It is not every day that South Africans win international awards for cinematography, so when cameramen Mike Yelseth and Lee Doig won an Emmy, Sharlene Sharim went to find out why.
They’re not only best mates, Mike Yelseth and Lee Doig are also two of South Africa’s finest cinematographers. And as of August 2010, they have an Emmy Award to prove it. Their creativity in the opening episode of Survivor Heroes vs Villains – season 20 of the popular reality TV series – landed them a nomination for outstanding cinematography. But with six previous Emmy nominations between them, they weren’t expecting a win this time around either.
“I was having a braai at my villa with a few of my colleagues and had forgotten the Emmys were on,” says Doig, 40, who was on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, filming yet another season of Survivor. Yelseth, 45, on location with him, was at a dinner party with some of the programme’s producers when he got wind of their win.
“I received a call from Mike and he yelled down the phone: ‘We have got the Holy Grail… we won an Emmy’,” recalls Doig, who was in total disbelief. Feelings of joy only settled in somewhat later. Though they agree that it is incredible to receive recognition for their work – especially after such a gruelling shoot – neither of them entered the profession for awards.
“I did think of becoming a carpenter one day, out of pure frustration,” says Yelseth, who finds the quality and types of jobs and programmes being commissioned locally rather saddening. “On the other hand, I do feel that I can make a contribution. I’m in it for the rest of my life,” he says.
Doig says: “You will never achieve in this business unless you are completely committed and passionate.” He adds that he wouldn’t be who he is today if it hadn’t been for the incredible opportunities his job has allowed him.
But, had it not been for his father – film industry veteran Tommy Doig – he might very well have missed his calling.
Growing up, Doig dreamt of becoming a professional soccer player. He had a real shot at making it big, but soon realised that, at the time, a career in soccer wouldn’t be lasting or lucrative. So he hung up his togs. Having grown up in Amanzimtoti, KwaZulu-Natal, his options were limited.
“Most people ended up working at Toyota or SAB. That was never an option for me. Neither was an office job,” he says. In the end, his father persuaded him to move to Johannesburg and give the film industry a shot. So he packed his things with great reluctance, and moved to the “Big Naartjie”. It was while working for his father that his “fascination with the camera” revealed itself.
Unlike Doig, Yelseth had no idea what he wanted to be while growing up. But he always knew it would involve some sort of adventure. It was his immense imagination, and the fact that he had “always thought in pictures”, which led him to pursue a career in cinematography.
“I like being involved with shows that tell a good story,” says Yelseth, who has an affinity for shooting “real things”. Though it has taken some “suss”, his hard news background has helped him to anticipate events better while out in the field.
Yelseth started his career shooting news and current affairs programmes in the early 1990s. During this time, he gained experience as a sound recorder and camera assistant, and later as a lighting cameraman and cinematographer. “I kind of cut my teeth on Carte Blanche,” he says. When shooting reality, being in the right place at the right time is crucial. Reality TV “is very in tune with the moment and very real… it’s one big, long live show and you’ve got to capture it visually.” And when it all comes together visually, Yelseth says, “the feeling of achievement is incredibly satisfying.”
Though he’s shot several documentaries for the crème de la crème of the international television crop – including National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and Mark Burnett Productions – Yelseth has remained humble and grounded. Apart from his work as director of photography (DOP) on Survivor and The Amazing Race, Yelseth has sat in both the producer and director’s chairs on many occasions.
On local front, he’s directed Vlok and Fordyce on the Run and kykNet’s Dans Dans Dans, while working as DOP on Apprentice South Africa.
On top of this he also runs Time Frame, his own broadcast, rentals and services facility, along with his television producer wife, Vanessa. “I enjoy working with all kinds of people, especially talented people,” he says – which might explain why he and Doig get along so well.
Doig’s father, taught him “a hell of a lot” about discipline and work ethic and, in so doing, laid an all-important foundation. He started out as a runner in the film industry but, in order to be closer to the camera, he switched over to sound. He left his father’s company to work as a freelance soundman in Johannesburg, before leaving for London in the late 1990s. There he got his first break as a cameraman, shooting magazine feature inserts. He’s since worked on a variety of shows, including Carte Blanche, 50/50 and the motor vehicle magazine show Drive Time. Doig also spent time in Afghanistan with the US Special Forces, directing and filming a reality show featuring US soldiers around the world.
Filmmaking intrigues him most. “As a DOP I love telling long-format stories, and features are great challenge. I love making films.” He’s worked as first camera operator on both Faith Like Potatoes and Hansie and as DOP on Tornado and the Kalahari Horse Whisperer. He won the best cinematographer award at the 2009 Monaco Film Festival and a South African Film and Television Awards cinematography nomination for Tornado.
“I also like commercials, as they allow you to create beautiful images and challenge you to tell a story in a short space of time.” For this reason, he was recently involved in starting a production company, doing mostly commercials. But, says Doig, “we want to make big films and we will.”
Since meeting, Yelseth and Doig have walked quite a road together, and their families have become very close-knit as well. Although they are besotted with their work, spending lengthy periods away from home and loved ones is always tough – but having your best friend by your side does make it somewhat better. “Lee’s a great guy to share those experiences with, good or bad,” says Yelseth.