Principal Videographer and Lighting
He sank twice. Actually, three times if you count the time when he was not in an actual boat. Then there was flying in the helicopter (he's afraid of heights), crawling through tunnels, running through woods, climbing 150-year-old narrow stairways with heavy cameras, and battling swarms of mosquitos on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie.
Frank Simkonis, who has won an Emmy award for his camera work, helped give the program its distinctive look through creatively captured video images and lighting effects. He also had arguably the most physical challenges of anyone on the production team.
"We were in a boat out about 10 feet interviewing someone, and I looked down and my filters were floating," recounts Frank. "My next adventure was four or five months later on the maiden voyage of a different boat which also began sinking. The builder discovered it wasn't quite seaworthy."
"In my third water adventure," he continues, "I was shooting at Big Bone Lake wearing hip waders so I could get some shots running through water. I ran into a sinkhole and sank completely, me and the camera."
The camera -and Frank- survived, which is fortunate for the viewers who will be treated to the beautiful and haunting images Frank captured on video.
"I usually go for a theme look (for programs)," says Frank. "I tried to give this program a darker, sharper, harsher, edgier look unless we were over the river. I tried to give (the shots over the river) a more golden look."
"A lot of river shots have golds and reds in them because the river was the gateway to freedom," he explains. "I also tried to get birds in a lot of the shots because birds symbolize flight and freedom."
Frank isn't involved in the editing process, so he won't know which shots were used until he sees the final program. "Your shots are like your kids," he says. "It's hard when one you really like doesn't make it in the show." However, it was Frank's idea to use a cello in the documentary. "I kept hearing a cello in my head as I was shooting," he says, so he suggested it to the producer.
Frank grew up in New York City in an area populated by generations of people who immigrated to the U.S. after the Civil War. He knew about the underground railroad, but only vaguely.
"An impression that will last forever is that someone could actually do that to another human being," says Frank. "One person we were interviewing (Charles Blockson) asked me to touch a book that had green leather on it. After I did, he told me it was made from the skin of a slave, I was horrified."