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September 2014
Issue: March 1, 2008

EDITING REALITY TV

By: Ken McGorry
It’s like some kind of dream for an editor — you get an endless supply of tapes, or digital files, and your job is to shape the content into a winning TV program that will engross skads of viewers once it’s passed muster with your producers, your director and the network. But there is no script. And you have to turn out a fresh, great-looking show every week. And the competition for those viewers could not be more fierce. And the tapes just keep coming and coming. It could give you a new definition for “going postal.”

“Reality TV” is the genre that surely rewrote the rules of television production with unscripted, often competition-based programming that would put non-SAG “real people” onscreen and pit them against each other, sometimes for months, with fabulous prizes waiting at season’s end. To make such shows viable entertainment, of course, you need lots of cameras recording the actions and reactions of lots of participants. And then, back at the ranch, you need lots of loggers, story editors and video editors, sometimes working round-the-clock shifts to find those needle-in-a-haystack moments that need to be cut into that week’s installment.

THE BIGGEST LOSER

Editor Karl Kimbrough of Alter Ego Films (www.alteregofilms.com) works with producer Dana Arnett of 3Ball Productions (www.3ballproductions.com), the makers of NBC’s The Biggest Loser, which, with its jumbo two-hour weekly episodes, is arguably the biggest workload in reality post. Kimbrough is a veteran Avid editor with two Biggest Loser seasons under his belt and is looking forward to his third, the series’ sixth.

Yes, the shift from regular post production to a reality series — especially one with an intense competitive aspect — can be a shock for any editor. “You’re immersed in from one camera to sometimes up to 12 cameras,” Kimbrough says. “Right now on The Biggest Loser we’re doing two-hour programs with roughly 32 hours of raw footage. Suddenly it becomes daunting as to what the story can be.”

So shaping up an episode is all about process and organization. 3Ball has a team set up — story editors, story producers, transcribers, assistant editors, as well as key editors such as Kimbrough — to design and build episodes. That team makes it much easier to get  through the footage and the story arc. Story editors work with lots of clips in QuickTime on DVDs, “and sometimes they’re in the field and they come back with a story arc that they’re highly aware of and can relay to us.” 

When a given episode of Biggest Loser begins there are already four or five earlier episodes in various stages of completion. Each episode has four story-producing teams assigned to it as well as editing teams. This season has 16 episodes, so that’s four episodes per season per editing team. “The story producers are ahead of the editors in terms of the arcs,” says Kimbrough. “It’s a massive, military outfit — we’re cutting a movie a week! But I don’t ever feel rushed.” The schedule includes night shifts, but “it’s a machine that works,” Arnett says, adding that the headcount for post alone is about 126. An episode’s entire production schedule is given 20 days. People tend to work 10-hour days and do not freak out over deadlines, even though episodes airing on Tuesday nights are delivered on Mondays.

Three key editors (Kimbrough, Sam Mussari and Stephen Baumhauer) work on a given episode’s competitive “story arc” segments. Other critical segments, such as the heavily viewed weigh-ins or the episode-ending eliminations, can require nine cameras, yet they are considered somewhat more formulaic and are cut by two other editors.

Reality show producers JD Roth and Todd Nelson own 3Ball Productions. All told, The Biggest Loser was employing 14 editors and five assistant editors at press time. All of the post for all episodes this season is overseen by 3Ball co-executive producer Matt Assmus, who also interfaces with the network on creative matters. Troy A. Smith handles the show’s online finishing on Avid Nitris at the Bennett Group and his job is to build on or perfect the effects the offline editors create in their Avids using GenArts Sapphire. The Biggest Loser gets da Vinci color correction at Level 3 Post in Los Angeles.

“It’s a big show with audio,” says Arnett. “You can imagine with all those cameras how many mics and stuff are out there.” A TASCAM DA-88 records on-set sound and dialogue along with camera mics. Arnett uses Noise Floor Studios for audio post by mixer Michael Solano and sound supervisor Ryan Owens. Kimbrough and fellow offline editors add their own sound effects, including whooshes or tympani, from sound libraries. “Story is always the most important part,” says Kimbrough. The editors build their contestants’ story around the audio: “We’ll take our reality moment and, if you close your eyes, it tells the story without picture.”

“The editors cutting all the reality segments do so much work to create the story,” says Arnett. In the show’s early going, when there are more contestants, they can see 120 hour-long tapes come in per night. 3Ball shoots Sony MPEG IMX-format for the competitive segments and MiniDV tape for the “confessional” segments. “Coming from scripted and going into reality is much more challenging,” says Kimbrough, who is himself a veteran of spots and feature films. “There are 100 different ways you can put together a story.” The various camera crews on the competitive segments use time-of-day timecode in order to better show how different teams are faring against one another. “When you’re cutting a story you can always hop over to the other camera crew to see what they were doing at that given moment.” Arnett adds, “The only way you can do it with groups of cameras is with time-of-day timecode.”

3Ball uses Avid Unity — many, actually, all wired together — to manage the massive amounts of content and has about 58 Avid Media Composers at work on The Biggest Loser. Different seasons reside on different Unitys and are available to production people who need to refer to past episodes.

WORKFLOW, WORKFLOW

LA Digital Post (the one in New York) recently hosted a demo session by MESoft meant to get reality TV producers enthused about the company’s data management platform — particularly the MESoft Media Logger and the new MESoft Story Editor. These innovations were created to improve reality TV workflow and LA Digital is itself in that business, including serving all the Mark Burnett reality shows. The expansive three-floor shop sits in a swanky Times Square office tower and is host and service provider to reality show production offices such as ABC’s Wife Swap and MTV’s Made. On this occasion guests included decision-makers from Lifetime Television and MTV Networks. The visitors definitely seemed to recognize the time-saving potential of the MESoft platform.

Gary Migdal, president/CEO of the bi-coastal editorial services provider, was on hand for the demos. LA Digital (in LA) has already tried out the MESoft system on a reality series. The big challenge is “workflow, workflow, workflow,” Migdal says. “We were involved with an MTV show titled X-Factor. The client was able to capitalize on the single-ingest feature. The media is digitized from an LA Digital four-system ingest rack directly onto the Avid Unity storage network and then copied directly over to the MESoft server, all in a single pass.”

LA Digital (www.ladigital.com) has been evaluating several logging/asset management/review-and-approval solutions for over a year. “We have ultimately found MESoft to be the furthest along on every level,” says Migdal. “We feel partnering with MESoft and offering their solution as part of our post package brings the future into present tense.”

Migdal also approves of MESoft’s Web-based review and approval software: “It further expands the collaborative workflow process. It enables an almost immediate response to material which needs to be reviewed and approved no matter the physical location of producers and executives. A process which could take up to several days, creating a tape or DVD and shipping it, is now accomplished in a matter of seconds.”

The MESoft Media Logger eliminates the need to create dubs or look for tapes. “In a typical MESoft reality TV workflow,” says Freddy Goeske, MESoft co-founder/CTO, “all the content is stored on a central MESoft server. This gives anyone in post access to MESoft software tools that enable end-users to instantly view, tag or annotate ingested content.” Content can be accessed in parallel by a number of loggers or any authenticated and assigned end-user simultaneously. The media search engine in the MESoft server allows story editors to search and sort content by keywords and metadata values.

The MESoft Story Editor will be available as part of the 4.0 product. When coupled with the Media Logger, reality TV productions will be able to catalog captured media, search and review desired clips, and piece together a rough-cut along with its accompanying transcription text. MESoft is adding MXF support and around NAB will support Avid DNxHD, Sony XDCAM and XDCAMHD as well as Panasonic P2. Goeske adds, “In general the MESoft system can always ingest media faster than realtime in a single pass.”

MESoft also helped out the producers of Hell’s Kitchen, LA-based Granada America’s largest production. “We have a massive amount of media,” says Sam Zoda, Granada EVP. “Matchframe Video knew of our need to streamline post production and introduced us to MESoft’s logging system. The fact that they helped develop the software proved invaluable to our production. It has allowed us to use the system at its full potential, which was designed to support the specific needs of reality-based television. It has helped us save a lot of man hours and we have been able to shorten our post schedule significantly, which in turn is saving us a good deal of money. Once producers learn more about MESoft they will realize quickly the advantages and positive impact it can have on their bottom line.”

BRINGING HOME BABY

Avid editor Erik Rosenbluh works for Norsemen Television Productions (www.norsemen.tv) in Valley Village, CA, and he offlined Bringing Home Baby, a daily half-hour show for TLC that totals 60 finished episodes per season. The series just completed its third season. Every episode follows the first 36 hours in a baby’s arrival at home and ends with a follow-up visit eight weeks later. Norsemen uses two Avid Adrenalines and two software-only Media Composers with Mojo.

Rosenbluh relies on the Teresis Online system for browser- and Internet-based production asset management. Norsemen works with story editors to forge Bringing Home Baby storylines out of raw footage. The company recently upgraded to Teresis Online which allows remote access to footage, support for Avid and Final Cut Pro editing software and integration with outsourced transcription services through a partnership with Terescription. A Teresis server houses the complete digitized footage for the show, independent from the Avid digitized content of the same show.

On Bringing Home Baby loggers would type in descriptive phrases or dialogue into a Teresis system. Story editors could access Teresis Online “to watch the footage to find the best stuff and generate scripts,” says Rosenbluh, finally giving video editors a script with videos in one column and text on the other side. “The assistant editors would get that and put together a string-out. I would use Teresis — I had a separate computer on my desk — to search for extra stuff. Instead of scrolling through hours of footage I could just type in a search and say I want to find a shot of the [subjects’] cat, and it would give me all their cats and I could actually see all the shots right there.” Teresis also includes timecode to take editors directly to the clip in question. Certain tapes containing interview footage would be transcribed allowing Rosenbluh to search an interview for a desired shot. But looking only at interview text would not help an editor know if the shot was perfect — you need picture. “What was most helpful with the Teresis in looking for interview bites was you could actually see if it will work.”

Norsemen would have one editor each working on one episode of Bringing Home Baby — a total of four editors at any one time churning out the daily episodes. Three editors, including Rosenbluh, have been on the series for all three seasons. “We had two story producers overseeing the episode to show your cuts to and get their notes.” 

Bringing Home Baby “kept flashy effects to a minimum since this was a daytime audience,” says Rosenbluh, “but we did some in-Avid stuff.” Bringing Home Baby editors would also use the Boris FX Continuum Complete AVX effects package: “I like those because they’re all within the Avid effects editor, you don’t have to step outside Avid to see it in realtime.” Rosenbluh uses Boris CC for film-damage effects as well as lighting effects, lens flares and special wipes. 

Although footage seems to keep piling up, Rosenbluh sometimes finds himself without enough, saying, “I wish I had a shot of that!” But now with Teresis, “I can do a search to see if we even have it and see it right away.”

Bringing Home Baby was shot in 16x9 HDV for the first time this season. Audio was finished at Tree Falls and the show was onlined, including color correction, at Alpha-Dogs in LA. But Rosenbluh and colleagues would themselves deal with any glaring color shift, or add a blue hue to a night scene, in-house, in-Avid.

Thanks to systems like Teresis, Rosenbluh foresees more people working from home and less and less dependence upon expensive over-nighting. New York-based network executives have their notes ready for West Coast-based editors the next morning.

SHEAR GENIUS

A good online experience is the direct result of well crafted offline work, as anyone will tell you. LA-based Level 3 Post’s online editor Chris Currall is reminded of that tenet every day as he works on reality shows such as Bravo’s Shear Genius. The show pits 12 hair stylists against each other in various hair-cutting challenges and includes caustic judges, celebrities, hair-do tips, and host Jaclyn Smith in a series of eight hours leading to a “Final Cut” climax.

Currall and Level 3 (www.level3post.com) specialize in episodic dramas (and the shop’s editors and colorists were among those left idle by the writers’ strike), but for online artist Currall, jumping to an unscripted show like Shear Genius is not as big a leap as it is for some offline editors who have moved from dramas to reality. “An online is usually a day,” he says of one episode of Shear Genius, “and then for titling it’s usually half a day. We do things as quickly as possible.” For reality shows, Currall uses an SD Avid Symphony.

Given the high cost of online, Currall says, highly-organized offline is key. “The best workflow they can have on the offline is to have their show really locked before they come to us so you know where everything is.” Reality show producers will typically send over their completed offline sequence along with all the source tapes — potentially hundreds. “Overnight our digitizer, digitizing at the highest resolution, will decompose the sequence and digitize all the material that we need with 12-frame handles so we can slip or slide things a little bit.”

Although he will occasionally provide creative services, such as seeking out a superior shot for a transition the post super may want to improve, Currall’s job is mostly technical: “Making sure everything is in spec, making sure everything matches the reference, and making sure all the effects they created [such as picture-in-picture] are created in the proper way. If they’re not, you have to re-create it.”  

Shear Genius uses animattes or graphic wipes such as shears cutting across the scene. Robb Roetman is supervising editor for Reveille Studios, which produces Shear Genius. He edited the show on an Avid Meridian and he says a big part of his job is finding that perfect moment. “Reality shows can shoot anywhere from 40 hours of footage to 200 hours depending on the show. After I figure out which location, scene or event to search through, I can have anywhere from one to six hours of footage to go through to find that elusive golden moment. When I watch footage I try to look for a moment that makes me react or entertains me — makes me laugh, cry, sit on the edge of my seat, or teaches me something. When I find that moment I build a scene around it.”

Sometimes an interview describes something that you don’t have footage to support. “If that’s the case I end up creating a moment that supports the interview,” Roetman says. “Head turns are great for this.”

The biggest rule for Roetman is that the end product has to move the viewer and the story forward. “It cannot be simply a montage or a series of shots depicting people going through a process like driving from point A to B.”