Emmy Wrap: Reality contenders
Mired in drug addiction, Chad wasn't interested in listening. When he stormed out of a scene in A&E's Emmy-nominated "Intervention," flipping the bird to his distraught family along the way, the series' director of photography Bryan Donnell knew it was time to step in.
"He'd been completely defiant, and then he went back to his crack den and just sobbed like a baby," Donnell recalls. "He was so remorseful and candid, and it was really cathartic for him to be able to talk about it. It was gratifying that I could be there." Chad eventually agreed to go to rehab and Donnell just picked up his first Emmy nomination for cinematography.
Unlike the on-air talent and hosts that often dominate the reality portion of the Emmy telecast, some of the genre's most important creative forces are invisible even to the most loyal fans of their shows.
Donnell, for instance, says he serves two masters on "Intervention," nominated for the second time as outstanding reality show. He must craft a look that is technically solid under less-than-ideal conditions while also staying in sync with what's happening emotionally so he can capture volatile situations.
"I realize I'm the lens people will be watching this character through," Donnell says. "It's my job to get up close, be empathetic and get the shot."
The crew of Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" had to change in and out of smocks, protective booties and hairnets nearly 20 times a day as they filmed an Emmy-nominated episode titled "Bologna Maker in Pennsylvania Dutch Country."
"It was grueling because they had to go from 40-degree coolers where the meat is kept to flaming open fires where it's cooked, and every time they had to change clothes because everything had to be kept sanitary," recalls Eddie Barbini, the show's executive producer. "That was a complicated and long shoot."
In a painful task of a different sort, Brian Riordan and his team at Levels Audio in Los Angeles, nominated for nine Emmys this year, must clean up the audio of the often ear-piercing auditions of Fox's "American Idol."
"We have to make it sound technically good without changing the way the singers actually sound," Riordan says. "Let's just say you don't want to come to work with a hangover. When I close my eyes at night, I don't hear silence -- I hear bad singing."
Riordan also racked up nominations for his sound mixing on HBO's music-driven "Flight of the Conchords" and "The 81st Annual Academy Awards" (ABC).
With ultra-lean crews on cable reality shows, executive producers can find themselves as drawn into the action as anyone in front of the camera. Alice Dallow, director-producer of Discovery's first-time outstanding reality program nominee "MythBusters," found out what zero gravity felt like while she and her crew filmed an episode that eventually proved the moon landing hadn't been faked.
"We had four 30-second intervals of weightlessness, and much of the rest of the time we were pinned to the floor (by the opposite effect)," Dallow says. "We had to set up the cameras and get the shots in that minuscule window. Failure was not an option."
And because of an agreement with the aircraft owners, they couldn't shoot footage of anyone vomiting. Co-host Adam Savage gamely waited until all the stunts were in the can before losing his lunch, recalls Dallow, who recently had her ears cleaned for an upcoming episode that will attempt to answer the age-old question, "Can you really make candles from earwax?"
As executive producer of Bravo's "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List," Lisa Tucker must navigate danger of a different sort. Tucker and her tiny crew of about eight people handle everything from holding up curtains so Griffin can change clothes when there is no dressing room to offering moral support, like when the comedian broke down while meeting injured war veterans at Walter Reed Medical Center.
The goal is to let Griffin be Griffin, Tucker says, which requires logistical as well as people skills. The latter was especially important when the show went on location to Walter Reed, the Emmy-nominated episode, and Griffin's stand-up act turned out to have as many lows and highs.
"Kathy was so out of her element there; this was absolutely not her demographic," Tucker recalls. "It couldn't have been worse for her, or better for us. It was just mining gold."
Reality crews often add value to a production simply by being alert. Watching the casts closely every day, they are likely to pick up on nuances of interaction.
Dan Cutforth, executive producer (with Jane Lipsitz) of Bravo's "Top Chef" and Lifetime's "Project Runway," both Emmy nominated, says his crew was especially on its toes this past season when love blossomed on "Chef."
"That was some dastardly stealth work to capture Hosea and Leah kissing," Cutforth notes. "When you compare that to 'The Real World' or some other shows, it was chaste and old fashioned. But it was new for 'Top Chef,' and if the crew hadn't understood what was going on and been watching for it, we would've missed it."
"Chef" and "Runway," both nominated in the reality/competition category, also picked up directing and picture editing noms. Tim Spellman, director of photography on "Chef," has been nominated for cinematography on "The Last Supper" episode where judges asked the competing chefs to cook their hypothetical last meal.
"Our budgets are minimal compared to some of our competition," Lipsitz says, "and Tim proved he can do beautiful work even under those constraints."
About 180 degrees on the other side of the reality spectrum are repeat nominees like ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," which boasts about 300 crew members. The show is nominated for a record 10 Emmys this year, including choreography, technical direction, sound mixing, picture editing, makeup, hairstyling, music and lighting.
Executive producer Conrad Green says his first priority is to give as much creative freedom as possible to those industry vets. That has led to increased collaboration between the show's dancing celebrities and Emmy nominees like Melanie Mills in makeup, Mary Guerrero in hairstyling and Harold Wheeler, the show's musical director.
"It's like pulling off a huge stage musical each week," Green says. "They have the autonomy and they run with it. There's just no way all these elements could come together unless these people were at the top of their game."
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