At the end of the summer, I was checking my BlackBerry when I saw that my sister had sent me a text. Survivorman had just been nominated for three Gemini awards (Canada’s version of the Emmys). I was up for best director and best host, and the musicians on my show for best music. Seven years after I first pitched the idea and 22 years after I first had it, this moment came as a fleeting but sweet vindication of the many years of hard work and struggle before it. I learned a lot along the way and I can say with certainty there is no such thing as an overnight success.
At some point during the first media-frenzied days in 2000/2001 when the CBS series Survivor hit big, I began getting calls from radio and TV stations to do interviews. “We want to know if this is really survival or just bunk?” they would ask me. By this time, I had made a very small name for myself as an outdoor adventurer, filmmaker and survival instructor with my film Snowshoes and Solitude.
It was back in 1986, however, while watching a very cheesy and boring survival instructional film, when I realized that to really do a great film on this topic would mean going out into the wilderness and actually surviving. My idea was to film every bit of the survival ordeal in a remote location instead of teaching it to the camera in some backyard. I buried the idea as something I should do “someday.” But with the constant calls for interviews, a light bulb went off in my head: “Now is the time!” I took the idea to two of my mentors – two guys who had been teaching me editing and camera work while I was producing my Snowshoes and Solitude film – to get some support. Although I’d learned camera, production and editing years before when working on rock videos, I had been out of the industry for a good eight years and a lot had changed. For some reason, they found the idea laughable, which was heartbreaking. But I knew, really knew, that my gut instincts were right and they were wrong. Luckily, this was also at a time in my life when I’d finally discovered the power of trusting my instincts.
So I employed that magic pill, the trick to getting your stuff produced: I made a cold call. It went something like this: “Eh hem…yes, I’m Les Stroud, executive producer of Wilderness Spirit Productions,” (I was actually sitting in my basement), blah, blah, blah about the success of the Survivor series… “and in me you have a filmmaker and a survival instructor. You won’t find that combination anywhere else. I propose you send me out into the bush, without a camera crew (and this was key) and I will return with a survival odyssey on film of how to survive.” The miraculous answer I got from Jane Mingay, executive producer of Discovery Channel Canada, was, “We were looking to do something exactly like this and didn’t know whom to call.” Ahhh, the sweet synchronicity of right place, right time and – most important – making the right call (especially after being laughed at).
Crewless in Canada
I sat down on a rock outcrop in the middle of the Wabakimi forest in northern Ontario and looked out onto a beautiful lake vista. It was day two of a survival ordeal that was supposed to last seven days. My stomach growled and my mind drifted as I considered my situation. How am I going to pull this off?! No food, no survival gear, no camera crew. The noise of the beaver bush plane that dropped me off had long since left the sky silent. Only the sound of buzzing flies, chirping birds and lapping waves took hold of my senses. And it was now my job to fill the senses (of what would eventually become millions) of TV viewers around the world. It was time to tap into an old performing trick of mine that I used when I played the bars as a solo acoustic guitar act. If I thought the crowd wasn’t listening, I imagined two things: one, that I actually wrote the song “Sweet Home Alabama” and would sing it as if I did; and two, that there was one person in that audience who was totally captivated by my performance. This little trick always seemed to flip on my passion switch and make me rise to the occasion; eventually, I’d usually win the audience over.
But how could I do that for film? I began something that day that I’ve done every single day since while making films: I sat down and meditated (call it whatever you want) on the fact that I had to make this film/this day/this next scene compelling, beautiful and inspirational. There may only be one viewer, but you owe them a great show. When you present a film or any other creative endeavor you take on, you’re asking each audience member to take an hour or more out of his or her life to watch what you did. What right do I have to ask that of them, if I haven’t put everything I possibly could have into this production? Surely they have any number of other things they could be doing with that hour. I owe it to them to put all my passion into what I’m presenting. Besides, I never got into this because I wanted to be a TV star or famous producer. I do what I do because it is what I want to do. I chase my passions first.
This first seven-day episode, essentially the pilot, would bring ratings back to a failing show – the segment was first part of a flagship science news show on the Discovery Channel – before becoming a monster of its own, the series Survivorman. If you are a regular viewer of the series and you watch that first episode, originally called “Stranded,” you’ll notice some obvious differences between then and now. For starters, the editing is much better now. I’m also a little better on camera and my camera work is more polished. And I’m now a much better narrator. But you’ll also notice that the original kernel of what made Survivorman a hit right away remains the same: one lone man, struggling to survive in a remote location, sometimes against the odds, while filming it all himself to maintain the integrity of the premise.
One-Man Show to One Great Team
For that first show, I did every part of the production – wrote the music (with a friend), edited, color corrected, audio posted and all of those other things we must do when it comes to finishing a segment. Although I now work with a fantastic team of editors and camera dudes getting me beauty B-roll I can’t live without, the truth is, if I had to, I could still head out there and do it completely alone. I wouldn’t honestly ever try that again, but I could if I wanted to. The original idea remains the same. But the behind-the-scenes team, which has changed along the way, is now every bit a part of the success of the show as I am.
One key element to that success? I take my filmmaking very seriously. The last thing I wanted it to be was some kind of quirky or quaint home video or worse, just another Saturday afternoon novelty show. I may only have small cameras at my disposal but that didn’t mean I couldn’t create some cinematic magic. Climbing a cliff, walking a mile, diving underwater, laying in mud and climbing trees to get a great angle have all been extensions of my passion for making the images compelling and beautiful.
Then there is the story line. Though it’s true that the majority of the show consists of me actually surviving, the fact is it would be pretty boring if I didn’t make things happen, if I didn’t try to tell the story of what it takes to survive in various ecosystems. For example, when I went into the desert I figured, “A hand drill is a pretty appropriate way to make a fire here and I probably won’t need one until day three,” so my script for the day would read something like, “Day Three – make a hand drill fire.” I didn’t realize at first how hugely beneficial these simple reminder notes would be once I was several days out on a shoot and so tired from not eating much I couldn’t think clearly. Thank goodness my simple script told me what to do. Planning the story for a jungle shoot, in contrast, might look something like this: Day One – show intro and entrance into jungle. Day Two – build shelter plus get actuality footage. Day Three – get fire going and gather some wild edibles. Day Four – head into the jungle to try hunting by blowgun.
There have been many technological decisions I’ve had to make along the way. First, the camera technology has changed so much in the past eight years that it’s ridiculously hard to keep up with it all and to stay cutting edge. When I started there were only a couple of small consumer cameras (borrowed) to capture all my survival efforts. Once I sold Survivorman as a standalone series, the experimentation began. How I navigated the murky waters of TV networks to get the show on air and continue to do so today is the subject of something larger, like a book (stay tuned). The first shoot was ridiculous: I had a Panasonic, a JVC (GY-DV500) and a Sony (DSR-PD150). You’d think I would’ve thrown in a Canon just for good measure. What I brought back to the editing suite was a white balancing nightmare. It became clear I had to settle on one brand of camera, so that at least the internal workings matched up. After a number of side-by-side tests, the Sony PD150s (now it’s the Z1Us) seemed to have everything I needed: a good command of lowlight shooting, durability, light weight and great quality. I’ve stayed in the Sony world ever since, using PD170s, Z1Us, V1Us, HC3s and HC9s.
As for editing software, I have been using Final Cut since before it was called “Pro” and I love it. However, I am now working with Sony Vegas, a very powerful and brilliant editing platform that combines beautifully with my Sony cameras.
I needed my cameras to handle a few important situations. First, I needed night shot features so I could capture the story line 24/7. Unfortunately, the pro and pro-sumer models don’t have that little bell, so I had to go with the HC3s for that. I also needed time-lapse (a big part of my beauty B-roll and a great device for transitioning in the edit suite from day to night or day to day). I literally shoot time lapses every hour of the day, one camera always dedicated almost solely for that. I’ve also needed underwater capabilities, and since the big underwater housings were only good for a couple of episodes that revolved around underwater diving, I use a Viosport waterproof camera to handle all the rest. I also strap the Viosport to the bottom of helicopters (the Cook Island episode is the best example) and planes for some great aerials.
I could go on and on here. The sad fact is, cameras for me have almost become disposable. I have lost track of how many I have broken due to rough use. But in the end, the loss in the budget is usually always worth the shot!
Perhaps the question I get asked most often is about battery use. The answer is simple: I never head out without a bunch of lithium batteries. The longer lasting, the better. I typically take nine seven-hour batteries, which get me through the entire shoot. The closest I ever came to running out was in Utah when I had not done my final goodbye shot and I realized I had only 10 minutes reading on the battery. I had to hope I nailed it on the first take, which luckily I did.
Long Shots and Extreme Close-Ups
I put up with the extra weight load of one bit of solid gear that I can’t shoot without: my Manfrotto tripod and fluid head. The half dozen shots I get with a good panning technique are worth the extra bulk. And that’s one of the keys to my shooting. I try not to stick to one style throughout the entire show. Fixed shots, pans, high shots, low shots, long, close-up, medium and extreme close-ups are all employed if I have the energy. The toughest thing to do well, however, is getting good ECUs or CUs. I have to hang a bandana on a twig where I think my face will be so that it will be in the right position and in focus when I step into frame. Yet the one shot I seem to have become known for (even celebrated for by being copied with honorable mention on an episode of The Office with Steve Carell) is the shot I call my body-mount. Originally, I had a great contraption made with a pole and tripod head and some straps, which let me hold the camera about three feet away to film myself. Lately, I just use my lightweight Slik tripod and put the camera on the end. Works like a charm. Then there are the extreme long shots where I walk a long distance away, climb a cliff or a tree and shoot my long walk along the horizon. I then have to walk back, rewind the tape to see if I got the shot, curse loudly if I cut my head off, reset the camera, walk back into position and try to get the shot all over again.
The bottom line is, while I am out there, stomach growling and often light-headed due to the lack of nutrition, the only fuel I have in me to make a great film is my desire to do it. To be truthful, I have a hard time watching any of my films after the fact. I see all the shots I should’ve got. I see all the verbal flubs and poor camera angles. I see all the missing sequences of story I wish I had thought of at the time. But that is where good editing comes in. Fortunately, I’ve paid a lot of dues as an editor, so when I’m in the field, I try to shoot for the edit. This can save the editors a lot of time. In fact, I will very often give little running commentaries right to camera for the editors regarding the next shot so they know what I had in mind. They’ve told me it helps in the edit suite immeasurably.
I’ve done a few others things back in post that have made a great difference. A few years ago I hired a couple of student placements, Andy Peterson and Max Attwood, from film school and threw them out of the frying pan and into the fire. I didn’t stick them with labeling tapes for a year and doing nothing but overnight digitizing. I had them editing on anything I could keep them going on, trained them and worked with them so that now they are solid editors I can trust. I also hired a brilliant senior editor Barry Farrell, (and allowed the budget for this) to oversee the project. My philosophy for them is the same as it is for my filming: do something that has never been done before. What are we doing that no one else is doing? Be influenced by good editing, fine, but don’t copy anyone. Make it our own and make some kick-ass television! Don’t edit me a show we can simply put on TV. Edit me an award-winning show! We are at the point now where I don’t need to guide them too much technically and I can concentrate on guiding them in terms of the story. I encourage them to come up with some technical editing magic. Editors need to feel they are a big part of what makes a show a success. I abhor cookie-cutter editing and I don’t care how much the network loves the “format.”
I think my greatest asset as a producer is that I hate most TV. I’m not interested in being a TV producer. I’m only interested in doing the things I love to do and doing them well. I do love the medium of visual arts. There can be and is still some magic on television and I would like to be part of creating it. Oh, and for the record, I don’t make reality TV. I do documentary films about what it takes to survive in remote regions around the world. It’s just that, unlike many other shows, I really do what I say I do to create the story. Big difference.
Les Stroud’s book about his experiences, Survive!: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere ‘ Alive, will be released from HarperCollins this month. The latest season of Survivorman will begin airing on November 7 on Discovery Channel US and The Science Channel. For more about the show, visit
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