Reality TV Production Basics
Richard Hall (Reality TV Producer) gives expert video advice on: How do producers plan shoots for reality shows?; How are hidden cameras disguised in reality shows? and more...
What are the various phases of a reality TV show production?
The reality show's calendar will start with casting; that's so important that they give it a lot of time. Then you begin pre-production, in terms of working on your locations and organizing your art departments and other things that you'll need for the show. Casting lasts several weeks, usually, and then the pre-production itself is usually only two or three weeks to get people up to speed. The second phase of the reality show is production, and production is when you're filming. For example, you could have fourteen days straight of filming; or like The Amazing Race, you're shooting over a period of thirty days; or like Celebrity Fit Club, you're shooting thirty days out of a hundred. That's production. Post-production of a reality TV show is the third phase. It begins as soon as tapes come back to the shop and they're starting to be looked at. Most shows are being edited while they're being produced. Some shows are being aired while they're being produced, and that sometimes presents problems, if there are people who are watching themselves on TV and they still have episodes to shoot; that can be interesting. Mostly, what happens is we're delivering the reality shows but they're held for error until production is over.
How do producers plan shoots for reality shows?
You never really know, as a producer, but what we do know, is we know what emotions we're going for on the reality show. We know what conflicts we're going for. We know what we think would be the most interesting short form of what happens in real life that we are condensing into a reality show, that we think would be very interesting for the audience to see.
How many cameras are used on reality shows?
All the reality shows use different complements of cameras, depending on how big their shooting area is. Big Brother is a house that's wired with a whole bunch of cameras and some of them are robotic and fixed and things like that. The Amazing Race, when they started out with eleven teams, they have eleven cameras crews plus five or six more everyday to pick up wider shots. There are never less than two cameras and the sky's the limit. It depends on the budget of the show, but having six cameras is not unusual.
What is a 'run and gun' television shooting style?
A run and gun shooting style is handheld camera work. It doesn't have much of a coverage plan, other than the fact that it keeps things in frame, and follows the action. A run and gun crew is basically a camera man and a sound man. There's a camera assistant trailing along, handy to replace batteries and tapes. On a show like The Amazing Race, they don't have a camera assist. They just have a camera man, and an audio man.
How is sound recorded on a reality TV show?
Audio is actually more difficult than video, on reality shows, especially if you have lots of participants. A camera generally has two clean inputs on a reality show. When you have lots of participants, and you're mic-ing all of them, what you're doing, basically, is creating a separate audio receiver, a base station, for audio. This is where all of the feeds from the wireless mics are being mixed onto a board that can handle 16 or 32 or 64 inputs, in addition to what the cameras with their two channels of audio can pick up for you. Audio is, technically, finding all those frequencies and clearing them, making sure all the batteries are working, and the wireless units are working - they don't slip and fall when people move, and they don't run against fabric. Audio is actually a bigger job than the video. You can look at a bank of video monitors, and you can see ten video monitors, and in about twenty seconds you can realize if anything is amiss. If you have 16 audio inputs, there's a lot more work involved before you can tell everybody that we're good to go. You have to listen to every one of them, and you have to listen to the person move with the mic on, and you have to do a mic check.
What is a 'boom' microphone?
A boom mic is a microphone that is held on a pole, that the audio man is holding over and above the subject, to pick up audio if the person isn't mic-ed. Let's say they've just come out of a swimming pool, for example. That's going to be “boomed”: the boom will be about 3 feet above their head, out of camera frame, because they won't be wearing a mic. That's the only way you can get effective audio from them.
What are the challenges of recording sound on reality TV shows?
Sound especially became an issue on reality shows that are shot on the beach, where people aren't wearing much in the way of clothing. You know the little pack that you want to put on people's belts which is a transmitter/receiver for audio for the microphone? On the other hand, there happen to be creative audio ways, like little necklace mics and stuff like that for when people are wearing bathing suits. You can't boom everything; you can't have fixed microphones positions and then have people turn away. There is a wired classic mic, like in news or documentary; people would have a mic that would be wired right into the camera. But that's very difficult to do in reality TV. You need to have that flexibility of the person turning in any direction, and variable depending on what they are wearing - if they going to submerge themselves in water, any of those things. How physical are they going to be? The mic-ing is a whole different area that requires a whole lot of attention.
Do crews and cast members interact on reality TV shows?
It's inevitable that crews and cast interact on reality TV shows. Sometimes it's meant to be, it's OK. On a lot of competitive reality shows - take The Amazing race, for example - they will swap the crews around so that they don't become too close with any one particular team. Or, just because there are things that can affect the show. If you talk about cast and producers, there are very, very tight interactions: It's vital. Other people are supposed to hang back. I've been in situations where, if a reality TV cast member made a crude joke at the expense of another cast member, if any of my crew laughed at that joke, I would kick them off the set, because that would influence the way the other cast member took the jokes. They might feel ganged up on. However, if she was left to her own reaction, she would not be shut down, and she would be more aggressive in responding. It's very important that the crew maintain professional silence and distance, especially at tense moments on the reality show. The producers have a different job. They need to be there, to make those people feel that they are always in an environment that they can open up.
How are hidden cameras disguised in reality shows?
I don't really know that cameras are disguised on reality shows. People are generally aware of fixed cameras in a bedroom or in hallways, or stuff like that. If people can forget that there's a three man crew and a producer standing two inches from their nose filming them, if they can forget about the camera in that situation, they're certainly going to start forgetting about the fact that there's a camera in the hallway, in the ceiling, or in a bedroom. I just think they tend to forget about them on reality shows, or they just know cameras are there but they stop caring.