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Beyond Survival: Around the World Eight Times With Les Stroud

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When Les "Survivorman" Stroud—the hardest-working cameraman in the business—says shooting his new show "Beyond Survival" was his most challenging shoot yet...

What kind of gear do you use when you're shooting yourself?

Les Stroud: What I try to do is to stay on top of the cutting-edge game. Fortunately, because I'm not a big, huge, massive production house or whatever, I can afford to say, 'Oh, what's cool and new and exciting? I'll pick up one of those.' Because I generally only need one or two, right?


With my main cameras I've always been a Sony fan. I started out using PD150s and VX1000s. For this last season I was using the EX3, which means I am recording straight to hard drive, which creates a whole different set of issues for shooting out in the field.

I am enjoying Viosport. The company sends me their gear every once in a while. This year I actually added on the GoPro. I had about three or four of them strapped to this place, strapped to that place, getting underwater shots, and strapped to helicopters.


I use a combination of cameras. It's been great. I'm a very big believer in content. Great content on a crappy camera is better than crappy content on a great camera.

Do you tend to use specialty mounts and tripods?

Les Stroud: Yeah, but you know, if I say 'specialty mounts' it sounds really cool, but the reality is: you just strap cameras to things. That's all it really comes down to. I don't have a multi-armed gizmoajig. It's literally just, 'Where can you strap a camera? Where can you shove a camera? Let's put it on the neck of the dog as he goes hunting. Let's put it on the ass of the horse as we go riding.'

A lot of times I find the plans ahead of the game for using big, crazy mounts...I love my Magic Arms. I use my Magic Arms a lot. But you bring the mounts in and in the end, somebody shoves a camera up into the corner of a shelf and it gets the best shot of the day.

What about Steadycams or gyroscopic mounts?

Les Stroud: I do have them. We did use Steadycam on this shoot, as well. But after a while not so much. Because of what we were doing we were able to get what we needed without using it much. But we had Steadycams there. We had GoPros there. We had the Magic Arms there. We had Viosports. A whole array of tripods.


I had a shooter there this time named Johnny Askwith. He's great. He primarily shoots features and things. So he brought with him his little micro-jib and his micro-dolly. So we did use a jib and a dolly on a number of occasions. Whenever we thought we had a crowd of people to shoot and we were staying in one place, we'd pull out the jib and the dolly. That was really nice. Because that jib could get twelve, fifteen feet in the air, so you're getting a shot you can't get by holding it.

Another favorite of mine? Really simple, but really effective: My little beanbag mount, the Pod. It's a little beanbag with a quarter-inch screw in it for your camera gear. I use that thing incessantly.


Fancy gear to some, maybe, but just good working stuff to others. I suppose to a consumer that might all seem very fancy but it's really down and basic once you get going at it.


Photo: Laura Bombier

How do you handle power when you're out in the sticks?

Les Stroud: Very tricky! For Survivorman it was quite difficult; I had to basically just haul lithium batteries wherever I went.


For Beyond Survival, in almost every case we had a tiny, smallest-we-could-get generator. One of the jobs was just charging those batteries every night. I might be out in the jungle hunting for wild boar or monkey because this is what this tribe is doing. Meanwhile, way back in the jungle village in a little tent, one of my guys, Andrew Shepherd, sitting there charging batteries all night long.

What are your storage issues? I presume you're completely off tape at this point?


Les Stroud: I will say this much: I lament the loss of tape a little bit. There was some freedom with tape that you don't have when going to hard drive.

There's now a whole new position in the field of filmmaking called "data manager". We never had that before. But now we have to have a guy whose only job is dumping footage every day and every night. You have to get it off the camera. We'd shoot to disk or SD, run out of disk, then just keep shooting on the camera's memory. His job was just dumping, dumping, dumping, dumping. And that required power, of course.


Was he just dumping to a laptop or did you have a specialized device?

Les Stroud: Just a simple MacBook Pro and some really robust hard drives. I can't remember the names of them, but they're the hard drives with the orange, rubber covers. We had like eight or more of those. And we'd have triple redundancy. Always triple redundancy, which as you can imagine is time consuming. The dumping and the copying over—incredible.


But I'm scared of hard drives! It's, like, okay, my entire show is on this one hard drive. One. My entire show. Or maybe two hard drives! Or even maybe three, whereas in the old days I'd have 45 tapes. And if I lost tape it might hurt because it might have been a really good tape, but then again my other tape in my other camera got the other angle, so I'm okay. I've got the scene.

Not so with hard drives. You've got two hard drives, maybe three, with the entire week of shooting on them. You drop one and you're toast. So we did triple redundancy, even to the point of when taking them home we would split them up. I would take a set. Andrew would take a set. And my still photographer or sometimes the field producer would take a set. All because in the end it's kind of scary to have a week's worth of work on a $400,000 shoot sitting on three little hard drives.


In fact, we had one SD card crack on us. I remember I kept bugging my editor, "How come you haven't put in that shot yet?" We can't find it, Les. Well, there is that one SD card that we can't read. "Aw, shit. I hope it's not on that!"

And then one day, he's just playing with the card and all of the sudden it shows up. He dumps it, gets all the footage, including that shot, and that's it. The card never worked again.


What's the shooting schedule like?

Les Stroud: This was actually harder to shoot than Survivorman because I had a full crew to look after. And I was dealing with whole villages of people to film. A lot of logistics. It was a tough shoot. We actually had less time with these shoots than we did on Surivorman. I was about two weeks to two-weeks-and-three-days in each location, and then we would come back for a week or two and then take off again.


The last four months of this the heat turned up incredibly because of the schedule. It was ridiculous. We would shoot for two weeks or so and in a couple of cases we didn't even come home. We're talking about shooting in Borneo, then off to Indonesia, then over to Malaysia. So we were around the world eight times shooting this series.

Fortunately we had two to do in Peru so we were able to shoot them together. Five full weeks in Peru. It was very intense series.


If you're trying to get into the business, you've really got to understand that this is just not the right business for someone who's lazy or not a hard worker. It's intense. You sacrifice a lot with your friends and your family. You sacrifice your health. Every single one of us got horribly sick at some point. I mean, like down and it's coming out of every end. We all had to go through that. Two of my guys got malaria. It's not an easy shoot to put up with.

You're literally hotel to hotel to hotel. And then a crappy vehicle or small plane and then a long road and then a long hike and you're carrying all your gear. Like in Madagascar, we had seven of us crammed into this little hut that was covered in rooster shit with massive spiders above our head and screaming babies three feet away with just a rickety wall between. And we're all trying to sleep there because we've been shooting all night and we have to shoot all day the next day. It's pretty tough doing shoots like these, and, while the time in between is cherished, it's just not long enough.


Or at least it wasn't on this one. It took a stripe out of all of us.

Les Stroud's new series, "Beyond Survival with Les Stroud" starts Friday, August 27th at 10PM ET/PT on Discovery.

Illustration by Sam Spratt. Check out Sam's portfolio and become a fan of his Facebook Artist's Page.