Reality TV: 'Treehouse Masters'
Issue: February 1, 2016

Reality TV: 'Treehouse Masters'

The astonishing arboreal structures showcased in Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters aren’t the treehouses of your childhood. They’re the treehouses of your dreams. The series, which is now airing part one of Season 4, launched in 2013 and features the work of Pete Nelson, world-renowned treehouse designer and builder.

As can be expected from a show that spends a lot of its time in the treetops, Treehouse Masters poses special production challenges. Shooters man Sony PMW-300 XDCAM HD cameras as the primary cameras; a complement of GoPro Hero cameras are used for wide coverage in the trees and mounted on helmets and rope pulleys to capture unique viewing angles. Canon 5D MK III cameras are deployed for beauty shots of the finished treehouse, its interior and spectacular vistas. HeliVideo Productions flies one of its Octocopter drones, outfitted with a Panasonic Lumix GH-4 mirrorless Ultra HD digital camera, for 60-frame, full HD shots of the completed structure.

Post production supervisor Rick Shirey, who joined the series in Season 2, says that post has remained the same since Treehouse Masters switched from Apple Final Cut Pro to Avid Media Composers with Avid ISIS 5500 shared storage shortly after he came on board. Offline is done at Discovery Studios, Hollywood.

“In the field, the DIT wrangles the camera cards and copies them to two sets of drives,” he explains. “One of the shuttle drives is shipped to us in LA. This year we have six editors, one junior editor/AE, two AEs, plus five story producers and two story assistants.”

Episodes follow a basic story structure with Nelson meeting the client and discussing the kind of treehouse he or she wants, hunting for the trees to support the structure, creating the design and building the treehouse. While the client checks out the view from the platform mid-way through the show, a final big reveal of the finished treehouse is always a wow moment. Construction issues may crop up during the building process, often arising from the trees themselves, and problem solving always makes for compelling storytelling.

Chainsaw does the conform and color correction on Avid Symphony. “Most of the color challenges come inside the treehouse after it’s built,” notes Shirey. “There is limited space for lighting so we depend on the sunlight; if it’s super-bright we might need to bring it down so the look is pretty consistent.”

Although the show uses an array of cameras, Shirey says the different formats are “not bothersome” to viewers because they are accustomed to cameras being allocated for specific tasks. “You can tell the GoPro footage, but the GoPros are always used for unusual locations,” he explains. “And the beauty shots with the 5D are always beautiful.”

Location audio is “a tougher issue” to deal with, but production sound still comes in “pretty clean,” Shirey reports. “Pete (Nelson) has a fairly decent-size crew, and we can’t mic them all at the same time. There’s also a lot of noise from the tools. But field audio and the mix by Chainsaw do a great job, and everything comes out clean and understandable.”

The show makes extensive use of music. “It’s pretty much wall-to-wall,” says Shirey. “We rarely dip to nothing unless it’s for a joke. We use a combination of custom cues from David Vanacore and the Discovery Music Source library. David occasionally composes a song for a specific scene, too — like a Texas-themed country song for one of our episodes.”

Shows are archived on LTO-5 tape and source media is backed up on G-Technology drives. The show is delivered to the network on HDCAM SR, “a robust delivery format,” with LTO back up with QuickTime masters and audio stems.

Part two of Season 4 will begin shooting at the end of February and will air in the fall. Shirey doesn’t foresee any workflow changes; “We’re a pretty well-oiled machine now,” he declares.  

But, “If and when we move to 4K, we’ll have to make some changes,” he says. “I think we’d be going from 300 gigabytes to over 1 terabyte per day, so storage and back up are where the issues would be.”