So you’re watching your favorite reality docusoap and it suddenly dawns on you that the cast seems to be meeting up for something to eat or drink in just about every other scene. Stranger still, they always enter the joint, sit down, talk for two minutes, then get up and leave without paying the check. Such is the alternate universe of Reality TV dining.
While dinner and drink outings are great for gathering your cast in one place to advance story through conversation, sit-downs don’t always make for the most visually dynamic content. So how do you make four people at a table interesting?
Well, to begin with, try spending a few seconds really showcasing the restaurant as you transition into the scene. And no, I don’t mean just showing a wide exterior shot of the place with or without your cast entering. If field crews can set aside a few minutes to capture shots of the restaurant’s gorgeous exterior, beautiful dishes having the finishing touches applied to them in the kitchen, or other visually arresting location-specific b-roll, you can begin the scene with a sense of occasion. You’re topping the scene with a visual declaration that the place we are in is somehow special, a place we viewers wish we were (or are glad we aren’t). This doesn’t apply to posh restaurants alone — I’d advise the same if you were eating in a truck stop.
Music choices in those establishing b-roll sequences matter, too. Is the destination hip or old-school classy? Rural retro or funky modern? Set a scene, don’t just tee up with the same old generic tracks you use when your cast is out walking or hanging in their homes.
Now that you’ve painted a picture of where we are, let’s introduce your cast.
There are those in Reality TV that think every restaurant scene needs to begin and/or end with an arrival or a departure, and in addition to adding time to what could be lean, mean scenework in the final product, you risk boring the viewer with unnecessary action. Why open with all that business of the group being seated when viewers clearly understand that if you’re sitting at a table, you probably entered the room at some point and will probably leave when you’re done. I’ve never seen a scene end with people sitting at a table and thought, “Oh, man, I sure hope they made it home and aren’t being held prisoner by the wait staff.”
That said, entrances and exits should always be shot just in case, and with the longest walk-up arrivals possible. If the crew starts shooting just as the group is being seated, we’ve missed the handles on the scene needed to accommodate setup bites like “I decided we should all go out to dinner and talk about the situation with Janis. All of us are sick of her, but none of us know how to tell her without having her back out of the event.” Field crews, get those walkups and walkouts just in case and make them last. Ten to fifteen seconds is a great length for these, providing enough cover that you don’t have to play long interview passages naked, just watching an interview subject orate.
Let’s say you’ve got your season in the can and made it home to post, suddenly realizing to your chagrin that forty percent of your content allotted for an episode takes place in restaurants. Trust me, it can happen… ever watch The Hills? When arranging scenes in your revised post-production outline, try to separate sit-downs when you can. Can you use that scene with the girls at the Farmers’ Market in between the scenes of the other girls meeting for breakfast, then lunch? Do it. Break up the dine-outs however you can to preserve a sense of activity.
This is easier said than done, as you’ll discover.
Even when trying your level best, you may find yourself in a situation with back to back dining scenes in your final show assemblies. While not ideal, it’s certainly not the end of the world so long as the scenes move quickly and have purposeful content. Be sure, though, that you include a substantial visual passage of time between such scenes when working with your editor. Five to seven seconds of B-roll of day turning to night, for example, would give you an adequate pad to believe time has elapsed between a lunch and a dinner. I only hope for your sake it’s not the same cast members meeting for lunch and then dinner, as I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve met the same friends for lunch and dinner on the same day.
Back to the Wayback Machine, Professor Peabody. There’s a fix for this in the original fieldwork!
In production, it’s tremendously helpful if the field crews mix up the dining arrangements fairly often. If I have a scene with Janis, Wendy, Jodie and June at lunch, it seems more believable to me that June and her husband Paul might go to dinner than watch June and the same three dames meet up mere hours later for dinner. The exception would be during group travel somewhere where a band of travelers would stick together, and even then, they shouldn’t be together all the time.
It is especially important that when a cast is on the road together — e.g., visiting Paris or spending a weekend at a spa as a group — they be split for at least some of the activities in order to give story in post a chance to give the viewers an occasional break from each character as story unfolds. It also allows the folks present in scene to discuss the cast members not at the table or in the bar more openly, giving story a chance to develop.
All this bar and restaurant talk is making me hungry, so it’s off to brunch I go. Thankfully, cameraless.