Making Reality More Real

Cutting-edge gear enriches the genre

Some critics of reality shows say the unscripted genre has pushed the boundaries of taste. Whether or not one agrees, what's indisputable is that the genre has pushed the boundaries of technology. Be it the miniature spy cameras on The Real World, night-vision cameras on Big Brother or the use of high-def production gear on Laguna Beach, reality tech has producers constantly on the lookout for innovative ways to get the perfect shot.

When Real World hit the airwaves in 1992, the show used giant shoulder-mounted cameras. Now 50 to 60 tiny spy-cams dot the house, and three hand-held Sony PD170 DV cameras further capture the action.

Besides blending into the woodwork, the hand-helds are particularly handy for shooting in automobiles, where their clunky predecessors used to bump against the windshield.

Bunim-Murray Productions, which produces Real World, is certainly not through innovating: Season 17, which will be set in Key West, Fla., will use five Sony XDCAM tapeless cameras to make it easier to capture the housemates' adventures.

Letting the crew blend in

The Real World tries to stay true to its name by making the cameras as inconspicuous as possible. “The more we are flies on the wall observing them, the better,” says Mark Raudonis, VP of post production for Bunim-Murray. “When you come in lights a-blazing with a big camera and a guy with a microphone, it changes how everyone else reacts in a room. People act like big jerks.”

John Ehrhard, supervising producer on VH1's Hulk Hogan show Hogan Knows Best, concurs. His Pink Sneakers Production has cut down on intrusion by outfitting two crew members with DV camera harnesses that include an 8 x 2.5-inch LED light panel for more-discreet lighting. “It lets the crew blend into the background,” he says. “It's also dimmable and doesn't give off a lot of heat.”

Bunim-Murray, however, takes a different approach to lighting, using Kino Flo lights to illuminate the Real World house so cast members can be seen anywhere in it. The company also began using infrared lighting during Real World's season 9 (New Orleans) to capture the bedroom shenanigans.

While the equipment is getting less intrusive, not everyone swears by small cameras. Bertram van Munster, co-creator and co-executive producer of Amazing Race, says the camera needs a certain degree of heft in order to feel right on the shoulder and allow the photographer to get a quality shot. “You can't do professional stuff with a tiny little camera,” he insists. Van Munster swears by a 12-pound Sony IMX camcorder. With a smaller camera, he says, “it's hard to do things like pan properly.”

Race crews consist of one cameraman and one soundman per team. Their challenges include making sure batteries have enough power to run the big cameras and that there's enough videotape on hand to get all the shots for a particular leg of the race. Once a leg is finished, the tapes are sent back to Los Angeles.

“Our camera people have to remember every detail from the first show all the way to the end,” van Munster says. “They have to constantly put together thousands of impressions and connections.”

Reality in high-def

Real World, meanwhile, is further redefining reality tech. For season 17, Bunim-Murray used digital microwave transmitters on the backs of the cameras, which let cameramen walk much further away than with analog, yet still send footage back to producers in the control room. With MTV set to launch a high-definition channel next year, they'll likely shoot the show in HD as well.

HD is slowly becoming the reality norm. Bunim-Murray also shot The Rebel Billionaire, Virgin boss Richard Branson's “quest for the best” reality show, in high-definition. Hogan is being shot with six Sony HVR-Z1 HDV camcorders, which have the same small size as the Sony PD170 and provide what Ehrhard says is the perfect blend of low profile and quality performance.

“HD is the future of reality TV,” says Ehrhard. “For a show like Laguna Beach, it will give a raw look that is gorgeous.”

While the vast majority of prime time scripted programs have moved to high-def, reality TV actually lags behind. That's because the cost of renting HD gear for long spells can be prohibitive, and the shooting conditions—whether camera operators are shooting in the jungle or a rowdy nightclub—can result in damaged goods.

“We're talking about HD, but budgets are certainly an issue,” says van Munster of Race. “If Sony wants to be kind enough to give us some gear, we'd be open to it.”

Nonlinear editing

Reality TV's most innovative development is perhaps nonlinear editing. Bunim-Murray shoots about 3,500 hours of tape for each 23- to 26-episode season—a 200-to-1 ratio. The company uses an army of “loggers” who watch every frame and catalog the footage in a database that editors can search. They then use Apple's Final Cut Pro, networked with X-San, for the editing. It takes the company's 25 editors as long as 10 weeks to edit an episode.

Helping speed up the process are tapeless formats like Sony's XDCAM. Tony Croll, director of photography on Average Joe, Rock Star: INXS and Three Wishes, used XDCAM to shoot the off-stage portion of INXS.

Unlike Survivor and Amazing Race, which give the production team ample time to sort through thousands of hours of material, Rock Star gave them less than a week to turn around each episode. To hurry it along, Croll shot with six disk-based Sony cameras. “It allows for more access to the shots,” he says. “You can scroll right to the one you want because it records in chapters.”

Devoted exclusively to the genre, Fox Reality uses new technology to dig into digital storage and tapes from shows like Joe Millionaire and Temptation Island to cull extra footage to run as additional programming. The network will include some of that exclusive video in a searchable database on its Web site and will highlight innovations in reality technology in its daily program Reality Remix, which begins on Oct. 24.

Struggling with audio

While reality TV has taken significant steps in providing a better viewing experience, it still struggles with one key aspect of the equation: audio. For starters, microphones and batteries tend to be cumbersome.

“There's nothing more incongruous than someone wandering around in a bikini with a huge radio mike and a battery tied to their bust,” says David Lyle, COO/general manager of Fox Reality. “There are many ways you can get around not having perfect vision, but you can't get by without perfect sound.”

And then there are the issues that pop up in non-studio environments, such as when castmates venture out of the house. When the Real World stars visit a nightclub, producers are forced to improvise to capture the audio. They typically move the cameras to quieter areas, ask the club manager to lower the music or run subtitles.

Croll says his crews are continually reaching into a bag of tricks to solve sound problems. “Things like radio-frequency interference and having to mic up to 17 people at once [as on Rock Star: INXS] are just some of the challenges,” he says. “Tricks are needed for almost any shot.”