Anyone who’s seen The Amazing Race has witnessed some pretty stressful situations: high-wire rappels, flights on rickety planes, a stroll through a temple full of rats. If these challenges looked terrifying at home, imagine what it was like for the camera teams filming them.
Series co-creator and EP Bertram van Munster describes Race as a soap opera/drama/comedy with a storyline that starts in show one and ends 13 hours later. His signature cinema verité approach was honed making Cops and Wild Things, and is evident in the Emmy Award-winning Race, which is co-created with van Munster’s partner Elise Doganieri.
Behind the lens
Van Munster’s style is a product of hard work and detailed preparation. Filmed on Betacam IMX cameras, Race shoots start with 11 camera teams consisting of a cameraperson and a soundperson. Then, up to nine B-roll teams are brought in to film challenges. ‘I look for cameramen that are storytellers and have a great eye,’ says van Munster. ‘I tell them the camera is just an awkward extension of the eye. They almost have to be a director.’
Van Munster also seeks shooters that take chances. ‘The cameramen I’ve dealt with would do anything, anytime, anywhere. The ones on this show literally run around the world – India, Africa, New York City. They are incredibly agile, and are immediately at home in the situation, which is why they’re so brilliant.’
One camera team follows each contestant group, and van Munster says there are regular switches so players can’t complain about slow teams, and to avoid shooters and players getting too cozy. There are several guidelines contestants must abide by in relation to the camera teams. For instance, players are not allowed to stray further than 20 feet away. In the case of flying, ‘If there aren’t four airline tickets, contestants aren’t going. The camera crews are like their children; you don’t leave your children at the airport.’
While it’s natural to assume that capturing footage of frenzied players is most important to camera teams, van Munster says listening is also imperative, as it suggests whether to back off and do a wide establishing shot or do close-ups if people are emotional. ‘It is key to in-the-moment storytelling. Your mind has to be very fast – it’s almost like playing an instrument, you have to think on your feet.’
Van Munster says cinema verité in the reality realm is about making yourself as small as possible. A lot of reality shows ‘make themselves very big, with 50 cameras and three cranes.’ That’s an intimidating approach, he says. Instead, the camera should remain inconspicuous but adaptable.
Pre-production for Race starts with van Munster doing basic research on his ‘wish list’ of countries and related activities. He and Doganieri then spend two or three months with one other producer scouting locations. A second trip includes another ep who handles logistics, so that details of the challenges can be worked out. The next time they visit the sites is to shoot, which takes one month. Post takes another four.
To ensure no changes are made without his consent, van Munster travels with the team for the duration of the shoot. ‘I have an obligation to the network,’ he explains. ‘If I promise certain ingredients, I can’t say later, ‘Someone on my staff decided to change something so I couldn’t get you what I promised.’ When I promise them the Taj Mahal I can’t show them a bare rock in the middle of nowhere.’
So far, getting permits hasn’t been an issue: van Munster insists he’s gotten every one he’s wanted. Plus, he seems to be in the good books of several us ambassadors. ‘A lot of times I get them contacting me saying, ‘You should come to this country. We’ll help you guys out, and we have a good relationship with their government.’ He cites Morocco and Singapore as examples.
While the show’s success helps win access, it does have a downside. A couple of years ago, decoy teams were employed because fans were following the contestants during taping. ‘We can be anywhere in the world and people will recognize us,’ says van Munster. The decoy teams are sent out to high-profile places so the public won’t find out how the contestants are doing in the race. ‘I was once with someone in southern India, in the middle of nowhere, and a photographer took a picture of us. The next day it appeared in a small local newspaper. I called cbs to tell them, and before I said anything they said ‘There’s a picture of you in the paper there.”
The road ahead
Van Munster is the first to admit reality shows from previous times look dated compared to today’s. ‘We’ve made major strides forward in the last 15 years with better storytelling, cinematography, editing and audio.’ He’s currently in pre-production on The Amazing Race 10, and has two other reality projects being negotiated by agents. ‘Storytelling will change in the future, but it will always be the centerpiece of all this,’ he concludes.
The Ratings Race
A look at average audience numbers for a full season run of The Amazing Race
Season US households % Viewers 2+ Median age
1                   5.9             8,808,000             42.4
2                   6.4             10,317,000             39.8
3                   5.6             9,047,000             41.4
4                   5.5             8,359,000             45.0
5                   6.5             10,323,000             41.0
6                   7.2             11,510,000             43.7
7                   8.0             13,030,000             43.2
8                   6.7             10,779,000             44.5