Interview with Cinematographer Chad Griepentrog (The Bachelor Reality TV Series)

It was a blast sitting down with the Director of the Photographer of the hottest show on television: “The Bachelor”. Chad Griepentrog reveals a lot of funny behind the scenes moments, including shooting in the “fantasy suites” and trying to hold back his laughter with his fellow camera-operators so the shot isn’t ruined. Shooting reality television is a very difficult job. Enjoy the interview: 

Matthew Toffolo: What is your job as the cinematographer on a Reality TV Show set? From being in studio to on location?

Chad Griepentrog: My job is to basically try to make chaos look as good as possible without slowing down the production schedule or disrupting the cast. For the most part, reality shows are produced fast and cheap. Every shoot day is packed with locations and content that must be captured. The story is created through the actions of the cast members, so the mentality is to “shoot everything and the story will expose itself”. There can be several camera operators on the set at one time, in which case I’d be in charge of making sure everyone has the same camera settings, filters etc. The DP is also the sounding board for the camera department. The director or producers can come straight to me with questions or requests. If a show allows for lighting and art setups (like The Bachelor), I’ll get to scout locations before we start the season. During the scouts, I’ll make note of what looks best and at what time of day, the power available at that location, the limitations for gear load in, what we need to bring in as far as furniture or set dressing, what lights we will be needing and how to rig them, what we need as far as generators or big lifts for lighting, what camera extras we can employ (long lenses, GoPros, sliders, slow motion, etc.) and so on. On the day of the shoot, I’ll need to light areas for the cast depending on what the activities are. Usually it’s nighttime parties or romantic dates. Since content is king, I have to “walk away” once cast arrives. This means that once the cast sits in, I cant stop everything to run in and adjust a light or move a fork on the table that’s reflecting into someone’s eyes. You also have to light and dress for wide shots and close-ups at the same time. Oftentimes, the cameras will need to see 360 degrees, so there’s nowhere to hide anything like light stands or grip gear. It’s challenging for sure. And time is always a huge hurdle. There’s never enough! We always set up in broad daylight and the cast arrives right around sunset or soon after. This means that you have to prepare everything as best you can during the day, and once it gets dark, do the final touches and set levels as fast as humanly possible. Also, these are real people- not actors. The cast has to feel at ease- you can’t blast them with bright lights. They can’t possibly fall in love with one another with a camera operator breathing down their necks. So besides dressing and lighting in a way that lets the cast feel at ease, we play further back and wear dark clothes and keep equipment tucked away. You have to plan on people not landing where you want them to, or sitting super awkward and not falling into the proper lighting. Of course, I don’t do this all on my own. I work closely with the set dressers from the art department and the gaffer from the electrical department. Collaboration is the name of the game in TV and film.

PHOTO: The Bachelorette and her men inside the mansion:

the_bachelor_art_direction.jpg

Every show is a little bit different in what they ask of the DP. Most shows will have the DP shoot a little, but spend the majority of his/her time working on lighting or setting up scenes, or even doing B roll. -While oftentimes the smaller, lower budget shows might have the DP shooting everything. I’ve DP’d episodes of “Intervention” where I’m literally shooting all day. My job at that point falls into getting the best coverage I can to best tell the story and to give the editors the shots they need to cut together a story. It’s all about being flexible and telling the story with what you have- i.e. available light.

Matthew: You started off an a camera assistant on Fear Factor 15 years ago and have moved all the way up to being the cinematographer on one of the most popular television shows today in The Bachelor. What is the bigget thing you’ve learned climbing up the ladder of success?

Chad: Even before AC-ing, I started a couple years prior as an extra (background actor), then found a few jobs as a production assistant on super low budget movies…so I started at the very bottom. The biggest thing I’ve learned since getting into the business is the importance of having a good attitude. Having a successful career in this industry is extremely rewarding, but not easily attained. You’ll work insane hours for low pay, eat awful food, take direction from people who sometimes have no idea what they’re doing, you’ll work in horrible locations, sleep in terrifying places, miss holidays and family functions and so on. But if you can do all of this with a smile on your face, directors, producers and production managers will notice. Good attitudes are contagious to other crew members. Good attitudes will help you through the “dry spells”, where there doesn’t seem to be any work at all out there. Good attitudes will help you build a network and enable you to get on the jobs you’re most interested in working. Also, the ability to get along with others is extremely important. There’s always someone better than you, so having a chip on your shoulder doesn’t do you any good. Be humble. Let people do their jobs and respect them and their departments. Everyone is here for the same reason- because none of us could survive in an office!

Matthew: What is the craziest or zaniness show you’ve work on?

Chad: I’d have to say it was “The Joe Schmo Show”. That was insane! If you haven’t seen it, it’s a show where every cast member is actually an actor or actress and there’s only one “real” person, who has no idea what’s going on. Basically, it’s an entire show where the same person is being punked the whole time. It was hilarious and so over the top. You learn a lot about people while shooting “reality”. But every show is a little nuts if you think about it. The very first day of Fear Factor had people eating sheep eyeballs in a barn in front of live sheep! We broke for lunch right after and Joe Rogan was behind me in line and said “well, it’s been fun- but this show’s not going anywhere”. It ended up being the biggest show on NBC! Or Survivor, where people would starve until the day where they had a food auction. People were eating chocolate Sundays and cheeseburgers after existing on rice for a month. Right after, they all puked and had diarrhea about 10 feet away. Or on “Superstar USA”, where there was a singing competition, but the judges led on the worst singers to think they were the best. And so on…

PHOTO: The Joe Schmo TV Show:

joe_schmo_show.jpg

Matthew: Do the reality stars eventually forget that the camera is even there, or are most always aware that someone is recording them?

Chad: Usually- or let’s just say they get comfortable with them. Even more, they forget about the microphones they wear. Just look at the documentary “The Jinx”, where Robert Durst slipped up and confessed to the murders while he was alone in the bathroom- but still mic’d. But people do forget about the cameras. Sometimes it takes a while. It helps when the cast and crew don’t interact. People seem to be more distracted by the operator than the camera. On some shows it’s forbidden for camera operators to talk to the cast at all- we are invisible. There are also tricks we do to lead people to believe that we’re not filming. We know a lot of those, but it’s a secret!

Matthew: How many camera operators are there on a typical day on set for The Bachelor? How many hours of video is logged each day typically?

Chad: On “Bachelor”/ “Bachelorette” the number of crews dwindle as does the cast throughout the season. Night one (when the limos pull up and all the cast members are revealed, then go in for the big party) has 16 operators- that’s 16 camera operators who are working at least 12 hours- shooting possibly 10 hours of footage….that’s 160 hours of footage! By the end of the show, some 7 or so weeks later, there will be roughly 6 crews. Each crew consists of an operator, a camera assistant and an audio mixer.

PHOTO: The Bachelor Hot Tub Scene:

bachelor_hot_tub_scenes.jpg

Matthew: How is the setup for each camera operator? Do you work in a control room and guide the shooting while each camera operator has a runner/assistant with them?

Chad: Typically with that many cameras there has to be someone in charge, whether it be a house director, field director or competition director. Camera operators all get to know “the dance”. Basically, if there’s more than one operator shooting a scene, they will choose a “line”- referring to the 180 degree rule. That way, the eye line of every cast member will be going the correct direction and therefore easily editable. The operators spread out and cross shoot without going across the line. The operators signal to one another with hand gestures or over the walkies who has what shot (single, two shot, wide, etc.). That way everyone can make sure that they’re covering the scene without missing anything or replicating another’s shot. The director helps by alerting the operators of upcoming changes (someone new entering, who’s reaction to focus on, etc.) or they’ll help block out things like car pull-ups & exits, host or special guests talking to groups, etc.

Matthew: If The Bachelor goes on a group date for example with 10 other girls, how many times do you break to do the interviews during a typical date? How fast are you able to set up the interview spots when you’re on location somewhere?

Chad: During a group date, the interviews can happen at any time. Interviews are crucial to just about every reality show. They are the backbone of reality storytelling. Even when you think a scene speaks for itself, they’ll cut into an interview to hear what someone (whether in the scene or not) thought about what happened. Usually you want the interviews to take place immediately after something interesting happens so it’s fresh in the people’s minds and they’re still emotional about it. Before a group date starts, we’ll set up 2 or 3 interview spots. These are always in close proximity to the “hub” of the party, yet private and quiet. The interviews usually end up being in tiny hotel rooms with awful white walls that we curse while setting up. Sometimes you’ll se more immediate and less “set up” looking interviews. This is called “on the fly” or OTF. In this situation, there’s usually someone crying or very emotional in some other way and there’s no time to take them to a room and set them down. In these cases, you’ll be lucky to get a tripod and a light.

Matthew: Do you have a favorite behind the scenes Bachelor moment? Something the crazed fans would love to hear?

Chad: I’ve had so many over the years. Most include something related to the cool locations we get to visit- like animals attacking our gear in Africa, or scaring the crap out of each other in a dungeon in Prague. Or the time I was bucked off a horse and broke my hand because we thought it would be a good idea to shoot on horseback, or jumping off waterfalls with the cast in Hawaii, or getting stuck on a glacier in Iceland, or the scouts where we get to do all the things the cast does, but a week earlier. My favorite though is when I flew over my tiny hometown in Colorado in the Playboy private jet with only a producer, Hugh Hefner and his Playmate girlfriends. I wish my high school guidance counselor could see me then! One time I ordered pizza and hot wings for my crew. We were so hungry and excited to eat, but had to wait until after the interview we were shooting. During that time, one of the female Bachelor cast members ate our entire pizza and wings! Then she purged! Thanks a lot lady!

It’s always fun to try to make other operators laugh while shooting. There have been so many times where 2 cast members are in the “fantasy suite” laying on the bed, kissing and giggling and whispering sweet nothings- while I’m literally a foot from them and there’s another camera operator on the other side of the bed. A couple funny looks can lead to some pretty epic laugh attacks (but you have to hold it in so the cast doesn’t hear).

PHOTO: The Bachelor Fantasy Suite:

bachelor_fantasy_suite.jpg

Matthew: How has the technology changed since you started? Are the cameras easier to handle than in the past?

Chad: The technology has changed immensely. When I started everything was standard definition. I spent a couple years as a tech assistant and as a “mini cams” guy, where to do a simple helmet cam required a ton of gear- batteries, cables, recording decks, more batteries, cameras with dip switches for controls, padding for the recording decks, and if you wanted it waterproof….. Anyway, that’s all been replaced by GoPros, which are incredible in every way. Drones are another game changer. Many of the newer cameras have better images, but are much more difficult to operate. These would be the DSLR’s, Canon C 300’s & 500’s, Black magics, REDs, F5’s and F55’s, etc. By the time you have all the rods, focusing knobs, monitors, audio adaptors and cables in place, the cameras are 3x the size and make zero sense ergonomically. If you’re going to be operating for hours on end, you want to have everything at your fingertips. The Sony F800’s are the easiest, most reliable cameras for reality in my opinion. And for larger sensors, I prefer the Arri Amiras. They look incredible and are easy to operate. It’s crazy that our phones now take better videos than broadcast cameras just a few years ago. I’ve seen cameras produce better images for less and less money. Now literally anyone can shoot their own film. You no longer need a 35mm film camera, money for film stock or a grip and electric truck full of expensive lights.

Matthew: What film have you seen the most times in your life?

Chad: American Movie. It’s a documentary about a guy who is struggling to finish his short film. The movie is shot very simply but tells a great story and the characters in it are hilarious. Definitely worth the watch.

Matthew: Our of all the reality shows you’ve worked on, do you have a favorite or two?

Chad: Survivor and The Bachelor come to mind first. Survivor season 3 (Kenya) was my first legitimate travel show. I couldn’t believe that someone was paying me to spend 2 months on a private game reserve with a crew of a couple hundred super cool people from all over the world. Every day was like being on safari, but no tourists. Survivor Palau was incredible as well. Surfing and diving just about every day, let alone working in only board shorts on white sandy beaches. The Bachelor shows are amazing as well because we travel all over the place and get access to places that normal people can’t- like being the only ones in the Tower of London at night, or on the roof of the space needle- not just the top, or sports fields, castles, etc. One season of the Bachelorette, we spent time in Iceland, Portugal and Tahiti all in one season! What makes this show amazing are the people you work with side by side on a daily basis. It’s crazy how close you get with co-workers. In a couple months you might spend more time with your camera assistant than you did with any of your best friends from high school. On location, you see such amazing places and after a long day, you go out with the same people and explore the cities, then you fly together to a new place, then on your days off, you might surf or golf or dive or zipline with the same people. I can’t say enough about the experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have along the way. I feel like I haven’t “worked” in years. It’s not for everyone, but if you love adventure, it’s the best.

Matthew: What suggestions do you have for high school or university students who would like to be reality show camera operators?

Chad: I would say try to reach out to people in the field who you may know or even a family friend’s friend’s uncle’s neighbor. Email production companies to see if they’re looking for production assistants or interns. If you like a specific show, go on IMDB and look up the production company that produces it, or even the name of the production manager. Find them on facebook if you have to. It’s never been easier to get into this field. There are about a million reality shows out now. When I started there was one. There are websites like “staff me up” that list job postings. Maybe see if you can intern at a rental house- learn the gear inside and out first and meet cinematographers who are picking up gear. Like they say, it’s who you know that gets you the job, but what you know that lets you keep it . Also, you don’t have to live in LA. A lot of people work full time in Atlanta, New York, Miami, etc. Film school is good- but not 100% necessary. I studied film, but only truly “learned” by being on set. You can learn a lot on the web. Youtube. Forums. Look up hurlbutvisuals.com. If you work hard and keep a good attitude, you can get on those shows that interest you. If you want to shoot in Alaska or the swamps of Louisiana or film midgets in Utah, there’s a show for you. It may take a few years before you get a job as a camera assistant or operator, but be persistent. When I was a production assistant picking up trash on set, I’d talk to people from the different departments and learn about their jobs and ask a lot of questions. It wasn’t long before people would start asking if I could give them a hand on the next project. Be flexible and don’t give up!

_____

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to www.wildsound.ca for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

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