When Life Below Zero returns for its 14th season, it will be followed by Life Below Zero: Next Generation, which fittingly follows a new cast of people who have decided to move to Alaska and live off the grid—including an Army veteran, Alex Javor, who was inspired to move to Alaska while watching Life Below Zero.
How did this spin-off come about, and how was it cast? And how has filming on Life Below Zero‘s new season in 2020 been affected by the global pandemᎥc? I talked to the showrunner of NatGeo’s popular franchise, executive producer Joseph Litzinger, to find out that and a lot more.
Both shows return on Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 7, starting at 8 p.m. on National Geographic Channel. But then they’ll immediately move to their regular timeslots: Tuesdays at 8 for Life Below Zero, and Tuesdays at 9 for Life Below Zero: Next Generation.
Watch the first few minutes of the new show—which is also produced by BBC Studios’ Los Angeles division for NatGeo—here:
Creating and casting Life Below Zero: Next Generation
“Over the years, we’ve discussed a variety of options—how to have the brand be bigger,” Life Below Zero showrunner Joseph Litzinger told me. Because they can “just add another character” to the main show, he said, they didn’t want to create a new series with cast members similar to those on LBZ.
A question that the producers frequently heard from fans about Life Below Zero is what inspired the new show. That question: “What were these people like when they first moved to Alaska? What we landed on was Life Below Zero: Origin Story.”
Most of Life Below Zero’s cast has been living off-grid for decades, so for Next Generation’s cast, they wanted to find people “who recently moved out there, or who have one foot in civilization and one foot in wilderness.”
The process of casting the new series was much different than when the production originally cast Life Below Zero eight years ago. Back then, “most of them didn’t have access to the Internet,” Litzinger said, so producers ended up “driving around Alaska, asking pilots, asking local stores—do you know anyone who comes in every month?” They even put notices on trees.
For this new show, though, casting went online—like other reality shows regularly do: “blogs, YouTube videos, people who had somewhat of a minor online presence, or were just known by doing Google searches. All of the cast except for one—who won’t be on until January, the new batch of episodes—were currently living in Alaska when we started the show. However, they were in various states of living off the grid. Some of them were making the decision in that time to try to live full-time,” Litzinger said.
While the cast of Life Below Zero now has a level of fame and celebrity, I wondered what a show with people who have active online presences, like YouTube channels, would be like. Are they just wannabe Instagram influencers who will be playing to the cameras like this is The Real Housewives of Off-Grid Alaska?
“Although they understand and they use modern technology, they aspire not to, they aspire to move off the grid and be offline full-time,” Litzinger said. So “none of them are trying to be influencers or Instagram stars or build a brand. But you’re right: they all are self-aware. Most of them have seen Life Below Zero. Most of them watch some form of TV.”
That awareness may just make for better reality TV. “It allows us to sort of dive deeper into their character because they’re more forthcoming and revealing” in interviews, he said. “They’re more open to the why: Why they’re choosing this lifestyle, why are they rejecting society, why do they want to live off the grid.” Living off-grid is “the kind of lifestyle that they want,” he added, and it “is hard, and expensive and takes a lot of work.”
One key difference: the cast also wasn’t recruited to move to Alaska to be on a reality show.
“A distinction that I think is worth mentioning is that our cast, although new to trying to live off the grid full time, are not new to Alaska,” Litzinger told me. “It’s not gimmicky, like, We’re taking four everyday Americans and dropping them in Alaska and seeing what happens! There are plenty of other shows that [do that] Can people survive? These are Alaskans that are at the start of their journey. It’s not anybody we ask to move to Alaska or wouldn’t be in Alaska if it wasn’t for us.”
Of course, casting that way narrows potential cast members, and it means it might be harder to find a diverse cast.
“Diversity inclusion is very important to us both on and off camera,” Litzinger said. “However, because of the nature of our [program] is showcasing people who are out there, there is a limited amount of people who literally live off the grid. Unless you’re Native Alaskan, it definitely takes a certain level of money and privilege to be able to move to Alaska and live off the grid. It takes a lot of resources to choose to live that lifestyle.”
“On Life Below Zero, 50 percent of our cast is Native Alaskan,” Litzinger said. “On Next Generation, Michael Manzo is Mi’kmaq Indian—which is not Native Alaskan. It’s very important to for us to represent and include the diverse voices that are living off the grid in Alaska.”
As to Alaska Native people, Litzinger said “Life Below Zero as a whole has a significant amount of native voices and native stories in it. I think one of the keys to our long-running success Life Below Zero is … how we’ve accurately represented native voices over the last eight years—obviously with the Hailstone girls [and their mother, Agnes], and with Ricko and his family.”
The danger of filming people new to off-grid living
Because the Life Below Zero: Next Generation cast is new to living off-grid, and perhaps hasn’t even made the transition yet, that means the production crew may actually be more experienced at living off-grid.
“Some of our crew has been out there, off and on, for seven years, while some of our cast has only been trying it for a year,” Litzinger told me. “So there is definitely an additional level of awareness that the crew needs to have when they’re working with relative newbies to Alaska versus 30-year veterans.”
That resulted in “a lot of firsts that we were there to capture: first moose hunt, first time building a shelter,” he added.
But it also increased the risk. “I think there is an element of danger that is there even more than our current Life Below Zero cast,” Litzinger said. “The good thing about them from a production standpoint is that they are also experts in their field. Although we do have a safety person out there, all of our Life Below Zero cast have lived off the grid, have faced injuries and dangers and challenges, and have overcome. Our next generation cast has yet to face those obstacles.”
One obstacle that the main show encountered that was new to everyone was a global pandemᎥc.
When LBZ:NG and LBZ were filmed, and filming during covɪd-19
Life Below Zero: Next Generation was filmed from September 2019 to February 2020, and completed filming before the world shut down in March.
Life Below Zero season 14 did not. “We had filmed eight of our 19 episodes,” Litzinger told me. “We stopped mid-production,” and stayed shut down for two and a half months.
Resuming production was “not a decision that BBC Studios, or Disney, or myself, took lightly,” he said. It “took about two to three months until that was determined that we could safely go about filming. We have a very small crew: it’s between three and four people. Once we get out to where we are we are completely isolated.”
“We take necessary and intense precautions,” he said—though in some ways, that’s what they’re used to doing. “We’ve been filming socially distant for the last few years.”
“The crew themselves are all living in their own tent. The cast is completely isolated by the nature of the show. And, even while we’re out there, at least for two weeks, we still wear masks, gloves, don’t share gear. The cast mics themselves. We don’t share food, and are living in completely isolated units,” he explained. “Everyone’s tested before they leave, and then once they arrive in Alaska.”
Life Below Zero typically has its crew fly to and from Alaska, spending two weeks in the field and then returning to Los Angeles. But they did not do that this summer. Instead, Litzinger said, “we went out for our longest time filming, which is two and a half months.” And while, as showrunner, he usually joins the crew in the field, he skipped that trip; only essential crew members were given permission to travel.
So the crew was “in self isolation for the first two weeks,” and then completely isolated from the rest of the world except for the people they were filming—who live off-grid and are also completely isolated from the rest of the world. “Living in the middle of nowhere is probably one of the safest places to be living and working in the middle of a pandemᎥc,” Litzinger said.
I’d have to agree, even though I’ve been critical of reality shows for starting production and putting people’s lives in danger. This really does seem to me like the safest possible type of show to film right now for both cast and crew. It’s very different than gathering together a live studio audience, or playing dodgeball in the desert with crew members wearing masks.
How Life Below Zero’s Emmys affect the show
Life Below Zero is again nominated for two Emmys, for cinematography and editing. It won the reality program cinematography Emmy in 2019, 2018, and 2016, and won the reality TV picture editing Emmy in 2017.
“Of course, it’s an honor to be nominated and an unbelievable honor to win, and even greater honor to continue to get nominated,” Litzinger said. “I think that is a testament to the crew and cast’s desire to keep the show fresh, and continue to push the boundaries of quality filmmaking. We definitely don’t want to rest on our laurels.”
Winning that first Emmy, he added, “wasn’t the conclusion, like, We’ve got it down. We’re continually and constantly trying to push the boundaries in terms of cinematography and editing.”
For Life Below Zero: Next Generation, that means there’s a new visual language. “In addition to all the latest and greatest toys and tools and technology,” he said, this series will “never cut away from the scene” to go to an interview. Instead, that’s been replaced by “a more intimate, direct-to-camera confessional style OTF [on-the-fly interview] and only at the start of the scene.”
That different look and feel helps distinguish the new member of the franchise from its sibling.
“We really see this as being a companion to Life Below Zero, not a replacement for, but as a companion to,” Litzinger told me. “When you’re watching Life Below Zero and thinking, How do people get started? How do they move out there? Next Generation answers those questions.”
Life Below Zero: Next Generation’s cast
The cast of the Life Below Zero: Next Generation will grow in future episodes and add an additional, yet-to-be-announced cast member. But here is the initial cast, with their bios from NatGeo:
After going through the motions living in the modern world as a full-time college student and working a 9-to-5 job while wearing business casual attire, Michael Manzo was left even more unfulfilled and searching for the meaning and joy of life. Michael has a basecamp outside of Delta Junction, making a living building canoes and traveling wherever and whenever the wind takes him. As a Mi’kmaq Indian whose people lived and thrived off the land, he is working hard to follow in his ancestor’s footsteps. His life motto is: “there’s a cure for restlessness in the human spirit and that’s not getting too comfortable, that’s pushing the boundaries and facing the unknown, facing your fears.”
Army Veteran Alex Javor, originally from Alabama, moved to Alaska six years ago after watching an episode of Life Below Zero and realizing it was his ultimate dream to live a subsistence lifestyle in remote location. Although his love of Alaska runs deep, he had leave and move to Virginia to support his wife who is in school. He’s back at his Alaskan homestead, where he will need to re-learn how to survive in the wild as winter is fast approaching. An inexperienced hunter, Javor will embark on expeditions in order to become familiar with the land.
Kaleb and Brittany Rowland
Kaleb Rowland grew up in McCarthy, Alaska, and moved to Fairbanks when he was 19 years old to pursue a job as a commercial fisherman. He grew tired of the city lights and growing population and moved back to his hometown. He married Brittany in 2011 and made the decision to stay in McCarthy and raise their two children Gilbert, 6, and Elovie, 4 so that they can experience a one-of-a-kind experience. Brittany considers herself a city gal, after being born in Fairbanks and living in Anchorage. The couple has five acres of land where they are slowly building their ideal family compound. To provide for his family, Kaleb works as pilot, builder and jack-of-all-trades. Both Kaleb and Brittany want to teach their children the necessary skills, so they are able to one day be self-sustaining individuals.
Chris and Jesse Morse
Native Alaskans Chris and Jessi Morse have been married for seven years, the couple, which met in school, have spent much of their time in a cabin on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska. After being surrounded by businesses that continue to pop up around them and the inability to their lives freely or hunt for food, they’ve made the decision to move permanently to a very remote cabin along the Cosna River. Realizing how expensive and challenging it is to live a complete off-grid lifestyle, the couple works various 9-to-5 jobs in the City of Fairbanks to save up to leave the city life behind- for good.
Brent Sass and Ida Mortensen
Brent Sass and Ida Mortensen live together in Eureka, Alaska. Brent, originally from Minnesota, moved to Fairbanks in 1998 to attend college. He joined the school’s Cross-Country Ski Team where he was eventually introduced to dog mushing, which instantly became his life’s calling and ultimately made him want to live off-grid. Brent moved to Eureka and bought a homestead in 2012, and Ida joined him in 2018. Ida, from Stockholm never felt fulfilled in her city life and moved across the world to Alaska where she met Brent on Instagram in search of a dog handler position. She came across Brent’s Instagram, and as they say, the rest is history. Together, the couple devotes their lives to caring, training and mushing their dog teams, called “Wild and Free Mushing.” For Brent and Ida, it’s a 24-hour, 7 day a week job. The challenge of this lifestyle is what drives them.
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