By Lynn Smith, LATimes
The fisherman’s life captured on the Discovery Channel show is tough. The cameraman’s life at sea is no picnic either.
Like most people who work day and night aboard crab vessels in the Bering Sea, Doug Stanley has stories.
There was the time he couldn’t get his footing on an ice-covered deck in minus 20-degree temperatures. “Every time the boat would stall, you’d be looking at an ice slide, straight down to a 4-foot railing separating you from the water,” he said.
And the time he jumped in to untangle a line from a buoy. “I can tell you what it’s like to be in the ocean staring at a ship. It’s like a building is dancing in front of you.”
He’s broken his ribs. He’s smashed his teeth. And he loves his life at sea as much as any crusty adventurer who mans Alaskan fishing vessels. “I cannot explain to you how wonderful and incredible it is for me.”
But Stanley isn’t a crab fisherman. He is director of photography for “Deadliest Catch” — Discovery Channel’s most watched and Emmy-nominated show last year, now in its third season. It airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays.
Filmed in the cold, wet darkness of the heaving seas, the documentary-style show, needless to say, demands more from a camera crew than typical reality or wildlife programs. The “Deadliest Catch” cameramen work in close quarters with the fishermen, sometimes 30 hours at a stretch. Their cameras get wrecked by saltwater, lenses are constantly fogged or iced over.
“You have to be able to do everything they do. This stuff is very testosterone-oriented,” said cinematographer Eric Lange. “You have to go blow for blow with them and get that respect level. Then they don’t care if you’re there and what they’re saying,” he said.
Doubling as producers, the cinematographers must also capture the characters’ stories. That the Emmy-nominated episode was shot with a lens blasted with ice, cod fish and salt water supports that “it’s a story-driven show,” Stanley said. “It’s not about the photography.” He wore his smelly orange fisherman’s slicker to the red carpet.
Johnathan Hillstrand, captain of the fishing vessel Time Bandit, was filmed pulling off one of this season’s two rescues at sea. “Me saving that guy — I don’t know if there’s anything like that on film,” he said.
Hillstrand said he hadn’t even realized how dangerous his job was until he saw it on TV, and he has become close friends with some of the photographers. “I have a lot of respect for those guys,” he said.
What it takes
Crab fishing is considered “deadly” — for anyone on board — mostly because ballast is tricky to control on fishing vessels that can tip over with the extra weight of ice or too many 700-pound crab pots. Lengthy seasickness can also be dangerous if the person doesn’t make the effort to eat or drink enough. But rewards can be high: If all goes well, a fisherman can earn $250,000 in six months. If it doesn’t, he might not come home at all.
The cameramen said the only comparable job would be a war correspondent.
Producer Thom Beers had no idea what he would find when Discovery commissioned him in 1998 to tape a two-hour special on Alaskan crab fishermen. “Little did I know, there would be the worst storm in 25 years, 70-knot winds, 40-foot seas. Two boats sank; seven men drowned. They never found the bodies.
“It was a feral experience, such an amazing adrenalin rush. I’ve never seen anybody work so hard under such harsh conditions. I had to go back.”
Four years later, he talked Discovery into another show that found its audience, and its crew, by word of mouth.
In addition to résumés, Beers’ Original Productions gets lots of calls from friends of friends who just want the adventure of being on a boat. Many have already been directors of photography on their own shows. Most climb mountains, lead river-rafting excursions or ride motorcycles in their spare time.
Beers said: “We look for that real gleam in their eye. Someone who’s not worried: Is there air conditioning? What’s the menu?” It doesn’t always work out. Hillstrand said some get so seasick they have to be helicoptered back to the mainland. Others just don’t reup.
To get along, he said, he’s developed a manner of give and take. “I’ll go inside the galley and make them peanut butter-and-honey sandwiches, clean bathrooms, light cigarettes and stick them in their mouths when it’s raining.”
Even so, some fishermen object so strongly to being filmed in an emotional state that they’ll lock themselves in a room. “It’s always a temporary thing,” Stanley said. “We end up telling those stories too.”
Once, he said, a crew threatened to throw all his cameras overboard when they learned he was planning to shoot a surprise “man overboard” drill planned by the captain. “It took me 24 hours to get back into their graces and operate the cameras,” he said.
This season will include behind-the-scenes footage, some shot by the crew themselves.
Some footage will show the crew drinking with the fishermen in Dutch Harbor, the notorious island seaport 800 miles off Alaska where the men regroup between trips. “It’s Wild West crazy,” Stanley said. “The bars are the beating heart of the fishing industry. It’s the only social environment they know, the bars of Dutch Harbor. Everyone is telling stories. We crawl across the floor on our lips at the end of the night.”
That’s where the cameramen fish for stories.
“I learn everything about each character on the vessel, at the bar, drinking heavy,” Stanley said. “One year we didn’t get too much bar time in and it affected the show.”
Russell Newberry, left, Nathan Vandecoevering, and Neal, Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand.
(Jeremy Walter / Discovery Channel)
Not all captains were willing to let cameramen aboard their vessels. Some crab fishermen are superstitious and refuse to let women or redheads aboard. The Time Bandit was one of the most cooperative. Hillstrand said: “Usually, I talk to myself in the wheelhouse. Now I have someone to talk to. It’s sort of nice.”
One fisherman, Hillstrand’s brother Andy, was so interested in photography that Stanley taught him how to shoot. He managed to capture one of the most dramatic scenes in Season 3’s fourth episode — a rescue of a man overboard — when the production crew was back in Dutch Harbor.
“It’s very shaky and erratic. But it captured the moment,” Conroy said. “In a normal shot, you say, ‘Wait, stop. Can we do this again?’ There is no ‘do this again’ on the Bering Sea.” The most honest moments are often imperfect, he said.
After several seasons together, the fishermen and the cameramen said they have learned to respect and appreciate one another.
“The Alaska boy is a different boy from a boy from the lower 48,” said Stanley, who lives in Auburn, Calif. “I have an image of them swinging on a swing set with grizzly bears walking by.”
But like them, he said sea life “gets in your blood.” Now, he said, “I understand these guys better than I understand a lot of people.”