I’ve often said that the best way to ruin a perfectly good hunt is to take along a television camera. Mind you, what we do in the genre generally called “outdoor television” is pretty simple, often just one camera replicating the work of three or more. (Simple for the hunter; more like the work of a one-armed paperhanger for the camera operator.) Still, if you truly cherish the outdoor experience, then filming while you hunt is at best a distraction…and at worst a huge pain in the tail.
At heart I’m really a writer, but I suppose I’ve worked with film and video about as much and as long as anyone. I have never grown to love the camera (and I’m not sure the camera particularly loves me), but in this multi-media world, it’s part of the business, so I’ve learned to tolerate the camera and most of the time it’s learned to tolerate me.
Most of the time, actually, I’ve learned to ignore it. But there’s a lot to think about if you’re serious about making a good product, or at least not making a complete fool of yourself. In this regard, you’re very much in the hands of, initially, your camera operator and, later, your editor, either of whom can make you look really good, or make you look really bad. Outdoor TV being sort of a Spartan affair, the camera operator probably has more to think about than the hunter, actually doing the work of several people: Field producer, director, lights, more. At least we generally dispense with makeup. That being the case, the ideal thing is to form a team between you and your videographer. It’s amazing to me how many of my colleagues in the business are behind-the-scenes famous for being abusive to their teammates. Not smart. But we all have different ways of dealing with people and the 31 years I spent on the Marine team give me pointers.
Over the years, I’ve filmed with a lot of camera operators. Almost all of them are friends, and some have become among my best friends. Hey, this business is supposed to be fun. Camera operators do what they do because they love the outdoors, and most of them are hunters, just like the show hosts (who they make look good or bad). A big difference, however, is that most camera operators are actually trained, at least with some apprenticeship if not formal training. Most show hosts, including me, are purely self-taught. Obviously some are better than others; there’s certainly talent that’s real and some that’s imagined. But it’s also part of the business that we sort of work in vacuums, rarely gaining experience from one another. This is another difference with our camera operators; most have experience with multiple shows and show hosts. If asked, they might have some good tips and occasionally they’ll share the good, bad and ugly (including, I assume, about me!).
It’s difficult to get out of the vacuum because we all have our own shows, and although this branch of TV doesn’t pay very well, it’s sort of a full-time job. But it’s good to break out of our own little worlds once in a while. This past Halloween I had a unique experience. I shared a really good blacktail hunt in Oregon with Mike Rogers Jr., long-time host of SCI’s Expedition Safari series. Mike’s a good guy and we’ve been friends forever, almost growing up together in SCI, but although we’ve talked about it for years we’ve never actually hunted together.
Mike Rogers Jr. doesn’t exactly fit the bill of the average outdoor TV host. Almost uniquely, he’s trained; he comes to the business with a genuine film school degree so, quite unlike me, he’s actually doing what he went to college to learn. He started behind the camera, is a good editor, and he’s been doing Expedition Safari for a dozen years now. That’s a great run in this business!
Although it’s not so unique on that side, his camera operator is also trained, with a combination wildlife management and film degree from the University of Montana and, more recently, some OJT from both me and my friend, longtime cameraman and now producer, Conrad Evarts. Not uniquely, but not yet common, Kelly Bertellotti is a young lady. Recently graduated, she was doing some work for my Montanan friend Conrad. Conrad and I are a great team, but he has other stuff going on and didn’t want to spend that much time traveling. It took some cajoling, and reached a point where I had few other options, before he convinced me to give Kelly a try.
That was a couple of years ago. Donna and I both loved her: Talented, quiet, artistic, feminine yet tough as nails (our film schedule included a backpack sheep hunt in Alaska’s Brooks Range). She did her first hunting filming with us, and we did a lot of it. So perhaps she picked up some experience on the hunting side. On the filming side, there were pointers I could offer, but I was consistently impressed with the speed, efficiency and artistry with which she operated the unwieldy camera. Together, we never missed a critical shot. I was impressed enough that, when Rogers and I were fishing together last summer, he mentioned he was “between cameras.” I suggested he give Kelly a call and this fall she’s filmed several Expedition Safari episodes—including the blacktail hunt we did together.
So, up in Oregon, self-taught me was in the presence of two genuine trained and skilled professionals. Over the years, I’ve learned to watch the light insofar as possible, but Rogers impressed me with his detailed attention to shot angles and so many other small nuances. He knew exactly what effect he wanted and how to get it, whereas I’ve often deferred to the camera operator. Kelly, with her artistic bent and a trained eye, has never been a problem in this regard, but I also noted how she deferred to Mike: His show, his image and him writing the paycheck. With his trained eye, he saw things I wouldn’t have seen–a great learning experience for me.
As for the result, although we hunted apart, Mike and I took our deer sequentially so Kelly was able to capture two altogether different blacktail hunts on camera. You’ll see the results on TV sometime this month, so you can judge the quality yourself. What you won’t see is that, with Mike’s buck and mine taken, how we spent the time we had remaining. A year earlier, we filmed a blacktail hunt with the same outfitter, Rob Berg. Depending on generation and status, most guys who meet Kelly want to either adopt her or marry her. Like Donna, me and Mike Rogers Jr., Rob fell into the former category. However, this being something her parents wouldn’t allow, Kelly rolled the dice, purchased a license and on our last day made a perfect shot on a very nice blacktail of her own, not her first animal, but her first buck deer.
I wish she’d let me use her camera and film it, but like so many camera operators she’s more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. She knows how important her role is. As do I—and I also recognize the difficulty. It was fun to film in the presence of two talented professionals, and I have no doubt the edited result will be excellent. However, filming completed, I wish you could have seen the smile on Kelly’s face when her own blacktail was down—without the pressure or intrusion of the camera. I was a bit jealous, but sure she earned the opportunity, proving something I’ve long understood, but all the folks in my business need to be aware of: Most camera operators who film hunts are also hunters themselves. Getting them out from behind the camera now and again is part of that critical team-building process.–Craig Boddington