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April 2014
Issue: March 1, 2011

Reality TV

By: Marc Loftus

Admit it. You watch them — those unscripted television programs, where unpredictability and drama equal big ratings. The networks know it too and are constantly refining concepts and challenges to keep audiences interested.

For post facilities working on reality TV series, there’s a lot to oversee. Almost everyone working on a show will cite the enormous volume of footage that is captured during production and the challenge that comes with storing it and making it available to a team of editors searching for that “choice” dramatic moment.

This month, Post talked with a number of facilities that are providing offline editorial and online finishing services for reality series. Some are even producing the shows themselves, allowing them to oversee the programs from acquisition through final delivery, and create a streamlined workflow. 

KATE PLUS 8, 19 KIDS and COUNTING, SISTER WIVES

Serious Robots (www.seriousrobots.com) in Raleigh, NC, serves as the post house for a number of Discovery’s popular reality TV programs, including Kate Plus 8, 19 Kids and Counting and Sister Wives. 

Leah Welsh, an executive producer at the studio who focuses on long-form work, says that deadlines for these Discovery shows can be quite demanding. Post caught up with her on a Thursday as she was overseeing the online of an episode that would air the following Monday. 

“With reality TV, the producers tend to shoot a lot, because you never know when you are going to get the choice material,” Welsh explains. “The biggest challenge for us is how to deal with the turnarounds that we are facing.”

Welsh noticed an increased demand for finished episodes once the storyline of John & Kate Plus 8 heated up and the couple decided to separate. Ratings skyrocketed.

“They would run anything that showed up,” Welsh says of the network’s excitement and demand for programming “We have never changed back from that.”

As such, the studio has developed a workflow that offers efficiencies when dealing with last-minute deliveries. Serious Robots relies solely on Avid systems in posting Kate Plus 8, 19 Kids and Counting  and Sister Wives. Media Composers are used for offline editing, and Avid Nitris DX systems are used to perform the online. All of the Avids are connected to a Facilis TerraBlock shared storage solution. 

Figure 8 Films is the production company for the three shows, with Puddle Monkey also contributing to Sister Wives.

Welsh says Serious Robots has anywhere from 14 to 18 Avid systems online at any one time and as many as 20 episodes in post production. The studio has four long-form editors on staff, and works with freelancers around the country. Freelancers are FedEx’d a drive to work from, and usually get between three and four weeks to deliver an episode. 

“We put everything on a drive,” Welsh explains. “It’s full res. We give them all the graphics and the music library — everything we need. [We] ship them the drives and they will email us the sequence back.”

According to Ian Krabacher, an online editor at Serious Robots, the shows are captured on an assortment of digital formats, including HDV, XDCAM HD and XDCAM EX. The studio is also seeing an increase in the use of Canon’s 5D and 7D cameras, which can be mounted on the hood of a car or in a go-kart. 

Each show tends to have a core team of five editors, explains Krabacher. “With Kate [Plus 8] for example, they were working on a lot of shows at once, so in post we might have had six to eight episodes at one time.”

The number of episodes each season can vary dramatically. “When a show is getting off the ground or being launched, they can buy as few as six,” he says. “On successful series, an order of 50 episodes is not unheard of.”

Sister Wives’s first season debuted last year with 10 episodes, and the show has been given the go-ahead for another 10. The program focuses on a husband and his four wives in Utah. It’s shot on XDCAM EX, and like the other shows posted at Serious Robots, is loaded onto the TerraBlock at full resolution. Editors cut in DNx220. 

Audio is posted at sister facility Blazing Music + Sound using Avid Pro Tools. The studio recently upgraded to Version 9. Krabacher says that while the shows are broadcast in stereo, the studio is still required to provide splits to the network. They deliver on the HDCAM SR format, which allows for all of those deliverables.

THE BATTLE

AlphaDogs (www.alphadogs.tv) in Burbank will handle the occasional feature, but the bulk of its work comes from reality TV clients. The studio has a long history in editing and finishing reality series, and in recent weeks has been working on a number of shows, including Stuck With Hackett, Enough Already, Pregnant in Heels and Desert Car Kings.

One of the more challenging series AlphaDogs has posted is The Battle, which airs on ESPNU. The series focuses on the marching bands of several southern US schools and the rigorous preparations they go through to get ready for a final multi-school competition.

Terry Curren is the founder of AlphaDogs and handles finishing on shows that employ an Avid workflow. They also post some shows using Final Cut Pro.

“The Battle was [hard],” he explains. “They came to us and already shot the majority of the show. The director thought it would be great to shoot it with a Red camera, but that’s not really the best way to shoot a reality show, especially one where they have a short turnaround.”

Reality TV, by nature, involves shooting a lot of footage, something that’s not entirely practical when capturing to disk. Getting all of that material into a central storage system that allows multiple editors access simultaneously also presents challenges. And let’s not forget short turnaround times.

The Battle involved a half-dozen or so episodes covering multiple schools, with the final episode featuring the competition.

“It actually aired about six days after the competition,” Curren recalls of the finale. “They shot all of the other episodes with the Red camera and talked about doing the final one that way. With all of the problems that we had getting it all crunched through, I went to the producer and said, ‘If you want to shoot with the Red camera, you can’t have this kind of turnaround.’ Fortunately, they listened.” The final episode was shot using Sony EX3s.

In total, The Battle called on five editing bays, up from the initial two, and 6TBs of shared storage, which was provided via a TerraBlock. This show employed a Final Cut workflow, so the Red files were converted to ProRes HQ for editing and finishing.

“It’s a TV show, so you are not going to be doing it in 4K,” Curren explains. “If you are going to cut on Avid, you convert it to DNx. If you are going to cut on Final Cut, you convert it to ProRes. This particular show was Final Cut, so we converted to ProRes. When they were done cutting the sequence, we were ready to throw it into color correction and finishing.”

Final Cut shows are finished at AlphaDogs in a dedicated Apple Color suite. A Tangent CP200 series panel serves as the control interface. In the case where a show is edited on an Avid system, it gets finished — many times by Curren himself — using Avid Symphony Nitris DX.

“The Symphony is a much better workflow because everything is in one box,” he notes. “You can color correct and the producer can ask, ‘Can you trim that shot or change the effect?, because you are still in the timeline. On the Apple side, you go into Color and all you have is color correction. You can’t even hear anything. The flipside is that it has a better toolset than the Avid has.” 

After The Battle was edited and color corrected, it was rendered out as ProRes for titles, and finally output to HDCAM SR tape. 

This show represents the first series shot on Red that Curren and his team have encountered. “A lot of reality shows are still shooting tape because of the massive quantities of information that they have to record and turn over to the network when they are done,” he notes. “Some of the shows are shooting XDCAM, so they still have a master they can hand over, but they have the benefit of working in a file-based universe.

“Red is like a film camera. You can make really beautiful pictures if you have the time to set things up and do it right,” he adds. “But in reality settings, it’s run-and-gun, and you are shooting in whatever situation you find yourself in, so it’s not like you can make pretty pictures. It’s mostly hand held, [and Red] is not great for holding all day and following people around.”

DREAM HOUSE: LOG CABIN

Fred Ruckel, and his wife Natasha, had their hands full in the creation of Dream House: Log Cabin, a seven-episode series airing on DIY Network. In addition to being the homeowners, Fred and Natasha are also the on-screen talent, construction supervisors, camera operators and executive producers.

Fred Ruckel, a creative director and Autodesk Inferno artist, color corrects and finishes the show at Refinery (www.refinerynyc.com) and Stitch Motion Graphics (www.stitch.net) in New York City, where it is also edited, given graphic treatment and audio posted. 

The show follows the newlyweds as they search for land in the Catskills on which to ultimately build their dream home. Along the way, they face angry neighbors and construction set backs, but persevere in realizing their dream.

The show was shot entirely using P2-based Panasonic cameras, and Ruckel estimates that every weekend of work generated as much as 300GBs of footage. The couple found that the 8GB P2 cards just weren’t dense enough to capture the coverage they needed, so they invested in a 64GB card. In total they made use of a 64-, 32- and three 8GB cards. A laptop/transfer station was used to back up footage so cards could return to the field.

Ruckel says the initial two-and-a-half -minute sizzle reel is what really piqued the network’s interest. “I think they were really excited about the fact that we had been shooting high def the whole time on our own accord, so they knew that by getting into the show with us, we already had a significant amount of footage.”

The show is edited at Refinery using Avid Media Composers connected to shared storage. Audio post takes place in one room using Avid Pro Tools. Fred uses his Inferno for online and color correction, which isn’t necessarily the most cost-effective solution, but one that he feels has its benefits. 

“It’s not a cost-effective way, but for me it’s a tool that I use every day, so it allows me to use it in a different way,” he explains. “I am doing the online edit, putting together these episodes that are 2,000-plus edits per episode. I am able to pick up color corrections and drop them from one to another. It’s not the same as if I were doing it in a lesser machine. I am able to track people’s shirts and blur logos right on them while I am in the color correction process. When I hit render, it’s color corrected, it’s got all the graphics and any retouches, blurs, tracks, added or removed items, and it’s just one render instead of passing the buck to an artist in a different room. So in that sense, it’s cost effective. And it probably takes more time because it is my own show. I am color correcting myself and have to make myself look good!”

Some of the show’s graphics are created in Inferno, but other artists also contribute. “I will have my designer work on some of the 2D type graphics that are demonstrative of something that they want to show happen, and when we need 3D visualization, I have my 3D artist working on Autodesk XSI. He will use a 3D model of the house and do rotations and fly-overs and things like that.”

Alex Grybauskas edits the series with Lynn Franciotti assisting. The show is mastered to HDCAM SR tape. The network requires HDCAM, so it is then dubbed down for delivery. Dream House: Log Cabin airs in HD.

WORK OF ART

Magical Elves (www.magicalelves.com) in Los Angeles teamed up with actress Sarah Jessica Parker and her production company, Pretty Matches, to produce the Bravo series Work of Art: Next Great Artist. The first season was produced and posted last year, and when Post caught up with lead editor Steve Lichtenstein, the company was gearing up for production of the second season.

Work of Art: Next Great Artist puts aspiring artists against each other as they are given challenges with short turnarounds. Art enthusiast China Chow hosts the show and serves on a judging panel alongside other art luminaries. The first season was shot in New York City over the course of a month and a half, and was edited into 10 episodes. Season 2 will follow a similar structure.

The first season was shot on Panasonic DVCPRO, but Lichtenstein says that may change for next season. “Work of Art was shot maybe about a year ago, but since then our company is shooting a lot on XDCAM and even using some of the DSLR cameras for second unit and B-roll,” he notes. “They are definitely easier to use,” he says of the Canon DSLRs. “We use it for better access in smaller locations, or if we need an auxiliary second camera to capture some moments quickly. It actually matches pretty well in online.”

Each episode of Work of Art is based around the contestants’ participation in a specific artistic challenge and is shot over a three-day period. The first shoot day captures the contestants arriving at a location and getting their challenge for that episode. The second day is a work day, in which the contestants create their art. The third day is based around an elimination ceremony. 

The show captures a ton of footage. Four cameras run simultaneously throughout the 16-hour days. For the elimination ceremony, as many as nine cameras are used. 

“In post, we edit things together and try to find dramatic act breaks that work consistently through the series,” Lichtenstein explains. “We determined that Act 1 will be morning wake ups and challenge delivery. Act 2 will be the work room — the stress of their projects.”

Magical Elves edits on Avid Media Composers — both Mac and PC. The studio recently upgraded to Version 5 software.

According to Lichtenstein, approximately seven editors will contribute to a show. “We will sort of front load an episode,” he explains. “Let’s say we start on Episode 3. We’ll put four or five editors on that one episode, and they will each be cutting an act to get it to a first cut fairly quickly. As that episode gets closer to being finished, we’ll move some editors off and leapfrog on to the next [episode] while two or even one editor will address the final notes.”

In Season 1, Lichtenstein found himself editing the gallery, which highlights all of the completed works of art. “It is challenging to convey to the audience the scope of these pieces of art,” he notes. “In production, fortunately, they would shoot each of these pieces of art from various angles — extreme close-ups, full shots and even wide shots with a jib. It helps the audience to see the scope if you edit together all of the different angles of the art to make sure it is represented well.”

Audio is posted in-house on a Pro Tools system. Magical Elves has an Avid Unity for centralized storage. Offline editing is performed at 10:1 MFX resolution and is then sent directly to an Avid Nitris DX, where Pepe Serventi handles assembly and color correction. 

Titles for Work of Art are provided by Brkly (www.brkly.tv) in Los Angeles, which has also worked with the studio on Top Chef. An in-house graphics person also contributes to the show. 

At press time, Magical Elves was working on Braxton Family Values, an upcoming WE reality series that focuses on the lives of recording artist Toni Braxton and her sisters. It will include 10 episodes.