Today’s reality shows, far-flung competitions and exotic dramas rely on dangerous challenges. Men climb the masts of a fishing boat in violent Arctic seas, fighting their equipment. Or race through an Indian market, working out a mental puzzle while hauling heavy weights.
And that’s not even the contestants — it’s the camera department.
The jobs of TV cinematographers and their camera crews in extreme conditions can be as dramatic as anything viewers see on camera.
It’s “Deadliest Catch” cameraman Cameron Glendening who climbs the masts of those fishing boats, and he won’t even bother unless the waves are running at least 25 feet high. “There’s no point in doing something like that in calm seas,” says Glendening, nommed this year in nonfiction programming. “You’re trying to take the audience into the experience of the crews, and that means hanging off the side of a boat with a Ziploc bag over your camera sometimes.”
Don Bland — a nonfiction programming cinematography nominee for both “Deadliest Catch” and “Ice Road Truckers” — finds challenges coming from every direction. “In the temperatures on both shows, the LCD screens slow down a lot, so you’re fighting your equipment and your own exhaustion all the time while you’re trying to get the shot,” says Bland.
Reality d.p.s and camera people simply have to be in good physical shape, says cinematography nominee Bertram van Munster, “because you’re going to be carrying camera equipment and running after people through a market in India one day.” A co-creator and director of “The Amazing Race,” van Munster adds that just being great with the camera isn’t enough, either.
“You have to be great at listening and figuring out where the story is going.”
That thought is echoed by Derek Carver, nommed for cinematography for “Survivor.”
“You’re in the desert fighting off the heat or in the jungle fighting off the bugs, but you really have to have a sense about people and what they might do next, and you have to be willing to follow,” Carver says.
Sometimes the behavior a d.p. must think about isn’t even human. John Waters, Emmy-nominated in the nonfiction programming category for “Meerkat Manor,” tries to give the audience a meerkat’s-eye view of the world. “You’re running around in the desert trying to figure out which meerkat is pregnant and which meerkats are fighting,” Waters says. “And you can only go so far down into their burrows because they twist and turn.”
Even “Lost,” which is scripted and works in usually idyllic Hawaii, asks its camera department to battle water, weather and — most of all — time.
“Hiking through the hills and clearing away space in the brush to get the shot can be hard, but doing 30 to 50 setups in a day and making it happen on time is where it gets interesting,” says John Bartley, nommed as d.p. in the hourlong series category. “But if you’re on camera, you make it work or else there’s nothing for anyone to see.”