Jeff Zwart is a director, filmmaker, photographer, Porsche enthusiast, and racer. If you’re an auto enthusiast and haven’t heard of him, well, you’ve probably seen a few commercials or photos that he’s worked on. Renowned for the sense of action and speed that his work imparts, Zwart credits his racing experience with providing a higher level of insight and knowledge into how fast “feels”.
He grew up in Long Beach, California, where his father was a materials engineer who worked in the composites and fiberglass world and always drove something interesting. One day his dad bought a wrecked ’53 Alfa Romeo Zagato 1900, with a smashed up front-end. This wasn’t much of a problem however because of his dad’s background. Dad made a new fiberglass front-end for it and when the car was finished it became dad’s daily driver. Zwart recalls how raw and loud it was, and how it would occasionally burp flames from the carburetor, visible through the gaps between the hood and fenders.
While studying to be a veterinarian in Germany, he had the luxury of jumping on Friday night trains and waking up in Spa, Zandvoort, or Le Mans for instance, to watch races. It was there that he began thinking of a career that might allow him to follow racing professionally, and then he noticed the photographers. His research led him to Art Center College of Design and he decided to change careers and study photography.
Zwart’s philosophy when it comes to shooting action shots is deeply ingrained in his racing experience: “I want to be the participant in the event, as far as the camera [is concerned], not the observer.” Accordingly, his camera is always on the move, trying to catch up with things. Racing enhances that vision and it gives him an insider’s view and appreciation, as does his exposure to different types of racing, from Pikes Peak to open wheel, to endurance events like the Baja 1000 or the Trans-Siberian race, to Sports Car racing—all events in which he’s participated as a racer, not a shooter.
Rally racing is one of Zwart’s loves and he notes its parallels with film and photography: “You set off on an unknown course, against the clock with the finishing line racing towards you the whole time.” Similarly, as a shooter, he wakes up pre-dawn, starts rolling the camera all while the hard stop of nightfall rushes towards him. But the process of having to analyze and react in rallying is so much like the world of directing TV commercials due to changing conditions and situations.
“I shoot high-action, so I chase cars at high speed and that’s why it was so natural for me to go from still photography into film because at some point a still photo wasn’t good enough for me to display action, I wanted to shoot the whole thing. And so that’s where filmmaking really opened that world up for me.”
When Zwart began shooting films, the sheer bulk of the equipment posed challenges, but now the hard part is, because anyone can fit a camera anywhere and everywhere, developing different approaches and methods to distinguish his work. But he doesn’t long for days gone by; Zwart loves current technology and how it allows the viewer to be dropped right into the action, as involved as possible. He thinks that due to technology’s speed of evolution, how we now consume and enjoy filmed content is limited more by our viewing medium than our ability to capture the action.
Zwart considers himself a filmmaker who loves to drive. And yet, driving motivates so much for him and has allowed him to travel the world. He looks at a road and says, “I know exactly how it’s going to feel to drive it but I also look at a road and I go ‘I can know exactly how it’s going to look when I film it… Each motivates the other.’”