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A Producer at Risk: Soviet-Era Nuclear Icebreaker Smashes Arctic Floes. And The Budget! (Case Study 1/2)

2011 April 16
by Peter Hamilton

Producers, talent and network programmers push the limits. That can mean business risk, personal danger and even death.

In this week’s Case Study: Veteran, New York-based producer Vinnie Kraylevich and his crew travel deep into the Siberian permafrost.

They face threats from budget blowouts, hands that won’t be greased, a disappearing nuclear icebreaker, polar bears, a potetially ruined relationship with the commissioning network, and more.

  • This post: The Hail Mary Decision
  • Next: Siberian Takeaways – How to manage productions in dangerous and exotic locations



  • Assignment: Create a pilot for a series
  • Location: Norilsk, a closed industrial city in the Siberian permafrost
  • Objective: Board the nuclear-powered icebreaker Taymyr for a trip to distant Murmansk
  • Issues: Greased palms don’t work. Passports are confiscated. The Taymyr leaves port in heavy fog. We’re not on board
  • Big problem
    • No shoot on the Taymyr. No pilot
    • U.S. channel very upset. No series
    • Lose and return investment:  $225,000+/-  
    • And throw away months of work

The Hail Mary Solution 

  • Hire a helicopter to chase the Taymyr out into the icepack
  • Pay $12,000 cash. No receipt
  • Accept that helicopter may not find her in the looming blizzard
  • … that maybe she can’t be boarded …
  • And that the network won’t cover the cost


  • The Series:
    • The little things of everyday life must often travel vast distances and survive terrifying ordeals to reach your plate, pocket, car, and home.  Discover and explore the world’s most dangerous trade routes with Getting There Alive
  • The Pilot: Getting There Alive: From Siberia to Suburbia
    • Norilsk is a former Soviet gulag city that is still locked in the closed ways of Siberia’s Communist past
    • It is a heavily-polluted mining and smelting center, sitting above lucrative deposits of Nickel, Platinum, Cobalt and other valuable metals
    • Norilsk is located deep in the permafrost, without road & rail links to the outside world
    • The Northeast Passage is the only way out: It is a 1,200 mile Arctic sea route that is smashed by a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers
  • Commissioning network: History Channel
  • Years: 2008-9


Total (hour): $370,000 +/-

  • Development: $0
  • Pre-production: $115,000
  • Field production: $120,000
  • Post / Delivery: $135,000

Field Production Team

  • Episode producer: Ryan Miller
  • AP: Jonathan Smith; DP’s: Tim Metzger, Marcus Lehman; Sound: Dave Swanson
  • “I also went to Norilsk because I wanted to make sure KPI achieved what I had sold to the network,” says EP Vinnie Kraylevich
  • “Our production team was extremely capable.  I just knew they would hit roadblock after roadblock, even though we had secured all the permissions. We were going to face a lot of decisions on which the production – and that meant the possibility for an entire series – would sink or swim.”


  • Vinnie Kraylevich’s experience: 25 years
  • KPI: 18 years
  • Commissioning networks include
    • History, A&E, Discovery, Animal Planet, Military, HGTV, Travel, Nat Geo, Smithsonian, Bravo
  • Total hours produced: 500+/-

KPI’s Pipeline in 2008

  • 30 hours in production
  • History: 2 other series 
  • Nat Geo: 1 series
  • Various one offs

Projects in 2011 Include

  • The Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero (6 x 60) Discovery. Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg 
  • Fleaman (6 x 60) Nat Geo Channel


  • Hire the helicopter!
  • “I had a plan to mitigate the risk
    • “I asked half the team to stay in Norilsk
    • “We would all get into the helicopter and fly to the icebreaker
    • “Half the crew would film us getting on board
    • “And then they’d return to Norilsk to produce the mine segment”

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  • “Norilsk falls below us. It becomes a sheet of white. Our eyes can no longer tell land from sea
  • “About 30 minutes out, we see a shipwreck with its frozen bow sticking out of the ice. We are over water
  • “We hear excited chatter in the cockpit. The door opens and the pilots kindly wave us in.  We see the Taymyr below. It is tugging a 600-foot cargo ship
  • “We circle in and hover 6 feet above the ice. A Russian jumps out with a tire iron to test that the ice will support us. We rush our camera gear from the helicopter and are hoisted onto the Taymyr by its cargo crane
  • “We became the first ever American TV crew to board a Russian nuclear icebreaker. We were off to Murmansk.”

 Next Week

  • The Takeaways:  Managing danger-filled productions that are potential budget-busters
  • Death & Dismemberment Insurance? You’ve got to be kidding!

Dont miss our earlier producer profiles:



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