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Stay Frosty: Shooting Ice Road Truckers Calls for Cool Camerawork

Sony gear stands up to the elements to capture this dangerous profession.

By Iain Stasukevich

For the past three seasons, History’s popular reality seriesIce Road Truckers has followed a motley team of grizzled, frostbitten big-rig captains as they haul their cargo across hundreds of miles of Northern Canada’s icy roads and frozen lakes under the most adverse of conditions. Since the beginning, Original Productions has used Sony technology to capture all of the action. As production ramped up on its fourth season, the show expanded their use to include more than 75 cameras, ranging from XDCAM to HDV models, and plenty of decks and monitors.

Ernie Montagna is the equipment manager for Original Productions – headquartered in Burbank, California – and oversees the initial prep for Ice Road Truckers, in addition to their other reality shows like Deadliest Catch and Axe Men. When a new season of Ice Road Truckers begins production, Montagna travels from Burbank to the Fairbanks, Alaska production offices to spend a few weeks outfitting the six truck teams with Sony XDCAMs (a combination of 350, 355, and 700 models fitted with 11x, 19x and 41x HD Canon lenses), Sony Z1s, Z5 and Z7 1/3” camcorders , Sony A1Us, and various rigging equipment like Magic Arms, clamps, and cold-weather housings.

Each truck team consists of a driver and a producer in the big-rig, with a DP and an associate producer/camera assistant following in a chase vehicle. The rigs are mounted with POV and bumper cameras, as well as crash cameras positioned along the outside of the cab and trailer. The producer rides shotgun and takes video of the driver with one of the Z-series cameras. In some cases the gear has just barely survived another one of Original’s grueling productions before Montagna turns it around and sends it back into the field for more punishment.

One of the main Season Four DPs is Patrick Kligel: “Without a guy like Ernie who knows the gear and knows his department, we’d be screwed for sure,” he says.

It’s not as though cameras were malfunctioning left and right; quite the opposite, in fact. Despite sub-freezing temperatures, the Alaskan climate was particularly dry, so moisture was never much of a problem. Still, the extreme cold is one of the reasons Montagna and Kligel prefer the XDCAM disc format over a tape-based solution. “Back in the day we needed to pack all of our tapes otherwise the tape would shrivel and get crinkly in the cold,” Kligel remarks, referring to the practice of spooling a fresh tape to its tail then back to the head. This tightens the media on its core and prevents it from slipping, which causes dropouts and artifacting when recording. “Also when you’re dealing with tape stock you’re dealing with too many moving parts. The discs seems to be a lot more solid – I’ve never seen them stop spinning. We’ve only had a few errors with the XDCAMs, and none of them have been disc related.”

If a camera was left out overnight for a time-lapse shot or for some other reason accumulated a certain amount of frost on its chassis, Kligel used a method of wrapping the affected equipment in a towel, sealing it in a plastic bag, and then wrapping the bag in another towel. After a few hours in one of the chase vehicles, the towel inside the plastic bag has absorbed all the frost while remaining safe from any outside moisture.

A typical 12 to 18-hour day on the ice roads begins at around 4:30am. Kligel rides with veteran driver Hugh Rowland, “The Polar Bear”. The team convenes at the truck yard, where the big rig is outfitted with the POV camera (for the driver, also known as the “diary cam”) and a forward bumper-mounted camera.  “I also used the HXR-MC1s,” Kligel, referring to Sony’s low-profile solid-state HDV camera. “We used that as a crash camera and also for the interior trucks because it’s got a great microphone, auto-iris, and it’s great in low light.” The MC1 captures to a Pro Duo memory stick, and Kligel managed that media on the road with his personal laptop.

“We try to mix it up as much as we can and match each camera from the get-go,” says Kligel, who runs the most cameras out of any team on the show. He uses suction mounts to attach A1Us to the outside of the truck to capture footage of obstacles in the road, weird symmetry and break points in the load, and beauty shots of the truck’s undercarriage or looking over the stacks to catch a shot of smoke pluming out. Each camera uses an HDV codec (except the XDCAMs, which record at 50mbs) at 1920×1080, with a 60i framerate (per Max Post in Burbank) and is fed via firewire into the Sony long-play decks in the back of the truck cab. The producer inside the cab operates a handheld Z1, Z7 or Z5 camera. Occasionally, Kligel will cram an XDCAM in there. “Even though it’s bigger and more cumbersome for the space, I really like the color palette,” he says.

Kligel rides in the chase vehicle with an XDCAM and another A1 and  Z1, along with his personal Canon 5D Mk II. It’s his job and the job of the AP to get as much exterior coverage of their  truck as possible, and there are three primary types of coverage:

The pass-by. Whenever the big rig stops Kligel takes his XDCAM out to cover the action. Then he takes the chase vehicle and jumps ahead to get the shot of the truck passing-by. “The shot is basically a cutaway that you can use for time passage,” Kligel explains.

The roll-over. After Kligel gets his reality coverage but before he jumps ahead of the truck to set up the pass-by, he needs to get some shots of the truck re-entering the highway. He’ll use the XDCAM for the wide shots of the truck pulling away while framing out a smaller camera – an A1U or Z-series camera – placed in the truck’s path to get a shot of it rolling over.

Truck-to-truck. This is the most dangerous, but dynamic, way to shoot a big rig on treacherous, icy roads at 40mph.  Kligel literally hangs out of the chase vehicle with his XDCAM as he and the AP keep pace with the big-rig. (The production provides and encourages the use of safety harnesses, but in a pinch Kligel found that a seat belt wrapped around the waist works just as well with less hassle.)

After six days (for 10 weeks) of almost nonstop shooting the drivers bouncing between Fairbanks and the remote oil fields north of Prudhoe Bay, you’d think would be some time to rest, but no. Once the teams get back to the production offices in Fairbanks they have to sort through hours of raw content. Fortunately, one of the jobs of the AP is to take notes and log tapes in the field, which speeds up the process. Also, when shooting with the XDCAMs, Kligel tended to edit as he shot. “You can look at your clips seconds after you shot them to make sure everything looks good. There’s a safety in that you can walk away knowing you’ve got it in the can,” he notes.