Unscripted reality programming poses unique challenges for the production companies that shoot crime shows, home-themed content and paranormal adventures, and to the post facilities that support them too. It’s a world where massive amounts of footage is the norm. Workflows can be tape- or file-based, or both, and color grading can range from filmic to edgy and authentic.
Folks worldwide have been “Finding Bigfoot” for the eponymous Animal Planet series for three seasons now. From West Virginia to Nepal, their quests have been documented by Ping Pong Productions (www.ppongproductions.com) in one-hour episodes that find the show’s investigative team pursuing “compelling evidence” of the creature, says Jeffrey Williams, one of the show’s five editors. He and his colleagues cut Finding Bigfoot in the Hollywood offices of Ping Pong, which is equipped with Avid Media Composers and a Studio Network Solutions’ SANmp shared storage system.
The show is shot entirely on location with Sony XDCAMs as the primary cameras and an array of GoPros, Contour cameras and FLIR infrared cameras for night imaging rounding out field production. Three to nine cameras cover any given scene, Williams says.
“The field crew shoots for seven days and post will get 60-80 hours of footage for every episode,” he explains. “They also spend half-a-day shooting aerials that give a real sense of scope to these wild environments. These aerials help stitch the episodes together and really set the show apart.”
It takes the assistants two weeks to ingest and build group clips for the editors’ Media Composers. “Every episode comes with a beat [scene] sheet and field notes, and the editors pretty much take over from there. We have a lot of creative freedom to tell the best, clearest story in post. There’s a fairly established rhythm for the show, but the field and post have been able to take chances with that structure this season to keep the storytelling fresh and exciting,” says Williams. “For each episode, multiple editors will contribute a scene or two in the early stages, but there’s ultimately one primary editor for each show and the team has six weeks to deliver the first cut to the network. It’s a tremendous amount of work in what feels like a very short amount of time.”
Despite the volume of material the “very organized and efficient workflow keeps everything moving smoothly,” he reports. “After we lock the episode and everybody signs off on it, another in-house editor onlines and color grades the episode on an Avid Symphony Nitris. We mix here and have just started to deliver to the network on LTO at their request, so we’re pretty much tapeless from start to finish now.”
Color grading consists of “balancing and enhancing daytime scenes of the beautiful locations,” he says. “Since this is a paranormal-type show, audiences enjoy the moody night-vision look, so we match multiple cameras to a single night vision look so viewers can experience them seamlessly.”
The challenge for the editors cutting Finding Bigfoot lies in “the storytelling,” Williams says. “There’s so much material to go through and we’re always looking for ways to make each scene stand out, but we have to stay true to what our cast finds with each encounter they investigate. There’s no faking it. So we focus on finding unique and compelling character moments, dramatic night scenes, and funny moments with the cast. That’s what makes the show so popular.”
The new investigative news program, Deadline: Crime with Tamron Hall, from NBC News’ Peacock Productions, debuted on Investigation Discovery last fall with the MSNBC anchor leading a team of correspondents who go beyond the headlines to report on what caused people to turn to crime and whether justice was ultimately served.
Technicolor-PostWorks New York (www.technicolorpwny.com) handles post production for a number of series and specials from Peacock Productions. But Deadline: Crime has “a very unique workflow for this type of programming — a much more feature film-style color grading process,” says senior finishing editor and colorist Sean R. Smith.
“Creative editorial occurs in HD on Avid Media Composer 6.5 in the Peacock Production offices at 30 Rock, and I receive a conformed XDCAM 50 HD sequence,” he says. “We open that sequence in Symphony, create a textless mixdown, and then import the mixdown into the [Digital Vision] Nucoda FilmMaster for color grading. Titling, blurs, compositing and outputs to HDCAM SR happen back in Symphony after the completion of color.”
Deadline: Crime is entirely file-based, with the Canon C300 as the primary camera and Canon 5D Mark III and Mark II as the B and C cameras. “They shoot the C300 in Canon C-log mode for a filmic image response,” Smith explains. “Within FilmMaster, we start by applying our own C-Log to Rec 709 transform. We then process the color essentially as we would for a feature digital intermediate.”
The show aims for a natural film look. “All options are available when starting with a flat image, so we try to take it in a different direction than the standard video look of most news magazine programs,” he says. “The C300 and Mark III do a very good job emulating natural grain in most low-light conditions, but when shooting conditions are extreme, I use the FilmMaster’s DVO Clarity to pull back on noise. When you’re grading on a higher-end system, you also have more sophisticated tools for isolating colors. It’s faster and easier to highlight eyes in an interview or draw out details to convey a certain mood.”
Smith also integrates archival stills provided by family and news clips from high-profile crimes, which have been upconverted and captured in the Avid timeline. “The NBC News archives are on Beta SP, even some of their recent clips, so I do a little restoration on that material,” he notes. “We never want to make it look like that footage was shot yesterday; we just wanted to clean up the artifacts a bit.”
Since Deadline: Crime employs “a new workflow for this type of content, there were some elements we needed to streamline during the first couple of episodes,” Smith reports. “By the second or third episode, we hit a good stride in knowing how to best direct Peacock to prep the sequence and split out certain plug-in effects from their mixdown. It became a very seamless process. We have since implemented that same workflow on the second season of another Peacock Productions show, Dead of Night.”
Matthew Schneider, director of technology at Technicolor-PostWorks New York, notes that, “with more cameras shooting Log in light-weight HD formats, a lot of reality TV clients are asking, ‘Is it worth it?’” He believes that more will opt to shoot Log in an effort to differentiate their shows from the competition. “Most clients who ask about shooting Log — the cost, the workflow, the artistic advantage — are asking because they want their show to have a unique look and feel.”
Smith points out that one minor caveat of shooting Log is that “if you’re offlining in Avid V.6.5 or below, until you apply a custom color effect, you’re looking at very flat material. This is challenging for anyone that is unaccustomed to seeing footage this way, including network executives. To get around this I developed a quick one-light color effect, used like a LUT, to drop on top of the entire show to bring back some of the contrast while they’re in the rough cut stage,” he explains. Smith adds that looking ahead, Avid Media Composer V.7 now offers these clients the ability to apply a color transform in the form of a LUT to this raw material during the ingest stage.
Otherwise, “there’s no downside to shooting Log,” Smith says. “Once you understand what it means and embrace the workflow that supports it, shooting Log can benefit any show out there.”
TV’s longest-running paranormal series, Ghost Hunters is marking its tenth anniversary this year, says Craig Piligian, CEO and executive producer at Pilgrim Studios in North Hollywood (www.pilgrimstudios.com). “Our 200th episode will air on Syfy in October,” he notes.
Over the course of a decade, the show has seen a number of technological changes, such as migrating from SD to HD video, but it remains true to the format that its loyal fan base expects: Jason Hawes and Steve Gonsalves, and their team of intrepid TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) members, meet a client, take a tour of the premises suspected of hosting paranormal activity, strategize the nighttime investigation, then get to work ghost hunting.
The camera complement is a mix of tape- and file-based media and includes Sony HCR-A1U and HVR-Z7U HD cameras manned by the crew, Canon 5Ds for B roll, GoPros and specialty cameras, such as FLIR infrared units. For the first time, the new season finds Jason and Steve donning glasses containing miniature IR cameras, made by paranormal enthusiast Pete Stagman of parahunter.com, which enable viewers to see the action from the ghost hunters’ perspective. TAPS also deploys its own cameras, including full-spectrum cameras that show any fluctuation of light in the room.
“There are a lot of cameras, but Craig wants the show to be very nimble, so we use small cameras, stay out of the way of Jason and Steve, and move quickly and quietly through the dark,” says executive producer Mike Nichols. The three TAPS teams shoot footage themselves and each team is assigned a camera operator from Pilgrim Studios; two teams also have sound engineers, but Jason and Steve prefer a lean crew to keep “contamination of the area” to a minimum, notes Nichols.
Footage adds up fast. “Our three cameras and their cameras are rolling the entire time of the investigation,” he explains. “So that’s maybe eight hours times 10 cameras — you get quite a bit of footage.” TAPS analyzes all the material so it can present its findings to the client, then shares the footage with Pilgrim.
Assistants ingest tape- and file-based media into Avid Unity shared storage, working overnight in multiple edit bays at Pilgrim’s production offices. Material is grouped by timecode matching all cameras and angles to a given timecode. Then the editors watch all the footage to get a sense of the episodes.
Story producers in the field take detailed notes, which they later share with the editors. But stories sometimes take a different turn from what was anticipated, depending on what transpired in the investigation. “They can steer the TAPS guys at the front end in terms of what story the client is interested in pursuing,” Nichols explains. “But once TAPS runs with it, you can’t manipulate what happens. As Craig says, ‘We don’t fake anything; we just embrace the reality.’”
Editors cut in low-res on Avid Media Composers linked to Unity. They up-rez to finish on Avid Symphony Nitris DX in-house. Dave Broadbent performs the color session on Avid with the mandate to keep the ghost-hunting footage authentically edgy. “He makes all the green IR footage black and white so viewers can see it better,” says Nichols. “We want as clean an image as possible; people like playing along with the ghost hunt.”
The sound mix is performed in-house by Marcus Pardo. Fans are so attuned to the show that they asked where Marcus was when a different mixer stepped in for one episode, Nichols recounts.
Pilgrim delivers Ghost Hunters via FTP to the network as an Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) file.
“Our biggest technical challenge is to show the audience what the crew sees — and with the new IR-camera glasses we’re closer to that than ever before,” Nichols says. “There are no second chances with a ghost. We have no choice but to show what happens on a given night. If you embrace that, it doesn’t become an obstacle; it actually makes life easier.”
One of the first reality series to air on TNT, Boston’s Finest chronicles the daily operations of the Boston Police Department (BPD) by following the day and night shifts of the gang unit, the patrol unit, the fugitive unit and a few detectives from District B2 — and their lives outside the BPD. Donnie Wahlberg executive produces and narrates the show, which is produced by Jarrett Creative Group (www.jarrettcreative.com) in New York City.
The post workflow established for the first season of Boston’s Finest worked so well that it remained in place for season two, which recently finished airing, says Timothy Dixon, creative director at Jarrett Creative Group and the company’s lead editor. The show is more unscripted than most reality series due to the fly-on-the-wall nature of covering the BPD units.
“You can’t really plan much of anything,” notes Dixon. “We had a long casting process because we had to find officers who were interesting and wanted to do it, and get them approved by the network and BPD. So we knew the characters we had, but you never know day to day what’s going to happen with them.”
The main priority for the show is to “stay true to the case [shown] creatively and legally,” Dixon says. “You’re seeing what actually happened. But it’s not all about the case — we also show the officers as human beings; we get into their world, go in and out of their personal lives. It’s not just chases, jumping over fences and yelling, ‘Freeze!’”
Three camera teams manning Canon C300s ride with the units. Vixia cameras are mounted inside police cars and run continuously throughout the shift. The C300s also capture sit-down interviews and personal moments outside the job. Aerial photography gives the big picture of the entire city of Boston and its component neighborhoods.
Each show features two or three stories. Dixon says the show’s 14 episodes to date approached 9,000 hours of footage. Season two’s six episodes consumed close to 20TBs of hard drive space. Before post begins, the field team lays out on paper how the units’ stories might come together and how they might work well with each other. “We want to make sure there’s a beginning, middle and end for each episode, so you see the arc of a character or a case,” he explains. Footage is downloaded in Boston so the story producers and show runners can see how coverage is progressing.
The camera cards are sent back and forth between Boston and New York. Footage from the cards was downloaded to drives in both locations so field producers can have footage in Boston and the post team can begin work in New York. Post takes place on Mac-based Avid Media Composers (V.6) with ISIS storage at Technicolor-PostWorks in New York City.
The paper story treatments done in Boston serve as a blueprint for Dixon and his team of editors, but they have the flexibility to move stories and characters to other episodes for a better fit.
“Because we have so much footage, it’s compressed to 14:1 SD for putting episodes together; after the fine cut we up-rez to full HD,” says Dixon. “The last round of notes is done in the full HD path.”
When the picture is locked, sequences are sent upstairs to colorist Eli Friedman for grading on Assimilate’s Scratch. “We want the show to feel very gritty and real,” says Dixon. “Eli’s work adds the hallmark gritty, high-contrast look of the show by bringing out the richness of the color and deep shadows that the camera teams capture, especially in low-light conditions during the night shoots.”
When Friedman finishes, sequences come back into the Avid for the final online with graphics and text, and marriage to the mix performed by Mike Fisher at Broadway Video. “We ask the Avids to do a lot and they’ve worked flawlessly for us,” Dixon reports. “All the media management, this many hours, this many terabytes, going back and forth from SD to HD… The opportunities to mess up are huge, but it never happens.”
Donnie Wahlberg remains hands-on with the show, submitting notes for every episode to Jarrett Creative owners and executive producers Seth and Julie Jarrett. He also works with Dixon on the edit and records the voiceover.
“We were TNT’s first foray into the reality arena — they call it ‘unscripted drama’ — and we think we’ve turned out something they like and want to do more of,” says Dixon. “There’s a never-ending supply of stories to tell about Boston’s Finest.”
I BRAKE FOR YARD SALES & MORE
LA’s Hula Post Production (www.hulapost.com) provides facilities and services for a number of reality series, which follow various models for post.
HGTV’s new I Brake for Yard Sales features celebrity reporter Lara Spencer hunting for stylish, one-of-a-kind pieces to decorate her friend’s new home. The series, along with season three of HGTV’s Flea Market Flip, has a “classic, simple, tape-based workflow,” says Josh Rizzo, vice president of technology at Hula Post.
“They shoot DVCPRO HD, so there are no piles of hard drives and very straightforward asset management. Each show uses a four-station digitizing rack we designed and built, and a 16TB Avid Unity, which expanded from the original 8TB fully-mirrored system. Each show has four or five Avid Media Composers and two or three software-only systems for producers and story editors to use on their workstations.
“Footage rolls in, they’re hooked to the Unity and keep feeding machines tapes at 20:1 resolution, which is the flavor of choice for reality programming because of the volume of media and shooting ratios,” Rizzo explains.
The shows’ parent company, Banca Studio, also produces TBS’s Deal With It, which has a completely file-based workflow. “We provide them with 48TBs of nearline NAS storage for raw material and back up to LTO,” Rizzo says. “They hook up multiple editing systems to the NAS and batch transcode in overnight renders to the Unity at 20:1.
“In furnishing their edit suites and on-site tech support for Deal With It, we guide them through the offline and a bit of the conform. They relink to the high-res source material and consolidate on a hard drive, so when they roll into the finishing bay, everything is ready to go,” Rizzo explains. I Brake for Yard Sales and Flea Market Flip conform via tape off-site as part of the traditional online.
Hula Post also sets up mobile post facilities for clients. One major producer of numerous reality shows has an “enormous installation” featuring 50 to 60 Avid systems and an 80-plus terabyte ISIS 7000, Rizzo reports.
Yet another post model is followed by The Amazing Race, with whom the team at Hula Post has worked for its 24 seasons on the air. The production’s offices in El Segundo, CA, boast 12 Avids and a 16TB Unity Media Net server. “They shoot XDCAM HD primarily, plus a large number of file-based camera sources such as the contestants’ GoPros and helicopter aerials,” says Rizzo. “We assisted them with a workflow that homogenizes all the file-based systems to an XDCAM disk with timecode. Our XD Direct product provides faster-than-realtime ingest of XDCAM proxy video with high-resolution audio. XDCAM really benefits them since they can archive the disks and treat them as files, so they get the best of both worlds.”
Hula also supports a hybrid model clients that purchase their own equipment, “We often continue to provide overflow Avid and storage rentals, day-to-day tech support, as well as our XD Direct and WorkflowEngine products,” says Rizzo. “We see growth opportunities with companies that want to buy equipment but still need a resource for high-level technical and workflow expertise.”