National Geographic’s “Life Below Zero” calls for director of photography Michael Cheeseman to always have a camera ready as he follows the cast and their struggles to live off the grid in remote Alaska.
Cheeseman is one of many cinematographers who work in the unpredictable world of nature. Others include “Deadliest Catch’s” David Reichert and “Serengeti’s” Richard Jones. Whether using a drone or a GoPro, these artisans are used to filming in extreme conditions and have learned to become resourceful when taking care of their gear miles from production houses.
Cheeseman, for example, often finds himself in subzero temperatures using equipment not built for such brutal weather.
“I’ll use my iPhone a lot for the GoPro, and it can die within 10 seconds. I have to put it right back in my jacket. The camera batteries can die too,” he says.
In order to elongate the life of equipment such as his phone, he doesn’t keep it out in the elements for long. He stores his gear in heavy-duty Pelican cases and keeps hand warmers or hot bottles inside to keep his batteries from freezing.
“I’ve learned if we’re outside, you take out what you need, but to stop the other batteries from dying, you have to close that case within a minute,” he says.
In such conditions, the LED displays often stop working and Cheeseman doesn’t need a temperature check on the weather to know how the camera is performing. Once the LED display goes off, he’ll use the viewfinder. But that isn’t without its challenges, either, because when subjected to subzero temperatures, the viewfinder will freeze or fog over. “Often, we’re shooting blind,” he says.
Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch” similarly sees its camera crew battling elements. The show has been following 100-foot crab boats out to the remote waters along the Bering Strait during king crab and snow crab fishing season and it’s no easy feat. Once the boat leaves the shore, it’s night shoots, 30-foot waves and long days as the camera gang works to capture the fishing crew.
Reichert, who has been working on the show for more than 10 seasons, says its key to have an iron stomach. But beyond that, it is about being resourceful with protecting gear.
“We lose 10 cameras a season,” he estimates, citing a combination of big waves that cause cameras to fly overboard and salt spray, which causes erosion of functionality over time.
Reichert and his camera crew use “Panasonic cameras that have dual ISO technology in their VariCam LT,” which “create cinematic images,” he says. An old-fashioned Ziploc bag, silicon glue and electric tape have proven to be the most effective form of protecting the gear over “custom housing and specialty covers,” he says.
Discovery’s “Serengeti,” on the other hand, put its crew in the middle of the African desert to fim lions and leopards, which comes with its own complications.
“It’s hot and the cameras do overheat,” Jones admits. “We have a stabilized gimbal system, but black carbon fiber will get hot, especially at mid-day.”
Jones was often able to avoid such risks by going out early in the morning to film, which also happened to be the time when such animals were at their most active.
But for Reichert, capturing the best moments on “Deadliest Catch” are often when the crew is “having our worst moments, elements-wise, and we don’t compromise that for the camera,” he says. “We need to make it the best possible footage we can.”