Hands-off producing and the rise of self-shot unscripted

The producers of NBC's The Island, History's Alone and Animal Planet's 100 Miles from Nowhere (pictured) talk to realscreen about the challenges of handing cameras to their principals and producing self-shot series from a safe distance.
May 29, 2015

The producers of NBC’s The Island, History’s Alone and Animal Planet’s 100 Miles from Nowhere (pictured above) talk to realscreen about the challenges of handing cameras to their principals and producing self-shot series from a safe distance.

Handing a video camera to your series’ principals to film themselves is nothing reality television hasn’t seen before. Ten years ago, pop star Britney Spears turned the camera on herself and then-husband Kevin Federline in the five-episode UPN series Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, and in 2009, CNN.com asked two newly inducted congressmen to film their experiences in Washington DC for the webseries Freshman Year.

The difference, however, is that “reality television” was not then the misnomer some viewers might see it as now, and self-shot was an innovative shooting technique, rather than the concerted effort at authenticity it is today.

This spring, the adventure and survival space became ground zero for self-shot commissions, with a number of networks couching their first self-shot experiments in extreme survival series. Animal Planet signed on for Renegade83′s 100 Miles from Nowhere, which follows three men setting out on 100-mile jaunts through remote locations; History greenlit Alone, in which 10 survivalists wander the woods of Canada’s Vancouver Island; and NBC brought UK hit The Island, featuring 14 men working together to survive on an island, to America. The challenges, twists and eliminations expected of the genre were replaced by the day-to-day realities of the participants that they – crucially – relayed to audiences themselves.

the island

The Island

The Island (NBC)

“The marketplace is just looking for more authenticity and it needs to feel more real,” Michael Brooks, executive producer on The Island for Endemol Shine North America, tells realscreen. “I think the audience has become so savvy to docuseries these days, just looking at long-form storytelling and knowing that the characters are kind of queued up and pre-set.”

NBC’s Bear Grylls-fronted The Island, which debuted on Monday (May 25), finds 14 men – 10 regular participants, and four trained professional camera operators who are also cast members – left on an island.

The non-professional cast was given basic training ahead of the show, but producers were keen to capitalize on the off-the-cuff skills of their novice cameramen, and 95% of The Island is self-shot.

“Obviously when you get kind of amateur guys experimenting creatively, you get a brand new type of content. Because they’re not trained the same way, they don’t shoot safe shots – they’re shooting all over the place,” explains Brooks. “They don’t have amazing training, most of them, but they all love the idea of documenting their experience.”

Alone (History)

Over at Leftfield Pictures, executive producer David George - who also serves as president of the division of Leftfield Entertainment – says its series Alone for History was the company’s first major foray into self-shot, and adds that the show came with a new set of production challenges.

“As a producer, you’re trained to produce, and when you go into a show like this, it’s almost like you have to train yourself not to produce, not to over-involve yourself,” he says. “You have to set the framework, but you have to let the experience be true for these guys. So in a weird way, as a producer, you have to retrain your brain and say, ‘I have to stay out of this’ because the content has to ring true.”

alone history


Leftfield Pictures selected participants for Alone – which airs on History on June 18 – following an extensive casting call and week-long boot camp in upstate New York. The company performed psychological and physical evaluations as well as survival skill testing and rudimentary camera training. Based on the results, producers chose 10 participants – all of whom are men with experience in everything from bush craft to the military.

Each individual was given camera packs, memory cards, batteries and backpacks with survival equipment, and then dropped off on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Leftfield had a base camp in the area and producers met with participants to swap out equipment and retrieve memory cards, and also perform periodic psychiatric and physical checks.

The problem with self-shot content from a production perspective, says George, is that producers have no control over what shots they’ll be working with.

“Some people would shoot just hours and hours and hours of stuff that was never going to be usable,” says the exec. “Some guys would shoot enough, some guys would shoot too much, some would shoot a little bit, some would never wipe the lens.”

The advantage, he explains, is that amateur footage appeals to viewers, who are more likely to believe producers weren’t as hands-on in the series.

“Because of the premise of the show, the audience is going to be a little bit more forgiving that some of the footage is a little bit wonky because it’s all being self-shot,” says George, who estimates 90% of the series is self-shot. “If it was all perfect you would think there was a producer there, so it plays to the premise.”

100 miles

100 Miles from Nowhere

100 Miles from Nowhere (Animal Planet)

While Alone was able to avoid using voice-over for the series, David Garfinkle and Jay Renfroe of Renegade83 – producers of Animal Planet’s 100 Miles from Nowhere - say they relied on voice-over to thread the narrative for their show, which sees adventurer Matt Galland and his friends Danny Bryson and Blake Josephson trek to destinations around North, Central and South America, covering 100 miles every four days.

Galland had experience producing self-shot YouTube videos, but in preparation, producers brought the group to LA for a week-long training session.

“We went through footage with them to show them what we needed for a scene,” says Renfroe. “The simple stuff, such as three people talking into a camera, making sure that you’re getting the reaction shot, that you’re following the action. Framing a scene and putting the camera on a small tripod and getting shots of them running through. We would always show the guy run back to pick up the camera.”

Producers met with the men each night to get footage from them and hand off “bear boxes” of supplies for the next day – a level of contact Renfroe says is necessary, even in self-shot programming.

“You just can’t give people cameras and let them go, it’s still produced,” he says.

Garfinkle adds that, if anything, producers need to be more involved to ensure safety standards are met. Unlike regular series where a crew is constantly present, self-shot survival series come with myriad safety hazards.

“There’s still a crew out there because you have to be responsible,” he says, adding that a medic was available 24/7 to the men, who could call for help using satellite phones. “Those guys are taking risks so you need to have certain safety precautions and protocols.”

Similarly, the cast of Alone had a button they could press to reach the Coast Guard, as well as satellite phones that called the base camp, while producers for The Island gave participants walkie-talkies, and during emergencies would rush to the men’s island from their camp on a neighboring island.


the island 2

The Island

Ultimately, producers on all three series agree that post-production is the most taxing aspect of making a self-shot show.

100 Miles’ producers followed their three cast members on their journeys – setting up camps along the way – to collect footage as they went, while Alone had two layers of post-production, in which producers at base camp would comb through footage first, and then send the best footage to New York where the main editing took place. Similarly, The Island had three editors and all story producers based on a third “production” island, where they would view all the footage first.

“When you do self-shooting, you have to have a very good plan in the field to be monitoring stories and tracking stories, and that in turn will take a lot of the pressure off post,” says The Island‘s Brooks.

But despite the editing challenges, the producer says working on the NBC show has been a career highlight, and believes self-shot content is capable of injecting the authenticity needed in reality television.

“These people are going through something so intense, and when they hold the camera, they turn it on themselves or they put the camera down and someone else picks it up and you get a mixture of weird, strange shots,” says Brooks. “It just adds to the authenticity of that person in that moment, telling their story, and I think that’s the crucial thing.”

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