In Depth

‘Deadliest’ Shoot on Cable TV

Discovery Series Constantly Upgrading to Make Viewers Feel Like Part of the Crew

Crab fishing in the subzero conditions of the Bering Sea is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and the focus of Discovery Channel’s riveting “Deadliest Catch.” The series, now in its fourth season, depicts life on five crab-fishing vessels as the fishermen battle brutal temperatures, 40-foot waves, 60-mile-an-hour winds and the ever-present threat of injury and death.

“It’s not like a shoot on a soundstage in Burbank,” said series producer Matt Renner, who has been one of the show’s at-sea cameraman/producers.

As Mr. Renner described it, life on board the vessels for the two-man producer/cinematographer crews that man each one is among the toughest documentary filming jobs around.

The vessels are crowded with the fishing crew and their gear. “They’re working boats, so we put our gear in every nook and cranny to fit in,” Mr. Renner said. “It’s too dangerous for a shoulder-mounted camera, so we wield small prosumer cameras on deck. Because it’s verite, it’s minimal lighting. And we run our own audio. While we’re shooting, we’re also monitoring and mixing sound, while we’re dodging 35-foot waves.” Like the fishing crew, the shooting crew works long hours; one cameraman shot footage for 50 consecutive hours.

The epic adventures of men who battle the elements have sparked the public’s fascination. “Deadliest Catch” has scored solid numbers—not just in the expected male 18-49 demographic, but with women (and persons) 25-54. On a recent Tuesday night, the “Deadliest Catch” episode ranked No. 3 in men 18-49 among all prime-time TV, beating CBS’ “Shark” and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” in the 9 p.m. slot.

Every season, said Mr. Renner, the series “picks the next step” to keep up with technology.

This season the series switched to shooting in high definition, a significant choice for a production that consistently loses two-thirds of its cameras and other gear to the harsh shooting conditions. Each vessel’s two-person crew now is equipped with a Sony Z1U HDV camera, in addition to two fixed cameras on deck and one ultra-small Iconix HD fixed camera in the wheelhouse, which uses infrared technology to capture nighttime scenes.

The challenges of producing “Deadliest Catch” aren’t limited to shooting on the Bering Sea. “It started at 5,000 to 6,000 hours of footage to make three to 10 episodes,” said Mr. Renner. “Now it’s between 10,000 and 13,000 hours of footage. Whittling through all the footage to find the best stories is a huge process.”

That process starts during production, as the two-man crew on ship stays in contact with senior story producer Ethan Prochnak via satellite phone. “They riff on how to help push stories along,” said Mr. Renner. “When you’re on board, you’re at 60% at best. You’re spending all your energy trying to stand up, stay awake and shoot. It’s nice to have a sounding board.” This year, the production also upgraded its post-production equipment to Avid Adrenaline HD editing systems.

The series has excelled in creating digital extensions, with Wiki, podcast and mobile components in addition to the Web site. “The more avenues we can take advantage to get the word out, we’ll do that,” said Mr. Renner, who promises some “unbelievable” stories this year. “We’ve become a strong family here,” he said, “and that’s what makes this show work.”