“Reality television’ as a category of programming emerged in the late 1990s with the introduction of shows that attempted to portray real people responding to real challenges under more or less continual public gaze. Unlike sport, where the focus is primarily on physical skills and endurance, reality television shows place their participants in a wide variety of situations reflecting everyday life even if sometimes at its most extreme.
Spontaneity was a key attraction right from the start. Participants were primed with only the most basic instructions but no rehearsal and definitely no script.
A second attraction in many reality television shows was the introduction of audience participation, viewers having the option of voting for or against specific contestants.
One of the earliest programmes to put real people on air in unscripted situations was ‘Candid Camera’, developed in 1947 by the American writer, producer and director Allen Funt. After a year on radio (as Candid Microphone), this became the basis of a series of short films, It was brought to US television in 1948. The show’s formula centred on filming the reactions of normal people to the most abnormal situations Funt and his colleagues could devise, such as a gasoline pump attendant being asked to refuel a car fitted with a large hidden additional gas tank. Concealed cameras captured the innocent victims’ responses to the challenges and to the on-camera explanation when the actual cirumstance was explained. Candid Camera survived and thrived in the USA with versions also appearing in Britain, Australia and Canada.
For the Camera Corps team, working in reality television was a natural extension of the skills we have built up over many years providing speciality cameras and production support for some of the world’s largest sports events. In both instances, the activity being televised is live, real-time and essentially a unique performance. This is much more demanding than traditional scripted television. We rarely have the luxury of a ‘Take Two’.
The popular image of television production is a studio environment with a camera crew carefully following the action from behind tripod-mounted heavyweight equipment and perhaps another colleague or two shooting from overhead cranes. Reality television requires a very different approach. To begin with, the detailed action is not scripted even if though the general order of proceedings will have been predetermined by the director. Secondly, a lot of the proceedings will be taking place away from the main centre of activity, either in adjacent rooms or perhaps at completely separate locations. This calls for very careful planning to prevent production costs ascending into the Hollywood-movie stratosphere.
Camera Corp’s key contribution to reality television has been the practical implementation of remotely managed cameras allowing a single operator to televise the action from up to 99 separate locations using a single control panel. As a company, we offer complete television production support services and equipment to any organisation or individual that requires them. This typically includes broadcasters, programme-makers and public-event organisers. It often involves sending crew far away from our Surrey headquarters which in turn has made us our own most demanding customers. After many years of developing remote-control motorised hot-heads for third party cameras, we decided to design and build our own. The wish-list included:
* High image quality to permit on-air switching to or from high-definition studio cameras.
* Infra-red sensitivity to allow nocturnal and well as daytime operation.
Powerful integral optical zoom.
* Motorised pan and tilt with adjustable acceleration and deceleration to allow on-air talent tracking.
Silent operation, allowing the camera’s use alongside a microphone.
Compact and attractive on-screen appearance.
Unlimited lateral and/or vertical rotation at any speed likely to be required in practical production.
Robust, splash-tolerant and humidity-tolerant exterior.
Low-voltage DV power supply to permit battery-powered operation if required.
Easy mounting from above or below.
The result was the development of Q-Ball, a remote-controlled 1080i-native camera which has proved highly popular with many reality-television show producers since its introduction at NAB 2009. One of its first implementations was also one of the toughest any cameras have faced in the entire history of reality television. Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’ project on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square called for weatherproof remotely controlled HD cameras to be operational in our notoriously rain-prone capital city for 100 consecutive days up to 14 October 2009. Q-Ball cameras were chosen by 021 Television to accumulate content for the production of regular broadcast reports on this event. An HD feed was also used to deliver live 24/7 video coverage for the entire duration via a Sky Arts website.
The next challenge was even tougher: Q-Ball cameras were chosen for a global circumnavigation in a nine-month television reality-television reconstruction of Charles Darwin’s voyage on HMS Beagle. Each Q-Ball was given a special hard-anodised finish on the outside and inside surfaces. Stainless steel bearings inside each machined-aluminium sphere ensured that the camera drives worked efficiently even in high levels of salt-water spray.
Before and since the introduction of Q-Ball, we have worked on many reality television productions that will be familiar to TV-Bay readers. These include Big Brother, Celebrity Wrestling, Fame Academy, Hell’s Kitchen, House of Tiny Tearways, Only Fools on Horses, The Family and The Farm.
One of the most popular of all reality television shows is ‘I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!’ Originally developed in Britain by Granada Television for ITV and first shown in 2002, it is produced by ITV Studios and licensed globally. Viewers vote by phone for a chosen contestant to complete a Bush Tucker Trial and money is raised for charity with a donation being made from every call. The last remaining contestant, after others have been evicted, is declared the winner.
Outside broadcasts often involve working in tough environments. High mid-summer temperatures combined with torrential rainfall and extreme humidity make 'I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!' location exceptionally challenging, whether from the jungle of Costa Rica or north-east Australia.
The 10th UK series, Q4 2010, was the first time the Australian series had been produced in 1080i. The show is filmed near to a town called Murwillumbah in New South Wales, most of the crew staying in Coolangatta, Queensland, about 45 minutes driving time from site. Camera Corps technicians David Sisson and Steve Lintern worked with Gearhouse Broadcast staff from October through to December, using remote-controlled cameras to provide round-the-clock video of the jungle camp and walkways.
David and Steve were on site for two weeks for technical rig, one week of rehearsal, three weeks for the show itself and then further week for derig. They later worked on the German version of the show, shot in the same location, so flew home for Christmas and back on 1 January for another four-and-a-half weeks.
Murwillumbah was chosen in part because the weather is subject to rainfall so heavy that the entire camp is sometimes awash. Biggest single challenge was therefore keeping all the cameras and lenses dry. All the cameras are powered continuously to prevent moisture building up on cold components. Special plastic covers allow air to flow around, keeping vents clear and rain out.
Because the show was being shot in HD, optical fibre was used instead of coaxial electrical cable which simply would not have had the signal-carrying capacity.
One year on, high definition has become in effect the new standard definition. We fielded nearly 80 cameras plus controllers, remotely-activated heads and protective covers for the 11th UK series, again at Murwillumbah. In addition to the Q-Ball cameras, Camera Corps MiniShot remote pan-and-tilt heads were used to allow remote control of Hitachi cameras. Toshiba cameras were also used in a variety of applications including ultra-wide angle shots via Theia lenses of the contestents traveling by helicopter prior to sky-diving into the camp.
As ever, the Camera Corps team went equipped with a very wide range of camera mounts and waterproof housings to cater for every scenario from rocky ground and riverbanks to all imaginable varieties of tree.
The future of television is anybody’s guess: perhaps going to even higher resolution than 1980 x 1080, perhaps also taking 3D and/or Cinemascope on the way. More important than these technical issues is the need for programme-makers to keep their creative powers sharp both by entertaining and, however gently, educating their viewers. Reality television, at its best, achieves both.