How "The Amazing Race" DP Travels the World with One Bag of Gear

September 12, 2017
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Each item you bring should have multiple uses: like one cable with several interchangeable tips instead of multiple cables or a micro-puff jacket that doubles as a pillow for those long airport sleepovers.

I’ve worked with a lot of amazing DPs during my seven years working in television. Despite being impressed by more than a few, one has always stuck out to me as someone I’ve become really eager to learn more from, and that is Peter Rieveschl. I worked with Peter on a few reality shows and was intrigued to learn that he was the DP behind Emmy award winning The Amazing Race, which is one of my dream shows to work on. I wanted to pick his brain a bit on how he makes such a challenging show look so great and all the bits and pieces in between. Check out our interview below!

DB: When did you start working on the Amazing Race?

PR: I joined the show Season 8, as a camera operator and became the DP on Season 21.

DB: Did you change the type of equipment used on the show or adapt to their current gear?

PR: The main camera we use changed on Season 15 from Sony IMX to XDCam and has remained the same ever since. Virtually every other camera we use has been changed or added in the time I have been the DP, in an effort to modernize our work flow and achieve the best possible looking show within our tight parameters.

Things we have added to our travel package:

-       Newer GoPros and specialty cams like the Blackmagic Pocket cinema cameras.

-       The Sony X70 is our backup camera (in case something goes wrong with our main camera and we miles or days away from a replacement.

-       Nila lights for their punch, portability and power (battery operated).

-       Sony F55s for high speed and 4K Broll.

-       DJI Osmo for tight situations requiring a steady tracking shot.

-       The lighting gear we rent locally can vary in quality, especially in some of the remote areas, but I have pushed for the latest tech wherever we can get it.

An example of what a traveling cinematographer packs.

DB: What process did you use for choosing the camera? Was it more about the look or more about durability?

PR: The XDCam has remained our camera of choice for three main reasons:

1.    Durability: it can take a beating and still performs under extreme conditions.

2.    Lens: The range of the B4 lens we use is, as yet, unmatched in the full frame world. Having one lens that can cover everything from the widest frame (inside cars and tight spaces with at least two people) to a tight close up from far away is essential. We only run with the one lens for obvious reasons (of course, zone crews have access to additional glass).

3.    Cost: the F800 has been around in rental houses for a decade now. It has more than paid for itself and therefore the rental house can accommodate our substantial camera order for a budget that hasn’t changed in almost as many years.

There are many other cameras that I think make better pictures than the F800. But none of the ones we’ve tested live up to all three of the above stipulations, yet.

DB: What are the pros and cons of the gear you chose?

PR: As I said above, the cameras we use are a bit dated, but we keep them around for very good reasons. And having a workflow that involves a camera original as bulletproof as the XDCam disc is by far the best reason to maintain the system. Regardless of the type of media or camera system, any camera that records a file on a card is susceptible to corruption. And, of those cameras we use, we have had several cards drop media or arrive with issues. Fortunately, our system for managing the media safeguards against this with several backups and an “all-clear” from post before we wipe cards. But at 27lbs+, the F800 can be a beast. I would love if we could shave some weight off.

DB: What sort of equipment do you want to add to future seasons?

PR: I would like to eventually change to a smaller camera with a faster chip. Newer cameras perform much better in low light, which would make a huge difference in how we light and shoot our show.

It would be incredible to have a seasoned drone operator that we take with us everywhere. Unfortunately, international laws regarding drone usage change country to country, making it impossible to use drones in many markets, thus making it difficult to justify the expense of traveling someone. And there are many talented drone operators around the world that we have been lucky enough to work with. We used to have a staff Jib operator who would travel with us, and that would be nice to have back.

Lighting has also come a long way in the last few years, with LED technology leading the charge. Flat light mats and ribbons have allowed us to put light in small places with very little power. And being able to run these lights with a 12V or 24V battery system has made lighting even more flexible, like when you have to light an interview in the middle of a rice paddy. Westcott and Kino Flo both have great options, as well as LITEGEAR.

DB: When prepping for a travel job, do you have any tips for managing quality vs. portability? 

PR: Ultimately, the footage you are after is meaningless if you can’t acquire it in the first place, because you were too slow, too heavy, too complicated. Keep it simple. That great new camera system isn’t going to be much use to you if you have ten different modules all tied together with a hundred cables and teetering on a couple long 15mm rods. The first bush you run through is going to eat that rig for breakfast. And if you can’t adjust the settings on the fly, with the flick of a switch or button (without having to dive through menu after menu to change your color temperature) then the camera is just going to slow you down, and you’ll miss the scene. 

If you’ve packed so much stuff in anticipation of every possible scenario, you won’t be able to run very fast with all that gear. Pack as light as you can. Every ounce counts. The heaviest stuff in your pack is most likely going to be your camera gear, so the rest of what you bring should weigh next to nothing. There is an overabundance of outdoor and travel gear out there these days so finding quality gear that won’t weigh you down shouldn’t be difficult. 

Even since I started TAR a decade ago, when most of us would go to camping stores to find clothing and lightweight alternatives, options have improved dramatically. Make sure you pick your clothing and shoes for comfort and versatility: that little rub on the heel of your shoe in the store is going to be searing blister that will end your shoot in the field. Do a practice run with your kit, and work out the kinks before you hit the road. Each item you bring should have multiple uses: like one cable with several interchangeable tips instead of multiple cables (copper is heavy!) or a micro-puff jacket that doubles as a pillow for those long airport sleepovers.

DB: In the last decade, reality television has changed in a number of ways. What aspects of that change do you like, and are there any parts you don’t like? Is there anything on AR that is a part of that change (good or bad)?

PR: I am not a huge proponent of labor unions, though I know in theory they protect workers’ rights to fair pay and safe working conditions. I think they also stifle work flow in many ways, especially with regard to how reality television sets typically function most efficiently; with everyone putting in 110% and sometimes picking up slack in ways that aren’t officially part of their job description. But with more shows going union, certain standards have been created that even non-union shows tend to adhere to. This has allowed many shows to continue to attract top notch talent while also providing a pleasant work environment where nobody feels abused or taken advantage of. So, in the end, I think the influence of unions has had a positive effect on the industry.

Unfortunately, there is still a majority of companies that don’t adhere to these standards and continue to pump out mediocre TV at an alarming rate. This has created a business with a high rate of attrition and an atmosphere of presumed advancement without adequate experience or expertise. This generates a work environment where the experienced and talented work alongside complete novices, sometimes in the same position, and sometimes at great peril. Safety, above all, should be considered paramount. Yet when someone inexperienced is expected to perform under pressure, accidents happen. I don’t know what the answer is, but when I came up in the industry, you apprenticed yourself to one or several mentors and that was how you cut your teeth. Now you just need a New York Film School t-shirt and an iPhone.

Aside from this, I think the technological advancements of the last decade have been tailor made for reality TV. Smaller lighter cameras shooting in next to no light; everything is moving towards higher quality in smaller packages. And with Reality TV firmly rooted in documentary filmmaking, anything that can make that filmmaker more agile and flexible will help them create a better product.

Of late (especially post-writers’ strike), the film industry and its audiences have, somewhat begrudgingly, yielded their respect for the Reality genre. And as such, the quality of the art form has increased, as filmmakers feel emboldened to approach their subjects with more “cinematic” filming techniques and storytelling. The genre has really come into its own, finding recognition not just by audiences and studios as a viable art form, but also by the industry itself, through increased representation at the Emmy Awards and coverage in the trades.

I think for its part, The Amazing Race has been at the forefront of that change, to uphold the integrity of the genre though its verite style while also delivering stunning imagery and sound. It has stood as an example to other shows that seek to bend reality out of laziness or bad producing, to continually demonstrate that you don’t have to give up on quality just because you can’t stop for a second take.

DB: Any stories on AR that are worth noting that best sum up its difficulty in shooting?

PR: There is so much of what it takes to get a Race in the can that you never see on screen. With a shooting ratio well over 100:1, there just isn’t time to show everything. And though you might get the highlights of a particular team’s journey, you won’t see the majority of what they went through. Additionally, though we have cameras running with teams (one crew per team), the course is covered in myriad other ways, with specialty cameras and zone cameras waiting to catch the teams as they run through. My main goal has always been to make the audience feel they are truly part of the action. Predicting where the teams will lead us is a puzzle we wrestle with daily, but especially when coming up with our camera plan. Ultimately, this is the most challenging part of our pre-production. The “what if” factor is always present. And invariably, regardless of how seasoned one becomes at reading human behavior, contestants do the darnedest things.

In season 20, we were in Bavaria and it was snowing. Midway through the day teams were challenged to find Ludwig II’s bedroom in the castle that was the inspiration for Snow White. My team joined another in the search, which is either a blessing or a curse (usually the latter). The thing is, the region we were searching in had two very similar castles; the Hohenschwangau castle, which sat atop a small hill, and the Neuschwanstein castle, which rose high above the valley, about 1.5 miles up a winding road. We spent a couple hours running up and down the small hill, finally joining a guided tour of Hohenschwangau, in order to find the bedroom. Though not permitted to shoot, our two crews joined the tour, and we shot from the hip, so as not to be discovered. Room after room we shuffled amongst the other tourists, through halls adorned in priceless antiques, up tiny staircases, and finally arriving at the master bedroom. Eventually the teams got up the nerve to ask the tour guide if he had their clue, if this was Ludwig’s room, to which he replied by pointing out the window up the hill to the other castle, saying ‘that is Ludwig’s castle, not this one.’

The worst place to be as a crew is when your team realizes they have made a mistake and might be eliminated. Panic ensues and everyone runs, like chickens with their heads off. So, after almost three hours of trailing the teams to every dead end and bad lead, and negotiating castle halls surreptitiously, it was an all-out mad dash to Neuschwanstein, 1.5 miles running up the icy hill, through the castle to the bedroom to find their clue. Then back down in the snow, down the hill to their waiting cars. And this was just half way through the leg!

DB: What is your proudest moment working on AR?

PR: In over a decade of shooting on the show, I guess there have been a few moments out on the road I am proud of; shots I was able to capture against the odds, lighting choices that worked out well, talking my way out of hairy situations during border crossings, etc. But ultimately, the proudest “moment” was when I was nominated for Outstanding Cinematography. My date to the ceremony was my new girlfriend (now wife), Lisa. And we won! What a first date! I had to be on set the next morning in NYC, so we had to leave the ceremony early and race to the airport, tuxedo, gown and all. Going through the metal detector, the TSA agent gave me a high five when she saw her screen. Later that month, I was called to Cincinnati to see my grandfather on his death bed. This was the man who gave me my first movie camera and supported me through film school. I brought with me a photo of Lisa and I standing at the airport that night, with my statue in hand. The pride in his eyes was unforgettable and I was so glad to get there in time to show him, he had done good by me. If I can do half of what he did for me, for my own kids, then it will be something to be proud of.

DB: What is your favorite camera to work with?

PR: There are some fantastic cameras hitting the market these days and just like a drawer full of tools, each has a task they are best at and designed for. We don’t use them on Race but I love the Panasonic VariCam LT. It has fantastic low light capability and beautiful colors, not to mention a killer dynamic range when shooting to its fullest capability. The RED Weapons are also beautiful, as is ARRI’s Amira. In the War of the Ks, though, everyone is cranking out 4-6K shooting machines. Ultimately, I prefer a camera that meets the challenge. So, if I’m looking for tiny (but not necessarily water/crash proof), the Codex Action Camera is pretty sweet. For full frame handheld, the Amira is awesome. But for something to run with on Race, I still haven’t found the perfect upgrade. It would have to take a wide-range piece of glass, have intuitive, accessible controls, stand up to the elements and the abuse, have a global shutter, and be smaller and lighter than what we currently use while still remaining perfectly balanced on the shoulder. Basically, the Holy Grail of cameras. If anyone out there has found it, let me know!

DB: What do you look for when picking the crew for AR?

PR: There are a lot of talented cameramen out there by now, many whom have been shooting for as long as the genre has been around. But not everyone is cut out for this show. Obviously, you have to be physically fit and able to run with a camera on your shoulder while also carrying 20-30lbs of gear in your pack and maintaining a two shot of your team as they do their damndest to run away from you. That eliminates the lion’s share of crew right there. In a business filthy with Easy Rigs and Hip Shots, this is not a show for comfort. Your body becomes the Easy Rig and the Hip Shot and your obsession with getting the shot becomes your bottomless fuel tank. Endurance is another key factor. Sometimes we are out for days on a leg with little in the way of outside assistance (no craft service smoothie trays here) so you have to be self-sufficient and ingenuitive, accustomed to taking care of yourself. Once you’ve proven you can meet this sort of challenge, it’s all about attitude. We are, above all, a team. If your teammate becomes cranky when he’s under pressure, you’ll spend most of your time fighting that battle and not concentrating on doing your best work. At the end of the day this job is a grind (in the most fulfilling and gratifying way possible) and if, in the face of what can seem agonizing at times, you can’t show up with the same excitement and enthusiasm as the rest of your team, then you need to go work on a show with more tripods and Easy Rigs.

Peter Rieveschl

DB: Finally, what is your most and least favorite thing about working on AR? 

PR: The best part of working on TAR is the fact that I get to work alongside the best in the business. There isn’t a single crew member you could accuse of just phoning it in. Everyone is a consummate professional with years of experience and you never have to worry if someone is up to the task. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there in the first place. Sadly, that is a rare occurrence in today’s reality TV industry.

The worst thing about the job is the lack of sleep. When I was an operator, we already had no time to ourselves. When I took up the DP gig, anything that remained of down time evaporated. Which is a bummer, because that seriously curtailed my other favorite thing about working on the show; getting to go back to some of the places we’d run through earlier and see them as a normal person. It’s an incredible world out there. 

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Denise Borders

I love photography, punk rock and working in television production. While I currently work as a freelance camera operator, I have years of logistical experience as a production coordinator as well as other useful skills such as still photography and Final Cut Pro 7 and Adobe Premiere editing. I also have a handful of hosting experience if you’re seeking a tattooed-lady to be on camera. I am a member of Local 600 but available for both union and non-union work.

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