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Alaska: The Last Frontier – A Camera Man’s Call Of The Wild

By: Marjorie Galas

Homer, Alaska is called “the end of the road” by travelers trekking through the countryside. A lightly populated fishing town located in the southern region of Alaska, is boasts snowy winters and muddy summers. Homer is home to the Kilcher clan; a family of men and women who live a genuine frontiersman lifestyle: no electricity, plumbing or modern conveniences.

The day to day activates of the Kilcher’s frontier life is the focus of Discovery Channel’s 2014 Emmy nominated Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program “Alaska: The Last Frontier.” A crew of DPs and camera operators live at the Kilcher’s level, capturing their hunting excursions, cattle wrangling and challenges of family rearing in the bitter elements. Their efforts resulted in an Outstanding Cinematography for Reality Programming Emmy nomination for season three. While some crew members ventured into other pastures, DP Leif Johnson remained for season four. Working with frequent collaborators DP Eric Billman and senior camera operator David Short, the team continued their commitment to recording excellent images despite challenging circumstances.

“The work is always dictated by the activities of the day, from fishing and hunting to dealing with livestock,” said Johnson. “There’s lots of rain and mud. I like the challenge of bringing electronic equipment into these conditions. It’s never boring.”

Each member of the camera crew has a background in shooting reality programs. Johnson worked on “Axman”; Billman on “American Logger” and Short had some time on “Surprise Homecoming” before joining “Alaska in 2012. A major prerequisite to taking a job on the series is a love for rugged living.

“Growing up in South Carolina, I would play in the woods and make movies,” said Short. “This is a job that melds those two loves together. I live in the wild in a camp, sometimes taking a day just to get a fire started. Filming is an element of that day.”

Added Billman, “It’s all about being outside and having that adventure. We are being paid to have this beautiful experience. It’s hard to beat.”

The “Alaska” production schedule runs from March through December. The crew members shoot for six weeks at a time (with a week or two break between runs). The producers supply the team with the essentials to prepare the crew for the long days outdoors, including roughed shoes and warm jackets. Crew members also go through weight training and aerobic workouts to prepare for lugging camera equipment and generators across river beds and long stretches of barren land. With members of the team coming from New York, California and other states, preparing to separate from the comforts of everyday life is also factored into pre-shoot prep.

“There’s a lot of mental preparation. We are going to be in the middle of nowhere. I make sure my wife and family have the producers’ contacts,” said Billman. “I also bring bear flares and material to keep the cameras covered. Staying dry is half the battle.”

The camera team continually reviews and discusses best practices for capturing footage. They work with long lenses and focus on “just getting the shot” without excessive zooms. Their goal is to achieve steady camera work at all times. If mud and water are kicked into the shot and on the lenses, the team incorporates the elements captured in the gritty reality.

“It’s got a real ‘shoot from the hip’ rough feel. That’s our intention, to show that it’s dirty and messy,” said Johnson. “Getting some water on the lens lets the audience know it’s real.”

The camera team frequently deals with equipment or shoes that get stuck in the mud, making steady shots incredibly challenging. Regardless of the terrain, Johnson, Bilman and Short note the most challenging scenarios to capture are hunting excursions. They balance their own safety with remaining out of frame. Multiple angles are covered from a distance, aiming to capture the action in profile shots.

“You’ve got mosquitos buzzing in your ear, you’re holding a camera around your neck and you are trying not to get shot. I suck it up and forget about my own fears or feelings,” said Short. “I’ve got to get the shot and monitor the audio, which is a really big part of the job.”

With Season Four’s finale currently airing on the Discovery Channel, each member of the camera crew hopes to return for season five. They’ve appreciated living a lifestyle their forefathers’ lived and feel they have learned a great deal about nature and survival they intend to pass on to future generations. While reality television is their livelihood, they agree there isn’t going to be an experience that matches their time on “Alaska: The Last Frontier.”

“This is adventure time you can’t find anywhere else,” said Billman. “This show is special. It’s tough to beat. Maybe I’ll never work again after this.”

Established in 2007, Discovery Studios is the full-service production studio within Discovery Communications that creates, develops and produces high-quality, innovative original series, specials and short-form content across multiple genres –from science and natural history to reality and lifestyle.  To learn more about “Alaska: The Last Frontier” please visit: