December 17, 2020
Behind the Scen…ic Road: Alaska
I wish I could fully articulate the beauty of Alaska. I have such a distinct visual – standing on the shoreline of the Knik Arm near Point MacKenzie, watching the plethora of colors from the rising sun bounce off the stillness of the water. Everything was so calm you couldn’t tell if that imperceptible movement was the reflection of the rolling clouds or the floating platforms of ice being pushed by the subtle current.
Okay, that got close. But it still doesn’t quite do it justice.
I’ve had the good fortune in life to travel to many different countries, from Chile and Peru to Italy, China, Japan. Nothing has contained the same type of awe and majesty as a snow-covered Alaskan landscape.
Yet while this was a dream location from a work point of view (free trip to Denali? Yes, please!), the beauty hid some fairly tricky obstacles that made this work trip…well, work.
Yep, okay. This one isn’t quite so hidden. Alaska in December is cold. What?! I packed my Tommy Bahama shirts for nothing!
Alaskan winter is cold, but it’s also really cold. Like really, really cold sometimes. In pre-production I was told to prepare for anywhere from minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 45 at worst case scenario. Sure, that’s including the wind factor and cruising around on a snowmobile, but that’s cold. Midwest winters aren’t fun (just ask Jolean in Chicago), but that’s a whole different level.
But moving past the risk of your feet, toes, fingers, etc. falling off, the cold brings other problems. Video equipment doesn’t like being cold. It’s a big-time wuss, but nothing halts a production faster than a frozen camera. The internal workings and computer of a camera as high-quality as the ARRI Alexa Mini likes to stay at a reasonable temperature. Keeping that consistent throughout the day – on the move, from location to location and under severe time constraints – is not easy. You could throw any old DSLR up and that thing would shrug off cold temps like the locals, but then you compromise video quality.
Similarly, the drone is just as picky about its temperature levels, and more difficult yet is that all batteries – both drone and Alexa – are even less protected from the environment. The last thing you need is a drone plummeting onto a group of sled dogs and mushers, or into the side of a ravine because the batteries died mid-flight.
The solution? Hand warmers! Lots and lots of hand warmers, taped or adhered to each battery. Hand warmers in the battery bags. Hand warmers on the sides of the camera body. Hand warmers everywhere, even if that left little for our pockets.
Did the crew come back with all their fingers? Who’s to say. Did we come back with some f*ing beautiful video content? You bet we did.
One thing I will never forget was the day before the race, filming the practice runs. At one point I turned off my headlamp, raised my hand in front of my face and waved. Nothing. It was pitch-dark, like swimming in ink. I illuminated my watch. Four in the afternoon.
Just as you can’t fully prepare for the cold until you’re stuck in it, you can’t appreciate the challenges that come with a dearth of daylight. The obvious challenge is that your time for filming each day is hugely diminished. Full sunrise was roughly 10 or 11am and, as indicated above, it did not stick around long. In a shoot that necessitated outdoors, that called for very careful planning.
However, one other challenge this created was that on the human mind. Speaking for myself, it was a difficult adjustment. Waking before the sun is a common occurrence in this field, but waking before the sun with five or six hours of darkness remaining? That’s hard. And when that sun fades shortly thereafter, it’s tricky to get your body’s circadian rhythm in line. I’m like a houseplant, no matter where you put me it just doesn’t seem like the right spot and I’m in the way and then the cat starts to attack my leaves. I mean, I need plenty of sunlight to thrive. That was a very difficult adjustment, especially in a situation that requires you to be constantly thinking on your feet. Also, your feet are cold.
The body starts to get used to the change, but by the time that happens you’re basically on the plane back home.
This one is more specific to what we shot than where. Following a dog sled team in a major sledding competition is hard work. It takes delicate positioning and steering to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time while also being aware of the safety of those around you.
Luckily, we had an incredibly helpful and amazing local guide to help drive our DP throughout the race. On a following snowmobile tugging a sled of equipment, they had to keep steady pace and balance immeasurable little challenges for 65 miles of racing. That’s a roughly 7-8 hour trek each way – a long time to remain completely focused on a snowmobile rushing across narrow pathways with imminent death on either side.
Add to that the starts and stops to change lenses, batteries, memory cards, cameras, launch the drone, land the drone, catch back up to the race and find your racers…I’m worn out just listing it all.
Simply put, it was a trying and exhausting trip to the finish line, with the start and end being done in complete darkness.
Luckily the way back was simpler, and all our DP had to worry about was holding on for dear life as his guide drove at full-throttle for over 60 miles.
Every production faces unforeseen issues that arise without warning or planning, and it is part of the job to be able to adapt and problem-solve on the fly.
On the morning of the race (the entire reason for the trip), one of our snowmobiles died. Nothing would revive it, despite it working seemingly fine the evening before. We were packing the sled, filming the preparations of the mushers, attaching GoPros to dogs, riders, and sleds…a million things going on at once, each crucial to the result of the production. And then something that you’d put no thought into happening had happened.
It was fortunate that we had one functioning snowmobile as our guide and DP needed that, but we still had to get our producer to the finish line for interviews. We had to beg and plead with complete strangers to find room for her and it was by wild luck that a spot opened up just after the race began. We would have adapted and changed course if that had failed, but when we woke that morning the possibility that of one of our crucial pieces of equipment – that just worked without issue several hours ago – would cease to exist was far down the list of things to worry about.
In the end, we got the job done. Am I still bitter that I was left behind to hike ten miles to the nearest bed and breakfast and beg them to let me stay in a frozen room despite them being closed for the winter season? Not at all!
Okay, maybe a little. Maybe I’m furious. But that’s show business.
If you want to see what we went through all that trouble for, take a look!
-Guest blog by Scenic Road AC/AP Ryan Snyder
If this sounds as exciting and fun to you as it does for us, let’s do a brand film together! Reach out today.