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>> Behind the scenes on Foxtel's The Phone

Thu, Feb 19th 8:48pm 2009 >> The Phone

Well, the secret is out now so at last I can reveal some of the things I got up to late last year.

As part of my mission to get the SuperHouse TV show going I've been talking to a lot of people in show biz and pumping them for advice and contacts, and along the way I was asked to help out as Technical Supervisor for a new reality-TV show which started its first season on Fox8 a few weeks ago.

My role included designing and building gadgets and writing software for use by contestants in the show, which is filmed to look like a cross between The Amazing Race and The Bourne Identity. The contestants are real and doing their best to figure out what's going on, but everything that happens around them is being driven from behind the scenes and because it's filmed out in the real world rather than on-set it's quite unpredictable. The contestants interact with actors during each episode but also with random members of the public so from moment to moment the production team really didn't know what was about to happen. It was quite a bizarre experience!

So there were no chances at second takes: things had to just work, particularly the gadgets and software. Of course I used all sweet FOSS technologies, so the gadgets were built with MySQL, Arduino boards, Apache, PHP, and random other Open Source stuff.

Episode 4 was filmed in late September in Tasmania so on Friday 26th I bolted out of the office a few minutes early and grabbed some gear from home before heading off to the airport for a flight to Hobart, where I worked in my hotel room until about 3am getting some software finished off and then grabbing 3 hours sleep and getting up at 6am to meet with the Director prior to the pre-shoot briefing. Then it was off to Salamanca Market with my backpack full of gear to use during the day, including 3 Macbook Airs plus a bunch of custom hardware that you see in the show. It was kinda weird walking around the crowded market with a backpack containing gear worth more than some new cars!

What I found *really* interesting about the show is what goes on behind the scenes. Here's a classic example using a series of photos I took at the final location for the day, starting with just what ended up on TV and then going progressively broader. Let's start with the talent, Justin and Madeleine (Justin Melvey is rather famous in the US after doing 4 years on Days Of Our Lives, but locals may remember him better from Home And Away):

What you see on TV is Justin and Madeleine alone at a campsite. What you don't see is that a few seconds before they were flanked by a producer, a director, and a cameraman:

Then swing the camera around a bit and suddenly it's starting to look crowded, with all these people just out of camera shot:

Think that's busy? Once the contestants had been through and done their thing and the crew were striking the location and loading everything into the vehicles, I took a shot of the carpark. Every one of these people is involved in the show, and that's not even everyone at that particular location (there were a couple of other cars out of my field of view):

I count 22 people in that photo.

So I made a point of taking lots of pics of the crew doing their thing during the day. When you watch a reality TV show with contestants out doing things in the real world you may only see a few people on screen but what you don't see is this:

Or this:

In that last pic we were following and filming the contestants in another car traveling through Hobart while a helicopter hovered above to get aerial footage. The van we were in had a big cross on the roof so the helicopter could find it easily in traffic, and we had to stay some distance back from the target vehicle so we'd be out of shot in the aerial footage. There were two choppers used during the day, one as a camera platform and the other for use in the show itself.

The challenging thing about making a show like this, of course, is that the contestants aren't actors. They're not following a script and they're unpredictable in where they go and what they do. They have to complete a series of challenges that take place at different locations over the course of the day, and the production team just have to try to keep up: if they do something significant and there's nobody there to film it, too bad. The moment is gone, and they're on to the next thing with no second takes.

Totally different to filming scripted scenes with nobody but actors in front of the camera doing what the director tells them!

Another "behind the scenes" shot, this time Justin waiting on a motorbike just prior to a sequence at Salamanca Market while a camera assistant rigs a camera on top of a parking sign assisted by a runner, a cameraman stands on the other side of the ute, and a sound guy waits on the footpath:

And finally this is one of the art department guys bringing a metal briefcase to the campsite scene at the end of the episode:

Hmm, a briefcase? Camping? Why would you need to take a briefcase camping?

The obvious answer, of course, is lots of money:

Yes, that's real money.

Yawn. Another boring weekend.

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