, and then they send you refill bottles and you send them back, and there's a lot of like things starting to happen to solve these problems. It’s like I said, it's slow at first and then it'll become more rapid.

The other thing is, I believe there's enough plastic already in existence, that if humans can be better about recycling it, we really just wouldn't need any more created. That’s the other issue - that a lot of the plastic we think is being recycled actually isn't being recycled, so there's a lot of those types of factors. They're finding microplastics in the air, they found microplastics in all fresh waters, and it’s everywhere. It's within our digestive system, so it's in our own best interest to really figure out how to weed plastic out. I still acknowledge that plastic is an amazing product. It's so malleable and strong and inexpensive, and so I don't see a future where plastic is completely gone, but hopefully, we can find a way where we're just not using single-use plastic and the plastic we do use gets recycled, and then I think we'll have a more sustainable environment.


CE:

Yes, because it's also the type of plastic product. People don't realize how long it takes for a plastic straw to break down, and that they can't be recycled because they fall into the machinery at the recycling plant. So just thinking about all of that, it's a really great time for us to embrace where we're at, and then see how far that can take us in forms of plastics that are more sustainable. Getting rid of things like the Styrofoam and plastic straws that aren't. Definitely, it's a really cool, exciting time.


AL:

There's so many smart people out there. There's probably a 15-year old kid, male or female, that's going to create the new thing that will just replace it. The next cool thing is coming, so we all have to encourage the government to put out grants and incentives for people, to inspire them to create these new ideas and products. I'm definitely optimistic for the future.



CE:

Yes definitely. Me too. Okay, so now getting back to you. Please tell me more about your film, Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, because again, it’s really moving and inspiring. Share with us about your journey and how you came to be involved. You told us that you wore many hats, but just being there filming must have impacted you quite a lot.


AL:

So previous to Bethany’s film I had made two other female surf films. One was called Leave A Message, with Nike, and the second was with Lakey Peterson called Zero to 100, and I met Bethany during those periods and became friends with her. After Lakey’s film, Bethany and I talked about this idea of “Let's show the world, Bethany, that you're an amazing surfer,” because Soul Surfer had just come out. Originally the film we were trying to create was just going to be a short - maybe a five to eight minute action piece, with a little bit of update, like, “Hey, guys, this is what's going on in my life.” Okay, cool - it was going to be a short film.


CE:

Where can people see it?



AL:

You can buy it or rent it on pretty much any VOD platform; iTunes, Amazon, and it's streaming on Netflix. If you happen to be flying, I believe it's on Delta, JetBlue - it's on 10 airlines right now, so if you're on a flight, you might find it on your flight, which is pretty cool. So those are kind of the main places to check it out.


CE:

That's a really great distribution you've gotten. Congratulations - that's awesome.


AL:

Thanks. We released in theaters summer of 2019 in 205 theaters. That was pretty exciting, and then we were Top 10 in their top 10 in theaters in Australia, and we were about to expand from 25 to 60 theaters in Australia, and the pandemic hit, which was kind of a bummer, but that's life. I think we're going to gear up to do a little tour with the film and Bethany, maybe spring of next year. I feel like people will be excited to see her - the world is so big with people, and there's so many people I think that still haven't seen it. Because everyone's been on lockdown lately, I think it'd be fun to do an in-person experience.


CE:

Definitely. Now, speaking of fun, what do you do for fun?



AL

Well, I just got back from snowboarding in Washington, actually. When I'm not making a surf film, I'm trying to surf or go snowboard. I like to go run, so those are probably the three main kinds of activity-wise things that I like to go do.


CE:

With career, what is next for you? What can we look out for next from Aaron Lieber and Lieber films?

AL:

II'm trying to figure that out too actually. I personally want to be like, excited, you know, I want to be wrapped up in the story. And I've outlined three different films, or two films and one series that I'm interested in doing, that aren't even in surfing at all.


CE:

You have such an awesome demeanor, and I'm a huge fan of the work that you’re doing. Super grateful that you would talk to me and to Coco Eco today. Thank you.


AL:

Well, thank you so much for reaching out. And yeah, happy to talk to you too. It's been so nice. And I really appreciate it and all the great work you guys are doing so keep it up.



Photos & Video Courtesy of Aaron Lieber

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