Life Below Zero - Shooting Alaska with National Geographic

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In February of 2017 I had the opportunity to shoot two episodes of National Geographic & BBC Worldwide's Emmy Award winning show, "Life Below Zero." As a lifelong fan of National Geographic, this was a dream come true. It was also the most difficult job of my life. We spent two weeks shooting in Central Alaska, in February, miles away from what most of us would call civilization. I thought I'd share some behind the scenes info on how a camera crew operates in such extremes.

Clothing:

During our time in the field, we'd experience temperatures as low as -40f. At this temperature, ice crystals would form inside of the nose, deep into the sinus cavities. Exposed skin hurt. Every day, I wore what was felt like a space suit to protect me. Here's a list of clothing I was provided with by LBZ:

Cameras:

Our camera package was pretty robust considering the size of the crew. There were 3 Canon C300's - A, B, and C cameras. Camera D was our Canon 5d used for stills, timelapse, hyperlapse and our motion control rig. Camera E was our Sony FS700. We used this for ultra-slow motion shots, up to 960 FPS. Cameras W, X, Y and Z were all GoPros, a mix of 3+ & 4's. We also had 2 1x1 LitePanel Astras, a Movi Steadicam Rig, a DJI Phantom 3 Professional Drone, and 4 Lectrosonic Audio Kits. I'd never think that all of this gear would stand up in snow quite as well as they did. I was told not to baby these cameras, and we did not. The first day shooting, the DP had talent throw a shovelfull of snow at his personal camera, the FS700, while I was shooting it. "Right into the lens!" This hazing from Terry also accomplished setting the tone of how we used those cameras. I'd go outside, shoot in -20f, enter our talent's wooden hut, which would be warmed to 70f, wait for the camera to unfog and keep shooting. At the end of the day, I'd clean them up, dry them off and they'd be good to go in the morning. 

Despite the durability of these cameras, they weren't perfect. In extreme cold, batteries die quickly. LCD monitors freeze, creating severe ghosting effects in the viewfinder. I struggled to find focus at times. We would use gaff tape and bongo ties to secure foot warmers to our cameras, but it was often useless. The best way to keep batteries was either in a cooler filled with hand and foot warmers, or to keep them under your jacket, against your body for warmth. On the coldest days, GoPros would freeze over in 15 minutes no matter how warm they were kept prior to shooting. They were completely unreliable in extremes, even attached to larger cell phone backup batteries, kept warm in coolers. Wires are also tricky in the cold, they become brittle and snap even when care is taken. I would use an intervelometer on the 5D for timelapse, holding it up to my face as I programmed it. It would freeze in place and seemingly float in the air where I left it. A wire on the C300 monitor snapped and the camera was rendered useless. I was worried about this, but the rest of the crew reassured me that it happens frequently. Overall, considering the extremes we threw at these cameras, they held up quite well.

Travel:

The most ambitious part of our trip involved us taking snow mobiles on a 150 mile round trip journey through the wilderness, on uncut trails, over frozen lakes and through the woods. We could see the Denali and Alaska mountain ranges between us the whole way, and at night the sky glowed green from The Northern Lights. We were just a dot on a map back in the LA production office, our sat-phones tracking our every move, as we ran over unmapped terrain. Our safety expert packed a shotgun in case of a moose attack. 

We pushed about 60 miles the first day, a little short of our goal. The snowmobiles were overheating on the flat ice lakes, and in the places where there were trails. The snow cooled machines weren't getting enough powder in their intakes. Occasionally, we'd set one down on it's side. All 3 of us would struggle to pull the snow machine out of a bush, or in a dip on the trail. The smaller ones weighed 600 lbs, the bigger one probably 800. Eventually, tired and freezing, we found a small clearing of trees on the edge of an ice lake and set up camp. The "Arctic Ovens" (tents with portable warmers) worked, but the generator was frozen. We couldn't charge batteries for the cameras or do field backups of shot media, which meant we had to shoot smart. 

The second day, we took off early in the morning, while it was still dark. We had to make up miles. We arrived at our destination, shot our scene, called it a wrap and moved on quickly. We all wanted to get back home to avoid another night camping in the negative temperatures, having to find firewood and to dig waist deep snow to set up a tent. As we raced back, my snowmobile's oil alarm started flashing red and beeping. We hadn't packed more oil than we needed, but we were burning so much on the compacted parts of the snow. Our daylight was running out, and so were our options. We went off trail and into a small village, where maybe a dozen people lived. Thankfully, we were able to barter for just enough oil to get us home. We arrived to our modest lodging in our small town late in the night. We'd shot our show and made it home alive. 

 Photos by Terry Pratt

Photos by Terry Pratt

Life Below Zero returns to Nat Geo on July 13th, 2017.