Director of photography Simeon Houtman talks about shooting caribou in minus forty degrees for National Geographic’s Life Below Zero series.
Watching National Geographic’s Life Below Zero series sends a shiver down your spine because the weather conditions always seem to be ice or sub-zero freezing. It’s below 40 degrees as Director of Photography Simeon Houtman tells me and redefines what cold really is.
We caught up to learn about the conditions he worked in to capture his regal shots for the series and how he learned to keep warm when traveling with minimal equipment.
Read our chat below.
Tell me about your background and how you got involved with National Geographic?
I started on Animal Planet while I was living in New Zealand and we were going into cold temperatures, spending three months at sea. I did that for five years and made a lot of contacts and I was able to come to the US and realized all the work and everything I wanted to do was here.
I did another show called Smoky Mountain Money and I did a show in Alaska and got a work visa through that, but I also met someone who was going to film season one of Life Below Zero. I thought it sounded amazing. I actually ended coming on at the end of season two.
From New Zealand to working in Alaska and working in these conditions is quite a change. Talk about your experience working and shooting that.
The first time I went there, I thought I knew what cold was. I had no idea what cold was. The first time I was there, I got frostbite. In Antartica you lose the feeling, it’s a different feeling. To be honest, I was a little afraid of the challenges of shooting in the winters. I did the Summers and then finally, I was able to do it. I remember one time we were up there for one week and it was minus forty. We were doing this story and we were traveling, it was just the two of us. We did an eight-mile hike and set up camp. We were traveling light and so we only had this little heating lamp. We had a tiny stove. We’d set our alarm every hour and a half making sure we were keeping warm. It was December, we were trying to stay warm. We were trying to shoot, cut wood, and keep the cameras good. We got the story. I didn’t see the sun for that week and as we flew out, there was this amazing sunrise. It was just the opposites out there.
What was a typical shooting day like for you?
It really varied. The conditions and what was going on. In the winter, you’re making use of the light and getting stuff done. The cameras don’t want to work in minus 40 degrees. Once you’ve experienced that temperature, it’s not that bad if you prepare properly, you can stay warm and it’s not as bad as you think. Getting the batteries to stay warm or even changing them was a nightmare. There was caribou walking along the frozen lake and it was amazing. We’d be up there and that story was a favorite as well as surreal.
There could be a storm come in and that would change everything.
Was there a particular moment that stood out for you while you were filming?
There were a few, but the herd of caribou was one. We’d wake up on the lake, it was frozen. The caribou are on a seasonal thing, and they’d either be there or they wouldn’t. We’d look up on the hill and there were hundreds of caribou. It was so amazing. We hiked up the hill and they’re just amazing animals.
There was the moment with the moose. When the lake freezes, if it doesn’t snow, it actually makes the most out of this world sounds that you’d never imagine. Think of sounds in Star Wars. When you walk on it, the water is so clear and you’d hear the water underneath where it’s frozen, the sound was amazing. I’d sit there and listen to the sound from the lake, look up at the stars.
The sound is so hard to explain, I’d drop the microphone in, but it’s hard to explain and fully capture. They did actually use it.
Go back to the technical stuff and the camera format and lens choices.
It would depend on the situation. When it’s winter I’d use 24, 50 and sometimes 85 mm prime. If we’re moving around, I’d have a wonderful 100 for any wildlife we’d see. We’d just have an array of lenses that we could use.
The beauty of the show is they’re so supportive and each time I’d try to come back with something that was different.
The drone is awesome. That was another challenge to keep the batteries warm. We’d have water coolers and water bottles to keep the batteries warm. You’d put them in the drone and fire it up in the air and your hands would be freezing.
If you got the shot, you got the shot and it would make everything so worth it.