For many, reality TV is a guilty pleasure. Television viewers love the unscripted nature of the genre, the (perceived) unpredictability and the chance that anything can (and sometimes does) happen.
For studios involved in the production and post of these shows, a streamlined workflow is essential. Managing the hundreds of hours of footage captured on various video formats is just one of the challenges faced when creating reality programming.
This month, Post spoke with a number of companies that are creating some of the most popular and lesser know unscripted programming on TV. Read on to see how they are doing it.
Many credit Van Nuys, CA’s Bunim-Murray Productions with creating the reality television genre when it launched The Real World on MTV back in 1992. The show, now in its 27th season, brings strangers together to live under one roof.
The Real World later led to Bunim-Murray (www.bunim-murray.com) producing Road Rules, and more recently, The Challenge. The company is also producing and posting Bad Girls and Love Games — Even Bad Girls Need Love (Oxygen), Project Runway and Project Runway All-Stars (Lifetime), Saddle Ranch (VH1) and all of E!’s Kardashian shows, including Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Khloe & Lamar and Kourtney & Kim Take New York.
Senior VP of post production Mark Raudonis has been with the company since season 3 of The Real World (remember San Francisco?). At press time, he was overseeing a studio-wide transition from Apple’s Final Cut Pro to Avid Media Composer 6 and Symphony 6, along with Avid ISIS 5000 storage. Shows that are already in production will finish their broadcast run using Final Cut, but any work starting up this year will make use of the new Avid systems, which Raudonis says will number more than a 100 come the spring, when the studio is busiest. It’s interesting to note that Bunim-Murray had famously transitioned from Avid to Apple years back — it’s all come full circle.
“I oversee all the technical process and editing,” he says of his role. “I don’t stick my head in the creative much anymore because there are too many shows to be involved in, so I do an overall ‘guiding hand’ of the whole process.”
Bunim-Murray is a one-stop shop for the production and delivery of reality programming, from concepting to production and field work to final post and delivery. Some of the shows in its portfolio were developed in-house and pitched to networks, others may have been designed specifically to meet a network’s request.
“Every project has a unique history, a unique genesis and a unique way of making it to the air,” says Raudonis. “Some are internal, some are external,” he notes of the development. “It’s hard to say that there’s a steadfast rule of ‘this is how things get on the air.’”
While one might think that Bunim-Murray has a formula down for the production of programming, the gear they use can vary from one show to another. “We use the right tool for the job — everything from tiny throwaway GoPro cameras to Sony HDCAM SR packages. So it really does run the gamut.”
Bunim-Murray has used Red cameras to create title sequences, but when it comes to capturing the sheer volume of material that reality shows generate, the company relies on XDCAM HD discs.
“It’s a wonderful camera,” he says of the Red, “but it’s overkill for a large majority of what we do. The file sizes it generates are too huge and it’s unwieldy. It’s not a run-and-gun sort of camera. Our prime acquisition format is XDCAM HD disc, and in a sense it is tapeless because it isn’t a tape, it’s a disc.”
The tapeless trend is definitely something Raudonis has noticed over the past three years. “File-based is here to stay and growing by the minute,” he notes.
Bunim-Murray has already incorporated different solid-state cameras — from Sony, Canon and GoPro — into its productions. “They are becoming much more a part of the process,” he notes. They do rely on tape for archiving, choosing to go with LTO-5.
“Most producers think that ‘tapeless’ means ‘free.’ It does not. It basically means postponing going to tape until the post process and not in the field. LTO is a big part of what we are now doing.”
The editing talent the company uses often comes from a freelance pool, though the company’s long history means many of these pros have worked on programs for years at a time. “We may not keep them around 12 months out of the year, [but] over time we’ve worked with all of these people for many years and that is not going to change with this transition.”
The switch from Final Cut Pro to Avid, says Raudonis, should be a relatively smooth one for the facility. “One of the reasons that this is an easy decision for us is that we don’t have to change our client — the computer that’s in the edit room. We have late model Mac towers and this version of Avid can [run on] either the PC or the Mac. Since we already have the Macs, it’s just a software install for us. That made it a simple and relatively easy transition for us.”
Approximately 10 percent of the studio’s systems will be dedicated to finishing on the Symphony 6. The new gear is expected to satisfy their post needs for the next three years.“Computer equipment doesn’t wear out or grow old or get written off before it’s outdated,” he explains. “Technology is changing faster than the equipment is wearing out or you are amortizing it. You have to pick a comfortable amount of time that you are okay with and target it. For an install of this size, I would say three years is a fair number.”
2C Media (www.2cmedia.com) opened in Miami back in 2005, initially working on promos, but always with the interest in creating original reality programming. Today, the studio still works on promos, including a recent piece for Dish and Blockbuster, but it’s also busy creating original unscripted series for the likes of CMT, Planet Green, Travel Channel and Animal Planet.
According to 2C Media’s co-president/executive producer Carla Kaufman Sloan, the studio conceives shows and then produces polished sizzle reels to pitch to networks. “It’s almost like showing them exactly what the show is going to look like in case they want to modify it in some way. Then, we sell it to them based on an order.”
“Some networks call up and have a very specific idea but don’t know who the talent is, or have a vague idea and ask us to help develop it,” adds 2C Media’s Chris Sloan, who serves as president/executive creative director. The studio could spend several weeks and up to $30,000 developing a pitch and reel, though nothing is guaranteed. “If you sell three out of 10 shows, that’s a good batting average,” Chris notes.
2C Media is in the second season of Swamp Wars, a show it developed, produces and posts for Animal Planet. The show takes place in South Florida and follows the Venom Unit of a fire/rescue team. Its members are experts in dealing with poisonous snakes and also provide anti-venom for snake bites. The show’s first order was for six episodes. Another 12 have since been ordered.
2C Media uses Sony EX3 XDCAM cameras in the field, shooting to solid-state storage. They also make use of Canon 5Ds for second unit photography. “We shoot with hard drives and cards, and the video is immediately downloaded, transcribed and logged using Final Cut Server,” says Chris. “The story producer will edit on Final Cut just for the story, for content. They don’t worry about pacing or music. Those Final Cut timeline sequences go into the edit and the editors become ‘preditors.’ They look at the log and music and pacing, and they are cutting on their own. The story producer would be on to another edit.”
2C Media is home to 10 fully-equipped HD Final Cut bays. The studio also has a number of iMacs that can be used in the editing process too. “It’s amazing how inexpensive the technology is these days, except for an HDCAM SR deck,” he notes. “You can scale up with another edit bay from $12,000 to $25,000 and have it installed in three days as opposed to three months. Basically every iMac in the facility is an edit bay, sharing the same storage. I don’t think we could be doing what we are doing [otherwise] because these budgets are so brutal. There’s a lot of programming out there, but unscripted programming is not high budget, so the fact that you can put this type of programming on the screen wouldn’t have been possible to this extent five years ago.”
2C Media recently upgraded its storage from a Facilis TerraBlock to a 72TB Infotrend SAN solution. For graphics, the studio relies on Adobe’s CS5, including After Effects and Photoshop. They produce show opens and titles in-house.
At press time, the studio was working on an upcoming show for the Travel Channel titled Miami International Airport. The show’s concept includes working with the airport, different airlines and government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA. The ability to use compact technology that is unobtrusive to the airport’s inner workings, in part, makes production of the show possible.
Pumped! is a new show for Speed that allows participants to fill up their wallets while they are filing up their gas tanks. The ambush-style game show is set at three Sunoco stations throughout New York and Pennsylvania, and catches unsuspecting motorists as they prepare to fuel up.
Steve Gruskin is the line producer and post supervisor for Pumped!, which is produced by Leopard Films (www.leopardfilmsusa.com) in NYC — the same studio that brings you House Hunters International. The company shot the show’s pilot episode last May and then produced another 19 episodes in October, bringing the first season episode total to 20. All of the content was shot over 13 days and included 80 contestants, close to 60 of which will make it into the final programs. Broadway Video was the post production home for the show, which took approximately three months. “We knew we needed three contestants per episode, and were hoping to get up to eight contestants in a day,” says Gruskin of the production. Pumped! is shot using five cameras — three tape-based Panasonic HDX-900s capturing DVCPro HD, and two hidden cameras — small HD Sony models that record to memory sticks.
The show has a crew of nearly 30, who set up tents out of sight, behind the service station. This includes an office area and several non-Leopard members that focus on compliance rules for the game aspect of the program. According to Gruskin, all five cameras have wireless microwave transmitters that send signal back to a truck for monitoring and direction. The show was not switched live, however, and instead comes together in post.
The small Sony cameras do not record timecode, so the team overcame that issue, in part, says Gruskin, by running time of day for reference purposes. “We were able to keep track of when things were done, but they had to be manually synced in our post workflow,” he explains. “We had to deal with that separately.”
Leopard rents four Avid Media Composer suites and some additional office space at Broadway Video. They bring in their own editors for the offline, and then Broadway’s Anthony Verderame provides online and color correction services. The audio is posted at Broadway Sound, with Sean Canada handing the mix. “It’s all being done under one roof,” says Gruskin. “We have a team-oriented relationship with Broadway Video. They’ve created a fantastic environment for us in terms of technical support, Avid support and working with us as we developed our workflow. We did it very much hand in hand with them.”
Leopard has three editors working on the show. Doug Fitch handles a rough assemble, which Gruskin says is pretty straight forward as the story is very linear. “Then, that gets turned over to two heavy duty editors (Jason Alberti and John Cirabisi) who finesse it and polish it up, and get the pacing right. In the meantime, our assistants are working on the graphics. We have a tremendous amount of text in there.”
Graphics are built in After Effects by Justin Kavoussi, Tim Watson and Aubrey Myers. The show is shot in 720p but is converted to 1080i 59.94 for the Avid edit. A deinterlace filter is later applied. Leopard Films creates an HDCAM SR master for its archive and delivers a 720p 59.94 D-5 tape to the network with a Dolby Surround soundtrack.
Leopard Films credits also include showrunner Julian Locke, head of post Ilene Merenstein and post producer Jennifer Langheld.
PING PONG PRODUCTIONS
Brad Kuhlman and Casey Brumels set up Ping Pong Productions (www.ppongproductions.com) in Los Angeles about five years ago, and have had success producing and posting unscripted programs that might be categorized as mysterious or paranormal.
In addition to SyFy’s long-running series Destination Truth, the studio also produced Cartoon Network’s Dude, What Would Happen and Discovery’s The Supernaturalist. At press time, Ping Pong was posting the second season of Finding Bigfoot for Animal Planet. The show centers around a team of four researchers who follow up on reported sightings throughout North America.
The first season of Finding Bigfoot was shot over 10 weeks and consisted of six episodes. Season 2 will feature eight episodes, some of which have already aired, with the studio working to deliver a new show pretty much each week.
According to Brumels, there are a number of challenges the studio faces in producing the Animal Planet program. For one, the team travels to different locations throughout the country for each episode, so just the logistics of getting the crew and gear from Los Angeles to the area of interest takes coordinating. Another challenge comes from the shooting conditions. Each episode involves nighttime shoots that make use of both night-vision and thermal-imaging cameras — all tools that the investigators use in hopes of capturing Sasquatch imagery. None of the cameras record timecode, which affects post production down the road.
Ping Pong is essentially a full-stop shop for the programs it works on. They conceive the show, pitch it to the networks, produce it and handle most of the post production in-house. In the case of Finding Bigfoot, the studio uses high definition Panasonic AJ-HDX900s as its main cameras for daytime shoots.
“They are our main cameras for daytime footage,” says Brumels, “and then at nighttime, we use smaller Sony Z5Us with AstroScopes attached to them. They are pretty standard in the reality world.”
The studio also created individual backpack rigs for each researcher to wear. A modified surveillance camera faces them, capturing reactions and commentary during the nighttime shoots.
Each hour-long episode is culled from approximately 150 hours of footage acquired from the different cameras. Post takes place at Ping Pong with editors cutting on Media Composers. “It’s a daunting one because of the amount of footage we are coming back with per episode,” says Brumels of the post process. “The turnaround time, mixed with all the nighttime specialty camera stuff, which is all solid state — that all has to be ingested, turned around and added into the sequences. A lot of these specialty cameras don’t record timecode, so you can imagine trying to sequence and group footage that doesn’t have timecode built into it. It becomes a real challenge for the assistant editors to put together. We’ll have up to 10 cameras running simultaneously in the woods with only two having timecode on them.”
Ping Pong has a SAN MP, which serves as centralized storage. Much of the show’s graphics are created in-house, though CGI recreations are done outside. The studio handles audio post using Avid Pro Tools, and while the field shoots can be challenging, no ADR is performed.
Finding Bigfoot’s show open was created by Dilated Pixels. Composer Raney Shockne created the program’s theme music.