brian tweedt

soc

director

photography

of

staging reality: triangulation

 

 

So you thought ElimiDATE was just a late night show for singles?  Not any more.  Brian Tweedt, SOC, explains how his blocking and shooting method called “Triangulation” will make even crusty old film professors tune in.

 

Okay… so you want the truth about “Reality Television?”  Is it really… well, real?  Are people really telling the truth?  Or is the whole thing staged?

After lensing over 300 episodes of Warner Bros. hit reality dating show “ElimiDATE,” I am still not sure I am able to answer these questions.  But I am really aware that staging reality can be really… well… challenging.  For how do you block a reality show without actors or rules?

 

For the first two seasons of ElimiDATE, blocking and staging the date was quite simple.  The four “Players” and one “Picker” were given a place to sit or stand, depending on lighting, wind, weather, and where a particular location would allow us to tape.  The Director of Photography would then create what we now affectionately call the “U.”  That is, place the Picker with two Players on each side in a U-Shaped formation (see diagram A), usually around a table.  Like a traditional multi-cam shoot, the A-Camera holds a master shot with all five people, and the B and C-Cameras cross-shoot either singles, two-shots, or three-shots.  This proven method works well by allowing good coverage since it is impossible to miss any of the dating action.  It is an editor’s dream – it is simple to cut, there is no breaking of the line, and it is virtually impossible to see a camera person in the background of any shot.

 

     But there is one big problem with the “U.”  Would five people ever really jam themselves together around one side of a table, leaving 2/3 of the table space empty?  Or worse yet, would they stand around and talk in a “U” shape?  Of course not.  It’s just not real.  It LOOKS staged.

 

     By the time the third season rolled around, the show’s Creator and Executive Producer Alex Duda asked if there was any way to make the show look more “real.”  My initial thought was to turn to one of the hallmarks of fiction filmmaking – the OTS shot (Over the Shoulder).  This would provide greater depth in the frame as well as more interesting compositions compared to the flat, single shots in the “U.”

 

     The problem was, how do you get OTS shots with four or five people without seeing other camera or sound people and without confusing the audience as to whom they are talking (i.e. breaking the line)?  And on top of this, Alex said that whatever I came up with, she wanted to be able to have a Master shot.  For having a Master shot is the only way to be guaranteed that the action is covered – and on a reality show, this is extremely important, since you never know what is going to happen.

 

     After quite a bit of experimentation and throwing out half the “rules” that I was taught in film school, I placed three cameras in a triangle-shape around a group of people sitting in a circle.  With the proper blocking and editing, I realized that this crazy method actually achieves every requirement necessary for the show.

 

     The key to Triangulation is, in fact, one of the things that seems inherently “wrong” with it – Breaking the line.  Because placing three cameras in a triangle pattern around a group of people does, in fact, break the line.  But a closer look at the method reveals that if edited correctly, it causes very little screen direction confusion – which is what the “Breaking the Line” or “180 Degree Rule” is supposed to help you avoid.

 

     Let’s take a look at diagram B.  For simplicity, I’ll explain the blocking method for an ElimiDATE Round 2, where four daters remain (one female Picker, and three male Players).  Each person is assigned a number 1-4 (left to right from A-Camera’s perspective, and the Picker is placed at location #2.   Because the audience is oriented from the A-Camera Master, cutting to either B or C-Cameras is not jarring, and does not break the line.  Then, it is simple to cut between B and C-Cameras as we establish a new line.  The A-Camera Master is able to zoom in and come off the master to get OTS shots or close ups.  Depending on how the conversation plays out, cutting back to the Master can break the line.  But because we started with the Master and the B and C-Camera shots are OTS’s, the audience is rarely confused.

Sound too good to be true?  Let’s look at an actual situation to see how this plays out.

 

 (Follow along with the pictures and diagram B… Even I get confused reading this next part!)

Diagram A

The "U"

Diagram B

Triangulation

We start the scene with the A-Camera Master, where the female Picker seated at location #2 asks a question to the three men.

1

2

3

4

After establishing the master and midway through her question, we cut to B-Camera who has zoomed into a close up of the Picker (#2) over the shoulder of Player #4. The Picker (#2) is looking screen left to wait for #4 to answer.

4

2

We then cut to C-Camera who sees over the shoulder of the Picker (#2) with a single of #4 looking screen right.  Although we are breaking the original line, the daters are always looking the correct screen direction.  Thus, we are not confused as to whom they are speaking.

4

2

Then let’s say #3 is completely offended with #4’s answer.  No problem.  We start where we left off with C-Camera.  As #3 begins to speak, #4 shifts his head from screen-right [he was talking to the Picker (#2), remember] to screen-left to talk to #3.  C-Camera pans left to see over the shoulder of #3.

4

3

We cut from C-Camera to A-Camera (who can remain in a master shot or zoom into a single of #3, as shown here).  Number Three is now looking screen-right from A-Camera’s point of view, and A and C-Cam’s shots can be intercut with correct screen direction.

3

B-Camera can then pull to a wide shot to cover any unexpected interruption from Player #1 or the Picker (#2) since A-Camera no longer has a master.

3

2

1

 

Now lets say that #1 wants in on the action because he has a bone to pick with #3.  No problem.  As #3 redirects his attention from #4, he changes looking screen-right to screen-left (from A-Camera’s perspective).

3

We then cut to B-Camera who now has zoomed into a close up of #1 looking screen-right, over the shoulder of #3.  The cut works perfectly because of the screen direction change, even though we’ve broken the line again.

1

3

A-Camera can join in on the fun and scoot or slide a little to the left and zoom into an OTS of Player #3 over Player #1’s shoulder.

3

1

But this is reality television.  Conversations and arguments are not always that simple.  What if #1, #3 and #4 are talking at the same time?  No problem!  A-Camera just pulls out to a master and B-Camera pulls to a 2-shot that includes Player #1 and the Picker (#2) as we wait for the dust to settle.

1

2

3

4

1

2

 

 As you can see, each camera (including the A-Camera Master) is able to shoot an OTS, bringing a more traditional narrative film and/or documentary look by adding depth to the frame.  This, inherently, looks and feels more real.

 

     Another advantage over the “U” is that since it is not practical to light the set due to time, budget, and location issues, each Camera is equipped with an on-board Anton-Bauer Ultralite.  Using “Triangulation,” the C-Camera provides a nice backlight to the A and B-Camera shots, with the A-Camera light providing a backlight for C-Camera’s subject.

 

     The only real drawback to Triangulation is that sometimes the daters will sometimes either lean in towards the middle of the shot or scoot left or right, compromising an OTS shot so that one Player’s back blocks another Player’s face. This can usually be fixed by slightly shifting the Camera positions to accommodate the move.  Better yet, this situation can simply be avoided by making sure that the daters are not sitting in too tight of a circle, even if they are seated around a small table.

 

     The only other problem that can occur is when a player decides to get up and move, often times to sit in the Picker’s (#2) lap.  On the rare occasion it is #4 who does this, it is possible to execute the “duck and run” – an emergency maneuver where C-Camera turns off their light, ducks down low and runs unseen to the left side of A-Camera where he can then safely cross shoot.  Thus the cast has effectively created a natural “U.”  In this case, the “U” looks staged, but actually is real!

 

     Triangulation can only be used when you have a location with enough space to place your C-Camera deep in the background.  It will not work in a 10 x 10 foot room.  Talented camera people who understand the method are another requirement.  Also, all camera people need to have good communication with each other via walkie-talkie to make sure everyone is on the correct shot.

 

     If the daters are all seated during a round, one additional trick can be added to Triangulation.  Placing one or two standing extras behind the cast (from A-Camera’s perspective) can allow C-Camera to be closer to the group without being seen in the A-Camera Master shot.   These “human flags” allow more light to be placed on #4’s face as the camera light is closer to the subject.  This can also help in smaller rooms where there may not be enough room for the C-Camera to be completely clear of A-Camera’s shot.  And on occasion, it can also help block any lens flare that may be aimed at either A or B-Camera.

 

     The same principles of Triangulation also work well in Round 1 of ElimiDATE where there are 5 daters – one Picker and four Players (see diagram C).  I call this method “Dual Master Triangulation” since either A or B-Cameras can pull out to a master shot.

 

     Hopefully you can begin to see that making the blocking on reality shows such as ElimiDATE look real is actually a complicated ballet between the daters, cameras, lights, extras, and editing.  The natural-looking blocking which we have been able to achieve is actually a result of a very controlled environment – one that is not real at all.

 

Brian Tweedt, SOC, is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema and has a B.A. in Film Production.  He has shot numerous reality shows including WB’s ElimiDATE, Universal’s Blind Date, Versus’ Front Sight Challenge, HGTV’s Over Your Head, PBS’ Cooking Under Fire, and G4’s The Block to name a few.

 

 

Article reprinted with permission. Original Article Copyright 2004.

Diagram C

Dual-Master

Triangulation

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