Cinematographer Michael Cheeseman has become accustomed to two things in recent years: the minus-thirty-degree temperatures of the Alaskan wilderness and the warm glow of the red carpet on Emmy night.
Cheeseman, a three time Emmy winner, is nominated for the fifth straight year for Outstanding Cinematography for a Reality Program. Born in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, Cheeseman naturally gravitated and excelled in wilderness cinematography. He’s worked on the hit series Axe Men, Ice Road Truckers, and most recently Life Below Zero, where he documents the struggles of folks living in the seclusion of the Alaskan Wilderness.
Cheeseman delivers beautifully-framed cinematic shots while facing the challenges of harsh conditions and the ticking clock of limited daylight. Awards Focus spoke to Cheeseman on a recent morning in Alaska, prior to the team’s rigorous hike to the bush for more spectacular shots.
Awards Focus: How did you transition from starting your career off with studio shows like Dancing With the Stars, to becoming one of the prominent cinematographers in the wilderness space?
Michael Cheeseman: I started off my career doing stage work, you know, house shows, things like that. My first outdoor show was Axe Men, when I got the opportunity to do that I was so excited but I also felt like it was more natural for me when I got out there. I grew up on the east coast in the Appalachian Mountains, so I love the outdoors and being in the woods, so once I got these shows I really started to flourish.
AF: You have a small crew out there in the Alaskan wilderness, how do you and your team battle the elements? Can you talk about going to and from the locations and following the talent during their daily lives?
Cheeseman: Getting out to the location is probably the biggest challenge honestly, sometimes it takes us days. We have to take a commercial airliner to get up to Alaska, then from there, we can take a boat to another location. Next you might have to helicopter to another location, or even sometimes snow machines are used to get there.
The environments that we’re filming in are brutal. I always say, “Think about your hardest day, your busiest day at your job, and then try to do that in minus-thirty-degree weather.”
The environments definitely effect your body, but the cameras are even more susceptible to the elements. This past winter, all the cameras were freezing because it was negative thirty-five to negative forty every single day.
AF: That’s incredibly difficult to picture, how long are you out there?
Cheeseman: We’re only out there for about three weeks, but those three weeks are rough because when the GoPro’s don’t work, and your drone won’t even take off, and your principle camera won’t even turn on you’re struggling to even get two minutes of TV. We’ve missed a lot of great moments because of that.
AF: How have your shooting techniques and decision-making evolved over the years?
Cheeseman: We toy around with a lot of new and developing technology. Recently, we’ve been using this little tiny Ronin and it’s incredible. As the show evolves, we get more creative, we try to introduce new things, but we have to pack light because we move around so much.
AF: Given all of your surroundings, how do you stay focused on the objective and more importantly, stay safe while you’re out there?
Cheeseman: The show has been constructed incredibly well. Specifically, we have an actual safety person that watches out for us. Sometimes we’re filming and we get stuck on our shots and stuck in your viewfinder, and you kind of forget that there could be other animals or dangerous situations around you.
We’re all very grateful that we have somebody that’s actually watching the crew the entire time, making sure we don’t step onto ice that’s a little too thin, or not getting too close to an animal, or hiking too far and getting dehydrated… things like that.
The other day we had a bear on camera, and I was thinking ‘you know, I’m zoomed in pretty far, but at any moment this bear could get to us very, very quickly’. That particular bear didn’t care much that we were there, but it can be a real danger.
AF: The Alaskan setting for Life Below Zero is absolutely gorgeous, and you’ve captured it so well through your work. In fact, you’ve been rewarded time and time again for your talent and fortitude behind the camera. Beyond the awards, I’m curious what’s been the most rewarding thing for you personally?
Cheeseman: For me it’s the open creativity, I love watching the show evolve from when I first started to where we are now. Whatever creative ideas we can come up with, we’re allowed to explore. Being able to unleash the creative activity that’s inside my head and all the other cinematographer, it helps us fight off the frostbite.