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Trek Through the Wilderness: The Alaska Experiment

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Shooting Discovery Channel’s Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment proved to be a study in survival.

By Julia Camenisch

In September of 2008, a group of hardy adventurers was dropped off in Alaska’s interior for a month-long expedition of endurance. With not much more than the gear in their backpacks, they were given instructions to hike back to civilization before the oncoming winter made it impossible. And accompanying the show’s participants on this wilderness trek were some equally hardy camera and producer crews. Their mission was not just to survive the hike but to capture what was needed for the second season of Discovery Channel’s Out of the Wild: The Alaska Experiment. That meant hauling gear, living in tents and enduring harsh weather.

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The second season of The Alaska Experiment changed substantially from the first. “Discovery wanted to change up the creative approach,” says Heath Banks, who was in charge of production on location for Los Angeles-based Pilgrim Films & Television, which produced the show for Discovery. “We looked at last season to see what worked and what didn’t. Rather than having participants who knew each other dropped in one location and surviving, we wanted to make it more challenging. There wasn’t as much drama as there could have been that first season because the participants were stationary. So a big choice in putting them on the move was that they were constantly fighting for something.” 

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Five camera crews and three producer teams were assembled to handle production. Each crew included a camera operator, an AC and a sound recordist. The producer teams were made up of a field producer, a segment producer and an associate producer. Because of the strenuous nature of this shoot, the camera team was carefully selected. “We went through a process of finding people who had done things like Survivor, so they were gung ho for this type of environment,” says Banks. “They would trek through the marsh and through the wilderness with the participants.” But even for these experienced pros, he notes that the terrain itself was a challenge: “The hard part about this type of hike is the ground. When you see it from above, from a helicopter, it looks pretty flat. But when you step out onto it, it feels like a sponge. A normal three-mile trek feels like eight miles when you’re walking through that type of stuff.” 

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Each of the four weeks on the trail followed a similar pattern. The show’s participants were given a map to the next location. They would then hike there, set up camp and stay for three days, gathering food and preparing for their next journey. During days in camp, the camera crews shot with Panasonic AJ-HDX900s and Sony HVR-V1Us, and usually had about five cameras going. But once the hiking resumed, the lighter, compact V1Us became the main workhorses.

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Overall, Banks says, the cameras held up very well, even through the bad weather days. “The biggest challenge was that you’re out in the elements and the cameras have a constant need for cleaning,” he describes. “There’s a lot of moisture that can get into them. We had a full camera tech crew that rotated in shifts, and we had a camera tent with heaters on location so the cameras could be dried out and cleaned overnight. We also had small Honda generators that were used in the field for our electricity needs.”

The production crew had to be ready day and night to capture events in the field and sometimes worked very long days. Add to that hiking miles along rough terrain and a crew could quickly wear out. In order to make sure they got needed rest, a rotation schedule was devised with three working shifts.

“We’d always have a camera and producer team on deck at our last jumping off point in High Lake Lodge, Alaska,” Banks explains.  “From there, they’d go by helicopter out to where everyone was. They’d be on a 24-hour shift out there. Then they would go to a 12-hour daylight shift, just shooting in the camp. From there, they would go to a flex-shift where they just focused on shooting B-roll. So you’re just constantly rotating your crews.”

Contact was as limited as possible between the show’s participants and the crews. In order to keep the “fly on the wall” feel, the crew tried not to speak to or engage the team in any way, and audio was captured mostly with boom mics. During the 24-hour shift, crew members lived in a production camp that was set up so they’d be close enough to hear if something went on in the camp, but far enough so they couldn’t necessarily be seen.

From a logistics angle, the four weeks on the trail provided many headaches. “When we first started, I wondered how we would do this. There were no roads and no place to land out on the field. Everything had to be flown into High Lake Lodge, and from there, a helicopter brought supplies out to the field. At High Lake Lodge, we would attach slings to the helicopter, sort of a netting with a tarp, and then load everything on it to send out.”

These helicopter trips served double duty, providing a chance to get sweeping aerial shots of the landscape and the team. “One of them was rigged with the Cineflex camera system the entire time. We would do our aerial shots every day on the way back and forth from the field.” Gyrostabilized, the Cineflex from Aerial Filmworks had been used to great effect on such reality series as Survivor and Deadliest Catch.

The Out of the Wild  producers didn’t give their participants a whole lot of direction. “They would give them the map to the next location, but their interaction beyond that was limited.” There was one exception, however, says Banks with a chuckle. “If the team started going in the wrong direction, the producers would let them. But if they went a mile the wrong way, the producers would intervene and say, ‘Maybe you guys want to look at this a different way.’ You just didn’t want them going off five miles in the wrong direction out there.”

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