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The “Cold, Foreboding” (But Cinematic) Look for “Life Below Zero”

"This is not a vacation spot – this is the tundra of Alaska."

Jessie and his dogs in ‘Life Below Zero.’

Life Below Zero, the multiple Emmy award-winning docu-reality series currently airing its 12th season, depicts the everyday struggles facing those living off the grid in remote areas of Alaska. Since its launch in 2013, over 130 episodes have been produced by BBC Studios for National Geographic, all of them in close collaboration with Margarita Mix Hollywood, a FotoKem company.

“When we started the show, there were over a dozen Alaska-based series on air and we knew we were going to have to work really hard to stand apart from that crowd,” explains executive producer Travis Shakespeare. “We decided to take the rule book and tear it up, applying a style to the show that no one had yet attempted. The idea was to bring an incredibly filmic style to the series.”

At that time, most reality shows employed handheld “shaky cam.” Single cameras with prime lenses were rarely used – nor did Life Below Zero’s budget allow for shooting with high-end cinema cameras.

Chip and Agnes Hailstone go out trapping.

However, preparation for Season 1 coincided with the release of the Canon EOS C300. The filmmakers jumped at the chance to work with primes in the field and capture a cinematic look within the confines of reality TV.

“People have said they interpret the look we apply as a horror patina,” says Shakespeare. “We use a lot of filming techniques, such as handheld shots with GoPros, that would recall the horror genre. The imagery can be incredibly raw. We never shy away from the brutality of life in the bush, and while the killings in the show are for subsistence, we also chose to show the stark reality of what it is to cut a wild animal open in order to feed yourself.”

The natural blood red colors are, in fact, desaturated in the grade to make it more palpable for viewers. Margarita Mix colorist Michael Mintz has worked with the team from episode one to create a palette that heightens the sense of cold, pulling out some reds and emphasizing murky greys.

“There’s a deliberate, unwelcoming feel to the colors that is typical of horror,” says Shakespeare.

Mintz says the goal was to achieve a feeling of “cold foreboding” but one not so overly affected it looks fake. “Even though the establishing shots of the landscape are beautiful, Travis doesn’t want to make it too inviting,” Mintz notes. “This is not a vacation spot – this is the tundra of Alaska.”

Mintz recommended a pseudo bleach bypass for color temperatures, adding a 16mm-style texture for further grit on the Nucoda color grading system.

Andy Bassich collects firewood before winter sets in.

The biggest challenge has been achieving continuity in footage from multiple DPs working in subzero conditions hundreds of miles apart from one another. In the field, four teams are made up of a producer, DP and DIT (plus an armed safety guide/camp manager). They are assigned to shoot stories over a four-day period per episode, or 16 shooting days on average. Shooting days might extend if, for example, the story necessitates following a moose hunt over several days.

Alongside handling media, the DIT will also work a second camera. After downloading to drives, the media is shipped to FotoKem in Burbank for ingest. BBC Studios (a commercial subsidiary of the BBC) has an editorial office at one of FotoKem’s buildings, plus a dedicated T1 fiber optic link to Margarita Mix Hollywood.

Chip Hailstone does some ice fishing.

“There’s no need for drives to be transported, so when BBC Studios is done with their edit, we get sent the high-res files and get to work,” Mintz explains.

The offline assistant editors send the production team an Avid bin via a direct Nexis connection which they use to copy the Avid bin and consolidate the media to a local Nexis store. From this, an AAF file is sent to the colorists to grade.

Before heading into the wild, crews are given two days of intensive training to educate them in the technical and thematic attributes of the series.

“For the first three seasons we were showrunning on location to create a system of indoctrination,” Shakespeare adds. “It works like a dog pack: when we introduce a new person into the mix, they become part of the system. We show them clips of things we thought worked really well and clips that are not stylistically in line with our objectives.”

Wide shots, for example, are an important storytelling technique serving to emphasize the scale of the landscapes surrounding the human characters. Operators will naturally revert to a wide, medium and close up, but Life Below Zero tends to eschew the mid shots in favor of placing humans in the vast wilderness.

Having established a workflow with Margarita Mix from episode one, the producers have honed it over successive seasons. From the moment footage lands at the facility, each episode goes through an 8-week cycle.

Material from the Canon is supplemented by media from GoPros and a DJI Mavic drone. More than 100 hours is typically culled from the field and nurtured by BBC America into each 47-minute episode.

“Maintaining continuity is a challenge not only with the changes in locations but the changes in climate which can alter hour to hour and minute to minute from a clear beautiful day to a total white out,” Mintz says. “It’s a primary color grading process to match the different pieces together and achieve a cohesive feel between scenes.”

Online Editor Brady Betzel will also be working on another episode in the series incorporating additional texture and graphics, sometimes supplied by BBC Studios or created at Margarita Mix.

“Graphics tend to be used during transitions between one part of the show and another,” Mintz explains.

Online editorial and color grading aside, FotoKem and Margarita Mix Hollywood also perform audio mixing (dialogue editorial), paint outs and removal of drones and crew, addition of blur (for legal reasons), and QC. The show’s master is HD 1080p Rec.709 from which the facility creates deliverables, uploads to the BBC, and makes international versions.

The creative partnership between the producers and the DPs in the field with Margarita Mix back home has yielded numerous Emmy®nominations including three wins for Outstanding Cinematography for a Reality Program, most recently for Season 10.

“The FotoKem and Margarita Mix people are incredibly talented, professional and a joy to work with,” says Shakespeare.

Mintz, who has been working as a colorist for nearly 30 years, sees this as one of the few shows with a strong creative bond between post and producer. “We’re not just waiting for orders from the client. We truly collaborate with them to create whatever is needed to bring out the best for this show. It’s been a tremendously rewarding experience.”