Audio: When Shooting For Reality Television
When shooting film on location for reality television, many challenges come into play for everyone involved, TV Producers, DP’s, and Audio Technicians. It is important for everyone to work together to face these challenges. Recording audio for reality TV effectively is an art, and as a DP I know how much good or poor audio practices can affect the whole production.
What makes an excellent reality TV A1?
- Experience: For starters you need to have a good A1. Without an experienced person, all the technology in the world can’t save you from an audio disaster. You need someone that is knowledgeable and will be able to keep up with the constant changes and surprises of filming reality television.
- Equipment Management: They should also take excellent care of the equipment and check everything at the end of each shoot day so that there are no surprises for the next day. In my 25 + years of shooting all kinds of projects, reality shows are really hard on audio equipment, especially wireless mics. As a DP, there is nothing I hate more than waiting for audio when everyone else is ready to shoot.
- Timecode: A good A1 also understands that timecode is his or her responsibility. They should sync to all cameras in order to be on the same timecode and then sync to a smart slate.
- Micing as Art: When it comes to reality shows, micing people becomes an art form. Once again, this is why a talented A1 is essential. They need to come up with creative ways to mic the talent or even hide a mic near them. Sometimes the talent is wearing a bathing suit or clothing that does not make hiding a mic easy.
A must in my opinion when it comes to audio equipment for these jobs is the 788T made by Sound Devices it gives a solid base set-up to help post production. This piece of equipment records individual tracks and can also be set up to send mix back to the camera, this will give the editors reference when they’re pulling audio.
The 788 audio mixers with digital recorder will record up to twelve tracks, eight individual ones. It is battery operated and lasts about three and a half to four hours. I’ve added my own custom power set-up to my mixer so that audio doesn’t have to power down to switch batteries, keeping it constantly running. I did this by wiring two NP-1 adapters together. Anyone with basic knowledge of DC power could do this little trick. Another great feature that the 788 has is that it’s a timecoded device.
One thing to consider when using the 788 is that you must use SanDisk flashcards. We’ve found that the 788 mixers will not work and will overheat with compact flashcards that are not SanDisk. I’m not sure why, but all other brands I’ve tried do not work, beware!
Another challenge is finding open frequencies, I shoot most of my projects in South Florida and finding open frequencies can be a difficult task, as DP it is important that I give audio enough time to check and test frequencies before shooting begins. A lot of the new microphones, such as Lectrosonics SMQV’s and Sennheiser, have receivers that will actually detect clear frequencies. This is a huge help!
For a producer, content is king! No one wants a reality show full of subtitles. The DP’s point of view is useless without content. And since keeping up with the talent is such tricky business, audio has to always be on its feet and get creative with how they’re going to capture that content. I’ve seen audio have to hide microphones in towels, rolled up pieces of paper, necklaces, you name it.
Another big challenge for Audio while shooting a reality show is keeping up with the talent. Not to mention that reality talent can sometimes be uncooperative and I have found many turn off microphones and think they are clever, I love many of the newest wireless transmitters because they are hard to turn off, which is great for keeping unruly talent from “managing” the audio that we get.
Reality is unpredictable and sometimes you have talent running in different directions. That’s why it is necessary to have separate receivers, that way each camera crew can run after talent. The latest Lectrosonics stuff is great because it is wireless and remote controlled, and has 250 milliamps that doubles its range. On a recent reality project we worked on, Ocean Models, there were several days where we had a good 16 – 18 mics going among the three audio guys—each of whom was equipped with digital 8-track recorders. We used two SMQV transmitters on some of the models, these units are great, they’re really small and this made them easy to conceal.
Like with any production, challenges come up and it is important to work with people and equipment that can be flexible and always evolving. Just as technology moves ahead, it is important for all of us to keep up.