Despite tight schedules, series pulls heartstrings

It takes about 130 hours to build a house on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and documenting the process consumes 350 hours of video.

Yet the finished product must be squeezed into a 42-minute episode — a challenge that “Home Edition” producers and director Patrick Higgins face each week.

“You always want more,” Higgins says. “Forty-two minutes isn’t nearly enough to introduce the family, send them away on vacation, destroy a house, build it back up, bring them home and reveal the home. Time is our biggest enemy.”

What’s more, even after 100 episodes and five seasons, Higgins says each show comes with its own challenges.

“There’s always something new on every show,” he says. “That’s because it’s based on families and real stories and real emotion, and that always changes. It blows me away, the idea that it hasn’t become routine.”

Says Vicki Dummer, ABC’s senior VP of alternative series: “I think it reminds people that the American spirit is still alive; that people still care about their neighbors — although, I don’t think that would have been enough to make it a hit.”

It’s enough of a challenge to mount one production, but “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” actually has two shoots going on at the same time. That’s how “Home Edition” is able to keep up with its 25-episode order, even though it takes nine days to tape an episode.

The “Home Edition” shoots stagger the productions by four days, allowing host Ty Pennington (and producers) to shuttle between locations, which can never be more than a two-hour flight apart.

“I don’t think this thing will ever be a well-oiled machine,” says exec producer Denise Cramsey. “We certainly know how to do it, but we’re still building a home in 130 hours.”

That includes wrangling as many as 1,500 real people as they volunteer their time to help build the house. With that many people and that much construction going on, there are bound to be snags.

“There are always problems that crop up,” Cramsey says.

In shooting the show, however, Higgins says there’s a basic template to follow. Getting those money shots are crucial, because in many cases (such as the big “move that bus” reveal), there’s no such thing as a second take.

First up, Higgins says his team gets to know the family and their needs, and map out the story points they hope to tell while on location.

“There is a format that we follow,” Higgins reveals, “but the amazing thing is, we don’t know what we’re going to get. You never know when you’re knocking on the door of their house how the people will react, or what we’ll get when we move the bus.

“When we move that bus, it’s a new episode every time,” Higgins adds. “You’ve just put all your blood, sweat and tears into this moment, and when they move the bus, it becomes a live event. We don’t do it over again. That’s it.”

Beyond the family moments, Higgins has cameras on several of the designers as they create special touches for the house; other crews roam through the construction to catch as much color as possible.

Then, of course, the cameras are there as the producers inevitably run into a snag.

“In 35% of the time, we go to do something and, ‘Whoa,'” Cramsey says. “We were in New Hampshire and started excavating and found a landfill. Years ago people had dumped old construction debris there. That set things back.”

As the series has progressed, though, producers and directors have learned how much footage is needed and how much is too much. For example, although the time-lapse cameras are going 24/7, there’s no longer necessarily a camera on set at all times.

“We have one on set about 16 hours a day,” Higgins says. “We scaled back the shooting throughout the night. We reached this point now in season five of understanding what exactly is going to air, and we calculate the hours in the day by that.”

The director also notes that as the show has evolved, the emphasis has moved away from simply building a monster house and focusing more on the family, and why they deserve it. The show now spends more time with families who have survived a challenge and have turned around and given back to the community.

“A good family story is the best sort of weapon we have against a bad housing market,” Cramsey says. “People in hard times want to help.”

After shooting is completed, footage is shipped back to Los Angeles, where the 30-member editing team cut and paste the episode, utilizing notes drawn up by Higgins and his team. One thing’s for certain: There will be tears — from the production crew, families and auds at home.

“I dare someone not to cry,” she says. “Here’s the thing: These families are very real. These are people struggling. It’s the classic American underdog story. Then you answer that underdog story by getting the entire community to come together. It’s impossible not to let the emotions bubble over.”

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