Primetime: Discovery's 'Alaska - The Last Frontier'
Issue: August 1, 2014

Primetime: Discovery's 'Alaska - The Last Frontier'

HOLLYWOOD — Discovery Studios, the full-service production company within Discovery Communications, is in production of Season 4 of the popular program, Alaska: The Last Frontier. The show has been nominated for two Emmys under the “Unstructured Reality Program” and “Reality Cinematography” categories, and follows the Kilcher family, who live on a 600-acre homestead in Alaska. For four generations, the family has lived off the land in a subsistence lifestyle.  Much of the program details the preparations the family makes to survive the brutal Alaskan winters. 

Post recently caught up with executive producer Daniel Soiseth and director of photography/co-EP Brian Mandle, who were working on delivering an increased episode count for Season 4. The first season contained just three episodes. That number grew to 13 for Season 2 and 16 for Season 3. Season 4 will span 24 one-hour episodes, several of which were already completed when we spoke with the duo.

Here, in a Post exclusive, they detail the show’s production, post and unique challenges.

Post: There’s a big leap to more episodes this season?

Daniel Soiseth: “When a show starts to do well, the appetite gets increased, and it puts an additional burden on the family and the crews out there. We have to maximize our time and get it done. To get ready for the freeze requires so much that there’s plenty of material to be filming, as long as we give the family time to get their stuff done and don’t hold them up.”

Brian Mandle: “The crews are there almost year-round. There’s four months that we take off out of the whole year.”

Daniel: “We go up the beginning of March and shoot through mid-December.”

Post: Is the weather brutal in the latter months?

Brian: “This last winter it started getting a little milder. It’s a phase — we’ll get snow until May sometimes, and in October it starts snowing. The show is definitely seasonal, so we do a lot of stuff in the spring, and the summer time is a little less of a load. In the fall, that’s when there’s the really-big harvest — everything from the garden harvesting to the big game that they’re hunting. It gets busy from this time (August) until December.”

Post: How big is the crew you send on-location to Alaska?

Brian: “Generally we have four cameramen out there. We are usually filming two stories a day with two family members, with two cameras [for] each story we are following. And we basically have B-roll going the entire time, and interviews constantly going.”

Daniel: “It’s between 11 and 15. This fall we’re going to have six camera operators up there and an additional AC, just because of this additional order. We need to add an additional team because we’ll be shooting more material to make sure we have enough at the end.”

Post: Brian, you’ve done some of the shooting yourself?

Brian: “I was initially the director or photography for two seasons, and eventually took on producing and co-EP. But it’s not long before I get back into the field.”

Post: What are you shooting on?

Brian: “Our main cameras are all Canon — we use the Canon XF305 cameras. Those are our workhorses. They are smaller body. Any day you could be filming someone and then find yourself on a four-wheeler or a horse, or going up a mountain, so the smaller size definitely helps. We have six of them.

“For B-roll and interview we use the Canon C300. And we also sometimes use the XF105, and all of that is on CF cards. It’s about 80 minutes for 32GB cards. We are rolling at the highest quality. It’s 50mbps and its 4:2:2 color space, which helps out a lot. We do our color on Baselight system and they are always amazed at how well those cameras do.”

Post: What’s your backup process?

Brian: “Up in the field, we have a media manager. Cards come in and they put them on two drives: one, we hold onto in the field there, and a set of drives — every two days — is being sent down to LA for post.”

Post: Where does the editing take place?

Daniel: “We do it here at Discovery Studios. We have an internal post facility here. Everything is done on an Avid. They are one-hour episodes. In the field, Brian and a supervising producer up there, they watch the footage and give pretty intense story outlines for the episodes. We are running right now — I think we have seven Avid bays set up for editors and a bunch of stations for story producers, but we will probably max out at 12 editors going toward the end of the series at crunch time.”

Brian: “It’s pretty ridiculous.”

Post: I would imagine that Season 4 has increased the demands even more so?

Daniel: “We have more [crew] in field, more editors and more producers in post, as well as in the field. We had to increase our staff by about a third.”

Brian: [joking] “We were looking for doubles for the family, but we can’t get more of them!”

Post: Do you re-use any footage from season to season?

Daniel: “As Brian said, they are always shooting B-roll up there. Our AC and media manager can go out and shoot when they have some down time, and they both enjoy doing so. So we get a lot of additional material. We are constantly shooting B-roll to keep the show looking fresh. Every sunset, every sunrise is different and can give a different emotion.”

Brian: “We also try to stay away from the more generic B-roll when we have stories. And from season from season, we try to use as little as possible.”

Post: The show incorporates dramatic aerials too?

Brian: “Every episode will have aerials. Daniel Zatz has a Cineflex and a helicopter, and he lives in the town we are based out of, so we can call him up and say, ‘Hey, can you come out for 30 minutes and film this?’ We try to have as many story-specific aerials as we can. We are definitely spoiled with that. He’s shooting 4K Red.”

Post: Are you shooting HD or higher?

Daniel: “Right now we are sticking with HD because the storage necessities of 4K are massive. And to back it all up, it’s terabyte after terabyte!”

Brian: “For our show, it’s probably around 150 to 200 hours of footage per episode. It’s documentary-style and endless amounts of footage because we have multiple crews and multiple cameras rolling.”

Post: Are you in production or post at this point for Season 4?

Daniel: “We are doing both. We have probably eight full episodes in the can, and pieces for another four or five. We are just about to hit our bread and butter time, which is the end of August through September and October. That’s when the big push is and they harvest all the vegetables and get all the meat packed up and prepared for the winter, so it’s a pretty busy time.”

Post: Tell us about the finishing process?

Brian: “We online on an Avid and take it into a Baselight. They give it a day or day-and-a-half color session. We definitely established a look.”

Post: Is it all about playing up the beautiful nature footage?

Brian: “Actually, we somewhat mute the colors a little bit in a lot of our timing. Sometimes the 305s don’t perform great in super low light, but at the same time, the 300s are too bulky to take with you. Sometimes you find yourself at the top of the mountain at the end of a day and you thought you’d be home. We definitely need fixes to help out.”

Post: Where is the audio posted?

Brian: “The mix is at Levels Audio.” 

Daniel: “Matt Slivinski mixes the show.”

Post: How is sound recorded?

Brian: “Everything camera has stereo. Everything is Lectrosonics. Everything goes right out of the camera. We used to have sound mixers out there but found that the places we were going, you couldn’t get that many people out there, so all of our operators do audio as well. It’s all lavs and we additionally support our sound with a shotgun mic on each camera.”

Post: Can you talk about the soundtrack?

Daniel: “We have a great opportunity here with the Discovery Channel to do a lot of original music, which has been great. Starting with Season 3, we did an original music deal and we’re looking to move that into this season. We have a really signature sound for this show, which is fantastic. Originally, Season 1 and 2 was library music.

“We are working with a composer — Tony Morales — through the Discovery music department. He composes to picture sometimes. A lot of the time he provides cues in the tempos we are looking for: action, suspense or drama. We just sort of tell him the instruments that we use and he’s really good at getting it done.”