“The time constraints of reality television are like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” comments Ken Novak, a staffer at Larson Studios in L.A. whose reality credits include Joe Millionaire, Paradise Hotel, Mr. Personality, Married By America, Plantation Island and NBC’s upcoming American Princess. “I finished the last Joe Millionaire on a Sunday night and it was on the air on Monday night.”
Editing, posting and mixing reality shows has refined the idea of working quickly under pressure in post, and every engineer has his or her own tricks of dealing with the velocity of reality. But before any techniques enter into the discussion, it should be noted that all of the post professionals who talked to Film & Video about their experiences also pointed out that there is a tremendous disconnect between the location audio and the post process.
This might have to do with the nature of reality productions, says Conner Moore, Ledner’s colleague at Post Logic and audio editor and mixer for both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. “So much of the production happens so far in advance of post, especially in the initial seasons, that they haven’t even chosen a post house before they’re halfway through the season.”
With location audio being recorded in every conceivable type of environment, on the fly and with few opportunities for retakes, what comes in to post is often a jumble of sound that has to be pieced together in a matter of days. Novak says he recently had a meeting with Rocket Science Labs, the producers of Joe Millionaire and Temptation Island, on exactly that topic. “I hope this is the beginning of a dialog that will make all of our jobs easier,” he says.
Where’s the Audio?
Engineers agree that location audio crews have their work cut out for them, trying to hide microphones in beaded necklaces and potted plants, hoping that sea and sweat don’t crash the signal and that the show participants manage to deliver their dialog close enough to a properly wired ficus tree.
“There’s a lot of bad audio that makes it to post,” says Novak. Camera-generated audio makes up much group-shot sound, but it’s notoriously unreliable for capturing key bits of dialog at critical moments. The solution is to use the camera-generated audio as a guide, using time code to match it up to the sound recorded from lavalier and planted microphones. “But when what you’re looking for is strewn across 15 tapes, how do you find it on the kind of post schedule these shows run on?”
But reality television is forgiving, to say the least. When the camera audio is less than stellar, why not turn defeat into a cinema verité victory? “You smooth out the rough spots by filling it in with sound that reinforces the sense of location,” says Novak. “You use the hard-disk technology that ultimately allows reality television to get made on this tight a schedule in the first place to pull you through.” Novak found out that Joe Millionaire’s Paul the butler had his lavalier microphone tacked under his tie the hard way: “Every time he turned his head the tie would close up and the dialog became muffled.” The solution was EQ: “I brightened it as a much as I could in the muffled parts using the Renaissance C-4 EQ plug-in from the WAVES Gold Bundle, automating it in Pro Tools to roll on as the muffling increased and roll off as it decreased.”
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