Imagine having to record the contestants on Survivor as they make their way through harsh elements, or following the cast of The Real World as they hit up every local bar in their path. Or even scarier; imagine recording crab fishermen as they navigate the dangerous Bering Sea in sub-zero temperatures for the Deadliest Catch.
This is what reality television camera operators do.
Reality TV shows can offer the film crew members who work on them unique and exciting challenges. While we revel in watching our favorite reality TV stars, there are those behind the camera who documented all the action for us to see.
REALITY TV SHOWS: UNSCRIPTED, BUT PLANNED
Although the shows are unscripted, there is still considerable planning involved.
The production of a reality show is outlined, according to Nicole W. Block, a television producer and owner of Highlighting Entertainment. Block’s résumé includes production work on reality TV shows, including Keyshawn Johnson: Tackling Design on A&E and HGTV’s Real Estate Confidential and Outer Spaces.
The production crew decides ahead of time where the cast members will be, what they will be doing, what problems they will encounter, and how the episode will end.
“But, we don’t tell [cast members] what to say,” says Block, an instructor of Digital Filmmaking & Video Production at The Art Institute of California — Los Angeles. “Casting is very important in reality television because a cast who is organically compelling is absolutely vital to the success of the program.”
Dave Garrison, who is also a producer and Digital Filmmaking & Video Production instructor at The Art Institute of California — Los Angeles, agrees that casting is crucial.
“I worked on the second season of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew,” he says. “In casting for shows, they know who will get along, who will hate each other. They know who to put together to make good television.”
Good TV also requires camera operators who are so in tune with human behavior that they can anticipate what show participants will say and their next move.
Block says the film crew set-up for reality programs she’s worked on includes a couple of camera operators or directors of photography, an audio mixer/boom operator, a production assistant, and a field director.
While filming, shooters are constantly moving around in order to avoid bumping into each other or getting in the way. In addition to other crew members, there might be hazards around them that they must be aware of.
Block says the most hazardous situation she encountered while working on a reality TV show was while working on HGTV’s Outer Spaces, a home backyard makeover show which involved demolition and construction with all sorts of power tools.
“The staff and crew had to be aware of all the surroundings, while still making a television show,” she says. “There were a couple minor injuries, but nothing serious.”
Since contact with cast members during filming is off-limits, it can also be hard for crew to step back and watch as someone struggles emotionally or physically.
“It’s your call whether to step in,” Garrison says. “It gets tough when you see someone in pain.”
PUTTING IN WORK
Camera operators will usually be booked to work up to 12 hours from “call to wrap,” but longer shifts are definitely possible. If they are asked to drive out of the 30-mile zone from the city center, then they often count their travel time as part of the 10-to-12-hour day – that is referred to as “portal-to-portal.” If the camera operator is asked to fly out of town, the camera operator is usually compensated a half-day rate for each travel day.
Long hours and travel come with the territory in TV camera work. So does variety and not knowing what the next job will be.
“A camera operator is a freelancer and each job is usually short term, so they are always looking for their next gig,” Block says.
TV production work is also competitive, so budding cameramen and women must arm themselves with skills beyond the technical.
“In addition to talent and experience, a reality television camera operator has to have a can-do attitude and good business sense,” Block says.
Energy and the ability to deal with the physical demands are also necessary.
“The crew for reality TV shows work for 10, sometimes 12, hours holding a 25-pound camera and with maybe a 15-minute break in between,” Garrison says. “[Single camera work] can be exhausting. I tell my students to go to the gym and build their core muscles to prepare.”
With practically every channel now having at least one reality TV show, there are many opportunities for camera operators to work on them. The outlook for those with a keen eye, energetic spirit, and professional manner is especially bright.