Geoff Schaaf, 76, who shared a home on Pioneer Hill Road in Olga with his wife, Dennie Gordon, for more than 34 years, died in Los Angeles, California on January 22, 2023 from complications of throat cancer.
Schaaf won four Emmys in a long, distinguished career as a cinematographer and director in film and television. He was nominated for Emmys 13 times by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Despite winning Hollywood acclaim, Schaaf preferred to use his creativity and camera skills to help many Orcas non-profit organizations tell their stories to a broader audience. Geoff was seldom seen without a camera in his hands and acted as a mentor for many in the islands.
He did beautiful film work for numerous causes on the island that he found meaningful, such as the Airhawks Flying Club’s program that provides high school flight training scholarships to help Orcas young people obtain a private pilot’s license.
The son of a pilot who flew World War II photo reconnaissance missions in the P-38 Lightning (the fastest plane on earth at that time), Geoff himself was an expert pilot who loved to fly experimental carbon-fiber gliders.
He devoted time to the Olga community and filmed a short documentary on the effort to save the Olga Store. It helped generate funding for the current project to preserve the Store as a Post Office and outpost of the Orcas Food Co-op.
Geoff, a committed environmentalist, donated his film skills to the San Juan Preservation Trust as it sought to preserve Vendovi Island (located between Lummi and Guemes Islands) and make that beautiful 217-acre island’s special ecology accessible to the public.
He also worked with his wife Dennie on a film with the Lummi Nation focusing public attention on the captivity and abuse of a female orca whale captured from the wild in 1970 named Tokitae (Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut in the Lummi language).
The whale, also known to some as Lolita, for years has been kept captive in a restrictive 80-by-35 foot tank that is only 20 feet deep at the Miami Seaquarium. The film is entitled “Bringing Tokitae Home” and explores an effort to return the whale safely to its native waters.
More recently, Geoff had been working on a documentary about the farm-to-table co-op movement in our islands.
He also filmed Brograss, the traditional and original bluegrass duo of Tashi and Kaj Litch, brothers who grew up on Orcas and have won acclaim from crowds around the Northwest and beyond.
Schaaf helped film and produce TV ads urging the election of Barack Obama that aired in swing states during the 2008 presidential election.
He spent part of every year on Orcas sculling, cycling, crabbing, and sitting at the head of the family table or telling stories on the deck with his many friends from Pioneer Hill Road and Cypress Lane and throughout Orcas.
He enjoyed long motorcycle trips around the western U.S. with his neighbor, Dr. Scott Norquist, and other friends.
Geoff’s son, Harrison Gordon Schaaf, remembered his father as someone who “lived so large and survived so much.”
“There was nothing he did not dare to do,” Harrison recalled. “He was a cinematographer, aviator, pearl diver, house builder, pilot of all things carbon fiber that go fast, collector of stories, legendary father, devoted husband, and the beloved eldest brother of five siblings who lived all over the globe. He photographed feeding frenzies of blacktip sharks tearing through fish off a reef in Tahiti, backed into a cave with nothing but a dive knife and a camera on his shoulder.”
A true adventurer, Geoff could also be found in his younger days hang-gliding through the Alps, flying above mountain passes and crevasses with a viewfinder pressed to his face.
Geoffrey Charles Schaaf was born in Salt Lake City, Utah in October 1946, the son of Arthur Thomas Schaaf and Velma Marie (Iceberg) Schaaf.
He graduated with a BA in biology from California State University-Sacramento in 1970 and earned an MA in film production from that school in 1974.
From 1975 to 1978, he was a camera operator at KOVR-TV in Sacramento. He moved on to KPIX-TV in San Francisco where he was a field producer from 1978 to 1982.
He launched his own successful film production company, Geoff Schaaf Film & Video, in 1982.
Geoff earned his first Hollywood director of photography credit in 1990 on the film China Lake Murders, starring Tom Skerritt.
He went on to serve as director of photography on hundreds of hours of episodic TV series including Seaquest DSV, Fortune Hunter, Early Edition, Swamp Thing, The Burning Zone, Fire Company 132, Jack and Jill, Charmed, and others .
Schaaf’s first directorial credit on a feature film was Shelter Island, staring Ally Sheedy and Steve Baldwin. This was followed by the horror/thriller film Portal. He also worked on more than 400 documentaries during his career, including the feature-length Wounded Warriors/Glider Project.
He filmed movies and television programs in Japan, China, Fiji, Croatia, Bosnia, Germany, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Paraguay, Brazil, Guatemala, French Polynesia, Spain, Turkey, Myanmar, Laos, Azerbaijan, Russia, Sweden, Belgium, Italy, France, Switzerland, Greece, and the United Kingdom.
Geoff Schaaf is survived by his wife of 35 years, Dennie A. Gordon; son Harrison Gordon Schaaf; sisters Martine Henry and Adrienne De Fazio; and brothers Alan Schaaf and Philip Schaaf. He is remembered with love by his seven adoring nieces and nephews as well as his soon-to-be daughter-in-law Hannah Marie Mills.
The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations in Geoff’s name be made to the San Juan Preservation Trust (https://sjpt.org).
There will be a celebration of Geoff’s life on May 13 in Los Angeles. Family and friends will also hold a memorial on May 27 at 2 p.m. at the Olga-Doe Bay Cemetery.