Life Below Zero cinematographers Michael Cheeseman and Danny Day came in from the cold long enough to find out that they were nominated for more Emmys this year for their Nat Geo docuseries, which is now working on its latest season in remote Alaska.
Cheeseman and Day, already three-time Emmy winners for the show’s cinematography, joined on location with Emmy-nominated editor Jennifer Nelson to discuss one of Nat Geo’s most popular series during Deadline’s Contenders Television: The Nominees all-day event. The network made its love known in January, when it renewed the NatGeo/BBC Studios docuseries and its spinoff Life Before Zero: Port Protection for more seasons and ordered a spinoff, Life Below Zero: Next Generation, which is set to premiere Labor Day weekend.
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The cinematographers are currently in the midst of production. In total, that means schlepping about 60 totes, coolers and cases totaling more than 2,000 pounds of gear for a crew of four. They use snow machines to travel to their locations to film their subjects — a cast of folks who have left traditional society behind to live in the the remote Alaskan wilderness. Shoots last as long as 12-14 hours, with tents, not hotels, to return to at the end of the long days.
To say creating the show has its challenges would be an understatement.
“I liked the challenge, I like natural stories, I like telling stories as best I can without any interruption or any direction, I love figuring out things on the fly and I love the creativity,” said Cheeseman from his location on the north slope of Alaska. “So when I got this job my biggest excitement was the open creativity and documenting something that was absolutely real.”
It’s real alright, with bitter cold temperatures and harsh conditions especially in mid-winter. The veteran duo have learned to make do, figuring out tricks to get the footage required — typically it takes about four days to film an episode, where it goes to Nelson’s team for editing (Life Below Zero won an editing Emmy in 2017 and has been nominated every year since).
Day said the toughest time is mid-winter. “At about negative 22-25 degrees, the camera just doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “I’ve found the best thing is your personal body heat is the best way to keep the batteries warm, even taking a monitor and stuffing it inside your jacket.”
“It happens all the time honestly,” Cheeseman added. “We do bring extra stuff, but things happen constantly in the elements especially the cold weather: Drones will go down, GoPros will go down, monitors will go down, so from there we just need to figure out how to fix it on the spot and we’ve all learned how to fix cameras very quickly.”
Day said the teams employ drone, motion control time lapses and slo-motion cameras to “give it a different angle, just a different way to see what’s going on.” The hard works gives Nelson plenty to work with.
“Part of showing Alaska [is] as a character through this footage, through their specialty cameras, and then also creating that space through music,” she said. “What does it feel like to be there? What does negative 50-degree weather sound like, what does that feel like? So you can do that through music, or sometimes silence. Nat Geo is kinda about people and places, and bringing that all together, tying it all together, is visual, the sound, and the story.”
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