Life Through a Lens
December 15, 2016
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Life Through a Lens

A Glimpse Into the Life of an Outdoors Cameraman

by Eric Lewis

Camera-InterviewHunting for a living— how could it get any better than that?” I feel safe in saying this is a phrase hunters have said aloud or at least thought a few dozen times in their lives. While it seems like a glamorous gig on the surface, a small amount of digging can reveal that filming hunts for a living isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

I was fortunate to grow up hunting with my dad. I also spent every weekend watching Bill Jordan, Michael Waddell, Jackie Bushman and many other—for lack of a better term— “classics” on television. I remember taking my mom’s huge VHS camcorder into the field and pretending I was filming my own hunting and fishing shows. Needless to say, none of these “shows” ever made it to the big screen.

Horseback-CameraCameraman-Selfie

Twelve years or so later, I was a soon-to-be college graduate with a dream of professionally filming hunts. I could travel the world and go on extravagant hunting trips while being paid to do so! With that thought in mind I took out a loan, upgraded all of my camera equipment, began fine-tuning my techniques and gained familiarity with the gear.

When considering this career path, most do not fully understand all the circumstances they will encounter on the job. I quickly discovered some of the items on that list:

1. A cameraman can make or break a hunt. You must be stealthier than the hunter. Spooking a trophy animal during an arduous hunt can damage your reputation and ultimately your career.

2. You’ll carry twice-as-much equipment as your hunter and guide.

3. The hunter rarely asks if the animal is in frame.

4. You’ll be told to get shots that are simply un-artistic and, well, dumb.

5. You must be in the same physical condition as your hunter. Chasing some of these hunters around the mountains is as difficult as retracing the path of a mountain goat.

6. You do not have the luxury of being injured or having technical difficulties.

7. The weather is seldom favorable on a hunt.

***

Cameraman-Lens-ViewAs with any job, there are always those moments when you ask yourself, “What in the heck am I doing here?” No one knows this rings more truly than my good friend and professional outdoors cameraman, August Peters. August found himself in one such scenario while filming in Africa. He had just completed filming a 14-day safari in Zimbabwe when he and the PH (professional hunter/guide) traveled into Mozambique, a quick trip consisting of a 1½-hour boat ride; a 1½- hour drive down a cattle trail; two hours on a dirt road; and eight hours on pavement from their camp.

CameramanDriving toward the hotel at 11 p.m. to pick up the hunter/ host he would be filming, August and his PH made a turn onto a one-way street—driving in the wrong direction! By the time they realized they had made the mistake, two police officers armed with AK-47s were in front of their vehicle holding the two hunters at gunpoint. The officers screamed at them in Portuguese, never batting an eye or moving the barrels of their AKs from two hunters. The PH could only repeat, “Sorry! I’m a tourist! Sorry!”

In a panic, the PH turned over all of his identifying documents, a big “no-no” in this country, and something August had been warned many times NOT to do. After 10 minutes of uncertainty and worry, the two men were released to retrieve the hunter/host from his hotel and return to camp for their safari.

A more common “what-am-I-doing-here” scenario comes when battling Mother Nature herself. The only thing worse than being cold is being wet and cold. The only thing worse than being wet and cold is being wet and cold with the wind blowing 30 miles per hour. This summarizes my other cameraman friend, Chase Greenville, on his trip to Buffalo County, Wisconsin, in pursuit of monster whitetails.

He was filming with a friend of his for seven long days. By long, I mean sunup to sundown for seven days straight while sitting in a stand in the elements. Chase says it best: “Every day we got rained on, sleeted on, and the wind would get above 20 mph. I had never experienced that kind of cold. Every morning it would start off in the low teens, and somewhere between lunch and the evening hunt, we were rained on at least twice. That’s when the wind would pick up and crush my soul.”

It’s one thing to go through this kind of hardship and end on a high note by taking a trophy buck, but it’s another thing entirely to “eat tag soup” and not get an animal. This was exactly the outcome for Chase on this trip. He endured seven days of waking up three hours before sunrise to setup for the hunt, carried 40 pounds of camera gear through the woods in only a wool shirt and pants to prevent sweating, and nearly froze to death for 13 hours until dark, and only left empty-handed. On a positive note, Chase got the feeling back in the toes of his right foot four months later.

Another frustrating aspect of filming in the outdoors, especially when it’s for a television show, is keeping the hunter engaged with the audience. As Chase put it, “I think the most frustrating part of our job is trying to walk the line between great TV and the letting the hunter hunt.” Many hunters don’t realize that we, as cameramen, need more than a kill shot for our mission to be accomplished. We need just as much “b-roll” as action footage to fully tell a story onscreen.

Through-Lens-MomentsMost are very cooperative in the beginning and conduct themselves with enthusiasm, but as the hunt nears its end and the hunter has yet to tag their targeted animal, things quickly go downhill. “The sound bites get few and far between, and you can forget about stopping the hunt for 15 seconds to get a great shot (on camera),” Chase said. It’s at this point in the hunt that our next hardship comes into play. Most hunters know how hard it is to stealthily navigate the woods without alerting our elusive prey, and this is only carrying a small pack and a rifle.

Camera-SharkEven though we are filming, outdoors cameramen have virtually all the same hunting gear as the hunter, minus the firearm, with the addition of complete camera gear and accessories. Imagine carrying a 5-foot long, telescoped tripod with a camcorder on it, weighing a total of 12 pounds. Every time you allow the carbon fiber or aluminum tripod to hit a tree limb, what seems like an amplifier emits the most artificial metallic scratching sound imaginable. “That’s not so bad,” you might be thinking. Now add a backpack with, at minimum, a DSLR camera, batteries, microphone accessories, lenses, and normal hunting gear for a grand total of around 40-50 pounds. Things just became much more difficult in terms of stealth.

Camera-Hog-HuntingProfessional cameramen have to know their gear inside and out. It’s a near-guarantee things will go wrong with equipment at the worst possible moment. Batteries will die prematurely in the severe cold, and it always seems to happen with a trophy in the hunter’s sights.

Not only must the hunter pause his conquest for the battery to be changed, but the cameraman also has to make the swap without alerting the animal—and do so expediently—so the quarry does not run away. One of Chase’s good friends told him, “A sign of a good cameraman is when everything goes wrong, but no one noticed.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
My first few trips filming for hunters went well. I enjoyed every aspect of what I did. From filming marlin fishing in Cabo San Lucas to being stalked in a river bottom by wolves in the gorgeous mountains of British Columbia, I truly lived my dream. I went through struggles afield that made me question my choice in occupation often. The major issue I had was I’d been more concerned with capturing an image or videoing the scene than actually living and experiencing the moment.

Cameraman-AirplaneEven when traveling for leisure I found myself constantly trying to take my experience and harness it, while completely missing it in the process. Don’t get me wrong; a cameraman absolutely must capture the adventure on film. After all, it’s what we are being paid to do. I am referring to the atmosphere, the surroundings, the scenery and the general aura of what is going on.

Sean Penn plays a famous outdoor photographer for LIFE magazine in the recent film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In pursuit of photographing a snow leopard atop a mountain in Afghanistan, he and Walter Mitty, played by Ben Stiller, wait for the animal to appear. When the elusive “ghost cat” steps perfectly into the shot, Sean sits in awe. Mitty asks, “When are you going to take it?”

“Sometimes I don’t,” Penn’s character replies. “If I like a moment, I mean me—personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” This resonated with me. The trick is to balance the work with the overall experience.

Do not be afraid to ask the hunter to snap some pictures of you. I can’t count the number of times I have been in a unique location taking photos of my clients and not thought to take, at minimum, a selfie with my smartphone. Do not be afraid to stop and marvel at all Mother Nature has to offer. Rest assured, the hunter is doing the same thing and will completely understand your wanting to do so with him or her.Cameraman-horseback

I have given a glimpse into some of the hardships of being an outdoors cameraman, but please do not be misled into thinking this is a bad gig. I assure you it’s not. This is a job that offers some of the most unbelievable experiences the world has to offer. Most people will never experience walking next to wild elephants, hearing a lion roar outside with only a tent wall for protection, witnessing the sheer beauty of New Zealand’s jagged mountains and crystal streams, or being held at gunpoint in Africa while sitting in an office cubicle.

Haunted-House-LensIt only happens by travelling to these destinations. Being able to say doing these things is an occupation? Now that, my friends, is the life. I have met many amazing people and have been able to witness scenery that words simply cannot do justice in terms of describing its beauty.

I have battled the elements, climbed mountains, and built fires out of spruce limbs to stay warm in a blinding snowstorm. I’ve dived into mile deep oceanic waters to film marlin releases, pulled a massive hammerhead shark onto a boat in the dark, and jumped into ponds from a helicopter. I’ve slept in haunted hunting cabins, filmed illegal immigrants trespassing in front of a deer blind, and done many other things while filming I would have never experienced otherwise and would not trade for anything. I’m fortunate to film for Trophy Hunters TV on occasion while still doing the office work I enjoy at TTHA.

I agree with Chase when he said, “I love my job! A lot of people say that, but if you won the lottery tomorrow would you still show up on Monday to work? I know I would!” Life is an adventure, guys and gals. Get out there and live it!

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