Behind the scenes on Expedition Unknown: "I ‘listen’ to a story as I shoot"

Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough – a phrase that’s taken literally when shooting American reality television series Expedition Unknown

Expedition Unknown follows explorer and television presenter Josh Gates as he investigates mysteries and legends in faraway lands. One moment he could be trekking through the remote jungles of Cambodia to find a 1,000-year-old relic used by the God King to incinerate his enemies, the next, unearthing mummies buried in 4,000-year-old tombs in Egypt, plunging into the depths of the ocean to investigate the Bermuda Triangle, or scaling an ancient mountain top shrine in Japan.

It’s all part of a day’s work for the Expedition Unknown team, which includes cinematographer Evan B. Stone. “I’m a DP who really cares about audio,” he shares. 

“My life is a series of sound bites and each one needs to have quality sound. I ‘listen’ to a story as I shoot. It is possibly the most important element for telling stories. A lot of camera operators don’t care about the sound – it’s the sound person’s problem – but not me. I always have my buds in my ears, listening. It gives me a lot of confidence.”

To that end, Stone and his sound mixer Mike Curtis rely on Lectrosonics gear for capturing production audio. 

Their kit includes the WM watertight digital hybrid transmitters for the talent, four MTCR recorders, LR digital hybrid receivers, SMQV digital hybrid transmitters, an LT transmitter for the camera hop and a legacy UM400A transmitter and R1A receivers for IFB.

The show’s Siberian episode took Stone, Gates, Curtis and the crew to investigate the mysterious Dyatlov Pass incident, which Stone describes as “Russia’s equivalent of the JFK assassination,” in which nine polytechnic institute students on a winter hiking expedition died under bizarre circumstances in 1959. He describes the shooting situation as “really severe weather, and I had [the receiver] just freestyle on the camera.” 

However he’s happy to report that even in the freezing temperatures of the Ural Mountains, the Lectrosonics systems kept working reliably, capturing high-quality sound.

True to the show’s name, shooting Expedition Unknown involves shooting in wild, inhospitable, and sometime hazardous locations, like searching for El Dorado – the legendary Lost City of Gold – in a Colombian jungle, or scuba diving to look for the alleged treasure of New York bootlegger and gangster Dutch Schultz.

Stone and Curtis both praise Lectrosonics’ durability, toughness and consistency of quality throughout these challenging filming conditions. “The gear is top shelf,” Stone enthuses. “The best professionals use it, and there’s a reason why.”

A lot of camera operators don’t care about sound – it’s the sound person’s problem – but not me

Expedition Unknown also sees Stone appear on camera in many of the adventures, during which himself and Gates wear WM watertight transmitters – they find themselves in filming situations where they are getting wet a lot. Meanwhile, local experts including historians, geographers and librarians get fitted with the SMQV transmitters for their on-camera appearances.

For back-up or out-of-range shots on motorcycles, in airplanes, in tunnels, etc., they use SPDR personal digital recorders. The belt-pack units are all used with Sanken COS-11 lavalier mics.

A mini season of Expedition Unknown called Search for the Afterlife saw Gates travel to remote corners of India and Turkey, an ancient Roman ‘Gate to Hell’, visit a tribe in Indonesia where people live with mummies, a cryonics lab in Russia and the Amazon river to meet a shaman.

“For one of the segments Josh (the host) and I had to go solo (no crew!) – just him and I – up the Amazon on a three-day journey to visit a tribe living in the jungle,” Stone recalls. 

“Due to the nature of the location and access, the production could only send a shooter and the host. I still needed to timecode-sync audio without a sound mixer/recorder, so I used the output of the camera’s timecode-out to sync the Lectrosonics PDR recorders and ran sound for two days on these – swapping batteries every four hours and SD cards twice a day.

“I had to rely on the Lectrosonics PDR recorders (self recording devices) that run on AAA batteries,” he points out. “It is something we do only in emergencies but I was really surprised at the sound quality and the resilience to the moisture and elements. 

"I was diligent about making sure the PDR was recording and I frequently checked the audio for quality. Every time it was $$$!”