The Unscripted Story Producer vs. Field Producer
Posted on: Sep 07, 2023
For every noteworthy reality TV moment from tearjerkers and heartfelt laughs to boiling drama, there is a team of producers behind it. Stunning TV moments don’t just happen, they are carefully planned and thought out in advance. Producers primarily fall into two categories: field producers, who shoot “in the field” or on location and story producers who edit footage after it’s been shot.
That’s not to say that all reality TV moments are scripted. In order to capture genuine reactions from some intense situations, producers must prepare for any outcomes from the cast in the field during pre-production and production and later be able to fine-tune the story in post-production. Let’s go through the stages of production to better understand how it all comes together.
Before making first contact with a cast member, arriving on location, or before a single frame is shot, there is a stage known as pre-production. Pre-production is the process of planning a shoot before anyone descends out into the field. This consists of deep research and phone calls, plus in-person and virtual meetings to get to know the potential cast members and see if they will be a good fit for the series at hand.
In this period of cast research, producers must listen carefully and see if there is a good fit from a potential cast member. As a field producer, you must take note about what gets someone emotional because that’s a clue that there may be a good story to be played out in the series. Be patient, actively listen and take concise and clear notes about what you’ve learned from each member, including triggers and anything that stands out. Most importantly, try to connect with them.
As a field producer you will mostly have creative responsibilities, but keep in mind that you are responsible for initiating the planning of logistics as well. After you get a firm grasp on what your story will be and who’s going to be cast in it, you’ll be hunting for appropriate locations that make sense for your story and make load-in and load-out relatively simple for your crew.
Producers need to know how many people to accommodate for the shoot. Some stories only require one producer, one camera operator and one sound person; other productions require hundreds of people. Communicate with your immediate supervisor, who in this case would be the supervising producer, about how you envision your episode and come up with possible solutions to any potential challenges you’ve foreseen.
Communicate early with your peers and other department heads about anything that will greatly affect their work. For example, when I produced an episode of Bar Rescue I communicated with the art department about the bar owner’s hopes for the renovation for their new bar. These conversations are important because what we see on screen strongly affects the cast in ways that make the footage more compelling to watch. Your fellow crew members can help execute the episode’s vision because of your research and communication skills.
No story is complete without incredible interview bites. Prep your cast members beforehand by teaching them to incorporate part of your question into their answer. Practice with the cast members a couple of times until it’s second nature to them. Because viewers will only see and hear the cast member, it is important for the viewer to know who the cast member is referring to and what they’re talking about it.
Keep your questions clear and concise. Once you’ve asked the question, patiently listen for the cast member to communicate how they’re feeling. Silence makes some people uncomfortable and as a producer it’s not your job to break the silence. Silence forces people to hear their inner voice and say exactly how they feel, and they may show raw emotion that neither of you anticipated. After each day in the field you’ll write a hot sheet, which is a document that summarizes what story you shot that day. The associate producer will take story notes. Story notes contain timecodes of major events that happen in that day’s scenes.
Hot sheets go primarily to everyone on your production team. Someone from this group will send this document to post-production, and that’s how the post producers will know what’s happening in the field. Don’t be afraid to call or email the post producer to update them and answer any questions they may have. Being a good colleague can bridge the divide between production and post-production and make communication so much easier. We’re all here to do one thing: produce great TV.
Story producers take the footage and documents that were created in the field and use them to create tight, compelling storylines in post-production. The organizational structure of the producers who will be working on a particular episode includes co-executive producers, story producers and associate producers. As the personnel smack dab in the middle, the story producer carries much of the work and the responsibilities for the creative direction of said episode.
Once the assistant editors organize the footage, the story producer can work. The first step is for the associate producer and story producer to look at all the footage and mark notes on what we’re seeing and hearing. Keep in mind, there’s no need to mark everything that happens. Mark only the B-roll, sound ups (cast member dialogue that’s not an interview) and interview bites that stand out to you.
Now that you’ve reviewed the footage, you have a clearer understanding of what the story is about. Every producer is different, but personally my next step is writing an outline of how I’d like to put the scenes and ultimately the entire episode together. The most important thing is to write the outline as you’re editing because things change. Once you’ve turned your episode in you’ll have the outline completed.
After that, I start moving clips around to create a stringout, which is a roughly edited collection of clips that shows us what the story is. What’s missing from this is a tighter edit, plus the music and effects that sweeten the edit which takes it to the next level.
I hope this overview of the differences between a field producer and story producer has been helpful and I hope this has shone more light on the differences between these two essential jobs.
Happy job hunting and I’ll see you on the next project!
Gabrielle Glenn is an unscripted TV producer and development professional.
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