A Day in the Life of Reality TV Production

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



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Mixing <I>RuPaul’s Drag Race</i>

Mixing RuPaul’s Drag Race

On this show, I’m using the Shure UHF-R wireless system. I’ve used the 100-milliwatt setting, gained the paddles up 10 dB and have had amazing coverage. I don’t think I could have thrown the RF that far in L.A., though. In Elora Gorge, there was next to nothing in the air, DTV-wise.

I do all of the RF coordination with Professional Wireless Systems software in my hotel room beforehand. Doing the frequency coordination for the entire season takes just an hour or so, and it’s super-efficient. The software gives me a very solid place to start with frequency selection. I can choose which brand of wireless systems that I plan to use—Sennheiser, Lectrosonics, Comtek, etc.—and it will recommend frequencies within the band that I’m using. It’s based on longitude and latitude, and what is known to be in the air in those areas. I consider it an indispensable tool.

On this show, I’m also using my Pro Tools HD2 rig with a Tascam X48 as a stand-alone backup. I have 32 analog ins and outs on both units, with a small-frame Midas Venice 320 so it’s all very easy regarding clocking and patching. I use Glyph drives for the primary record storage and to copy my sessions to daily. The transfer drive travels with the boxes of videotape back to post-production, and they leapfrog them to the next hotel for me. I also have a UPS that will switch me from AC to DC power just in case my power gets yanked or the little Honda generator runs out of gas. (I’ve actually never had this happen yet, though.)

A steel door inside a metal ship in Nova Scotia—less than ideal for RF.

A steel door inside a metal ship in Nova Scotia—less than ideal for RF.

Pro Tools was post-production’s request because it works best for their workflow. Before gearing up for any show, I introduce myself to the post supervisor and ask what he/she would like delivered in terms of files and how the show is to be edited. I then design the gear components that will fit that workflow. I don’t really feel like I’ve done my job successfully until I make the ingest process as seamless for them and they are all smiles.

I’m a Pro Tools nut, so I’m very comfortable with that platform. If there’s any drawback at all in using Pro Tools, it’s when the session gets really long (eight hours and beyond). In this case, it may take Pro Tools longer to find a sync point before it can be put back online. It hasn’t been an issue on this show, though, because our scenes haven’t been long by reality standards. We roll for 45 minutes and then cut. I do a quick save and put the transport right back online. In general, I try to keep the Pro Tools sessions shorter rather than longer. I create a new session at lunch to keep any session from going 12 hours or longer.

Typically, all of the cameras have Ambient Lockit boxes and I also have one. This time, I’m using the word clock out of the Ambient to supply word clock and to drive timecode to both Pro Tools and the X48 via my Sync I/O. Video is using the Panasonic HD900s, all outfitted with Sennheiser 416p shotguns. There are 10 of those cameras with a bunch of smaller Z1Us and seven very small HD cameras called the Go Pro.

Outside of what time lunch is being served (that’s crucial, right?), sync is a primary concern. All has been pretty smooth considering how many cameras get slated before action is called. (They seriously do call “action” and “cut” on this reality show.) The first day was crazy with the slates and making sure everyone was on the same page. But it was mostly because I’m the only one from the U.S. and this is a primarily French-speaking part of the world! Why did I spend all of my youth playing drums when I could’ve been learning to parlez vous francais. But it has worked out fine, and it helps that this crew of Canadians is one of the kindest I’ve ever worked with. They’ve made what ends up being organized chaos actually fun.

I’ll be back home in Los Angeles in a couple of days, mixing/supervising a stage gig called RuPaul’s Drag Race. On that show, we have 32 inputs and I’m using the Metacorder—again, post’s preference. I’m using the Yamaha DM2000, and sending out nine mixes to nine cameras wirelessly, which is kind of crazy at times, but it’s fun and challenging and also makes the day fly by. By the way, if you haven’t caught the show, don’t prejudge. It’s actually crazy funny and, honestly, RuPaul is hilarious—besides being an extremely cool person to work with.

Mine is really a strange job with very long hours, eccentric personalities, challenging work environments and a bunch of technical hurdles to jump over. But then again, what other career offers so much diversity?

Michael Alexander is a sound mixer and ProTools recordist/mixer who lives in Westlake Village, Calif.

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