Can the History Channel update its brand before it becomes a thing of the past? The network is attempting something risky with Sunday's pilot "Dead or Alive" -- a survival series shot from a first-person POV by a group of filmmakers straight out of UCLA film school.
"I'm really proud we got on air," JP Castel, the "Dead or Alive" producer tells me. "It's being thrown in there in kind of a crazy way."
History Channel execs approached "Dead or Alive" director Benjamin Arfmann after seeing his short film, "Random Stop," which also featured a narrative shot from the first-person point of view of the protagonist. It's a technique that's difficult to carry off. You might be familiar with it from the classic Humphrey Bogart film, "Dark Passage," the television series (or SNL skit) "The Continental" or more recently in the Oscar-nominated "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." It's a choice that comes with a host of challenges.
"There are some things that work really well and there are some things that are really difficult," says Arfmann. "The concept of seeing a smile, that's the easiest thing with a normal film, but first-person it's really tough."
After examining more than 150 potential narratives for the pilot, the filmmakers settled on a narrative that tells the story of an American man battling to survive in the Alaskan wilderness after getting lost during a hunting trip. Arfmann worked hard to come up with creative ways to get the audience to identify with the protagonist.
"You can't constantly have a mirror or a puddle of water," says Arfmann. "You can have him speak to himself or to another character ... But even then you can't have your main character always talking about what he's feeling."
And because of the nature of the first-person narrative, it was cinematographer Justin Perkinson who wound up "acting" the part of the show's hero. The pilot required Perkinson to strap a Sony Alpha 7S, a very low light sensitive camera, to his head and "act" as the protagonist trying to survive the harsh conditions.
"It means we put him in a bag and beat him with sticks the whole time," Castel jokes, but also notes that the crew was moved by the cinematographer's performance.
"There's a scene before the final commercial when he's on the top of the mountain and he is doing performing elements of crying," Castel recalls.
"I loved that challenge," Perkinson tells me. "It was interesting to learn the language as cinematographer and actor."
In addition to the camera, Perkinson had to deal with a large lens, focus gear, the mount on the helmet and counter weights drilled into the back of the rig.
"It was the definition of a Franken-rig," says Arfmann.
Beyond the technical trials and tribulations, the crew ran into another major challenge -- the weather.
"I don't think any of us could have anticipated how strong Alaska could bring the thunder," says Perkinson recalling how during the shoot the sunshine would rapidly turn into blizzard conditions.
"Dead or Alive" is an unusual debut for a pilot by television standards. Typically a pilot is shot, reviewed internally and given the greenlight for more episodes before it hits the air. But the network seems to be curious how audiences will react to the series' potential. History Channel aired the pilot on Sunday night and is waiting to see how it performs before it orders additional episodes.
"They're different stories unified by the way that we're telling them," says Arfmann. "It won't be the same characters from week to week."
The channel also tends to draw an older demographic, one that isn't used to experimental narratives. While the network likely hopes to draw its standard audience that watches TV, it's also posting the pilot on its website to attract a younger demographic that might find it online.
"History Channel has never done a scripted half hour," says Castel who hopes enough viewers will find concept unique enough to press the network to fit the show into the network's structure. "They're very eager to see what happens."