5 Things to Know When Working on Reality TV as a Production Assistant
Updated: Jul 23, 2019
The majority of my television credits are from reality TV shows and while I do enjoy some juicy drama, it’s not because I exclusively love working in reality. The majority of the work I’ve found happens to be in that genre of TV and I’m in for the ride!
Working in reality TV is unlike any other type of genre or shoot, as you probably already know from just watching one episode of *insert your favorite reality show*. From planning to filming to editing, reality TV is a different beast.
In this blog post, I share what I’ve learned in working on about a dozen reality TV show sets as a Production Assistant (PA) and crucial info I wish I would have known ahead of time that can help you on your first job in reality TV.
1. Crew Dynamic & Size
If you’ve worked on other shows or films, you’ve noticed that everyone has a set role and territory on set. The Camera Department, Sound Department, Stage Hands, Art Department, etc all live within their department. On a reality show, while there are still departments, the lines are a bit blurred. I’ve seen people from various departments carry lights, move equipment, and prep the set.
As a Production Assistant on a reality tv show, I’ve never been assigned to a specific department, which usually means I’m there to help any and every department that needs my help. Which means ordering lunch, setting up crafty, unloading the equipment, setting up lights, greeking signs, getting release forms, retrieving camera lenses and monitors, setting up video village, crowd control, etc.
It might sound like a PA does a lot but to be honest, everyone does a lot! Reality TV sets are usually much smaller than other sets, depending on the show and circumstances. I’ve been on a set where there was literally 3 other crew members with me: Camera, Sound, and Producer. Smaller crews are usually the norm, but I’ve also worked on a reality set where we were at a music festival filming and there were about 20+ crew members. Usually, if you’re on a set with a larger crew, as a PA you don’t have to run around like a chicken with its head cut off - which is a nice luxury.
2. How and What You Film
Shooting a film is usually pretty standard - you follow the schedule on the sides or call sheet. The Camera department usually has a shot list or general game plan for the day.
Shooting a game show is usually pretty simple too - you film your normal amount of episodes in a day following the same gameplay as every episode. It’s very easy to get into a seamless rhythm, especially if you’re filming in a studio.
Shooting a reality show? It can differ every day from the activity your filming to the one-on-one interviews you have, to which talent is available, all while fulfilling whatever the producer thinks the episode needs to tell a compelling full story.
Since the show is based on real people and actual interactions and drama they have with others in their lives, capturing those moments and creating a story out of it requires a lot of fast thinking and attention. The proper coverage, including B-roll and interviews are needed to have a good show.
In reality TV, there’s a type of shot called OTF, and it stands for On The Fly. These shots are the interview style shots you see on reality shows where the talent is talking directly to the camera about a scene you just saw, usually giving more explanation on what just happened. The Producer or Director usually asks the talent questions or feeds them lines during the OTF’s to get the right coverage.
Probably not the most important thing to include on this list, but food is everything to me - and if you're a PA it’s usually your job to make sure the food is ordered and ready on time.
On other sets, there’s usually a caterer or someone whose sole job is food. On a reality set, that tends to be the PA’s job. It’s important to know if that’s your job because shows always have a hard break time and want lunch to be ready after the first person’s call time hits 6 hours.
On most of these sets, I’ve needed to text or go around to each crew member and get their lunch order from a restaurant nearby, order it ahead of time, and then go pick it up and bring it to home base. All of that can take time, so it’s important to stay ahead of the clock!
It's always important to pay attention to detail, especially when dealing with people's lunch orders. Getting specific about milks, sauces, sides, meats, etc can be the difference between a happy crew and a pissed off one - so always make sure to get the order right and double check before leaving the restaurant that it's made to perfection!
4. Get Up Close and Personal with Gear
If you’ve never really worked with camera or grip gear, you’re gonna want to take note of this section. The gear is pretty standard across any genre of television or filmmaking, but the role a Production Assistant plays on set is different, which is why it’s important to be familiar with this gear and know how to set it up.
C -Stand - It’s almost always a given you’ll need to use a C-Stand on set for lighting, flags, bounces, etc. As a PA on a reality show, as I mentioned before, you’ll most likely be setting up and breaking down for shoots, so getting familiar with the basics is important.
Check out this video from Ottis College on all things C-Stand.
A-Clamp - This clamp is a nice little clamp to hold back the flaps on a flag, to add a filter on a light, and to help with many other “holding” tasks.
Flags - Flags come in all different types and sizes and are used to block and shape light.
Apple Boxes - These lovely simple wooden boxes are the sound guys best friend, and also help short talent out, or anyone or anything that needs to be propped up. There are different sizes of apple boxes: pancake (1 inch), quarter apple (2 inches), half apple (4 inches), and full apple (8 inches).
There are 3 different ways to lay a full apple box down. Usually noted by position 1, 2, or 3, or by Los Angeles, Chicago/Texas, and New York.
It’s easy to remember by thinking of the layout of the city. Los Angeles is pretty flat, Chicago/Texas is a bit taller, and New York is full of skyscrapers, which makes it the tallest.
Courtesy - Setting up a courtesy is something you’ll likely need to do if you are filming outside. It’s setting up a flag to keep the sun out of the eyes of the DP and/or director. This is where your C-stand, A-Clamp, and flag skills all come together.
Film Riot breaks down how to set up a simple courtesy flag in this video.
For a more in-depth look at G&E, this video was super helpful to me and definitely worth a look if you want to know almost every essential item that will be on the production truck at your shoot.
5. Hurry Up and Wait
“Hurry up and wait” is a phrase used all over production, and it’s no different on reality. Although working on a reality show can be stressful, just remember that there are always ups and downs on a set, and usually after rushing to do something, you’ll have to wait around and relax before the next thing needs to get done.
Don’t over stress about being on set and remember to drink lots of water! If you want to take a look at the 5 things I always have on me when PA’ing on set, take a look here.