Emmys: Reality TV Cinematographers’ Main Rule? No Script, Keep Shooting

The camera crews nominated for ‘The Amazing Race,’ ‘Deadliest Catch’ and others risked it all, from freezing temps to giant waves to a flooded runway.
Courtesy of Discovery
'Deadliest Catch'

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Competitive reality shows might be hard on the contestants, but they even can be harder on the cinematographers and camera crews that capture the often unpredictable action. Here, the five nominees this year reveal the real behind-the-scenes risks.


For the globe-trotting series' cinematography team, everything happens in real time. "There's no going back and re-creating it; you're running after people who are racing around the globe for $1 million," says director of photography Peter Rieveschl.

"The fear factor is not so much, 'I'll be hanging from a helicopter,' as it's, 'I don't know where they're leading me,' " he adds. "Safety is a huge issue. But also, the idea is to operate in reality; there are very few scenes where we will intervene."

There occasionally are harsh reminders that the race sometimes covers dangerous ground. Recalls Rieveschl of an episode that took them to Kuwait: "We received a list of cities where we are not supposed to go for security reasons; we were only 100 miles from the Iraqi border. But the team we were following couldn't get their act together, and I think we visited every city on that list. Our security team was having trouble keeping up. At one point, [the contestants] stopped to ask directions in a night market, and we were mistaken for a news crew sent to cover a murder that just happened. You're not on a film set; it's the real world."

'The Amazing Race'


"The [fishing] seasons are anywhere from 35 to 70 days, and the camera crew will be out there the entire time," says director of photography David Reichert of working on the hit series, which takes viewers aboard fishing boats in the Bering Sea. "You're out there on the deck, like a fisherman, and you get to know what's dangerous.

"A few seasons ago, we were in a big storm and it was iced up, so the boat gets heavy, which is more dangerous, and we were taking a lot of big waves. One came up over the bow and hit the wheelhouse. The danger there is that it takes out the windows, and this is a power boat; it can kill people, flood the boat or shut the engines down. So one came over and hit the windows. [Capt. Sig Hansen] saw it coming, and I was looking through the camera and he screamed, 'Get down! Get down!' This was in the show. I kind of got down, but it was a good moment to capture. He realized I wasn't getting down and screamed at me. We both hit the floor. Luckily it didn't take the windows out. That whole storm we were in 40-foot seas; the decks were filling with water."


In this documentary series, a small cinematography crew follows subjects who live in Northern Alaska, where it can reach temperatures of 50-below zero. Perhaps the biggest challenge is just staying warm.

"A really good wake-up call was when I went up with the show at the end of season two. I went out, filmed and came back with frostbite into my fingers," says DP Simeon Houtman.

There's also certain scenarios that are more stressful that others. "Ice fishing is always dangerous; it's only a few inches thick, and the shore is probably 30 to 40 yards away," adds Houtman.

"We don't stand too close together because of the weight. It's knowing your surroundings. You'll actually hear the ice crack under your feet. That's quite scary, even though we're pretty safe," he adds, noting that with them is a safety guard "with a throw rope in case we do fall in, and they have to get us out and get us back to camp to get us warmed up. People have fallen in and got wet, but nobody has had to be pulled in with the safety line."

'Life Below Zero'


On Survivor, the cinematography team is tasked with documenting the 39-day competition, and obstacles like storms don't just challenge the contestants, they challenge the crew. "Our task is to keep documenting the mayhem from the contestants as they seek shelter and protect themselves as best as they can," says director of photography Peter Wery. "Due to very strong winds [during one storm], branches started breaking off, torrential rain was pouring down and lighting bolts started striking close by.

"It might sound a little arrogant, but we all thrive on these moments. As crews, we need to shoot these storms at their peak and still try to maintain a great look, praying our gear doesn't go down. We wipe our lenses dry and keep shooting."

The team also has learned to keep a straight face no matter what's taking place. "Most of the time the contestants are either so much into the game or they simply don't have the survival knowledge to foresee the dangers lurking," says Wery, recalling one instance during which a contestant ate a live scorpion. "It's not life-threatening but obviously not a very good idea. The crew that shot it had to keep a poker face and let it happen."


The fifth nominated series in this category — a fashion design competition show hosted by Heidi Klum — has a very different set of pressures. "It's a reality show, but it's an elevated reality show," says director of photography Gus Dominguez. "You have models and a supermodel host; it's not a run-and-gun situ­ation. The biggest pressure is that these contestants, designers, want to put out something beautiful. You have to take their creation and elevate it, or at least represent it as best you can so that their looks are represented. We are presenting that creation to the public."

However, they too have faced the occasional weather challenge — when they were shooting on a set that rained on the models as they walked on the runway. "The water was difficult to shoot and light well," says Dominguez. "It was a hot day in New York. We were shooting on a soundstage, and we had to black out the windows. Humidity was a big issue. Once we turned on the water, the cameras started to fog up and had to acclimate to that environment. We also needed to control the look on the water itself; it was another 'character' in the show."

'Project Runway'