Fans of the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" can only imagine what it's like to be aboard those Bering Sea vessels. The ships pitch and roll against waves that can reach as high as 30 or 40 feet. Cameramen dodge sliding half-ton crab traps and dance around ropes that could sweep them overboardall while gripping expensive equipment and heeding the bellows of grizzled captains.
None was more gruff and tattooed than the late Phil Harris, the chain-smoking captain of the Cornelia Marie, recalled Emmy-winning cameraman and producer Chris Kugelman (exercise science '94). "The first few days on any boat, I would make it my business to keep a low profile until the captain got to know me. The captains and crew were always yelling at the cameramen. They'd get irritated when we'd mess things up or get in their way. A lot of this was in good fun, as they were initiating us."
Kugelman, part of the "Deadliest Catch" team that won an Emmy in 2011 for Outstanding Cinematography in a Reality Series, successfully ducked Harris until the third day. Then Harris called for him.
"I thought, 'This guy's going to scream at me for doing something to his boat,'" Kugelman recalled, laughing. "Instead, he asked, 'Are you the one who does 'Orangutan Island'?'"
It turned out that "Orangutan Island" was the captain's favorite show. Kugelman, the show's producer, had spent month-long stints over two years with the young, orphaned orangutans while the primates were being trained in life skills for survival in the wild. The Animal Planet show drew a fanatical following of viewers who loved the orangutans' endearing personalities and followed their harrowing trials.
"Did you live on that island with those monkeys?" Harris asked.
"We talked about that show for three hours," Kugelman said. "After that, I could do no wrong on his boat. He actually turned out to be the most warm-hearted guy, a big teddy bear."
Kugelman, now a staff producer for National Geographic Television based in Washington, D.C., spent time on two other "Deadliest Catch" boats: the Wizard, which is sometimes captained by Keith Colburnhot-tempered and briefly famous for roughing up a cameramanand the Northwestern, captained by Sig Hansen. Kugelman and his colleagues also won the Outstanding Producers award from the Producers Guild of America in 2011 for "Deadliest Catch."
"It's as dangerous as the show portrays it, especially for the cameramen," Kugelman said. "We're not experienced on these ships, and there are big heavy pieces of machinery swinging around, plus the hold where they put the crabs. You could fall in there. You've got giant waves, the boat moving the entire time, and your eyes glued to the camera. When a big wave would come, the crew would shout at us to find something to grab onto, saying, 'What, are you an idiot?'"
As a producer, director, and cameraman, Kugelman enjoys a career most people can only dream of. His work has taken him to every continent, including Antarctica, providing a creative outlet while satisfying a quest for adventure.
Kugelman's ties to Virginia Tech date to boyhood. He attended summer camps held by the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center, part of Virginia Cooperative Extension, where he took his first photography class and first encountered John Dooley, now Tech's vice president for Outreach and International Affairs.
Dooley, who directed the center in Front Royal, Va. throughout the '80s, remembers taking the high-spirited youngster aside for earnest talks about what it meant to be a "model camper." The 10-year-old Kugelman and his equally mischievous older brother were given to pranks, like toilet-papering other cabins or sneaking over to the girls' quarters.
"They knew they were in trouble, but I let them stay at camp," Dooley remembered. "I said, 'You've got to prove to me that you're model campers.'"
Later becoming a camp counselor and then coming to Blacksburg for his undergraduate study, Kugelman stayed in touch with Dooley. "He really inspired people to go on and do good things with their lives, and he inspired me," Kugelman said.
Kugelman went to New Zealand for graduate work, studying natural history and wildlife filmmaking and communication at the University of Otago in Dunedin. His first project after graduation was an independent film that told the story of a Tibetan refugee, a protester who had been jailed and tortured.
His most recent show is National Geographic's series "Dangerous Encounters," hosted by crocodile expert Brady Barr. The series takes Kugelman across the globe in pursuit of hippos, crocs, pythons, and other predators.
"At first they all looked alike to me," he said of the Borneo island population. "They all had red hair and all walked around on all fours. But after you spend time with them, their personalities come through. Their haircuts look different. They are so humanlike. They are completely engrossing." He is so moved by the orangutans' heartbreaking habitat loss that he's hoping to take part in a feature-film-length documentary if money can be raised.
Films such as the Tibetan project are what he terms "soul food," and he'd like to do more of them. He and a former classmate from New Zealand hope to make films for nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations devoted to human-relief efforts or wildlife assistance.
TV shows pay the bills, but Kugelman's heart is with projects that help others. "The idea is to use the craft to get messages out that need to be out there."