Reality TV: 'Hell's Kitchen'
Issue: February 1, 2016

Reality TV: 'Hell's Kitchen'

With Season 15 currently airing, this hit Fox cooking competition proves that if you can’t stand the heat, you gotta get outta Hell’s Kitchen. Hosted by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, the show pits chefs against one other in teams and later individually as Ramsay tasks them with cooking challenges and dinner services. Participating chefs reside in a dormitory on-set for the duration of the show.  

Hell’s Kitchen migrated to HD acquisition only with this current season. “When I started we were shooting standard definition 4:3,” recalls post producer Rusty Austin, who joined the show in Season 2. “The following year we went to 16:9, but we remained SD until the end of Season 14.” 

The show’s current and upcoming seasons were shot on Sony PMW-F55 cameras in the fall of 2014 at Occidental Studios in Van Nuys, CA. There’s a continuity of look from season to season, although elements of the grand hall, kitchens and dorm are reconfigured. Hell’s Kitchen sometimes goes on location — contestants have visited Las Vegas, San Francisco and New York in past years.

Shooters acquire a tremendous amount of footage in the kitchens and dorm; in addition, there are at least 1,000 confessional and on-the-fly interviews per season. “We have seven handheld cameras, two jibs and 72 robocams feeding seven decks,” says Austin. “We have 12 to 15 streams of video every day — maybe 3,500 hours in 10 episodes.” He estimates a 400:1 shooting ratio.

With that much footage to work with it’s not surprising that Hell’s Kitchen is extensively edited — but not manipulated, says Austin. “Dinner service can run two-and-a-half hours, and we show 10 to 15 minutes of it, so it’s highly edited. But we don’t change the personalities of the people involved; we don’t make them look good or bad. We may show examples of chefs doing things that led to their elimination, but we always show the dinner service that happened.”

Each show has a main producer, producer and two associate producers whose responsibilities range from shooting through post. Two supervising producers oversee the series with an executive producer at the top of the ranks.  

Thirteen editors and a roster of three to 10 assistant editors are tasked with cutting each season in post production offices in Sherman Oaks. Two seasons are posted simultaneously; transcribers and AEs do extensive prep, then editors and producers continually refine the cut and craft emotion-filled storylines.

Ninety-six Avid Media Composers are connected to Avid ISIS 5000 shared storage for the offline. “We do one to four outputs for notes per night for the different shows,” says Austin. Producers and network executives review cuts on DVDs or via MediaSilo secure video sharing. 

Hell’s Kitchen is also onlined in Sherman Oaks. Four Avid Symphony systems have their own Avid ISIS 5000; color correction is also done on Symphony. “We like to stay on the same platform for the greatest efficiency,” Austin explains. “An assistant editor handles the upres and prep before the colorist gets the show; the conform editor outputs to HDSR at the end of the day, and we deliver 720p HDSR to the network.”

Wild Woods Sound performs the 5.1 mix; the audio post house has been with the series since its inception. “Audio post is huge: We have 72 tracks of audio to deal with — every contestant is iso’d and we have iso when we go out on location, so we need the expertise of an audio house. We can’t handle that in-house,” Austin says.

Music also plays “a huge part” in every episode, he notes. Composer David Vanacore supplies :15 to :60 music cues, as well as custom tracks as needed. Editors typically don’t use placeholder music when they cut; Vanacore’s cues and “an enormous sound effects library” are at their disposal.  

The animated main title sequence, created by Gunslinger, changes every season. Gunslinger also crafts numerous bumpers for the show.

Looking ahead, Austin has some tweaks in mind for posting future seasons. “When we went to HD we had problems with proxy video: 720p is a little bit of a wonky format,” he says. “I’d offline in SD and use a deck farm — eight or 10 decks to digitize in realtime. Then we’d upres back to HD in the online. I think that’s a better solution.”