Script completed and permissions obtained, it’s time to film our new TV shows on Bulgaria and Romania. Rick, producer Simon, cameraman Karel, and I touch down in Sofia, zip to our hotel, unpack the gear, and — all too aware that our sunny afternoon could easily turn into a rainy evening — immediately head out to “cover the script”…jet lag be damned.
Filming a TV show is all about “covering the script” — making sure that every landmark, every idea, every word that’s mentioned is supported by visuals. One big concern is whether a shot “reads”: Does it effectively illustrate what’s being described? For example, we wanted to shoot Sofia’s yellow brick road. But we needed to find a shot with just the right angle, light, and glare to ensure it would “read” as yellow bricks…not just faded concrete.
Sometimes, whether or not a shot “reads” determines whether it makes the final cut. Scouting the script in Bucharest, I was struck by how many passersby, when walking in front of a Romanian Orthodox Church, would pause to make the sign of the cross. But trying to film that little slice of life just didn’t work. Shooting on a busy street corner in front of a church, we found the gesture too subtle for our camera. (“Did you get that one, Karelster?” Simon would ask. “Nah,” Karel would say, squinting into his viewfinder. “Doesn’t read.”)
And so we bailed on that part of the script. We call that “killing your babies” — being willing to give up on your pet ideas when it turns out they aren’t right for the show. It’s a gruesome metaphor, but apt. If we’re sweeping through the script to tighten things up, we start calling each other “King Herod.”
The other end of the spectrum is positive serendipity: Capturing a magic moment that’s far more compelling than you expected. Keeping the script flexible keeps us wide-open, allowing the best show to present itself to our camera. For example, our Bulgaria script included a throwaway line about artful graffiti in Plovdiv’s trendy “Mousetrap” neighborhood. Scouting the scene, we were totally tickled by the playful visuals. So we wrote and shot, on the fly, an insightful segment explaining how local authorities — who realize that buildings are going to be tagged anyway — actually pay the best street artists to create art rather than eyesores.
Visually, the foundation of a TV show consists of “b-roll”: establishing shots, general scenery, slice-of-life scenes, and so on. While Rick attends to other matters (working on the script, dealing with business concerns from the home office, and so on), Simon and Karel run around filming b-roll.
Of course, you also have to establish the host on location: Rick walking down the street, exploring a museum, interacting with locals, and so on. In addition to the camera-mounted mic, Rick always wears a hidden microphone (taped under his shirt). If the scene involves dialogue with someone else — like our Bulgarian local guide, Stefan, or a market vendor Rick is buying something from — we have to take a few minutes to mic up that person, as well.
A meal sequence only adds to the complexity. To show off the local cuisine, we scout a restaurant with atmosphere and food that are equally telegenic. For our viewers back home, it’s more important for the food to look good than to taste good. (A few years back, we filmed a gorgeous dinner of Bosnian cuisine in Mostar — at a restaurant known for having terrible food, but the best views in town.) Because it’s a little sad to show Rick at an empty table, he’s usually joined by Simon and/or a local guide — and sometimes, the more the merrier. In our Romanian dining sequence, we realized only halfway through the meal that we accidentally wound up with a table full of dudes: Rick, Simon, me, local guide Teo, and fixer Iulian. Unfortunately, our location — a remote farmhouse we had all to ourselves — made it impossible to scare up some women to give the scene a little balance.
Speaking of that empty farmhouse, it was an unusual case: It’s much better to film at a restaurant that’s full of other diners, who help provide atmosphere. But restaurants — anxious to ensure everything’s perfect — often want to close down the whole place for our convenience. It can take some convincing to pretend it’s just a normal night. (Simon and Karel always make the rounds before we shoot, making sure the other diners are OK appearing on TV.)
If you look closely at a meal sequence, you may notice an extra chair at the table. While Rick and his dining companions theatrically linger over the meal, Karel scurries around with his camera. He shoots the kitchen, the food coming out, Rick or the guide explaining each dish, close-ups of each item being piled on a plate, gregarious conversation, and, of course, eating. Karel takes very occasional, very brief breaks to pull up a chair and choke down our leftovers.
Another type of Rick segment is the “on-camera” (or OC for short). That’s where Rick talks directly into the camera — sitting at a scenic café, or walking down a busy street, or in front of a great piece of art. On-cameras are typically used to address a topic that’s hard to convey visually, such as dense historical exposition. While most on-cameras are in the shooting script, they’re rewritten and carefully wordsmithed on the fly (since, once filmed, they can’t be changed — unlike the voice-over, or VO, which can be endlessly revised until it’s recorded later). Rick is a master at putting each on-camera into exactly the words he wants, and then memorizing those words on the spot. He’ll sit cross-legged in a quiet corner, muttering the lines to himself, while Simon and Karel set up the shot. By the time they’re ready, usually he is, too. (They do carry a teleprompter, just in case, but almost never use it.)
When filming an on-camera, they do as many takes as necessary — making sure that Rick’s performance, the audio, the background, the light, and everything else is just perfect. If there are shadows on Rick’s face, Simon pulls out a lightweight LED lighting unit, or a giant, collapsible reflector disc, and aims it just so — often standing on tiptoes, holding his arms in the air (“like a mighty tree trunk,” he jokes) — as long as it takes to get it right.
Background noise is a big concern. One evening, with the sun low in the sky, we found the perfect Bulgarian wheat field where Rick could stand to describe the ancient Thracians. The catch: It was next to a road where big trucks intermittently rumbled past. The challenge: Could Rick deliver his lines in the gap between trucks? (Yes, he did…eventually.) On another occasion, I had to go ask a jackhammer crew to take their break a bit early.
The outtakes at the end of each episode are rife with examples of flubbed lines, badly timed background noise, or passersby looking awkwardly at the camera. With so many potential screw-ups, these on-cameras are the most time-consuming bits to film. One 15-second on-camera can take just a few minutes to shoot, if all goes well…or closer to an hour, if it doesn’t.
When filming, your two biggest concerns are time and weather. You’re always racing to maximize the best light and minimize disruption caused by rain. Two expressions are used liberally by the crew to describe this dynamic: If a spell of sunny weather helps you get ahead of the game, you are “in a commanding position.” Killing time waiting for the rain to clear up is, in the parlance of a frustrated film crew, “getting boned by the weather.” These two sentiments often flow into each other: “Looks like a beautiful day. If we hustle and work ahead in covering the script, we’ll be in a commanding position. That way, if we get boned by the weather tomorrow…it’s no big deal.”
It takes six days to film a 30-minute TV show. That may sound like a lot…but, considering how many different variables have to fall into place to make it all works, it feels rushed.
Up next, I’ll introduce you to Rick’s highly talented “crew of two”: producer Simon and cameraman Karel.
This is part three of my “Behind the Scenes” blog series about Rick Steves’ Europe Season 9 — now airing nationwide (check your local listings). You can also watch the Bulgaria and Romania episodes for free. And in case you’re in a gift-giving mode, the brand-new, 10-episode Season 9 DVD is currently on sale in our Travel Store.