July 2004

Directing for Reality TV


Director Chuck Vinson in the control room for Last Comic Standing

"As the director in reality TV, you're essentially trying to tell the story visually," says director Craig Borders of The Mole, Cupid, Married by America, The Real World: Seattle and The Real World: Boston fame. "It's all about where you place the cameras and where you get the coverage to tell the story. It is completely different from working on a scripted show. However, you still need a director to run the set and act as field general."

That may come as a surprise to those who have tried to say that directors aren't needed in reality TV. It is precisely this sort of thinking that the DGA has set out to correct. Following extensive research, field investigations and discussions with many directors (both Guild and non-Guild) as well as producers, agents and production company executives, the Guild realized that several areas of concern needed to be addressed to increase the number of reality TV programs (network, syndicated and Pay TV) produced under DGA Agreements.

This led to DGA President Michael Apted forming a Reality Television Committee last fall. Comprised of DGA members with credits in the genre on such shows as Survivor, The Joe Schmo Show, Average Joe, Fear Factor, Last Comic Standing and The Mole, the Committee started by comparing and contrasting the salaries, staffing, working conditions, and other terms of employment for director members and their teams in this burgeoning genre. Result, new agreement; one with a remarkable amount of flexibility; for both producers and directors.

The Director's Role

The DGA already knew that the director's role is just as vital on reality shows as it is elsewhere in television. Reality shows are visually and logistically complex, requiring dozens of cameras, including stationary, hidden, mini, manned, hand-held and long lens. They utilize night shots, expressive close-ups and epic wide shots to tell the story in a larger scope. Many also incorporate stunts, requiring a good deal of preparation and rehearsal. To incorporate all that takes forethought and planning; basically, it takes a director.

Director member Brady Connell explains, "It's a huge directing job. Oftentimes, you have to place your cameras, give them each shot assignments, block your talent and be shooting in 15 minutes. And that's no exaggeration. It happens potentially four or five times each day for a full month.

"Directing under those conditions is unbelievably exciting and challenging on a creative level," he maintains. "That's why so many of us stay in reality. We've done other stuff but missed the excitement, the uncertainty, the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants aspect. You have no time to do a shot list or scout locations or even have a camera meeting. You just do it."

Director Craig Borders (above and below) at work

Indeed, to be a director in reality TV, you must be flexible. Some liken it to directing news, sports or even documentaries. If you're a director, though, who likes the routine and safety of a script, this may be the wrong genre to enter. At least, that's what J. Rupert Thompson, director of NBC's Fear Factor, found.

"We might shoot a stunt six times in one afternoon; once for each contestant," Thompson explains. "You grow accustomed to a very hectic and crazy schedule. I'll spend the morning lining up all of the shots and the afternoon shooting; boom-boom-boom-boom, no time to breathe. It's important to keep a certain momentum going for the contestants. Since they're regular people and not actors, I'm not looking to do any reverse angles.

"Sometimes, it feels like I'm directing an action movie," Thompson admits. "We've flipped cars off of parking garages with major pyrotechnic effects and sunk huge structures into enormous tanks underwater. My approach as a director is to pull from all of my mentors; John Woo, James Cameron, guys who I watched while growing up. I try to apply their style in a sort of emotional and visceral sense, then run up against the fact we're only a TV show and not an action movie.

The prime challenge from Thompson's perspective is to get everything in one take. "My job in directing Fear Factor is to make sure the stunts look scary, fast, high, deep, gross; to take things to the next level and make it a visceral experience for the audience," he says. "We might use anywhere from six to 20 cameras, depending upon how elaborate the stunt happens to be. The real challenge is that we get only one take. Period. So I need to make sure all of my ducks are in a row when things happen to be sure I have a flawless capture of the material."

Chuck Vinson, director of Last Comic Standing, adds, "There's a definite dance you have to do to make it all work. At the most basic level, directing for this medium is really about communication and knowing what you can do with it in the editing. That's where you have to tell your story."

And it's poles apart from what he used to do in the scripted world while directing on shows like The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Living Single and Martin.

"In reality, your ratio of usable material may be only 10 or 15 seconds an hour," Vinson finds. "You might be shooting 18 or 20 hours a day with literally dozens of cameras. It's all about lots and lots of guerrilla shooting and editing. My job is to set up the cameras wherever we happen to be shooting. You have cameras upstairs, downstairs, inside, outside, some hand-held and roaming. And the entire time, you're editing in your head as you go. Plus, as a director, you have to get your camera operators to really work in sync.

"On Last Comic Standing, I'm like the coach of the Lakers. I know who should be shooting the three-pointer; that's my wide shot, and who I can depend on for the slam-dunk; that's my close-up, and when to drop off from one person to another, which is my medium shot."

Associate Directors and Stage Managers

The below-the-line role in reality is no less complex and important than a director's. Glenn Stickley, associate director on Joe Schmo and Celebrity Mole, finds that his work incorporates all of the skills he learned. "On Joe Schmo, my associate director role is actually more akin to being an assistant director on a film set," Stickley says. "I schedule, run the set, work with talent; all of the things an assistant director does for a film or a stage manager on a video location shoot."

Diana Horn finds that what she did as an associate director on The Mole and Joe Schmo 2 is essentially oversee post production and all of the elements as they come in from the field. She has to be completely organized to get the job done correctly. If she isn't, she's looking at chaos.

(Top) Associate director Glenn Stickley on the set of Celebrity Mole: Yucatan (below) Tony Croll on location

"I'll assign an episode to a given editor, who will look at the footage and work with a story editor," Horn explains. "It's a heavy organizational job, which is actually an understatement. On Joe Schmo, we shot for 13 days on a total of 1,477 tapes; that was 992 hours of footage. Some of those were DVs, some loads longer than others. You're shooting 24 hours a day on probably nine cameras.

"I have a log keeping track of everything as it comes in. There's so much raw material that we need our own search engine to find the right footage. I mean, our A-camera alone shot upward of 20 loads a day. I'm supervising a whole department, making sure I know where all of the elements are as they come in, that the producers get their cuts, that the notes get implemented. It's just an unbelievably huge job."

The New DGA Model Reality Television Agreement

In July, the DGA unveiled its Model Reality Television Agreement that serves to modify longstanding contracts for network, pay TV and syndication in response to the Reality TV explosion in prime time. The Agreement is a significant step toward both protecting the interest of members and addressing the concerns of the reality production companies for whom they work.

"The changes approved by the National Board allow reality television producers to utilize the top-notch pool of DGA talent on their shows while having great flexibility in staffing and salaries," DGA President Michael Apted says of the new agreement. "We understand that each reality show has its own peculiarities. So, we are quite prepared to tailor the Model Agreement provisions to address the specific needs of each production."

Director Cord Keller

DGA Assistant Executive Director/Director of Organizing Elizabeth Stanley affirms that the new agreement stems from what the Reality TV Committee reported were the "real situations and conditions out there. They also gave us a sense of how to approach the (production) companies, which have too often preferred to simply avoid us."

At its June 15, 2004 meeting, the DGA's National Board unanimously approved the Agreement. "We want to make sure that reality shows get staffed appropriately," Stanley explains. "It's important to point out that the Guild will never try to insist that staffing be required where it's not necessary. We have learned that reality shows don't always call for traditional DGA staffing. We are even prepared to accept that some shows may not require a director."

The Model Reality TV Agreement also provides that the assignment of an associate director to editing will be at the company's discretion. "By easing the staffing requirements we expect that more companies will seek to make their shows Guild shows, to get the talents of our members where they need them," said Assistant Executive Director Rodney Mitchell. "The hallmark of this agreement is its flexible nature; because each reality show has different staffing requirements, it is important that our new Model Reality Agreement incorporate the same degree of flexibility."

Scenes from reality show Fear Factor which is done under DGA regulations

And to ensure that the staffing needed is filled by quality DGA teams, the Guild has taken an unusual step. "We generally seek umbrella agreements with production companies," Stanley said, "however, we're willing to sign single project agreements with production companies with which we haven't worked previously or have worked infrequently. This allows the company and the Guild to test its relationship and determine what will work to ensure the highest quality show and protection for our members."

Convincing the Companies

Now that the DGA has established new parameters, the challenge is to convince companies that it makes sense for all concerned; and that they don't run for the hills with the first utterance of the word "Guild."

While he has worked as a director of the reality shows Average Joe, Average Joe: Hawaii and Average Joe: Adam Returns (as well as serving as executive producer on Outback Jack), Guild member Tony Croll adds, "Too many production companies seem to be afraid of the Guild. They're terrified of any kind of affiliation with a union because they don't want to get roped into paying into the health and pension fund."

"The DGA is very interested in working with smaller production companies to convince them they can make union shows without breaking their backs financially," Connell says. "Due to budget constraints, a lot of shows have been calling the person in charge a supervising producer or field producer even though they've been directing."

Hans Van Riet, who has worked as a field producer and editor on The Amazing Race as well as associate director on America's Most Talented Kid, directed for some 20 years in Holland and Germany before coming over to the United States. He's seen firsthand about the cost-saving issues of productions being non-Guild and feels that, "too many shows aren't Guild."

(Top) Director J. Rupert Thompson (left) with POV camera rigger Rich Aspec on the set of Fear Factor (below) Brady Connell on location

Andrew Jebb, vice president of production at Nash Entertainment and a DGA member, notes that his company uses Guild directors for the company's shows; including Who Wants to Marry My Dad? and For Love or Money. Jebb works as a supervising producer or co-executive producer on all of the company's reality shows as well as, occasionally, an associate director.

"These are often complicated shows to put on because they often play like non-scripted sitcoms," Jebb says. "They involve a lot of work, and the director's role in them is an important one."

"What I've chosen to do is utilize my expertise and energy in a positive, proactive way that's aligned with the goals of the Guild," says director and Reality Television Committee member Cord Keller. "We're hopeful that things are going to change on reality shows, that we'll be able to convince production companies of doing what's right for directors' health insurance and security without costing the companies a fortune. It's really all about compromise."

Scene from the reality show Last Comic Standing

Adds Thompson: "What the DGA is saying to production companies is essentially, 'Let us work with you to create a deal you can afford and still employ union people.' It's all a matter of creating a deal that's appealing and not prohibitive for the production company. And I think everyone is committed to that."

Final Thoughts

The advantages of working on a DGA-covered reality production certainly extend beyond mere title and compensation as far as Stickley is concerned. "I've gotten a lot of calls to serve as an associate director on non-union shows; they don't say that. What they tell you is they need an associate director 'type,'" Stickley says. "So I've been turning those shows down because we all want to be doing DGA work, not only for the pension and health benefits, but because you know you'll be working with more experienced and skilled professionals, people who can run the set faithfully and efficiently."

Van Riet would also love to see more of a premium placed on creativity and innovation than are typical now in reality TV. "My belief is that recruiting DGA members can elevate the medium, and the reality genre, to a whole new level."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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