Reality Television is chock-full of surprising twists & turns and jump-cuts and sentences that sound chopped together from 14 different interviews even though the sentence only contains four syllables. As has been faithfully documented, I am a virgin to The Real L Word's genre and am constantly shocked by the techniques it employs and therefore curious about how, exactly, reality TV is put together. How does The Real L Word compare to The Real Housewives, for example, and is TRLW's style typical of its ilk?
Who might have the answers to these questions I seek? If only I was friends with and perhaps ALREADY G-CHATTING a professional TV editor with reality TV experience! OH BUT I AM!
So I sat down to grill our dear DJ Carlytron about How Your Reality TV Sausage Gets Made. Carlytron is currently a TV editor/producer for a certain gay TV network. Prior to her present employment, Carlytron edited TV shows for mtvU and, following her film-related schoolings in Florida, endured a significant tenure on the Hogan Knows Best editing team. Also, she watches a lot of TV, including all those shows I refuse to watch, like The Real Housewives and The Hills, and has been participating in our L Word and South of Nowhere recaps with me forever ever.
She refuses to be labeled a "Reality TV Expert," but clearly she's just being modest.
i. Is This a Set-Up?
Riese: Ok, Carly, when you worked on other reality shows, what is the communication flow like, w/r/t the producers/story editors telling the actual editors what to put together for the show? Like does Ilene Chaiken tell them what the story is, and then they have to just make it so?
Carly: Well she's the executive producer, and the EPs call all the shots, and knowing what we know about her... yeeah. But obvs it's not just her. What usually happens is that the show's producers will outline the season as production goes along. Episodes are assigned to producers and then they craft their show w/ an editor, then get everything approved by the Magical Elves & Showtime EPs, as well as Ilene. And I'm sure her opinion has the most weight, you know?
Riese: As an editor and as a viewer, to what point do these stories seem "real" vs. manipulated to you? And how do editors create a story that's not necessarily already there? What are the tricks/skills that you notice being used on this show?
Carly: This show actually doesn't seem very scripted to me. It's not like they're all going on Special Adventures, like "Oh, hey I heard there's this crazy psychic down on Santa Monica Boulevard!" and then they're there all episode, you know?
Riese: Right, like in The Hills or something.
Carly: Right, exactly. The show seems believably mundane (which is another problem in and of itself). But it's also like The Hills in that it's very obvious that:
1) The girls weren't meeting each other for the "first time" at any point during the show
2) There are camera crews following them around everywhere
3) That sometimes, you have to be a little prompted/you have to shoot something again to make it work (or if they missed it)
4) Real life intervenes in shooting, so sometimes you have to shoot a ton of shit in one day that will play out over like 8 episodes (the Stamie-wearing-the-same-shirt sorta thing).
Because the cast doesn't really interact much, it feels to me like there's less reason to script. You know? Less complicated.
Riese: Right, like there just aren't any situations to set up.
Carly: Exactly. These things are mostly happening normally. Maybe things like "Jill goes and buys a flipcam" are a little suspect, but not even that much. And obvs any corporate sponsorships factor in, too.
ii. Franken-Biting: The Art of Choppy Sentences
Riese: Is the choppy editing typical? Where the sentences all seem strung together from eight different sources?
Carly: That is something we "in the biz" (I've always wanted to say that) call Franken-biting, which is exactly what it sounds like. Piecing different audio parts together to make something usable. It can be used for both good AND evil!
This is done all the time. I even do it in the interviews I work on nowadays, but I never ever change anyone's words/meaning/intent. I usually just make it easier to follow or cut out unnecessary parts.
Riese: Does it seem like that's what they're doing here?
Carly: I mean, I can never know for sure, but it sure does to me! Audio only gets choppy like that when you start cutting it up. If you only hear it, and the person isn't on screen saying it, chances are it's 'cause edits are in there. A rule of editing: there's usually a reason for the cut, especially in docu-shooting.
It could be innocent, like they cut out unnecessary things to save time. But when there are a ton of stops/stutters/pops in ONE SENTENCE, that really seems suspect to me. And the more choppy, the harder it is to fix in an audio mix.
So when Mikey is saying something off-camera, under a bunch of b-roll, and it sounds like a Speak-and-Spell, you should assume that sentence wasn't entirely like that when she recorded it. It could still mean the same in the end, but also it could not.
Riese: Do you remember the scene with Nikki/Jill/Derek in the car? In the entire scene, only TWICE did we see a person speaking the words that we heard?
Carly: I actually need to re-watch that scene. Hang on, I have it on my DVR. INTERACTIVE!
Riese: Oooh! Yeah, watch it, and tell me what you think.
Carly: Ok here we go! I am going to put on my Editor Hat now.
Riese: It starts when she picks him up at the airport. Nikki and Jill have both spoken out about how that's not how it happened, too, which is fun.
[brief timeout for Carly to re-watch the scene]
Carly: This is FASCINATING. Wow, this definitely went through like a thousand revisions, I feel like I can sense them when I watch it. And the poor editor's stress, too.
Riese: Notice also, she never says "Derek." She always says "he."
Carly: Nikki or Jill?
Carly: From these interviews — they could have been talking about anyone, totally. The editing in the car? With the camerawork? Is insane. I can just feel how pained the editor was, crafting that. Because the camera is moving, and it's only one camera in the car. So when it starts on Jill, then pans to Nikki and you hear Jill, that could be any audio.
[brief timeout for Carly to read the article]
Carly: That article is also fascinating. And sad! Because they were all duped by IFC.
Riese: Have you ever seen worse editing on a scene than this?
Carly: Well actually, technically, it's really good. As bizarre as that sounds. The fact that they were able to fake that with clearly not much to work with is impressive.
Riese: Like as far as the editors doing their job to tell the story.
Carly: But it's horrible in the whole "that is not what happened and they forced that because when you pay attention you realize what's actually going on" way.
Riese: There were some awkward audio jumps, too.
Carly: Yeah, totally. To the average viewer it's like "Ooo! They're having DRAMA!"
Riese: It seems like they're really trying to make the bisexual thing happen. But then like — IT NEVER COMES UP AGAIN!
iii. On Casting/Selling Your Soul
Riese: Do they basically sign over their right to be represented honestly?
Carly: Well, it's just a reality docu series, so I'm sure the releases they had to sign were bare bones in terms of what rights they retained. You know what I heard once? The first season of Bridezilla? The couples they featured were told they were going to be on a docu series about how awesome their weddings were or something. They had no idea what the show actually was.
Riese: Oh wow! That's evil, right?
Carly: So evil! Some shows do that but it's part of the "plot," like Tool Academy.
Riese: Or Joe Millionaire.
Carly: Exactly. I'm sure Real L Word was pitched really earnestly.
Riese: But we saw the casting calls, and they were pretty straightforward about what it was. I guess Nikki & Jill must have been approached outside of that context.
Carly: Well, everyone they approached said "No" to that right? Like this cast took forever to pull together or something? I'm sure they had to change their approach.
Riese: I know at least five people who were asked to audition who didn't want to do it, and I've heard they had a tough time casting, yeah.
Carly: If you can't cast the show, eventually you retool the concept a bit or at least retool how it's presented.
Riese: Also, I think lesbians are sort of more conscious of the political implications of their representation and don't wanna mess it up so they're more hesitant to do this kind of thing in general. It is a brave thing to do, too.
Carly: It's all in what you do with it, too. Like Whitney and Rose and Mikey seem to be more into it, or just have more intense personalities than the other ladies. There's many factors. But yeah, once they sign the releases, it's over.
Riese: How does this show compare to something like Real Housewives, w/r/t editing magic?
Carly: Well I haven't really read a ton of Real Housewives interviews to know how much is BS. But there are a few differences:
1) All those ladies are DYING to be famous. That's why they all are always like releasing a cookbook or a jewelry line or whatever
2) They are all friends, and they interact.
3) They are always going to such and such event every episode, like it's Gossip Girl or something.
So, I don't really know... those shows are so damn entertaining! I want them to be real, in my heart. Those interviews are usually prompted though, like when Jill is mad at Bethenny or whatever, they get her in the interview portion and probably just only ask about Bethenny. But those shows are so rife with drama that they don't seem to need much help.
Also I'm totally talking out my ass here.
Riese: Whereas The Real L Word seems to be really lacking the drama?
Carly: I don't know, you can't really say. Usually you have the Real Housewives tweeting along with the show. Like going along with it, most of the time.
Riese: ... whereas the cast members of The Real L Word often tweet to correct or defend themselves.
Carly: Yeah, totes. Sigh.
Riese: Were you ever asked to edit together a story that didn't exist on and of the reality shows you worked on?
Carly: Not personally, no. Usually our edits were to try and make the existing footage/storylines actually make sense. When we did "creative editing," it was really just to make it flow better or make more sense. And if something was really a mess, you'd just go reshoot it.
Riese: Like have them re-create the scene?
Carly: Yeah, sometimes recreate a moment, or add in a scene to make it make sense, or just have them record some lines of dialogue to slip in.
They do that shit all the damn time on like, Top Model and those competitive reality shows. You'll hear Tyra say something to the girls, then it cuts to their reaction and her voice sounds totally different for the rest of the sentence. Good audio mixing can usually fix most of that. But yeah that's really all we'd ever do.
iv. Too Cool For Eyeballs
Riese: Do you think it's weird that they have a cast member who won't take off her sunglasses?
Carly: I mean, she is such a "character." And Mikey the Character likes to wear sunglasses. They probably don't care, the producers. Or they tried, and she was like, no, and they gave up.
Riese: Well it's for a reason. Did you know that?
Carly: I did not. Do tell.
Riese: She mentioned it in a live lounge interview -- okay, yeah. Mikey said: "The truth is that I have an old welding injury from probably my early 20s when I thought I was too cool to wear protection — so literally my left eye when I'm under fluorescents, my eyes water all day. But skip that, I want people to think I'm just too cool for myself."
Carly: See? Character affectation. Rooted in reality.
Riese: I feel like that should disqualify someone from being on a reality show!
Carly: Haha. I'm sure the producers aren't thrilled with it.
Riese: Like, we can never see her eyes. It's annoying.
Carly: You can read so much on a person's face.
Carly: Or you could see crew reflections in her eyes. But yeah, that's cray-cray.
v. The Theory of the Dogs
Riese: I'd like you to explain your Theory of the Dogs.
Carly: Ah yes! Well, the dogs are obvs the best part of this show, and I kept noticing that they were cutting away to the dogs a LOT, like waaaay more than you'd think was reasonable.
Especially in that scene w/ Rose and Nat when Rose is setting up the stripper party. And the way I saw it, it was like the editors either: 1) had to cover weird cuts in action or audio and figured dogs were the cutest way to do so because there was nothing else in the kitchen to cut away to, and/or 2) the dogs are a nod to the viewer.
Like Rose's dog had this amazing look on its face when she was plotting the sneaky stripper party, as if to say "Get a load of this! I'm on to you! You're on tv, you know that right?"
I feel like the dogs are totally characters on the show.
Riese: Me too. They have a lot of real feelings.
Carly: Or my dogological clock is just barking, and I'm projecting my desire to own a dog on the dogs on the show. But they are on this show A WHOLE LOT.
viii. Thank You For Being a Friend
Riese: Do you like The Real L Word?
Carly: It's not what I thought it would be. I thought it was more like, a group of friends, more interactions, more craziness. Generally, I do not like it, though watching all the episodes back-to-back makes it better somehow, I will say that. But yeah, I do not think this is a well-made show.
Riese: I can't think of when there's been a reality show that wasn't either following a group of friends, strangers out of their element, or people trying to compete in some sort of challenge out of their element.
Carly: I can't either... like some intervening element occurred...
Riese: And it's SO INSANE because in LA, everyone is SO connected.
Carly: Totally! It's such a "scene."
Riese: How could they not find some connected people!
Carly: Yeah, like they were trying to assemble a jury.
Riese: It's almost like you have to go out of your way to find people that don't all know each other. I guess that was one good thing about Gimme Sugar, besides the fact that it was only 22 minutes long.
Carly: Good point -- 60 full minutes is FAR too long. Hour long shows are only 45 minutes, which is why it feels like FOREVER. Unless you're like, True Blood or Dexter, you can't be 60 minutes.
Riese: Are there any storylines that you care about?
Carly: Tracy and Stamie. And on some level Nikki and Jill, because I really want to see what this wedding turns into. But that's sort of ... it. Though I will say — and everyone seems to be feeling this, too — the tertiary characters are more compelling than a lot of the leads.
Riese: You know what it's missing — a crazy person!
Carly: Mmhm. All reality shows need a crazy person, it's true. Or a villain or something. But it's hard to have that when it's not about one group of friends. These shows always play off the group dynamic, and even in competition reality, it's all about the personalities clashing. But when they never interact... ::blink blink::
Riese: Right, totally. This is more like True Life: I'm a West Hollywood Lesbian.
Carly: Exactly. That's what it is.
Riese: The best part of The L Word was that it was a group of friends.
Carly: Yeah. Because every gay person has their gay friends.
Riese: Except so many people don't! And they like to see it, because it's not possible where they live. They like seeing that there are entire lesbian groups of friends out there.
Carly: Right, so you'd want to see it either way. Like "Oh, they are like my friends" or like "Oh I wish I had all those wacky friends!"
Riese: Right. It seems like none of these girls have a group of friends like that, except Whitney and Rose.
Carly: Or their friends just didn't want to be on the show.
Riese: Right, that's likely. It just doesn't feel like a Showtime show.
Carly: I didn't understand how this would work on Showtime as a reality show. Answer: it doesn't, really.
ix. On Location
Riese: I also notice that there seems to be a lot of stuff happening at home. Do they have to clear all the locations ahead of time and everyone was like hell to the no? Because I never see anyone anywhere except at home, Mikey's work, empty restaurants and lesbian bars.
Carly: Yes. Those would have been approached ahead of time for sure. Location agreements should be in place before arriving to shoot. Otherwise you could run into problems. So that's a good point. (sidebar: Robin and I stayed in that hotel that Whitney stayed in in San Francisco in episode 5. It's in the worst part of town, but that hotel is really adorable.)
Riese: Is it unusual to have interviews clearly shot at different times all describing the same scene?
Carly: No that's kinda standard. That's not that weird at all.
Riese: How does that happen though? Like they bring up the same thing again?
Carly: Yeah. It depends on their shoot schedule. I know that on many competitive reality shows, they'll shoot all day and then do interviews at the end of the day when everyone is exhausted, so they say really insane things. I don't know how they'd do them on this show, but the producers could totally bring scenes up again, especially when they're in edit. Things change. They might rough out a scene in one way and then an EP hates it, like "This has no drama!" or doesn't do whatever they want it to. Then they'll have to re-shoot the interviews to get a different take on it. Or just if they didn't get exactly what they want.
Like you'll be in edit and see how it all plays out and what direction that episode is going in and you might be like "Wow, it would be perfect if Rose would say ____ right here, do we have that anywhere?"
So the editor scours every bit of footage looking for what would work there, and if they find it, great! (Which is when tricky editing happens!) But if there's nothing usable to make something work, then you re-shoot. Or get a new line in an interview, whathaveyou.
Riese: In the Valentine's Day episode, Mikey said in her blog that she'd met up with Whitney two weeks before Valentine's Day, and that they just made it look like it was the same night. Is that weird?
Carly: Yeah. So weird. They needed a Mikey plot and the other episodes had plenty, so there ya go. I think she sets it up in an interview that her Aunt is her valentine. So they just shot her saying that and then, boom! Valentine's Day episode!
Riese: Why do they repeat the same things over and over again? Is that normal?
Carly: Yeah. It's annoying, but that's pretty standard fare. Also, their "previouslys" are done weirdly. They happen after the show opens, which I've never seen before. (Trying to fill up time? Perhaps!)
Riese: They fill up a lot of time.
Carly: That's definitely intentional. Usually you're looking to cut things for time, but they have the time to do a massive Previouslys in each. That's the nice thing about Showtime, that freedom. HBO is probs the same way. If you don't have ads you can do whatever.
x. The End
Riese: Thank you for sharing your expertise with me this evening, Carly.
Carly: Well, I doubt I'm much of an expert — and most of my assessments could very well be wrong — but also, maybe they are right.
Carly: That's true.
Riese:We use expert like this: "expert."
Carly: Haha yes. Exactly. Very official.
I just learned a lot. I hope you did too!