Unscripted TV shows turn to helmers for help

As their stock continues to rise in the scripted world, directors are also finding more respect in reality TV.

Many execs and producers say they consider directors the unsung heroes of the nonfiction format. After all, these are the people on the front lines — and they have a lot more say than their scripted brethren when it comes to how a story unfolds.

“In the reality world, the director is much more important in capturing and shaping the essence of the show,” says Diplomatic Prods.’ Matti Leshem.

“Reality shows on some level are actually turbo-charged documentaries. And the documentary has always been a director’s medium.”

And even though the Emmys have added a category for reality direction, recognition hasn’t come quickly — after all, helmers don’t get the same kind of attention in TV that they do in the feature world. Like sitcoms and dramas, the reality genre is driven by its exec producers. Such titans as Mark Burnett, Mike Fleiss and Michael Davies garner most of the attention.

“Directors are a hugely important part of it,” says Bunim-Murray Prods.’ Jon Murray. “But producers are on a show long before the director and long after. A producer does the casting and takes the show all the way through editing.”

Some shows still find it logistically difficult to operate with a director. “Survivor” and “Big Brother,” for example, depend on camera operators (under the direction of producers) to make sure that shots are covered. In post, Burnett will relay his vision to editors, who are able to sort through a mountain of footage to find exactly what he wants.

“When you’re outdoors, there’s a much heavier reliance on who your field producers are,” says one network exec. “The cameraman in reality is not just a cameraman. They really have to be good at thinking on their feet.”

Indeed, net execs say directors are a rather recent consideration for reality shows, as budgets increase and shows are called upon to serve as primetime tentpoles. Directors have become a key part of the team, along with lensers and post-production editors.

“With the amount of reality shows out there, people are beginning to realize that the directors of these shows posess a special skill that is invaluable to the storytelling process,” says Sean Travis, director of ABC’s “The Mole.”

ABC alternative series and specials chief Andrea Wong says she relies on directors to make sure that a show doesn’t miss any key details. “Directors give the whole show its look. For example, the guy who does ‘The Mole’ for us, Sean Travis, ensures that we get the shot that we need. In the end, coverage is everything. If you don’t have the right coverage, you’re in trouble.”

Directors are especially key when it comes time to showcase an episode’s climax, such as the rose ceremony (at which time the participants who will continue are chosen) at the end of “The Bachelor,” Wong says. “It’s all about how you see it onscreen, the lighting, the tension, the storytelling. You have to be able to tell the story through these people’s reaction and emotion. If you look at the ‘Bachelor’ rose ceremony, it’s carefully crafted in the way it’s directed.”

After all, there’s nothing worse in reality TV than missing a key money shot. “You have to be there when stuff happens,” Murray says. “On ‘The Real World,’ it’s messy like life, things happen on their own schedule. Most directors do a good job, it’s rare that they miss anything.”

Murray says he employs five directors on “The Real World” so that someone is paying attention to the cast 24/7. “On ‘The Real World,’ the director knows the cast so well he can almost anticipate that if Bill says something rude to Mary, Mary is going to go upstairs and cry, and Dave, her gay best friend, will go up there to comfort her.

“The director is about understanding who your cast is. It’s also about making a spur-of-the-moment decision. A lot of time he may only have one camera, and he can’t be five places at once.”

Reality directors still exist a little deeper under the radar than their brethren in the scripted world, but just give it time, Wong says. “It’s a fairly new era. We’re just scratching the surface in realizing their value.”

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