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How The Last Alaskans stayed real

An image from The Last Alaskans (Photo by Animal Planet)

“It was a big risk for us. We just had to hope, but we really wanted to try to tell authentic stories.”

That’s Animal Planet Media executive Keith Hoffman, talking about the network’s series The Last Alaskans, which is the most surprising and most spectacular reality television show I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s somewhat sad that a show so beautiful, so insightful, and so artfully crafted constitutes a “risk.” But that’s the insanity and insecurity of Hollywood, and I’m so grateful some people, networks, and producers are willing to challenge the status quo.

I wanted to learn more about just how Animal Planet pulled this off, producing a show that, on every level, seems to push against the current way of producing reality TV.

This is the story of how it was done.

The origins of The Last Alaskans

Many, if not most, reality TV shows are produced with a heavy hand that affects reality on every level, Hoffman acknowledged.  “Situations are forced, drama is forced, things are made up,” he said. (That’s simply because “it is cheaper and faster” to do it that way, or at least, that’s the perception in Hollywood offices.)

“I’ve been hearing people are really tired” of that kind of show (YES), and he said at Animal Planet, “We have really been looking to find shows where we can just tell the story.”

The network was long interested in following Heimo Korth, whose family is featured on the show. “He’s somebody we’d been interested in for a long time. He was hard to get,” Hoffman said. Koth’s cousin, who wrote a book about him, was looking for a TV project for his cousin. Once Heimo agreed to do this series, “it was easier for others to” sign on, because they trusted Heimo.

One of the things that attracted the network was, ironically, the cast members’ reluctance. “They’re not people who are looking to be on television,” Hoffman told me. “They would just be who they are.”

There are many shows about Alaska–and the show’s name reflects the fact, Hoffman said, that “there is still an interest in Alaska, so it doesn’t hurt to have ‘Alaska’ in the title.” Separating this show from the rest was consistently described to me as a “risk.” That’s in part because of the many choices made by producers, such as not having a narrator.

No drama, just reality: really

The agreement with Half Yard Productions was to create “an authentic reality show, and not try to make up drama,” Hoffman said.

One of the producers on location was quite surprised by this. John Collin, a freelance producer who served as co-executive producer on The Last Alaskans, told me, “I’m often brought in to series that the network and the production company are often saying really epic and grandiose things.” But the reality is different.

I’ve heard this too: networks say they want authenticity, yet they reject authentic footage and suggest producers change it in ways that requires manipulative editing, recreations, or other artificiality.

Not here.

“In the back of my brain I was like, is the network going to go for this? Probably not. Is the production company going to go for this? Probably not. From my perspective, it was a really interesting process,” Collin said. “I was always waiting for the network to pull us back, being like, you need to pace this up, you need to put in narration, you need to make this more dangerous–all the sort of hallmarks that make an Alaska-type show. And it never really happened.”

He added, “We didn’t have to twist ourselves into a pretzel to make something that wasn’t there. We were able to play on the natural drama that existed in their lives, and really we were able to capture the natural beauty that existed up there. From a creative process, and particularly being in the field on it, it was a really gratifying experience.”

Executive producer John Jones said Animal Planet executives “deserve a lot of credit for letting it happen, and really taking a risk and putting on the air, and being unconventional with things like just not having v/o. We didn’t even really do pick-ups.”

Collin added, “Most shows that I’ve ever been on, you get that fight in the field where the character–he delivers that line that delivers, on a scale of 1 to 10, a 7 in terms of the dramatic stakes–and you turn into the network as a rough cut and they’re like, ‘Yeah, but we need him to say, this is dangerous, this could mean my life.’ You roll your eyes and you have to go back out and get that in the field. It’s not reality, it’s not out how the character feels in the moment, so you’d be representing something that isn’t really true to their reality.”

Exactly. And the lack of that on The Last Alaskans is just one of the many things that makes it stand out.

How a different kind of reality was produced

Jones told me that “the consensus between us and the network was to try to make something that was a lot different from all of the Alaska programming that’s been out there” and “really embrace things like quiet and isolation.” In particular, they wanted to “let these stories breathe so we really get a fuller experience. You don’t really have to drum up a lot of overproduced story.”

Production was from August to January, with some additional footage filmed later. Two crews filmed the four families.

Animal Planet’s Hoffman noted that “it’s more expensive to take more time out there,” so to save money, the production had “crews with different families at different times. We just couldn’t afford to have four crews all the time.” He admits “that’s a risky way to do it. You don’t want to be with another family and have something big happen when they’re not there.”

The crew lived nearby, in a camp set up about 100 yards from the cabin. Besides the lack of space in the cabins, the cabin permits do not allow them to be used commercially, though they could have been used in an emergency. (Collin told me: “That would have been dire for us to be in there.”)

“We were entirely self-sufficient,” Collin said. “We didn’t want to come in and be at all dependent on them for anything. With both families I was with, we had a communal dinner a couple times. I think it’s always important, in terms of the trust process, feeling comfortable around each other.” During those dinners, the crew shared their food, too.

The small camera crews were supported by outfitters who ran their camps, which were comfortable. “I kind of called it glamor camping,” Collin said. “[The outfitters] were cooking breakfast before we woke up in the morning.”

Recalling the image of the absurdly tiny, dangerous plane that lands roughly in episode two–the camera operator actually dropped the camera over fear that the plane was crashing–Collin said that “the logistics here were pretty much a nightmare.” After arriving in Fairbanks, the production crew “had to catch two bush planes just to reach them,” which became more challenging as winter approached.

One crew was even stranded for three days at the end of production, and ended up “playing kickball in minus 50 degree weather just to keep themselves entertained.”

“An avalanche of footage”

The three-person camera crews that spent time with each family did something atypical for reality TV: they just let their cameras run.

John Collin explains: “I can only begin with a contrast, say, with a soft-scripted show where you begin every day with, ‘These three things are going to happen to you, and so we’re going to go out and film it.’ The camera man will basically run the camera for 30 seconds until he gets the shot that he needs, and then then we get that beat, and then we move on to the next segment in the scene, and then we shoot it. It’s almost like how you’d shoot a fictional movie. You get each of your cutaways, you get your wide shot, you get your close up.”

Collin cites the “really amazing shooters we had out there” and said, “It was probably more the rule than the exception is that we would have shots that lasted 10 minutes.”

This impacts the production in different ways. “It creates a problem in post because you have avalanche of footage come in,” Collin said. “You have to sift through 10 minutes to find those few moments of gold, but it does a few things. Number one, it doesn’t put pressure on the cast member to create something in the 30 seconds he knows the camera is rolling. … Number two, it allows us to find those moments of natural drama and to understand, as outsiders, what their lives actually entail without imposing it on them.”

Using technology for art

Some of the most striking shots are filmed with robotic flying cameras, aka drones. Jones told me that “using a technology that don’t create a lot of down wash and using better angles without impacting the environment was very important.”

The footage is stunning, whether it’s a tracking shot that goes through the woods and into a cabin window, or an overhead shot that shows the surrounding landscape.

John Collin said, “We always wanted to use new technology to have a show that aesthetically looked new and fresh,” especially since “Alaska is one of the more overexposed” locations in nonfiction television. The robotic cameras, he said, were used to get different “angles, and providing a perspective.”

The showrunner, Jared McGilliard, and John Collin established the series’ aesthetic with a rough cut of the first episode that was completed before work on episode two began.

One critical part is the music. Collin said they “rifled through hundreds of hours of music.” The music they eventually used–which was “entirely composed for the series”–“was sparse and epic. … What we were really drawn to was, in its most basic iteration, a simple drone, a distorted piano key with a clean [sound], sustained over 30 seconds.”

On other Alaska-based reality shows, some of which take a more horror movie approach, “the drama is so built up” by the music. While The Last Alaskans‘ producers knew they wanted “to create that emotional attachment for viewers,” Collin said, “I didn’t want [the music] to be forefront, and in fact I wanted it to be as low-key as possible.”

The actual Last Alaskans and the impact of the series

The Last Alaskans is exceptional unscripted television, and stands as a work of art on its own. But I also hope it encourages others to produce these kinds of shows (though not about Alaska!).

Those who worked on the show have similar hopes. Executive producer John Jones said, “Television’s always changing. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it changes underneath your feet. I sometimes don’t know any more whether something’s going to be received by the audience well. … We just have no idea what people are going to think of this. I just feel really thrilled by how well it’s been received by audiences, by ratings, by the critics. Sometimes things do well critically but they don’t carry the audience over with it. I hope it helps change things,” he added. “I feel like television needs this.”

John Collin told me, “I’m a freelancer so I could be working on The Real Housewives next month. The fact that I was really proud of making this series, but the fact that the audience has responded to it makes me feel a more hopeful and look forward to what my next job will be and what any network could potentially look for.”

But while he credited the network, Animal Planet, and the production company, Half Yard, for their vision and efforts, he also said, “I think a lot of this goes to our cast. I think there’s a lot of people out there who, networks show up and say here’s a stack of cash to appear in our show, will you do it? And they’re willing to do anything to be in that show.”

On The Last Alaskans, “No one [in the production] at any point was saying, ‘We want to drive the stakes, drive the danger,’ in a way that wasn’t authentic. The cast wanted to show people who didn’t know their world what it was like in a very real and authentic way. We can edit, we can cut a thousand edits per minute or we can let a shot roll for a minute, but it was really the casts’ willingness to open up their lives, and their desire to show people what their lives were like that really made this show possible.”

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