Reality TV seems so spontaneous that it’s hard to believe how much work goes into making it. But for the DPs and camera operators tasked with capturing the action and the drama on the fly, the genre is one of the most demanding in the business.
“It can be busy, it can be hectic and it can be crazy,” says Shaun Newton, a camera operator on MTV’s “Are You the One?” which wrapped its fifth season in March.
“Twelve-hour days are typical for us,” Newton adds. “But it can be rewarding, and it’s a really cool job. There’s a camaraderie that comes from working together and putting your passion into it — no matter how vacuous some of these shows can be.”
Newton has worked on reality television since practically the beginning. He got his start in 2000 as a PA on MTV’s “The Real World” — considered a seminal show for the genre — and has since operated the camera on some of the most popular reality series, including “Jersey Shore,” “The Apprentice,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “Cops.”
Formats have changed a lot over the years, Newton says. Technology has moved from standard-def videotape to 1080p HD and now to 4K — the high-res format that many reality programs shoot on today. “Keeping up with technology is paramount for success in this industry,” he says. And “4K is more versatile … with more room for error and more room to maneuver in post, because you’re shooting so much detail.”
But the biggest change, Newton says, has to do with reputation. “Respect for reality TV has really grown over the last 10 to 15 years,” he says. “People have started to recognize that these shows are here to stay.”
So what does the job entail? For Petr Cikhart, a longtime camera operator on “The Amazing Race,” there’s no such thing as an average day. He and a sound tech will follow a pair of contestants nonstop, sometimes for as long as 24 hours → straight, capturing whatever the contestants do. “If they decide to sleep on the airport floor, there we are 10 feet away sleeping too,” he says. “Physically, it’s very demanding. We get tired.” And you can’t take a break, he explains. “If someone is running, you can’t tell them to slow down so you can catch up. You just have to keep up. There are no do-overs or second takes.”
But, Cikhart insists, the show is better when the job is grueling. “Of course it’s tough when you’re trying to take a nap in the middle of the night on a piece of cardboard in a train station,” he says. “But those toughest times are the best opportunities to make the show better. If we’re having a tough time as a crew, that will translate to the best experience for the audience.”
Peter Rieveschl, DP on “The Amazing Race” and a former camera operator on “The Real Housewives of New York City” and “Project Runway,” says that what makes a good reality TV camera operator is “somebody who is very observant and has an excellent sense of human behavior.”
The job isn’t just about coverage, but about picking up key details and capturing drama as it happens. “You have to think like an editor and tell a story with your camera,” he says. “You have to watch people’s body language and even be able to anticipate what they may do next.” The best reality TV, he maintains, “is like good verite documentary filmmaking.”
Newton compares his work on dwelling-based reality shows such as “Real World” to fishing. “Let’s say Bobby and Cindy are having an argument about who left the mayonnaise out on the counter all night,” he says. “It sounds asinine, but the most asinine thing could become the biggest narrative of the season. Maybe Jimmy gets sick from the mayo. Maybe now he’s puking his guts out. Suddenly that argument about the mayo is very important.”
How do you know what is and isn’t important? “You don’t,” he says. “You shoot just everything as if it’s story — that’s the rule.”
But good reality TV camera operators aren’t just all-seeing. They’re also invisible. “There’s a strong fourth wall that you don’t cross,” Newton says. “You don’t start shooting the breeze with a cast member. That’s career suicide. The cast members need to see you as another piece of furniture. You want a natural reaction from these people.”