Capturing, refining shows takes tech skills

When it comes to the technical side of TV production, sometimes reality really does bite.

Facing limited budgets, logistical nightmares and tight deadlines, the crews on location and in the editing suites pull off an often Herculean labor in assembling the raw video and audio elements into the final product.

“Contrary to this perception that reality shows just happen, they don’t,” says Chris Thompson, prexy-CEO of Wexler Video, a Burbank, Calif.-based company that supplies audio, video and editing systems to most reality shows including “Fear Factor,” “The Amazing Race,” “Survivor,” “The Real World” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” “There are elements of live television in that if you miss it you miss it forever, and there’s also a tremendous marshalling of people and tools much like a feature film.”

While the concept, casting and content are important factors, the logistics needed to capture “reality” requires crews to endure extreme weather conditions and other unpredictable situations. The sound sometimes requires as many as 30 to 40 wireless mikes and Wexler has developed small p.o.v. cameras and wireless video and audio microwave transmissions to capture content. But it’s the editing room where these reality shows come to life.

“Our story is found in the editing process and that’s where we find these great moments that come from people who are completely unpredictable,” says Rupert Thompson, who has directed “Fear Factor” since the beginning of the second season. “That’s why our editors are so much more empowered than they are in dramatic television, they’re really storytellers in their own right.”

Thompson says it takes five weeks to edit one episode, from the time it goes into the editing bay to the end of the mix. The staff spends a week prelaying sound effects for the show and each 45-minute episode contains about 2,400 edits.

“Fear Factor” has assembled an extensive sound and music f/x library. A Foley artist fills out the show soundwise and music is composed for a specific visual. The composers also have created a library of color-coded music cues — yellow for action, green means resolve, and red for dark and scary — to spur different moods and emotional levels.

“Fear Factor’s” shooting ratio of tapes shot per episode, however, is low, at 5:1 or 10:1, unlike shows like “Survivor,” and “The Real World,” where it’s often 200:1 or 250:1.

“We look at our footage as our words and where everything comes together is in the editing phase,” says Tom Shelly, executive producer on “Survivor.” “Sometimes it’s a long and tedious process to wade through so much footage, but it’s often where you find the gold, too.”

On average, it takes seven weeks of post-production to put a “Survivor” episode together. Its field producers are on set, which helps them direct the editing back in Los Angeles.

While “Survivor” is shot primarily in one location, “The Amazing Race,” which won the reality Emmy in 2003 and 2004, spans continents as the crew follows the contestants on the run.

“Since our show is set in real time there are huge challenges on every level, but the logistics and the editing, everything has to work together,” says Bertram van Munster, “Race” exec producer and co-creator with his wife and partner, Elise Doganieri.

Their production company, Earthview, has offices throughout the world.

“Part of our editing staff travel with us to follow and track the story so when they go back to the editing room they have a clear vision of how to put it together. But since our story happens on the road it’s really a matter of putting the scenes in order,” he says.

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