Alex Casey talks to Tracked producers Jon Wild and Cass Donaldson about shooting one of the most rugged reality shows of all time.
The SAS trackers were a mere 50 metres away from Team Yellow when their hunt was called off for the evening. Unable to go any further, the military-trained duo didn’t want to pitch a rustling tent for fear of startling their prey. So, they did what any high level operative on a sensitive mission would do: they zipped up their jackets and lay silently on the forest floor for the entire night, even as the heavens opened above Glenorchy and soaked them to the bone.
It is a wild scenario that becomes even wilder when you consider that the pair, like everyone on screen in Tracked, was being accompanied by their own camera operator. “They said that Malcolm [Clement, camera operator] could put up his tent 500 metres away, but he was like ‘Well, I can’t do that now’,” laughs Tracked producer Jon Wild. “So he basically just did the same thing – zipped up his jacket and lay back in the grass with them for the night.”
In the throes of the Tracked action, where trackers hunt down teams traversing some of New Zealand’s gnarliest terrain in the hopes of winning $100,000, there’s so much happening that it’s easy to forget there’s a camera crew there at all. That is, of course, until one of them has to hold up a contestant while filming to stop her falling down a deadly rocky ravine. “We didn’t even know that had happened because we didn’t see the footage for weeks,” Wild explains.
“It was only back in the edit suite, about two months later, that I watched it back and I thought ‘Yeah… I’m glad he stepped in there’.”
The treacherous concept for the series was born out of a Discovery callout for new original adventure reality pitches. Wild immersed himself in the genre for a week, and quickly realised that two things united all the best shows in the canon – jeopardy and fear. “From there I realised there was a problem,” he says. “New Zealand is the nicest place in the world and there are no wild animals that are going to try and kill anyone, so how do you create that sense of fear?”
The solution was to throw in an elite pair of trackers, who would make it their mission to hunt down the teams in the New Zealand wilderness. With a broad concept for the show, Wild needed to know if the idea would actually work on screen. “I decided I had to go out there first. I’ve done a few trails and tracks, but I’ve never gone through the bush, so I did the Earnslaw Burn route with the full 20 kilo rucksack on, just like the contestants.”
Heading into the bush with a camera operator and a safety guide, Wild was “completely broken” after just one day. “That footage exists somewhere, but it will never see the light of day. It killed me. I was a mess, an absolute mess. It was so tough.” Returning to civilisation, he knew the stakes were high enough to make a compelling show. “We also realised that New Zealand is actually one of the most dangerous places in the world, just because of the weather alone.”
The next problem was a big one. “So… how do we actually do this without killing anyone?” laughs Donaldson, who was the line producer for the series and oversaw the extensive safety protocols. They wanted the chase to feel authentic and immersive to contestants, which means they needed to eliminate any stopping, starting, resetting and reshooting. “That need for authenticity then led us down this really crazy path of basically doing this thing for real.”
While sourcing an excess of camera batteries and extra cards was one thing, finding a crew who were up for the challenge was another. “We needed people who could physically do what was required, which was bloody difficult,” says Donaldson. “But they also needed to be able to shoot beautiful pictures and because they’re essentially directing out there, they’re in charge of capturing the story.” They didn’t need to find just one camera unicorn either, but nine.
Surprisingly, the crew came together quickly. “There were enough people that were gung-ho from the start and crazy enough not to think twice about it.” Some had worked with Great Southern before on shows like The Apprentice while others, like Jase Hancox, were known for filming in dangerous places. “He shoots with Red Bull and North Face and all those things,” says Wild. “He’s the guy who climbs mountains to film other people climbing mountains.”
To make sure the crew would be able to keep up with the international cast, some of whom were athletes, production made sure they had as little as possible to carry. “The camera operators had smaller backpacks, and the contestants were actually carrying a bit of the camera crew gear as well,” says Wild. “That was hard for the contestants, but it freed up the cameras so that they could run ahead and move around easily.”
In keeping with their pledge to keep things authentic, Wild says they never did any pick-up shots or made people do things again. “That’s why so much of the show is backsides and backpacks, because the cameras are genuinely trailing behind them,” he laughs. “Everything was just as it happened out there, which was a very scary way of filming, because we didn’t know what we had until we were back home.”
Working from a temporary production office next to the “base camp” where psychologist Dr Alia Bojilova and management consultant Dave Kassapian monitor the trackers, Wild and Donaldson had GPS trackers on everyone and could contact the camera crew over the radio, but were otherwise in the dark. “We had genuinely very little idea of what was happening out there until everyone came in after the second day,” says Wild.
“And then the crew would just come in buzzing and telling these incredible stories and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh’. Everyone was buzzing after that first episode, it was quite remarkable.”
While he won’t be drawn on specifics, Wild promises a few “hazardous moments” to come. “I remember the camera operators coming back to base one day and saying ‘We couldn’t actually film one part, we actually had to put our cameras down and hold on to a rock face to get ourselves across’… so, there’s that,” says Wild. Donaldson hastily adds that medics and safety zones were stationed throughout each course, able to quickly reach any contestant if need be.
“There was some radio contact with the safety team and the doctors and medics, but thankfully nothing bigger,” he explains. “The very last thing we wanted was having to call a rescue helicopter.” Still, a chopper remained on standby for the entire shoot.
Despite all the stress of making Tracked, both Donaldson and Wild say they would do it all again. “Hell yeah – it was the hardest one I’ve ever made, but easily the most fun,” says Donaldson. “It very nearly broke us, but I’ve got to agree,” adds Wild. “Our camera operator Jase [Hancox] called it ‘Type B’ fun. At the time, you hate it. But then when you come back, you have a shower and you’ve got a beer in your hand, and it’s the best type of fun possible.”
He recalls a day where Hancock returned to base after a particularly cold night shooting, borderline hypothermic and unable to even hold a flask to drink coffee. “I had to pour it straight into his mouth, and I said ‘Is this still Type B fun’? And he just shivered and looked at me,” laughs Wild. “But then, a couple of hours later at the bar, he was happy again. What that crew went through? We just couldn’t have done it without them.”
Tracked screens on Three on Mondays at 7.30pm and streams on ThreeNow.