Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Inside the production process of “The Stagers” Season 2


I was contacted out of the blue a little while ago about a show called The Stagers on HGTV. The powers-that-be had read (yes, I was as surprised as you are), and asked me if I’d be interested in posting something about the show. Being the gearhead that I am, I wanted to know what kind of cameras and editing equipment were used on a reality show, what the workflow is for cutting this sort of program, and how one goes about writing a reality series. You might say “but Freyburg? This isn’t your usual Watchmen/Apple/Obama rant!” and you’d be right. But I figure it doesn’t hurt to find out how a show I normally wouldn’t know anything about gets made, if for no other reason than the fact that it shows how any show can get made, and certain aspects of production can be adapted to more DV Rebel pursuits.

Cal Shumiatcher, the executive producer of the show, was good enough to answer my questions. He first explained how the idea for the show came about, and how they take the idea of a stager, who is essentially an interior designer who rapidly takes an average home and spruces it up so that its not only presentable but desirable to a buying public, and make it into dramatic, compelling television.

“Staging is the perfect confluence of design and drama.  Who knew?  But when you want to make a design show, and you want it to be dramatic, there’s no subject as compelling as staging.  These folks have to completely rework the look and feel of a home in about five days with virtually no budget and no staff.  The stagers we follow work on pure adrenalin under intense creative pressure and it makes for great TV,” he said.

Part of the process, he said, is casting homes as you would actors. The staff looks for homes that have serious design challenges and a ridiculous schedule, and then go from there to find strong character moments, such as home owners with unique needs, or realtors with a specific agenda. Though the show is a reality program, a lot more writing goes into it than you’d think.

“The ‘writing’ of our shows is really about blocking out scenes, or ‘beats’ in a dramatic fashion.  For example, let’s say we know we need a scene that sets the stakes for the home owner who has just been transferred to Calgary and needs to sell.  So we’ll write down, in note form, the points that we want to hit in this scene, and this becomes a ‘beat’.  We then ‘beat out’ our entire episode prior to shooting any tape.  Of course things change during production and you need to be able to react when the really great material starts to unfold before your eyes.  This unforeseen drama is almost always better than your original ‘script’ so you go with it. “

But Shumiatcher also pointed out that he considers Stagers less of a reality series and more of a lifestyle/docusoap hybrid, though he conceded that could be viewed as mere semantics.

But what about the gear, you ask? Well, it turns out they shoot the show on Panasonic HDX 900s, a shoulder mounted workhorse that pumps out 1080p. The production also uses Nikon stills cameras, one with a D300 body and a 12-24 DX lens and another with a D700 body and 14-24 2.8 lens. The cameras are tripod mounted to get “before” and “after” shots that match up and in order to create time-lapse dissolves. On bigger homes, the crew brings in a jib arm for “before and after” crane shots.

Editing revolves around Final Cut Server (a system I’m familiar with from my days on EP Daily.) Assistants log and load each shot and describe the location and action in a database that the story editors, directors and editors can access. I know that when I cut together a show Final Cut Server was very useful, as you could just type search terms into it and, provided everything was tagged correctly, the footage you needed would just appear. It also made for easier editing, as you were essentially cutting over a network, and all the footage sat in an array of drives in some other room, making it easier for everyone to access everything. And Shumiatcher agrees.

“This process includes lots of screening and arguing and usually takes about 3 weeks.  This cut is ‘sent’ to the broadcasters.  It’s actually just an email inviting them to log on to our approval website and view the cut – this saves time and $$ as our broadcasters are in Toronto and New York.  When we’ve all locked the show, our on line editor can simply open the sequence in high def and start the graphics and colour correction.  Having our entire system in house is really the key to a great post process – I can hardly imagine how we ever worked any other way!”

The Stagers: Season 2 airs Wednesdays on HGTV Canada at 8:30 pm ET / 10:30 pm PT, but if you’re as netcentric as I am, you’ll probably end up checking it out online.

Warren Frey is a journalist, freelance writer, podcaster, video producer, and all-around media consultant currently based in Vancouver, Canada. His written work has appeared in such publications as Metro Vancouver, the Westender, Mac | Life and the Japan Times.

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