There is no doubt in my mind that if you are living and working in the production space long enough, sooner or later you will come face to face with some extremely nasty weather and be able to tell your very own bad ass, bad weather production story. In the moment, the weather will make you wonder what the hell did I sign up for? It’s like every time I watch an episode of the long running reality show Deadliest Catch, I'm thinking—would I sign up for that? Would YOU sign up for that? I think my jury is still way out there, just trying to stay warm and not get wicked seasick.
The very thought about even shooting a movie like “The Revenant” in that extreme freezing cold and harsh environment just makes my bones hurt. I remember sitting in the theatre and wondering how the heck did that crew not get permanent frostbite. But sometimes you just cannot fake the elements. Just check out this clip from YouTube as a reference.
There are of course other sides of extreme weather productions that might just literally kill you.
These are the fun shoots that you willingly sign up for that start out looking so, so good—not a cloud in the sky and suddenly, without warning, the proverbial sh*t hits the fan. This includes hurricanes, tornadoes, fog, sandstorms, and white-out snowstorms. There's also shooting in the extreme heat which is another whole set of issues.
I know that all of these bad weather production examples might throw a scare into you, but working on location isn’t all gloom and doom. Not every crazy weather shoot is bad!
It boils down to two main things really. First, there is the need for you to protect yourself and your equipment. The second part is to know how to react and not drop into a panic if you get caught in a bad way during a weather emergency.
Only The Real Deal
Don’t just take my word for it—I caught up with two of my go-to guys, Josh Greenstein the Director of Operations with Thistle Communications and Curt Pair Owner of azPtp.
These are the big truck and production guys (and gals) that don’t have a choice other than to get out in some bad weather if they want to get paid.
PH: What were some of the worst weather situations you ever got stuck working in?
Josh Greenstein: We have covered hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and even large nor easters over the years. They all have their own unique challenges—you always bring a ton of gear, dry clothing, food, water, fuel. Plan for the worst and hope for the best is all you can do. Probably one of the worst was a blizzard myself and our uplink engineer Adam Paquetee was covering for the Weather Channel when they were up in Boston. Our uplink was tucked away in a corner ready for three days of riding out this bad storm. We were all stocked up, had hotel rooms around the corner, ready to do shifts overnight, plenty of diesel to keep the truck going etc. After two days we were beat, cold, but plugging along and making TV.
The last morning we walked into the PIPIC truck (which has been running not-stop and it was way colder than it should have been). The in-wall heater (our primary heat source) had died and we had nothing to keep the operating area of the truck at a reasonable temp to work/survive in. We forged ahead, got through the morning liveshots and waited for a CVS to open in a few hours. Adam was the first guy at the door, he ran in, bought a couple space heaters and we got those suckers pumping! In that short time it was COLD!! Colder than it should have been for us to all be in there. We layered on the coats, wrapped up in blankets and kept making television, what else can you do?
Curt Pair: I've been "stuck" in a few! I guess it depends on what type of weather we're talking about... I think the SCARIEST for me was covering the Kansas City Chiefs taking on the Indianapolis Colts in a playoff game at Arrowhead stadium in KC. It was an 'outside game' and it was SO COLD! -18° at the start of the game (a night game) and when it was over it was -38°! It was brutal! I dressed as warmly as I could. I put 'warmers' in my gloves and boots. I was wearing "ski" gear as outerwear. I had this fleece mask thing that could be worn several ways. The only thing 'exposed' were my eyes! I even wore another cap on top of that one! Underneath, I had several layers too... long johns, sweatshirt, and fleece lined jeans, UNDER some ski pants! The hand/feet warmers didn't last all that long! I went through all of them fairly quickly. I didn't have ANY for the second half! While MOST of the other photogs got a break from the cold during half time, I did not! Our station was covering some kids in the national Pass/Punk/Kick competition, and of course I had to stay out on the field to shoot our local kids/contestants.
In the second half, battery power for the camera started becoming an issue! I was going through batteries like crazy! I would radio my correspondent in the press box to shuttle batteries back and forth, so we could make it through the game! It was touch and go for a bit, battery wise, but we made it work. It was so cold, and I ran out of the hand warmers for my feet... it became difficult to walk during the 4th quarter. My feet hurt something fierce! After the game, my feet were so cold, I had to go to the emergency room at the closest hospital. I was so scared. The ER had to cut off my boots and socks. My feet were black and hurt tremendously. I couldn't move any of my toes. The doctor told me it appeared as if I had a serious case of frostbite. He might have to amputate both feet! I was distraught to say the least. I BEGGED the doctor to NOT amputate my feet. A nurse championed my case with the doctor and instead they decided to see if they could "slowly" warm up my feet and get blood circulating. They told me they couldn't give me anything for the pain, and it was going to hurt severely! They weren't lying! It was incredible. They started with cold water, believe it or not... and then worked their way to warmer waters. I was in the ER/Hospital for three days. They were able to save my feet. I was never so happy in my life!
PH: Did you know what you were walking into or did it just happen to you all at once?
Josh Greenstein: Luckily we usually if we know, we can plan ahead. Even if it's last minute storm coverage you still have time to grab your rain gear, warm clothing, spares etc. But as mentioned above, stuff happens and you just have to figure out a solution. That's what live TV is really about.
PH: What happened to the other production people you were working with? How did they react?
Josh Greenstein: My co-worker Adam always keeps his cool (pun intended) he rolled with it; we made a plan and got through it. Our producer and reporters work for the Weather Channel, they are road warriors and were super professional and hung with us but we did need to get a solution and we figured it out. Had we not had a way to get heaters or been in a more remote location we would have had to shut it down or figured out a way to spend more time indoors at an alternate location.
Curt Pair: There was a second shooter with me... We ended up taking turns shooting in the 3rd quarter... The other would hook up with the correspondent with batteries. The cold was zapping batteries faster than we could charge them. In MANY cases, we charged batteries for 15-20 minutes, and pulled them because we needed "something" to shoot the game! Ironically, his name was "Kurt". He REFUSED to wear a stocking cap because he didn't think that looked 'cool.' He wore a headband across his ears. I remember 'snot' freezing on his upper lip! I had some fun making light of that with him! Kurt ended up taking LONGER 'breaks' from the shooting than I did... I've always wondered if he was ducking into the building to warm up! He had some frostbite in his fingers... but didn't lose any of them.
PH: Have you or the crew ever suffered any minor or major injuries or think somebody might actually die because of the weather?
Josh Greenstein: I have not. It's only television; it's not worth someone's life, ever. In these or other situations we try and operate under a simple rule. You as the person in charge of the truck or production or crew are the one who has to make that call if something is truly getting dicey. If you feel unsafe, you are the only one who can decide that. You have to use the information you have available and your instincts to determine this. Always have an understanding for the power of the elements and what serious weather can do and respect that.
Curtis Pair: I didn't think I was going to die in this instance (I did in a few tornadoes!) however, I thought my career was over. I didn't know how I'd live without feet!
PH: What advice might you give to others about working on tough weather related shoots?
Josh Greenstein: You can't have too much information. Watch the weather, get radar apps, and talk to the experts that you may be working alongside! Have extra socks, gloves, hats, and coats. Dress in layers!!! A big one, STAY DRY! Be aware of what is happening around you at all times, plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Curt Pair: People have to realize that their lives are NOT worth the risk! I think our station should have sent FOUR photographers to this game... We were supposed to have one in each end zone... but KNOWING how cold it was, they should have had at least two others, so we could switch out every 15-20 minutes or so... Stand up for yourself and YOUR safety! Often those making decisions wouldn't even dare to brave these types of conditions! They truly don't understand what the situation calls for.
As always, smart and true words from Josh and Curt, spoken from their own personal experience. Best of luck on those next shoots Josh and Curt. Maybe you guys will get warmer locations next time!
Getting Out of the Cold (for now)
As Josh was saying earlier, a lot of being able to deal with dicey weather resides in the planning phases. One thing for sure is that cold weather will eat your batteries for lunch. The remedy for that is to try and keep them warm by keeping them inside my coat as close to my body as possible. I always bring a rain cover of some kind for the camera. Yes, I have used a trash bag a few times. It worked, but I felt like a schmuck for not being prepared. All I can say is that it was better than nothing.
Out of the Freezer and Into the Oven
All one has to do is listen to some of the production stories from Bruce Taylor of taylorvision or Andrew Muse of Andrew Muse Productions. Even though they come from opposite ends of the production spectrum, they both will say a lot of the same things when it comes to working in the weather. (Can you say high winds and 20-foot waves?)
Each will tell you that there is a ton of planning that goes into their productions. Each one has a checklist of sorts either on paper or in their heads that will drive the production day. Of course having a list won’t prepare you for everything, even ask my Baylor friend Randall Dark who has had to dodge golf ball sized hail! Ouch! Trust me, even little bits of hail or frozen rain hurts! But as experience would state, heat can be just as bad, if not deadly.
Both Bruce and Andrew will tell you that for anyone shooting in the heat or outside for any length of time that everyone on the location needs lots of hydration early and often as one of the big keys. Staying in the shade and applying a ton of sunscreen as much as possible helps too. Keeping your camera and monitors in the shade and secured (tied down) if possible, is another great idea.
Lastly, if we are going to be out all day in the heat and or humidity (think Houston) I do my best to include an Airstream or some other trailer on site that has Air Conditioning to combat the heat. I have seen camera ops pass out two stories up on a scaffold from the heat. Heat stroke is all too real and extremely dangerous.
Ok, This Shoot Might End Up Being Really Bad/Run for the Hills
In the first two sections we were talking about the mostly expected conditions—the kind you can mostly plan for and deal with. So what do you do when sh*t hits the fan? Even if you don’t have a plan, have an escape route. Yes, an escape route or someplace you and the crew can try to make or to find cover.
Here is one of my own personal brushes with near production death. It was about Lap 25 at a dirt track somewhere in or near Mesquite, Texas. We knew there was some sketchy weather in the area, but thought hey, we are indestructible production people, and we will be ok right? We were all SO wrong. Suddenly there was tons of lightning, tornado sirens, and warnings. I mean to tell you all hell broke loose.
My guys made a mad dash for the production truck. It just happened so fast. But we had enough presence of mind to grab the cameras as we bolted from their positions. Yes, the sticks were exposed but cameras were saved. Pulled everyone in to the truck and hunkered down. We lost a three-story camera platform and the sticks but not the camera op. As we were in the middle of this I also kept looking for a low spot to get into just like in the Twister movie in case it got worse. Of course one of my guys asked if they were all still getting paid. All I could do was laugh. Truthfully, it was as scary as you know what, but I didn’t panic. Luckily, nobody got hurt which at the end of it all was the best part of the day! As they say, sometimes it is better to be lucky than to be good. So true on that day!
Mark’s Unofficial Guide of How to Survive Extreme Weather Shoots
Here are just a few of many severe weather production tips I have collected along the way. I am sure there are a lot more out there.
Feel free to send me your severe weather tips to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are in “Normal” Mode:
- Know current weather forecast/Plan your shoot day
- Know how to deal with weather for where you are geographically
- Download Radar Apps/Take frequent breaks if possible
- Make sure someone knows your plan and estimated return
- Extra Clothes/Raingear/Waterproof Boots/Warm Socks
- Bring GPS, Cell, and a Satellite Phone/Thermal Blankets
- Lots and lots of extra batteries and rain covers for the gear
- Jumper Cable/Quick Energy Snacks/H2O
- Every crewperson should have a two-way radio
- Bring a Sun Canopy/Sun Screen /Dust Off/Power Inverter
If you have to go to “Emergency” Mode:
- Watch for sudden weather changes
- Look for sudden changes, frostbite or heat exhaustion
- Have a designated meeting spot
- See if you can safely evacuate you and the crew
- Don’t let others make your decisions
- Have a crew list/phone numbers/emergency phone numbers