Welcome to the salad days of adventure TV. Series depicting real people taking serious risks have left the developmental sidelines to become top cable-programming goals. "Networks get that there's a huge audience for these shows," says John Smithson, chief creative director of London-based adventure-film company Darlow Smithson Productions. The Discovery Channel has cashed in with a range of winners, from Man vs. Wild to Deadliest Catch, which follows crab fishermen working the Bering Sea. But others—like the History Channel, which premieres its chronicle of the rugged citizens of the North Country, Tougher in Alaska, in May—are catching up, which means more jobs to come in high-adrenaline entertainment. So what does it take to make a truly hazardous hit? To find out, JOE SPRING joined a 25-member field crew from Original Productions in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, while they filmed Deadliest Catch's fourth season (premiering April 15). Here's the lowdown on six key positions.
Creator/Executive Producer Thom Beers, 52
The owner and founder of Burbank-based Original Productions, Beers oversees 14 series airing on nine networks, manages a $2.5 million monthly payroll, and green-lights pilots of new projects that could lose him millions. "Every nickel I ever made, I put it into an Avid [editing system] or a camera," says Beers. "I risked everything and invested my future in this company. It's paid off."
Senior Producer Ethan Prochnik, 44
Former cameraman Prochnik now directs the film team from his overheating cell phone in L.A., tracking stories and advising on shooting priorities. He then helps carve a season from 10,000 hours of footage. "I'm sitting with a pipe while the guys are in blizzard. I was done with puking into the sea."
Supervising Producer Lisa Tanzer, 43
She's the task master, handling scheduling and helping with hiring and other nuts and bolts. She also manages the occasionally volatile relationship with the crab-boat captains. "You have to be even-tempered, a diplomat, a decision maker. My guys are technical, but they're artists and they're risking their lives."
Director of Photography Doug Stanley, 45
A former Colorado River runner with two family members on the crew—his wife, Rhea, is a sound supervisor, and his brother, Todd, is a cameraman—Stanley oversees massive amounts of equipment and directs cinematography while also shooting footage himself. "We're specialists at going in and getting the story. Part of that comes from being river guides, telling tales around the campfire."
Cameraman/Producer Eric Lange, 38
Lange starts by hanging with the crabbers in the bars ("You watch for tension"). At sea, he takes waves in the face and inhales the unholy scent of unbathed fishermen. "What stands out for me is that moment we're on the iced-over deck looking at the stars."
Gyroscopic Camera Operator Dave Arnold, 36
Manually tilts, pans, and zooms a $600,000 specialty camera—while seated in a helicopter frequently batted by 50-knot Arctic winds and capable of flying 100 miles per hour. "This is the one camera that can show a small boat in a huge ocean."
How to Break In Turns out those years of dedication to climbing or kayaking or skiing are actually good for your résumé ("Told you, Dad!"). Making adventure TV requires physical work, and production companies value athletic prowess. Of course, they care even more about your technical skills and creative talents. Here's where to start. 1. Get basic training. Some insiders point to quality film programs, like those at USC or NYU. Others say to shmooze your way into a low-level position and learn on the job. 2. Make a short film to market yourself. After college, cameraman/producer Don Bland created a music video. "I showed it to an editor at Warren Miller and he gave me a job." 3. Take any on-set job. Thom Beers started as a production assistant for commercials when he was 30, and the oldest guy in the room. Series producer Matt Renner's first gig was as a sound tech on a porn shoot ("I didn't know it was going to be porn until I was in the middle of it.") 4. Target production companies that specialize in adventure. Some of the best: Original Productions (origprod.com), Darlow Smithson Productions (darlowsmithson.com), Serac Adventure Films (Boulder; seracfilms.com), and Moore Huntley Productions (Boston; moorehuntley.com). 5. Once you're in, keep pushing. "If you work your ass off and are willing to do anything," says Deadliest Catch co-executive producer Jeff Conroy, "this is actually a really easy business."