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Wednesday, 15 August 2012 10:05

Reality TV: Technology Drives the Popular Genre

Written by  Valentina I. Valentini
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pro_shootingreality_burgoyne-linne-brownWhen it comes to reality TV production, what we don’t know won’t hurt us. So say the networks behind the myriad of reality television shows populating our airwaves for the last decade. But P3 has recently taken a look behind the scenes of reality TV, and what we found is pretty interesting. Directors and cinematographers at Bravo TV now reveal the technology, gear, crew power and techniques they need to bring today’s top reality shows to life.

“Sensoring” Reality

Before the Canon C300 came into view, there were only two real camera contenders for shooting reality TV: the Panasonic HDX900 and Sony XDCAMs, with the Sony F800 winning the most superlatives from users. “It’s basically the same kind of camera that you would shoot ‘The Office’ or ‘Parks and Recreation’with,” explains “Millionaire Matchmaker” Director Greg Matthews. “A 2/3-inch shoulder mount [is what] you see everyone running around with, but the XDCAM had the Blu-ray Discs coming right out of the camera with scan-ready track numbers, and that really played well with post. Also, it’s a faster camera that works great in low light, and, working in reality, you’re in a lot of uncontrolled lighting situations.”


The C300, part of Canon’s Cinema EOS camera line that debuted last year, has gained a bit of traction in 2012. It’s currently being used on Bravo’s newest reality venture “SiliconValley,” now in its first season of production. “It’s small and lightweight, which is great for verité shooting, putting the camera in tight places and shooting in cars,” says the show’s DP Brian Burgoyne. “The biggest plus of the C300 for my work on this show has to be its amazing sensitivity in low light.”


With kudos like that, the Canon C300 can easily compete with the Sony F800’s popularity. Burgoyne has been able to shoot with minimal supplemental lighting while still getting great images that both he and the network are happy with. “The shallow depth of a Super 35mm-sized sensor, although somewhat demanding on the operator, results in much more cinematic looking scenes,” he reports. “It also helps the viewers’ attention to focus on our subjects rather than whatever happens to be behind them on the wall.”


Lighting Reality

When shooting “Silicon Valley,” Burgoyne tries to do as little lighting as possible. He stays out of the way when feasible, working in a truepro_shootingreality_moco-track-setup_realhousewives fly-on-the-wall fashion. “I add a little fill here and there for day scenes or cross-keying a bar for a night scene,” Burgoyne explains. “But even in the interview setup, where it’s more of a traditional lighting situation, I am trying to make the subjects as naturally lit as possible. I use big, soft sources and subtle edge lights.” Burgoyne usually shoots between an F2.8 and F4 and 850 to 2000 ASA. Since the Canon C300 can shoot from 850 to 5000 ASA, the DP travels with a fairly small lighting package for each unit: mainly Litepanels, a couple of Kino Flos, a K 5600 Joker and a Dedolight kit. At a typical location, Burgoyne and his crew may use only three or four instruments.  


On Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which is shot with Sony F800s, the goal of Cinematographer Matt Valentine is to make the cast look as beautiful as possible without the show seeming overly lit. Since the episodes often involve dinner parties, Valentine utilizes a lot of China Balls skirted overhead for a soft glow. Chimera Triolet lights are also on hand along with table bounces that are set up with 300–650-watt Fresnels. “I think most reality shows are grossly over-lit, including mine, which I try to counteract all the time,” admits Valentine. “The problem is you don’t know where anybody is going to move inside a space, so you have to light with that in mind. The [cast of] women on my show love to cluster in the kitchen or hover by a window.”  


Editing Reality

As cameras get smaller and less expensive while doing more, it accelerates the pace of reality TV production. “The truest thing I can tell you about reality TV is that it is driven by post,” Matthews reports. “Because of budgets shrinking and the pressure to turn around footage faster, it’s more about being cost-effective as a production company so that they can deliver what the networks want and still make a profit.” To accommodate the need for this fast turnaround, key systems are built in post. Production companies want to ingest, cut and deliver in a format that they can repeat and also deliver in a format that the network will accept.

One issue in post is that the networks still want discs and tape for their final masters, which is certainly a bit behind the times. So it’s difficult for production companies if you shoot with a Sony EX3 or F3 or with cards because the result is hard to handle in post — hence the popularity of cameras that can deliver in disc format. “I would guess it’s 100 to 1 with editors cutting on Avid,” says Matthews. “It’s because of the ability of Unity, a system that allows each editor in their own edit bay to reach into the same bin to pull footage and then communicates that that piece of footage is in use by a specific editor. You can’t do that on [Apple] Final Cut Pro without a lot more hoops to jump through.”  


Shooting Reality

When it comes to productions bringing a reality show concept to life, one question is often asked by viewers: How real is the show’s reality? “The point is not to say how much is fake or not,” says Matthews. “When you bring camera crews into anyone’s life, you change the rules. ‘How invasive is it?’ is a better question, but that depends on the show.”

On productions like “The X Factor,” a show on which Matthews served as a DP and camera operator, they tend to use a lot of hidden cameras set up at ends of hallways or other unsuspecting locations, lit by only a wall fixture above them. On “The Amazing Race” and other reality competition shows there’s a roadmap already in place, while shows like “Millionaire Matchmaker”use a different format. On “The Hills,” another popular show on Matthews’ resume, the production required more prep when securing its locations. Today’s reality show productions are less about creative and more about legalities. The crew needs to know where they’re going and the location needs to be cleared, so there’s less of a run-and-gun methodology. “[The methods are] show-dependent, but most shows do like to have an idea of where they’re going,” says Matthews. “Some just have more latitude than others.”

pro_shootingreality_valentine-on-set-of-detroit-187Valentine separates the shooting style of “The Real Housewives” shows into three categories: interview setups, all-housewives events and day-to-day events. “On the day-to-day shoots, it’s usually just the director, me, [a camera] operator, a junior operator and a field P.A., who also acts as the assistant cameraman,” explains Valentine. “We don’t have a lot of time to scout, so there’s not much need for electricians since lighting usually comes from practicals.”

Both “Silicon Valley” and “The Real Housewives” have been using motion control and timelapse sequences to bring a little flair to the look of the shows. “The Real Housewives” also uses a Canon 5D Mark III with a 16–35mm lens to shoot day-to-night timelapses via shooting four separate passes: one during the golden hour, two at magic hour and one full night. Afterwards, the four passes are composited together using a combination of Adobe Lightroom, After Effects and Final Cut Pro. “We are using these shots on ‘Silicon Valley’to show the passage of time and to give a feel for the city,” says Burgoyne, “and also because the fast motion and frenetic feel matches the pace and energy of the tech industry, which is the focus of our show. We shoot them on a Canon 7D and use a Dynamic Perception dolly.”  

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