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Life And Death Get An Intense Closeup In History Channel’s “Dead Or Alive”

The show was born from short film Random Stop, about the killing of a sheriff. Are viewers ready for such visceral storytelling?

Last summer, filmmaker Ben Arfmann put viewers into the driver’s seat of a routine traffic stop that went horribly wrong in Random Stop. A short film with an intimately fixed point of view, it told the story of the murder of Georgia sheriff’s deputy Kyle Dinkheller by “disturbed Vietnam veteran” Andrew Howard Brannan. A Staff Pick on Vimeo, the short caught the attention of producers at the History Channel, who contacted Arfmann about developing an original fixed point-of-view series.

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The result is Dead or Alive, a pilot (more on that later) History is broadcasting on Sunday, September 27. The episode tells the true survival story of a hunter lost in the Alaskan wilderness. Viewers will see the Alaskan rain forest through the eyes of the hunter, who struggles against big storms, isolation, and lack of food and water.

Arfmann says that Dead or Alive is the end product of a long period of development with the network. He and his team came from the angle of wanting to tell “edgy, provocative true stories,” much like Random Stop. Some compromise was needed.

“History has a very clear idea of their audience and what their audience wants to see,” Arfmann tells Fast Company. “So, over a number of iterations, we all gradually found a story that connected with all our needs: something that had heart and real emotion, and was also expansive and inviting to History’s core viewership demographic.”

Arfmann and History Channel gave Fast Company a preview of the half-hour Dead or Alive pilot, and it packs a visceral punch. Like Random Stop, the first-person perspective feels natural. The performances are neither stilted nor gimmicky. Beyond that, Arfmann’s team prove that a POV perspective can make a reenacted event dynamic–and gives filmmakers another narrative option for storytelling.

For example, when a guide asks the hunter to field-dress (gut) a bear they’ve shot, viewers see and maybe even feel his hesitation in plunging the knife into the bear, before watching blood flow into the creek. When the two characters are separated, the suspense builds into a harrowing form of first-person fear.

Arfmann and History are innovating in the way the series will be delivered, as well. Viewers can watch Dead or Alive on traditional linear television, on demand, and on History’s site, and on all of History’s apps. And Arfmann notes that the series can be watched with Oculus Rift, Vive, and Samsung Gear virtual reality headsets, though it wouldn’t be a completely immersive experience, as the series was shot with traditional cameras, not 360-degree rigs. To shoot Dead or Alive, a small team of nine people went on location. It became, as Arfmann describes it, something of a survival scenario in its own right.

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“The absolute biggest challenge in Dead or Alive was the environment in which we shot–Alaska is no joke,” Arfmann says. “It’s beautiful because it’s untamed, but that beauty can also be dangerous.”

“We faced crazy storms, exposure to wildlife, and general rough-and-tumble conditions that would have made any film production a nightmare,” he adds. “When you realize that we had to do all that, plus put a camera on a guy’s face and throw him into freezing Alaskan waters or spray him down with sometimes simulated [and] sometimes real rainstorms, well, it’s miraculous that we made it back in one piece.”

A big goal for Arfmann’s team was to avoid emphasizing the “gimmick” of POV, and instead to approach the whole enterprise as though they were filming a documentary in which the camera just happens to be in the lead character’s eyeballs.

“With Random Stop, that meant trying really hard to avoid blocking that came from the needs of the camera, and instead make sure everything grew out of the needs of the characters,” Arfmann says. “For Dead or Alive, we took this dedication to reality a few steps further [being] miles away from civilization, in remote regions, engaging in our own little survival story while making the film. I honestly think it’s that dedication to reality on set that bleeds through into the finished product–it helps the whole project feel authentic.”

Arfmann says the highest compliment that anyone can pay one of his POV projects is that “it felt real.” Based on what he’s seen with viewers, their “bullshit meter” is so finely tuned that they will not, by default, suspend their disbelief on first-person or true virtual reality POV films.

“They’ll call out things that feel fake right away, and you have to watch that,” he says. “Especially when we look forward to fully immersive stories designed for platforms like the HTC Vive, the biggest hurdle is going to be performance: Do the actors feel like they’re acting, or do they seem to be truly living through a real moment in time?”

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As the line between interactive and passive filmed entertainment starts to blur, Arfmann believes more stories will be pitched as “experiences” rather than just “entertainment.”

“Video games are a good guide for this, as they’ve been wrestling with audience agency since the beginning,” Arfmann says. And companies like Valve and HTC are really opening the door for immersive, creative solutions to the question of ‘how do you take people someplace they’ve never been before?'”

For now, Arfmann is hoping he’ll be able to take viewers to many different places. Sunday’s pilot is a kind of proof of concept. Should audiences bite, there will likely be more Dead or Alive episodes. And should History pick it up for a full run, Arfmann says he and his team will keep aiming to push the experiential envelope. They also want to stretch the concept of what it means to “survive.”

“After two projects that place you in the shoes of straight white American males, I’d absolutely love to tell the story of someone from a radically different background,” Arfmann says.

“My biggest hope is that future episodes of the show will start to really make good on the premise of ‘What does the world look like through someone else’s eyes,’ and can be a real avenue for viewers to explore perspectives and backgrounds radically different from their own.”

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About the author

DJ Pangburn is a writer and editor with bylines at Vice, Motherboard, Creators, Dazed & Confused and The Quietus. He's also a pataphysician, psychogeographer and filmmaker.

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