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How Reality and Nonfiction DPs Prepare for the Unexpected

They scale deadly cliffs, swim among sharks in a feeding frenzy and capture shots on a boat rocked by some of the world’s roughest seas. It’s all in a day’s work for the Emmy-nominated reality and nonfiction cinematographers, who must regularly find solutions to some of the most impossible situations imaginable.

“One hundred percent, the most challenging shot of the ’Coastal Seas’ episode was filming in a shark feeding frenzy at night in the middle of French Polynesia,” says Doug Anderson, DP on the “Coastal Seas” episode of the series “Our Planet” and nommed for nonfiction program. “We overcame the challenge through a massive amount of preparation. We ended up making it safe by wearing chain mail shark suits, by using underwater communications, by being certain with other details of our diving equipment, so that if we did get bitten by sharks or any part of our equipment got bitten, that then we had a plan B.”

Sometimes the workaround for a tough environment can be remarkably simple. On “Life Below Zero,” DP Mike Cheeseman used a popular solution to protect his equipment in cold temperatures.

“The thing that we have going for us is preparation,” says Cheeseman, nommed for cinematography on a reality program. “Lots of discussions happen before we go into the field about what we’re trying to achieve and how we’re going to try to achieve it, either storywise or visually.

“Obviously, visually [we] have bullet points of what we’re trying to get. And then once we get out there, I would say 50% of the time it gets on the air. And fortunately, because we’re the individuals that can find these stories so quickly, so fast, then things just unfold in front of us.”

Lensers often must come up with those solutions on the run during shoots because their subjects are rarely in the mood to cooperate. Jamie McPherson, nommed for nonfiction series for the “One Planet” episode of “Our Planet,” also relied on experience.

“The single most difficult shot to get was the shot from within the herd of wildebeest of the wild dogs running toward camera, which leads into the moment that the female wildebeest body-checked her calf to save it from the wild dog,” writes McPherson from his current shoot. “The calf then picks up speed and, in a single shot, runs to the safety of the herd. It is a very high-risk shot, as we had to drive into the wildebeest herd, and I had to try and not only estimate where the dogs would run toward [and] find them through the legs of the wilde­beest, [but] then track with them as they ran toward us at 40 mph. Great fun. That part of the challenge was overcome by my experience in filming this sort of situation and using my instinct to put us in the right place at the right time.”

DP Jimmy Chin, nommed for nonfiction program for “Free Solo,” had to put together a small crew of world-class climbers who would be able to shoot the journey of a lone climber on the quest of a lifetime.

“With independent teams, you don’t have an [assistant camera],” says Chin. “So you’re up there building your own cameras, checking and double-checking your power sources, your media. Nobody is helping you pull focus, and you’re dealing with all of the myriad things that you have to deal with climbing a big wall. Then you have to basically follow one person, who you know and care about and consider a friend, and hope they don’t fall while you’re shooting.”

To create a new experience for “Survivor: Edge of Extinction,” nommed in the reality category, DP Scott Duncan says his team followed a shooting style guide that specified focal lengths and composition. “We were either uncomfortably close to the player, focusing on intimate details to reveal their struggle, or we were extremely wide, using negative space to emphasize the scale of the landscape and the desolation,” he explains.

Matt Aeberhard, nommed for nonfiction cinematography for the “Jungles” episode of “Our Planet,” says he hopes some of his and his colleagues’ footage will inspire interest in the subjects.

“Those of us who do these kinds of shoots see that it’s not good what’s happening to the beings we film and there’s a responsibility to the next generation,” says Aeberhard. “In this show, we were always trying to take advantage of the moment when we could film orangutans. We set out to film them using tools, and that was the first time that had been done professionally. It was all very reactive. And then sometimes you have a male orangutan pushing a tree in the direction of a camera crew, and you have to move very quickly.”

Nommed “Deadliest Catch” series DP David Reichert puts it simply. “You have to learn fast where not to stand on the boat because you could get injured or killed and that would be bad,” he says. “We use cheaper cameras on the decks of the boats because we know we’re going to lose a bunch of them every year, and we learn to function on four hours of sleep a night, but we keep going out on the boat for weeks at a time because it’s so much fun.”

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