Reality TV: 'The Amazing Race'
Issue: February 1, 2016

Reality TV: 'The Amazing Race'

One of the longest-running reality series, the Emmy Award-winning The Amazing Race, poses unique production and post production challenges with its globe-spanning scale. The competition features two-person teams racing around the world, finding clues and conquering physical and mental challenges in their quest to win a hefty grand prize. Season 28 premieres this month on CBS; two seasons are broadcast annually.

Post producer Kevin Mueller joined the show in Season 5. “Process-wise, the show has not changed dramatically,” he notes. “But we’ve seen the evolution of formats and technology. When I started we were shooting Beta SP. We moved to a digital format, then HD and are now dabbling in 4K acquisition.”

The show’s current complement of cameras includes Sony PDW-700 and 800 XDCAMs, which follow each team. “They’re rugged cameras; the crew likes them,” says Mueller. “We complement them with a Sony PMW-F55 to pick up B-roll and shoot host stand ups. We started to acquire B-roll in 4K, thinking about future archiving.”

GoPros are deployed as specialty cameras along with Canon 5D MK IIIs for timelapse and other B-roll. Zone cameras cover challenges; aerial cameras can be helicopter mounted or, more recently, mounted on drones.

“We sprinkle in other cameras and formats depending on what our local facilitators can supply,” Mueller explains. “We do try to keep to NTSC and not go to PAL acquisition. We can’t use anything that’s not robust in the field. We test any new equipment and know really quickly if it passes muster. Still, we always have a Plan B and Plan C in the field if things don’t work out.” The shooting ratio is 100:1.

Two-person crews — a sound recordist and a shooter — follow each team. “We pick up audio for each team member on the XDCAM disc so we have synch sound plus the camera audio as back up,” notes Mueller. “We can’t always have lav mics on the team because of the conditions: They might be in water or a waterfall, so we often micro-record them with small, independent wireless mics. But they don’t provide synch sound, so we do a lot of post synching of the micro audio with the other cameras.”

Despite the global nature of The Amazing Race, post production is consolidated in the LA area; offline takes place in El Segundo, where the show’s production offices are located. File-based media are backed up on location then sent on hard drive, along with the XDCAM discs, from the destination country back to El Segundo via a Film Logic courier.

Teams of transcribers go through footage to prep the story department while Avid loggers log clips for editors manning Avid Media Composers with ISIS 5500 shared storage. Story editors pull selects and put arcs together as the offline editors jump onto a show. The fast-moving show is “very cutty” — a 43-minute episode contains 1,200 to 1,500 events, according to Mueller. When an episode is locked it goes to Hollywood’s Chainsaw for conform, color and a pass to tweak all graphics and lower thirds.  

“The show is digitized at Chainsaw to DNxHD 220 for Avid Symphony and lives on their ISIS,” he explains. “FilmLight’s Baselight can access the same footage at the same time for color, which is a big challenge on our show. We use so many different types of cameras and have no stage or single location or opportunity to set up — we just follow the teams and go from exteriors to interiors. We never know what we’ll be focusing on; there’s a lot of irising up and down. With so many events in every episode, the colorist can’t be expected to tweak every shot. But they need to get things looking consistent and see that nothing looks out of place.”

Audio post is done at Hollywood’s Levels Audio. Location sound is “surprisingly clean — I’m always amazed at how good it is,” Mueller says. “The teams can be in noisy boats on the water, and in India there’s always a lot of traffic nose. Levels makes sure the dialogue is intelligible and cuts through all the noise.”

Mueller masters to HDSR, and from that format creates all the digital deliverables. “There are a lot more deliverables these days: international, streaming, material for the promo department and publicity, mat chats, Web pulls for We archive on XDCAM, but this season, with 4K acquisition, we’ve started archiving on LTO, too.”

The audio person on each team is tasked with acquiring releases for everyone who appears on-camera. “We have area releases for the course that’s laid out, but every time a team stops somebody on the street to ask directions, we have to get a signed release...You don’t want to have to cut around them.”