A Day in the Life of Reality TV Production

Sep 9, 2010 2:04 PM, By Michael Alexander, CAS



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Working on sound for a “cooking challenge” in Montreal.

Working on sound for a “cooking challenge” in Montreal.

Sound mixer and recordist Michael Alexander, CAS provided us with this inside look at the day-to-day challenges of working on location for reality television. This article previously appeared in CAS Quarterly.

I’m typing this on a break aboard a Canadian frigate in Nova Scotia. The cast of the reality show I’m working on is preparing to do a challenge inside a big metal ship that’s not RF friendly in the least. Imagine thick steel doors and the cast running up and down different decks. Later today, one of the challenges has the cast entering an emergency repair training room where the military practices fixing pipes and patching up holes in the hull (mimicking what would happen if an enemy torpedo struck). Water slowly fills the room and blasts out of the wall so hard that during the rehearsal, the waterproof Countryman B6s blew clean off the stand-ins. I ended up planting them out of sight, which was probably what I should have done in the first place. Work and learn, right? At least the mics were rentals.

The Elora Gorge in Ontario, Canada, where Alexander recorded reality show contestants riding a Tyrolean traverse.

The Elora Gorge in Ontario, Canada, where Alexander recorded reality show contestants riding a Tyrolean traverse.

The one thing you can count on in every reality/unscripted television show (and I’ve done a lot of them): It’s seldom boring for the sound department. Of course, “reality” television is created in the field as things are happening, there’s no firm script (though—surprise, surprise—sometimes there is a sort-of script) and the shooting schedule is created late the night before. I’ve found that it’s essential to be as prepared and organized as possible. My experience in reality television has varied a lot. Sometimes there is a full control room build and I’m working on a stage. This time out, though, I’m doing a reality/challenge-based show that’s a cross between Fear Factor and Survivor. (Okay, what reality show isn’t, I guess.)

Here’s a sample of a typical Day 1: I tracked 20 kids and a couple of guests on a Tyrolean traverse (sort of like a zip line) crossing the Elora Gorge in Ontario. When they hit the ground on the other side of the tree line, they ran 100 yards to the finish line. We had to contend with the gushing Grand River and the limestone cliffs, but also, when hiding mics, we had to deal with harnesses and other climbing regalia. Of course, the first episode always has the most cast members and setup time is usually tight. I discovered at the scout session that I couldn’t set up my rig on the other side of the gorge and have the cast run to me, so I had to figure out my positioning so that I was close enough to capture the send-off but I wouldn’t have the cast literally run out of my RF field once they reached the other side. I did have a setup/test day, so I felt pretty confident. Still, it’s always challenging to throw RF cleanly that far, and it’s more critical this time because there are no ENG mixers on this show (yup, the budgets for reality television have shrunk, too)—just two local A2s and me. Being that this is a competition-based show, the dialog has to be captured cleanly during the challenge; there’s no do-over. We have a Sennheiser 416p mounted on the camera and that’s it. I felt relieved when the first 15-hour day was over and there wasn’t a single hit and no transmitters were lost in the waters below. The next day we were off to the Olympic Hockey Arena in Lake Placid, then back to a Montreal restaurant for a cooking challenge.

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