Life Below Zero has been entertaining viewers on National Geographic for an astounding 17 seasons so far. One of the main reasons for the popularity of the documentary series is primary subject Sue Aikens, who lives by herself in a remote area of Alaska, almost 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
The 58-year-old grandmother possesses a remarkable capacity to put her experience into words.
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“Every day I get up and I look in that mirror. I review what I did the day before, and if I need to make amends for something, I do it immediately. And if I did something really great, you’ll hear me go, ‘Yay, Sue! Go Sue!’” Aikens recounted as she and members of Life Below Zero’s production team joined Deadline’s Television: Documentary + Unscripted event.
“Even from a young child, I lived in between my own ears more than I did anywhere else… And I think in pictures, so I try to describe how I live, how I feel, in colors, shapes and sounds. But I only have words, and a deathly stare.”
Field producer Crofton Diack has become accustomed to filming with Aikens in frigid conditions.
“The very first leg that I went out with Sue we got separated from our food. Just all these crazy things happened. But it was a hundred below,” Diack recalled. “There was 24 hours there where I really didn’t think we were going to make it because the stove didn’t start and it was just terrible. But we did. Being in Sue’s company is intense and it’s fun. And every day I don’t know what we’re doing. We have an idea of what might happen, and then a wolf shows up and so you’re going to film that, or Sue’s going to discover something.”
Cinematographer Michael Cheeseman has won multiple Emmys for his work on the show. One of his key challenges involves simply keeping the cinematic equipment in working order. It’s not designed for super-cold temperatures.
“The specifications of the manual says, ‘Don’t use the camera below 32 degrees,’ and then we’re shooting in negative 70. So, definitely, they’re going to malfunction,” Cheeseman said. “We take these hand warmers that you buy at Home Depot or wherever and you just open them up, shake them and put them on to the cameras and just hope for the best. We put batteries in our pockets. We put batteries in cases with hot water bottles. We do whatever we can to keep those batteries warm and the cameras warm as long as possible… It’s just a constant battle of trying to make the cameras work.”
Life Below Zero follows multiple characters, all of whom choose to live in a very cold environment, experiencing many privations.
“This season, we’re trying to push the storytelling intimacy of finding out what makes these participants tick,” executive producer Joe Litzinger said. “Sue is not shy in sharing her feelings or sharing her internal conflicts and [we’re] just sort of leaning into that and figuring out also the ‘why,’ why not only are [these people] out there, why do they move out there, but why are they staying out there? Just trying to drive deeper into the emotional and storytelling components of it, thematically, is something we’re exploring a lot in this new season.”
Aikens also discusses her one companion, a rugged customer she calls “Little Red” who occasionally requires a bit of TLC: “Little Red definitely has a personality,” she said. “Sometimes he’s crankier than I am, which is hard to imagine.”
Check out the panel video above.
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