Reality TV has come to dominate primetime broadcast schedules the world over, but creating a winning formula for post production presents a unique set of hurdles for the editing team. Broadly, the issues are:
- Volume: Large editing teams are working with towering heaps of footage to compose reality shows. This makes impeccable asset management a necessity for an efficient workflow.
- Unscripted: The nature of the genre means that editors find the story and effectively write the show through their selects of on-the-fly footage.
- Deadlines: The requirement to meet fast turnaround times means the pressure is always on.
Through trial and experimentation, The Voice's post team has established a sophisticated workflow for managing their assets amid these challenges.
The Talent Behind The Voice
NBC's Emmy® award-winning show has been entertaining audiences since 2011, with 18 seasons and counting. With a solid organizational framework, editors can apply their talent to finding the story, maintaining story arcs, and hitting emotional beats. That may be true across all genres, but the meticulous approach required of unscripted TV editors is extraordinary.
The Voice's editing team will draw from 50 to 60 terabytes of original camera media to compile the first few episodes of each season. This raw material comes from 20 to 30 cameras, many of which film simultaneously from different angles. Then, the production's team of assistant editors (AEs) ingest, transcode, and view the material.
The AEs' organizational process cannot be overlooked, says Supervising Editor Robert M. Malachowski, Jr., ACE, who has been with the production since the first season. "[AEs] are the centralized hub for everything that happens in post. . . . Without them, the editors would not be able to do their jobs at all."
By taking a look at their workflow, we've pulled out six tips that can help other unscripted TV editors design their own plan for managing assets in the post process.
From left to right: Supervising Editor Robert M. Malachowski, Jr., ACE; Lead Assistant Editor Alan Macchiarolo; Lead Assistant Editor Joe Kaczorowski; Lead Assistant Editor Vinnie DeRamus
1. Disciplined Organization of Raw Files
On The Voice, the goal is to produce one two-hour show and a separate one-hour show weekly during the series run. It's the AEs' job to first review the media and prep it for the editors. The raw material includes stage performances, interviews, high-speed camera footage, behind-the-scenes footage, coach cams, and "follow-home" video, where select contestants are filmed with family and friends in their hometown.
The AEs will eventually receive a camera log detailing the shots filmed and what happened throughout the day, as well as a transcript, but they try to work ahead of this to start the editors on assembly as quickly as possible. Usually, AEs need to turn that footage around within 24 hours.
"We pretty much go into it completely blind," shares Lead Assistant Editor Alan Macchiarolo. While the AEs can view a live feed of performances shot on the stage, they have to wait for a first look at all other material until the files are ingested. "We essentially have to go through every piece of footage that is shot for the show," Macchiarolo says.
Video files are organized by camera (e.g., for stage, reality, artist interview, or B-roll) and camera type. These groups break down into even more specific categories—for example, into all camera angles for a contestant's performances or all of an artist's interviews—and are then delivered to the editors. The majority of the footage stays organized in smaller chunks so the editors don't have to sort through all the material from scratch, explains Lead Assistant Editor Joe Kaczorowski.
Since the transcriptions typically arrive 24 to 48 hours after the editors have received the footage—which is 24 hours after the AEs have already handed it off—the AEs then go back into the organized footage to align dialogue and transcripts, giving the editors an additional tool to search through the material.
2. Logging Leaves No Room for Interpretation
Logging is arguably the most critical part of media management for unscripted TV shows. Poor taxonomy or inconsistent application can cause all manner of problems down the line.
"Our mind-set . . . is we service the back end and then move it forward," Malachowski explains. They consider how they can stay compliant to smooth production at every stage: from offline to online, VFX to audio mixing, and collaboration with outside post houses, he says.
Logging starts with a tape name (e.g., the specific camera, the day the clip was shot) followed by a general descriptor, such as whether it's B-roll or a performance, explains Lead Assistant Editor Vinnie DeRamus. A consistent convention lets everyone know what to search for. For example, the online editor can identify whether the camera is an ARRI or a Sony simply from the tape name, says Malachowski.
With archival footage and creative calls in the field for high-speed footage, The Voice post team deals with a lot of mixed format footage including PAL. The AEs have to identify this footage and pass along that info to the editors and online editors. Then, an editor can look at a piece of media and know its true frame rate, the running frame rate, and whether or not the footage is original media or has been processed or transcoded for any reason.
"At any point we have five to eight AEs in here working on [material], and they all have to use the exact same terminology," says Kaczorowski. "It's not left up for interpretation that way. And all the editors are used to seeing that terminology. It's laid out exactly the same, so it shows up in a bin the same way. Everybody sees the same thing over and over again. They know what they're looking for season after season."
3. Be Prepared to Adapt
Every workflow is different, so there's no cookie-cutter approach. But arriving at a tailor-made solution may involve trial and error—plus the flexibility to evaluate and adapt.
"We definitely did not nail this from the get-go, and every season pops up with new challenges," Malachowski says. For the first season, they followed the template set for other Mark Burnett productions and quickly learned that didn't work for The Voice because its story wasn't told in a linear fashion.
During The Voice, they can take an act or scene from one episode and move them around to a different act or drop it into another episode entirely, he explains. The producers can request that contestants who auditioned on the first day be placed into the second or third episode if that improves the storytelling. Initially, the team had all the media grouped for individual episodes; when they started shifting things between different episodes, that process broke down.
They also tried various other workflows before alighting on the asset management system that The Voice uses today. A single project or library acts as a repository for all the media, while editors creatively work within their own individual projects. This allows for faster turnover by the AEs, according to Malachowski, because all they have to do is update one bin. The editors return their finished cuts back to that one shared project.
The library project is locked so that only the AEs can update the media. "This means the editors don't have to worry about accidentally deleting or changing anything," Malachowski says. "It becomes a very safe environment for them to just grab what they need, pull it into other projects, and play with it."
4. Keep Communication Channels Open
The Voice has between 20 and 22 editors working at its peak, each responsible for different tasks as the season unfolds. Once the team starts developing what will be in an episode, the editors divide into smaller teams working to form a single episode.
Episodes will go through a series of internal and network reviews before a supervising editor makes an absolute fine cut and the result is locked, approved, and sent to final finish and online. There are no hard-and-fast procedures that govern all of this back-and-forth, but Malachowski recommends keeping the editorial team in constant communication.
"There's no stupid question," Malachowski says. If anyone needs to check whether a clip has been used, they should feel completely free to ask. He likens the show to a game of Boggle, where a last-minute network request can force editors to rework material that was already in place.
"That's why we've got so many layers. The editors are tasked with creating and coming up with the best stories that they can. The finishing editors are making sure that story is complete over an episode. The supervising editors are in charge of making sure the story of each episode is continuous over the entire season. . . . Everybody is looking for finer and finer detail as we get up to the very end and actually release it for broadcast."
The Voice even has a 50-page show "Bible" available for reference that outlines all of the critical processes and procedures.
5. Think You've Got Everything? Think Again
Reality TV hinges on moments, and the right one is worth a thousand words. It's often the little glances and other nonverbal cues—the ones that, inconveniently, won't appear in an automated transcript—that can help sell a certain part of the story or bring out a character. How do you ensure that those vital pieces of story aren't missed?
Some editors will rewatch things, Malachowski explains. After making a near-final cut of a performance, he'll review the original material, watching each of the coach cameras during the performance to cherry-pick moments. He also might ask some of the AEs to go back in and look for certain teases or cold opens. They would supply the editors with a bin of six to a dozen additional shots. Malachowski said a request can even be as specific as "I need Blake looking left to right with a blue background."
The advice here is to stay alert and "keep an absolute watchful eye," in Malachowski's words. If your show is as nonlinear as The Voice, double down on this. "You have to really keep on your toes," he warns.
6. Create a Supportive Team Environment
In such a pressurized environment with hard deadlines rotating, even personalities who thrive on adrenaline need to take a few moments away from the grind. Building a supportive work culture is essential to keeping the editorial machine running smoothly.
"What helps is knowing what role we all play in the process, and knowing what each of our strengths are," DeRamus says. "We each attack any issue based on our strengths, and we know that we can depend on [the rest of the team] for support."
"There's a lot of humor in the bays; there's [also] a lot of tension," acknowledges Malachowski. "But at the end of the day, everybody keeps in the back of their minds that, at the end of the season, we all still want to be friends. It can definitely be a challenge . . . but having the respect for your fellow editors and AEs helps a lot."