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Revealing the Reality of Reality TV: How the ‘UnREAL’ Crew Shoots a Show About a Show

"I get to shoot two shows in one: Everlasting, the contestant show, which is generally always high-key and colorful, and the series itself, UnREAL, which can be dark and moody," says DP Dave Pelletier.

In television, it’s generally considered poor form to allow an errant boom mic or crew member to appear in frame, though it’s par for the course (and very much intentional) on UnREAL, the Lifetime series that details the behind-the-scenes production of a reality dating show called Everlasting. The Peabody Award-winning UnREAL recently concluded its second season and is currently available on demand. It has been greenlit for a third season, which will air in 2017.

Co-created by Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Code Black) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, UnREAL is based on Shapiro’s 2013 short film “Sequin Raze.” Women are featured significantly both in front of and behind the camera on both the real UnREAL and fictional Everlasting. UnREAL tackled matters of gender politics in its first season with leads Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer as producers Rachel Goldberg and Quinn King. Likewise, UnREAL’s second season featured no fewer than four female directors: Shapiro, Appleby (in her directorial debut), Janice Cooke and Nzingha Stewart. The show is produced by A+E Studios.

Shooting Everlasting.

UnREAL focuses on the human turbulence behind the scenes of the dating competition show. Rachel Goldberg (Appleby), distinguished for her ability to manipulate her relationship with both colleagues and contestants, struggles to achieve the most dramatic footage possible from the more than two dozen vulnerable Everlasting competitors. She’s pressured by the constant demands of a wholly unsympathetic Quinn King (Zimmer).

Dave Pelletier, director of photography on a trio of second-season episodes, says that since UnREAL is a behind-the-scenes look at what’s supposed to be an authentic reality show, a lot of what viewers would not normally see in frame in a typical series—namely equipment and crew—has to be included, and the equipment being revealed has to appear authentic. “Generally we would put our own equipment in the scene. Often we find we’re shooting our own crew and cameras, lights, grip equipment and such as the scene plays out. Sometimes the equipment seen in a shot is actually creating ‘the look,’ and sometimes I’ve set up a lot of equipment just to be seen in Everlasting,” Pelletier notes.

To create the look and feel he wanted for the series, Pelletier shoots with ARRI Amira cameras and ARRI zoom lenses (14-35, 19-90 and 85-300). “Unless I need to shoot at 1.3 for technical or aesthetic reasons, I prefer using zooms. They’re so much more efficient. These particular zooms are also small and light enough for handheld work or for Steadicam,” he says.

Quinn and Chet (Craig Bierko), the creator of Everlasting. Photo by James Dittiger.

“I particularly like when we would have the 50-foot Technocrane in a shot with a prop camera on the remote head just zooming around the set. Cinema vérité, maybe?” Pelletier jokes. A Technocrane, available in sizes ranging from 15 to 100 feet, is a telescopic crane typically operated by the DP at a “smart desk.” The Technocrane can telescope at various speeds, allowing camera movements that cannot be achieved by more conventional means, such as using a jib arm and dolly.

The veteran DP says shooting UnREAL has been a great experience, partly because it’s unlike other shows he’s worked on. “Sometimes it’s a little like cheating, seeing lights in-shot and other [gaffes]. Also I get to shoot two shows in one: Everlasting, the contestant show, which is generally always high-key and colorful, and the series itself, UnREAL, which can be dark and moody, or whatever is right for that particular situation,” he says.

Sarah Shapiro directs a second season episode of UnREAL. Photo by Bettina Strauss.

Pelletier says of production on the show’s second season, “The challenge is to keep the show interesting and fresh, while also keeping it the same show. We had a larger studio and set this year than in season 1, which helped with creating more interesting shots, since [production designer] Ricardo Spinacé was able to give us more interesting sets to work with.”

I asked Pelletier if the series’ faux shooting crew, who appear in various scenes recording Everlasting, and the actual unseen crew shooting scenes for UnREAL are both recording footage for possible use in postproduction. Alas, the answer is no. “Our actual [unseen] camera crew films all the footage that makes up our show,” he says. “Occasionally we would feed the Everlasting video village with a prop camera, but not very often, and it would be very much in the background.”