COVER STORY: POSTING REALITY TV PROGRAMS
Now well entrenched on broadcast and cable networks, reality programming has expanded beyond competition-based shows to include documentary-style series and real-life help panels, which require post production workflows tailored to their individual needs.
CRIME 360 & SPORTS SCIENCE
Hollywood’s Base Productions (www.baseproductions.com) produces a slate of documentary-style reality shows that currently includes the first season of Jesse James is a Dead Man for Spike TV, the second season of Known Universe and the third season of Fight Science, which air on National Geographic TV, the second season of Sports Science on Fox Sportsnet, and the second season of Crime 360 on A&E.
“Our signature look is really high-quality production and CG, and we spend a lot of time on our mixes and sound design,” reports director of post production Scott Bramble. The shows are unscripted. “When they set up a task for the athletes in Sports Science they don’t know the result,” he says. “For Crime 360 we follow the homicide detectives through the process from day one, whether they solve the case or not. New evidence can surface and red herrings can wreak havoc on a post production schedule.”
Shows are shot with a range of cameras — Panasonic VariCam, Panasonic P2, HDV secondary cameras, MiniDV, lipstick cameras, Phantom high speed — and mixed with CG elements. The new Human Wrecking Balls, which airs on cablenet G4, features a lot of P2 footage as well as clips from disposable prosumer Sony Handicams.
Editing takes place in 18 Apple Final Cut Pro bays with 150TB of Xsan; finishing is done in a Final Cut online station. “With Final Cut we can deal with all formats and frame rates on one timeline. We need to be able to work all formats and work fast,” says Bramble. “We bring in everything in high resolution. Our turnaround is so quick, and promos and other projects come out of the shows, so there’s no time to redigitize media.”
After footage is ingested via AJA Kona 3 cards, assistant editors tap new Final Cut Server software for media management. “It creates proxies of all the footage, which can be accessed from the Internet so producers can use their laptops to look up cuts and logged footage,” says Bramble. “It still needs work, but the software is going in the right direction.”
Assistants string out footage and group cameras together, then the editors review the material, move it around and start building segments, “trimming the fat, making them nice and lean, and seeing what works and what doesn’t” to give the writer/producers a bit of a head start on episodes, he explains. A lot of editors serve as producer/editors, or “preditors.” Lead assistant editor Brian Swanson acts as in-house post supervisor across all shows.
Concurrent with editorial, Base Productions does a considerable amount of motion capture for Sports Science, and companies such as Worlds Away and Entity FX create CG elements, like a bullet’s path through a victim, for Crime 360.
“Since our shows are very effects driven and have fast-paced cuts, the mix plays a huge part,” Bramble notes. “There’s hardly any [sound] downtime on shows — music, whooshes, drones, sound effects all drive the pacing of the shows forward.” A lot of sound design begins in-house as a road map for mixer Blaine Stewart at Post Plus Sound, who replaces or refines elements on his Digidesign Pro Tools system. He delivers some shows in 5.1 surround and others in standard four-channel.
Once shows are locked in offline they move to color correction with freelance colorist Eric Stolze, who uses Synthetic Aperture’s Color Finesse plug-in. Then Swanson tweaks and polishes the cuts, adding any last-minute CG sequences.
“The process is really all about juggling multiple formats in a short amount of time and being as efficient as possible when each show has different needs and delivery specs,” says Bramble.
Editor Tod Modisett (www.tmreel.com) has extensive experience in reality TV having cut Behind the Music, three seasons of Celebrity Fit Club, the Martha Stewart edition of the The Apprentice, two seasons of The Bachelor and one of The Bachelorette.
He’s currently working for Stage 29 Productions on the Dr. Phil spinoff, The Doctors, a syndicated show featuring a panel of four physicians, which debuted last September. On the 60-minute show, shot before a live audience, the doctors (a pediatrician, plastic surgeon, ER physician and ob/gyn) answer questions from guests whose backstories are told in taped packages.
“From day one the executive producers didn’t want packages just documenting surgical procedures, but packages that make viewers care about the patients involved,” Modisett points out. “So we try to find emotional hooks to engage the audience.” He also strives to deliver the “verite” look, which, to executive producer Jay McGraw, has a “fresh off the presses” feel.
Modisett and the show’s nine other editors typically team with executive producer Carla Pennington, who supervises many of the preproduced packages. “Carla likes the taped packages shown on-set to be as close to finished as possible,” he says. Sometimes the packages are cut to a detailed script, other times the editors are required to quickly pull together stories from substantial numbers of field tapes.
“There’s a lot of organization involved,” he notes. “We do six shows a week and keep them active until they pass through online in case there are changes. Assets shot on DV are digitized to Avid Unity; we also integrate still photos and home video footage.”
The editors craft packages on Avid Adrenalines rented from Hula Post. Cuts are posted to FTP sites where producers review the packages and send back notes. “At 6 or 7am we’re jamming on Carla’s notes so we can have cuts to go into the live show,” Modisett explains. “When I can’t accomplish a note in time — like getting more patient stills — I’ll go back in later and add them. Online, which is located next door, prefers to digitize from the Digital Betacam outputs we lay off and drop into the show instead of taking sequences off Unity.”
Modisett also color corrects on Adrenaline. “I’ve never thought of myself as a colorist, but I’ve been doing more color correction of this show than on any other,” he reports. “Although I’m doing pretty basic stuff, the software is very sophisticated; it can do some fine work.”
While the post process he follows for The Doctors isn’t necessarily different from that for The Bachelor, for instance (Modisett is also helping out on new two-hour episodes of that series), there are different considerations involved. “With a medical show you can’t put out false information to make a better story,” he emphasizes. “You can’t try to juice it or notch it up. With other reality shows you can never push things far enough. With The Doctors you’re looking at the drama of patients’ lives, but you have to be honest and maintain the integrity of their stories.”
1,000 WAYS TO DIE
H.A. Arnarson (310-721-1422) has found that eight seasons of Survivor, the first season of The Contender and a host of other reality show credits have given him handy skills for Spike TV’s new 1,000 Ways to Die, a series in which, he says, “karma plays a hand in death.” Arnarson is acting as a story producer/editor, or preditor, on the 12-episode series, which explores bizarre deaths through re-enactments.
“It’s traditional single-camera filmmaking with the connective tissue of the story [i.e., the voiceover for the narrator] written after the fact,” he explains. “It’s sort of a hybrid: It’s shot like a movie and edited like a reality show. Sometimes stories wind up playing out totally differently from the way they were envisioned originally.”
Being a preditor “speaks to the overall big-picture trend,” he notes. “Editors became more autonomous thanks to nonlinear editing technology, and now writing is the next level of expressing that autonomy. Those who have learned to use the Avid know it’s a powerful storytelling tool. Now I sit with a laptop by my side writing to the footage that used to be given to me with a script by a producer, who’d often snap fingers to tell the editor when to cut. That time is over.”
Arnarson, who has cut on Avid so long that he admits to being “sort of hard-wired” to it, calls the editing system “an amazingly versatile tool with software so broad and deep and flexible” that it allows for substantial user customization. For the Spike TV series he and several other editors work on Avid Media Composer 2.7 systems, networked on Unity ISIS, at Original Productions.
“Working through the Unity system, all the editors have access to the same material,” he explains. “It makes the creative process faster. In one bay an editor, or assistant editor, might make a marker, requesting a voiceover or some connective tissue for the story. A preditor can immediately take a look at the marker in a different bay and address the note. In this way, workflow has changed drastically from just a few years ago. Now teams can ‘divide and conquer,’ working simultaneously on the same shows. It’s triage with story parts — slicing, dicing and splicing. A mad story menagerie, if you will. The creative process is more fluid and instantaneous, but with it come new expectations.”
1,000 Ways to Die was shot with “a workhorse of the reality TV industry, the Sony HDF-900 HDCAM,” says Arnarson. “But unlike most reality TV shows, we shot non-interlaced video and adapted our camera with fixed cine lenses for a cool, filmic look. It gave us a shallow depth of field and extra rich color.”
The footage is digitized from the HDCAM tape onto the ISIS Fibre Share via Media Composer V.3.0 using the Mojo SDI. “Unlike most reality TV shows, we have a very low shooting ratio, so we need no hoards of loggers,” he notes. From raw footage, a preditor or producer/editor team takes two to three days to make a first pass of the story. From there, it may bounce between editors and producers. “During the creative process, our executive producer Tom McMahon receives QuickTime movies that are rendered down to an FTP server, which he can access and download from anywhere he gets Internet.”
Editors offline the shows dipping into the tool bin to select plug-ins, such as Sapphire, for transitional or stylized effects, or to lend a period look to re-enactment clips. After the offline is reviewed by the producers, Arnarson incorporates their notes and locks the assembled shows to time using the Media Composer 2.7.
The locked cuts then move into the online phase where full HD uprez, color correction, compositing and final graphics take place in an Avid DS system. “Many of our stories feature scientific graphics illustrating the ‘fine points’ of dying,” he points out. “These graphics came from a few outside sources throughout the season and went through constant refinement as we went along.” The offline audio is exported via Fibre Share to final mix and sound design on Pro Tools. The show is delivered in 1080i HD.
Arnarson has adapted his preditor skills to his own documentary about his home country, titled Decoding Iceland, which he has been cutting on his own Media Composer. “Becoming a preditor— learning to write for TV as well as edit it — was the missing ingredient for that project,” he notes.
“Executive producer Tom McMahon directed the bulk of the segments, and brought in the right combination of cinematic gore, drama, science and, most importantly, a highly evolved sense of comedy,” reports Arnarson. “As he likes to say, ‘We’re aiming for a new high and a new low at the same time.’ During the writing/editing process, Tom bounced from bay to bay, imprinting his vision in the same take-no prisoners way he shot the series.”
SHEAR GENIUS, BIGGEST LOSER
“The biggest change in reality programming right now is that many shows are originating in various HD formats and finishing in HD,” reports Michael Koljan, VP/sales & marketing for creative services for Ascent Media Group, whose Level 3, Encore Video and Riot facilities post reality shows.
That’s the case for Ascent’s roster of reality shows, which includes Snoop Dogg’s Fatherhood on E!, Shear Genius on Bravo, College Hill on BET, Teen Idol on VH-1, and Ocean Force (formerly Beach Patrol) on Tru TV. The company has “streamlined” the post process for them so “we digitize overnight, conform in the morning, output in the afternoon and do a full da Vinci color pass using a tape-to-tape telecine bay,” he explains. “I think if producers have a choice between using the editor as a colorist or going to a colorist who spends his life painting pictures using a da Vinci 2K with Power Windows, they’d choose the dedicated colorist. The look of these shows is everything, and producers understand the value of working in a tape-to-tape environment.”
Following color correction, shows are output and titled, and delivery dubs are made. “Since most shows aren’t approved until the last minute, we don’t lock the cut until late,” Koljan points out. “A one-hour show has a three-day or less turnaround.”
At Burbank’s Level 3 (www. level3post.com), online editor Chris Currall finds post production for the reality shows he finishes — the upcoming third season of hairstyling’s Shear Genius and Tijuana Entertainment’s new Obsessed on A&E — follows the path Koljan has described.
For Shear Genius, for example, footage acquired is imported at low resolution into production company Reveille Entertainment’s Avids and offlined, then sequences are sent to Currall’s assistant, Lisa Wehren, who digitizes them in HD and imports all the graphics. Currall, using Avid Symphony Nitris, then does a textless assembly in HD “watching half the offline and half the online at the same time to make sure everything is in sync,” he explains. He lays off the show in HD for the post supervisor to review, then makes adjustments based on the supervisor’s notes.
Da Vinci color correction is next, then graphics and titling. The tried-and-true workflow has little variation, although Currall notes that, “We have to be able to adapt to the cameras the shows use — even prosumer cameras some contestants take home. Now there’s more contact between post and production before shooting starts so we can make sure everything will flow properly. We have to be prepared to bring in that material in HD and have it work on our side.”
Level 3 also provided da Vinci color correction, via Randy Beveridge, for The Biggest Loser. “The Biggest Loser is shot on tape in SD and color corrected at Level 3 on the da Vinci 2K, which can be used for both HD and SD,” explains colorist Beveridge. “Because non-scripted reality shows are shot on the fly with little time for lighting set-ups, as opposed to scripted shows, each cut can vary with a green or yellow bias due to fluorescent lighting conditions.
“For a two-hour show The Biggest Loser averages around 2,500 to 3,000 cuts per show, which presents the need to find a good cohesive palate and ripple a look throughout a scene, all the while digitally altering and balancing the colors back to a more neutral realistic color.”
Although many productions are moving to tapeless and file-based workflows Ascent’s Koljan isn’t seeing that yet for reality programming “They haven’t gone to that level, maybe because of the volume of material they shoot: it’s not uncommon to have up to 300 source tapes and 2,000 cuts in a 46-minute show.”
What he is witnessing is “more and more shows doing their own video finishing in-house with networks accepting Avid or Final Cut outputs and the push to be more cost effective.” They’re still going out of house for color and audio post, however.