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September 2014
Issue: February 1, 2013

Posting Reality TV Shows

By: Christine Bunish
Developing successful, efficient post workflows is essential for reality television programming. Unscripted shows often produce huge amounts of footage, and despite having a good notion of the storyline in production, shows frequently take shape in the edit room. 

BOSTON’S FINEST 

Take the new documentary-style series Boston’s Finest, a dramatic journey into the lives of Boston police officers on the job and off, from Jarrett Creative and Donnie Wahlberg’s Donnie D. Productions, which premieres this month on TNT. “They shot over 4,000 hours of footage for eight one-hour episodes,” says Matthew Schneider, director of technology at NYC’s PostWorks (http://pwny.slatemediagroup.com). “That’s astonishingly high; 600 to 800 hours would be expected, but we think over 4,000 hours sets a new record.”



PostWorks supports Jarrett with both editorial and finishing services for Boston’s Finest. At its 100 Avenue of the Americas location, PostWorks dedicates a number of edit rooms and resources to unscripted shows in the reality, science and nature, and docu-soap genres.

Jarrett Creative occupies space on PostWorks’ third floor, where it has office and bullpen areas and offline edit bays. “It’s all part of the machine producing reality television,” says Schneider. “A company like Jarrett will offline on systems in their rented rooms, then use PostWorks’ facilities for finishing.”

Boston’s Finest shot predominantly with the Canon EOS C300 in 50mb 4:2:2 23.98fps. “It’s rare to have a show shooting one format; most unscripted TV shows have a broad mixture of formats, frame rates and camera codecs. They also chose to shoot 24p, not interlaced, a phenomenon becoming more common for reality TV productions,” Schneider explains. “24p, for many productions and DPs, helps the look of the show and allows for simpler conversions for PAL for European distribution.”

PostWorks began its association with the new series with consultations last July that established the post workflow. “They cut in an all-Avid environment, Media Composer V.6 on Mac with ISIS 5000 shared storage. Software-only Media Composer V.6 systems do the ingest and, ultimately, the conform.” Jarrett uses seven full-blown edit systems and between eight and 10 software-only stations.

Boston’s Finest follows a process that’s popular among many PostWorks clients. “All of our reality shows are editing with low-res, compressed SD proxies,” Schneider says. “They shoot such extraordinary amounts of footage that it’s not cost effective to have everything on the server; storage is still expensive, especially in these quantities. So this method keeps things as reasonably-sized as possible. But it requires an HD conform to match back to the raw files out of the camera; either the client does that or we provide a conform as a service.”



Even with low-res SD proxies, these shooting ratios threatened to require as much as 32TB of storage space for the show, so “some storage management and upgrades were required to accommodate it,” he recalls. Since the show was one of the first to use Media Composer 6, client training was offered, “so they could ingest in a smart and organized way.” The software does “an excellent job supporting Canon’s XF codec and the various AVCHD codecs, and is better at supporting multiple formats like the security-camera footage they also use in the show,” Schneider reports.

PostWorks colorist Eli Friedman did the final color for Boston’s Finest. “We tweaked the workflow to get the conformed HD show out of Avid and into his Assimilate Scratch system,” says Schneider. “We brought the finished show into Scratch for grading, then exported it back to Avid for titling, graphics, sweetening and mastering.” 

GRAVEYARD CARZ

Based in Springfield, OR, the officially-designated home of The Simpsons, The Division (www.divisiontv.com) specializes in developing reality television programming, taking shows from production through post. The company has four offline edit suites running Adobe Premiere CS6, a Premiere Pro online suite, color correction via Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve and a graphics station running the CS6 suite and Autodesk’s Maya and 3DS Max.

The company’s flagship series is Graveyard Carz, which just began its second season on Discovery’s Velocity channel; it airs internationally as well. The show follows a Springfield-based group that restores wrecked muscle cars with such attention to detail that, “the finished car looks like it just came off the assembly line,” says producer Casey Faris. The Division’s CEO, Mark Worman, is the show’s main character.

Graveyard Carz began as a pilot half-a-dozen years ago. The pilot was shot with Canon consumer-grade cameras and then the new 5D Mark II. The Division opted to produce a self-funded first season, investing in several Canon 7D cameras, which it used on handheld rigs. Midland XTC 300 action cameras were mixed in to capture driving shots and car interiors, and Apple iPhone footage made it in when no other cameras were available.



The first three episodes were cut on Apple’s Final Cut Pro 7 and “looked great,” Faris recalls. But when the editorial team went to NAB and saw Adobe Premiere CS6 presentation they were “so impressed with all the capabilities that we decided to switch in mid-season,” he reports. After working out the transition with episode four, editing the following nine shows went smoothly. “We learned all the little tricks,” says Faris. “Everyone here loves Premiere: The big thing is that it renders really fast. You can mix formats, frame rates, codecs with no interim conversions, which saves a lot of file space.”

Each shoot day Faris indexed footage, put markers on the timeline indicating shots he liked, copied segments into the timeline and edited them into a sequence. “We use proxies since we don’t have any big shared storage yet,” he explains. “We make H.264 proxies so we can send them over the Internet and edit at home in inclement weather.”

Once everything was laid out in offline, the show was rendered as a QuickTime file, notes were made, and the episode moved to the online suite where edits were finessed, audio was leveled out and the proxies were switched out to high definition in preparation for color correction.

“Resolve is totally awesome,” reports Faris, who is the main colorist. “It’s perfect for reality programming because we can easily put a mask around things to blur sponsor and copyright issues. Resolve has one of the best trackers I’ve ever used and makes quick and easy changes for color fixes.”

Season Two is implementing the same post workflow established with the show’s debut season; a growing editorial team is now in place for the series. “We’re proud of our workflow,” says Faris. “It’s well thought out and fast. It has to make sense for reality programming where you get hours and hours of footage — we get 40 to 50 hours per show in actual footage time. We can shoot one day and be editing segments the next.”

Season Two is being mixed at VSI Media in Connecticut, which also handles all the deliverables and international versioning for Discovery. The Division has in-house 5.1 mixing capabilities via Adobe’s Audition software.

The Division also produces Lynch for Hire, about odd-job men, which airs on MAVTV, and is pitching The Reel Life, a behind-the-scenes look at making reality TV… at The Division! “We’re excited about The Reel Life. We get a lot of people emailing us asking how we do our shows, so this is a partial answer,” says Faris. “It’s tech-y to some extent, but it’s mainly a character show like all our programs. The Reel Life is a funny, goofy show set in a production company that’s trying to make it.”

GEORGE TO THE RESCUE

George to the Rescue, a weekly national home improvement show on NBC, features George Oliphant and a team of contractors and interior designers who travel the country rescuing the homes of deserving people. It’s produced by LXTV, the network’s lifestyle entertainment brand, and posted in facilities at 75 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. 

“We’re our own island on the eighth floor,” says post supervisor Mike Fernandes. “We have studio space, 30 SAN-connected machines and 15 to 20 floating edit stations.” LXTV runs Apple FCP X, exclusively.



Now in its fourth season, George to the Rescue began as a segment on the Open House series, then spun off as its own half-hour series. The 12 episodes currently in production will include a number of homes devastated by Superstorm Sandy.

“We’ve grown steadily every year and added other cameras to the mix,” says Fernandes. The show uses three or four Panasonic DVCPRO HD cameras recording to P2 media, plus GoPros on equipment rigs and DSLRs for family profiles.

If shows are shot locally, operators return to LXTV’s facilities to offload the P2 media to the SAN-connected edit systems; on the road they offload footage to external hard drives and send a duplicate to New York — 42TB of Promise fiber-optic storage are available in the facility with another 120TB on hand in Drobo back-ups.



An assistant editor sorts through footage while Fernandes and fellow editor Courtney Yost discuss the best way to tell the story. “Shooting multiple cameras over two weeks gives us a lot of footage to shrink to 22 minutes,” he notes. “We have a rough idea of the story, but when construction begins it can throw you some curve balls. We pull the best bites and the strongest moments.” The editors migrated to Final Cut Pro X last season. “We can mix, master and color correct within the app itself,” Fernandes reports. “There’s less thinking about codecs: We cut natively or Final Cut Pro X creates optimized media for you in the background. And X is really tactile: It feels kind of like cutting 16mm again — you work as quickly as you think. It’s more organic.

“Dealing with all the codecs and camera formats, it’s easy to get bogged down; that’s a by-product of what we do. But the perk of X is that we can really concentrate on the storytelling.”

He and Yost do all the color and audio work themselves. “Once we started playing with the color tools, it was eye-opening,” he reports. “We can do everything we need to do in the one application, and the show comes out looking great.”



The workflow is completely tapeless. Finished episodes are connected to servers for broadcast. “It’s kind of shocking how smooth that is,” Fernandes laughs. “You almost feel you’re forgetting the keys when you’re walking out the door…Did I send the file right? It’s almost too easy.”

Fernandes, who handles all the post operations for the group, which also works on pilots and special projects, plans to roll out Final Cut Pro X to other programs soon. “Open House has started to integrate X into its workflow already,” he notes.

PROPERTY WARS & MANY MORE

New York City-based Sharp Entertainment (www.sharpentertainment.com) produces a large slate of reality and recreation shows. Currently airing are Property Wars, The United States of Bacon, My Collection Obsession and Rattlesnake Republic on Discovery; Feed the Beast and Toy Hunter on Travel Channel; Call of the Wildman on Animal Planet; Doomsday Preppers on National Geographic; and Extreme Couponing on TLC. Fishtank Kings for Nat Geo and Dates from Hell for Discovery ID are also in post production.

“Cameras and network deliverables determine how post production follows through,” says Lisa Brunt, Sharp’s post production supervisor. “Each network has its own set of needs.”



Sharp has an inventory of five Sony PMW-F3 and 12 PMW-EX3 file-based cameras but still uses six Panasonic HDX900 tape-based cameras. GoPros are routinely integrated into shoots.

Property Wars uses EX3 cameras, offloading its SD cards onto rugged field drives, which are shipped back to Sharp headquarters. Footage is backed up on larger drives on location and a back up is also made in New York. Material is ingested into Avid Media Composers 6 for editorial.

“We bring everything in in high resolution and edit high resolution, so there’s no typical online process for the up-res,” says Brunt. “We have enough storage memory to permit this.” 

Sharp occupies two floors at one Manhattan location and two at another; one location has an “older Unity that’s still running strong,” while the other has multiple EditShare storage systems for a total of 300TBs company-wide.

Set in Arizona and following people who bid on unseen properties, Property Wars fields a camera crew for each bidder as they discover whether they’ve made a great buy or taken a loss. “There’s a basic premise, but the show evolves during production,” Brunt explains. Episodes develop further in post as editors seek “great moments” that enhance the spontaneity of the bidders’ discovery process.

Editor Liam Lawyer crafts the Property Wars shows and does some finishing. He’s supported by editors Steven Santos, Emily O’Brien, Alfredo Mercuri, Eric Schatzman and Nicholas Vorolieff.


Sharp Entertainment: Avid editor Chris Young at work  with Resolve colorist Liam Lawyer on Property Wars.

Colorist Chris Young uses DaVinci Resolve for color grading working simultaneously with the audio review. Although Sharp has a 5.1 Pro Tools room for mixing, Property Wars is mixed at Pomann Sound in NYC.

Sharp creates the deliverables required by Discovery and uses LTO tape to archive masters and file footage for the series.

“A lot of networks have tweaked deliverables within the last year,” Brunt notes. “Some that were behind with file-based deliverables have come out with new specs — it’s a transitional period for them.”

Along with accommodating changing deliverables, companies like Sharp must be nimble enough to incorporate changing camera inventories, too. “Our F3s needed Avid 6 to bring in footage natively,” she explains. “The post workflow is always changing based on specifications of the camera, so we look into the back end of the process before we purchase cameras.”

THE DEVIL’S RIDE

An executive producer/director with LA’s Livin’ The Dream Entertainment, LTDE, (www.livinthedreamentertainment.com), a content creation company he founded in 2006, Adam Vetri also works as a showrunner and director for hire. 

In addition to the current slate of programs in development at LTDE, Vetri has sold several reality projects to a variety of networks and a scripted comedy to Columbia Tri Star. He’s now shooting a pilot he created for National Geographic.

Vetri is also executive producer on Bischoff Hervey Entertainment’s The Devil’s Ride reality docu-series, set to begin its second season on Discovery this month. The show gives an inside view of the subculture of a San Diego motorcycle club.

“Season Two is following the footsteps of the model we established for the first season. We set up a strong infrastructure for preproduction, production and post,” he says. “It’s a really good template for solid storytelling.”



The second season saw a change in acquisition formats from Canon 5D and 7D and Sony EX3 cameras to the Canon EOS C300 with EF lens mount. A number of GoPro cameras capture dynamic riding shots.

“In the field the C300 gave us the option to use a variety of Canon lenses and had good monitor capabilities,” Vetri says. “The low-light capabilities let us shoot some really interesting night scenes. It also had a built-in intervalometer, which made it easy to do timelapses.”

He also notes that the C300 offered advantages over the 7D in post. “Having true timecode, the XDCAM codec and the XLR audio inputs gave us files that were easy to import and sync up for grouping.”

Vetri points out that “we want to capture the raw reality of the club, but we like to make the show look amazing, so we spend a lot of time on B-roll beauty shots, riding, transitions. In order to bring this show to life, the bikes and riding also need to be treated as characters on the show.”

The series has a totally tapeless workflow. The camera cards go right to a portable drive, which is backed up in the field. Then the footage comes to post where it is backed up again before importing into Avid.



The Devil’s Ride is posted in Bischoff Hervey’s own LA facilities where two offline bays cut episodes concurrently. Footage is ingested at low resolution and assembled on Avid Media Composer 5.5.3 on Mac. “We do a lot of prep work, which makes post flow well,” Vetri explains. “We research the club and the members’ lives and come up with a plan so we can follow the stories as we shoot over four days for an episode. That’s how I like to work on all the shows I do: put a lot of work into prep so you know what you’re trying to accomplish by the time you get to post.”

After two rough cuts, notes and revisions, episodes are onlined on Avid Symphony Nitris DX, where footage is up-rezed and color corrected in what Vetri calls “a lean-and-mean operation.” The mix is done by 2 Pop Sound. “We spend a little extra time to amp up the bike sounds that identify this show,” says Vetri. “After final review, we deliver on HDCAM SR so Discovery can get all the audio tracks they need. That’s the only tape we use in the entire process.”

According to Vetri, the only problem concerning The Devil’s Ride “has been a wonderful one: The network really likes the show and wanted to push the airdate up, so we added more bays and brought in more people. That’s an exciting problem to have!”

Vetri pursues a similar post workflow for his own content at Livin’ The Dream, which uses post vendors for its programming. “It’s an infrastructure I’ve used for many years,” he notes. “I tend to work with the same people if they’re available; we have an unspoken language in common that makes the process straight-line, hassle-free and fun.”

TOP CHEF

It takes Magical Elves to get Bravo’s celebrated Top Chef on the air — at least the Hollywood-based Magical Elves who handle post production (www.magicalelves.com) for the series, which is now in its 10th season.

The company provides complete post for Top Chef, apart from creating deliverables. It has also furnished post for other shows in the franchise: Top Chef Masters, Life After Top Chef and Top Chef Just Desserts. 



Magical Elves’ director of post production, Adam Ford, has worked on the show for the last seven years.  Top Chef follows “more of a traditional production and post production process,” he notes. “The majority of footage is still shot on hard media, there’s still a traditional digitizing process and offline and online on Avid Media Composers 5.” Color grading is done on Avid Symphony.

Magical Elves also mixes Top Chef. “It’s not unique to us, but we focus as much as we can on maintaining the [audio] integrity of the competition,” says Ford. “We do a lot of coverage: We use large-format audio multi-tracks in the kitchen or on the stage; we have individual lavs on contestants and boom mics. For location work we use Sound Devices 788 or 552 docu-follow rigs for more run ‘n gun coverage.”

Keeping track of all the contestants and other audio sources can be a challenge. Transitioning to multi-track recorders in season three has helped, Ford says. “Now when a contestant has a mic channel he can stay there all day, and when the tracks go into Avid, the editors and assistants can easily pick them up.”

Once the Avid offline is done the AAF is loaded into Pro Tools, a process developed by mixer Patrick Grandclaudon and the editorial team to ensure a smooth continuance of the workflow.  “For a long time Pro Tools was not able to read grouped audio,” notes Ford. “Grouped audio existed in the AAF, but we weren’t able to distinguish it in Pro Tools. But with Pro Tools 10 we now have a way to access grouped media. That one change drastically decreased the time it takes the assistants to prep sequences for Patrick and to have slightly-mixed sequences go to him.”



One of the big audio challenges for season nine of Top Chef was coping with the air conditioning noises captured during mid-summer Texas shoots, where the temperature topped 100 degrees. “We tried to shut off the air conditioning whenever possible, and when that couldn’t happen we used plug-ins and filters” in post, Ford explains. “We have hundreds of plug-ins; we use everything,” including iZotope RX 2, Cedar DNS One and Waves Mercury Bundle.

Magical Elves typically doesn’t add sizzle to the steak, however. “We try to be as natural as possible acquiring food sounds on the set,” laughs Ford. “There’s no replacement for that.”

Top Chef is mixed in stereo. The fact that Grandclaudon and the online editors are across the hall from each other is a plus, says Ford. “Going back and forth with video and audio to finish the show in one step has been invaluable to us.”