Rick may be the writer, producer, and star of Rick Steves’ Europe. But behind the scenes, he works with a two-man crew that contributes just as mightily to the final result: producer Simon Griffith and cameraman Karel Bauer.
You probably recognize Simon as the silent, bearded fellow who often joins Rick for dinner on the show. What you don’t realize is that he’s both the brains and the brawn behind more than a hundred episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe. Simon is an artist, who instantly grasps what does and doesn’t work on TV. He’s also built like a tank: To help keep the crew small and efficient, Simon volunteers to lug heavy gear all over Europe (a task usually relegated to an entry-level “grip”).
It’s an impressive thing to watch: Simon stands — like an artist at his easel — next to Karel, offering gentle direction. Then, when the shots he needs are in the can, Simon quickly collapses the 50-pound tripod, perches it effortlessly on his shoulder, puts on a backpack filled with another 50 pounds of sound and lighting equipment, and walks it to the next shot — all while talking through the script with Rick. (By the way, some of my favorite turns of phrase in the Bulgaria and Romania scripts came not from me or from Rick…but from Simon: “Strips and strands of metal,” “a funnel of trade since ancient times,” and so on. For someone who doesn’t fancy himself a writer, Simon is one hell of a writer.)
Simon is a gregarious Kiwi who’s generous with a laugh, a great conversationalist, a fantastic traveler, and an easygoing perfectionist (a paradox, I know, but somehow Simon pulls it off). If Rick’s scriptwriting, on-screen performance, travel savvy, and enthusiasm are a frothy, churning sea of creativity, Simon is the steady rudder that keeps each episode pointed firmly at the horizon.
Rick and Simon work with a variety of talented camera operators (or “shooters”). It happens that I’ve worked only with the cameraman who’s filmed more shows than any other: Karel Bauer, who — like Simon — is equal parts artist and technician.
Watching the show on TV, you’d assume that Rick is the most important person on the shoot. You’d be mistaken. The most important person is the one you never see: Karel…and, more to the point, Karel’s camera. If only one person is allowed inside a location — say, because of a red-tape snafu at the Romanian Parliament — guess who we’re sending? (Hint: It’s not Rick, who’ll be out sitting on the curb with the rest of us.)
Karel has a singleminded passion for getting the perfect shot. It helps to have a cameraman who thinks like a film editor — he knows just what editor Steve Cammarano will need, several weeks from now back in the home office, to cut together a smooth sequence. And then he squeezes off a few extra beauty shots, just to be safe. Like Simon, Karel is as physically gifted as a pro athlete — pirouetting through crowds and literally scaling walls to aim his weighty camera rig just right. For one particularly challenging-to-film sequence — which opened the whole Romania show — Karel literally hung out the side window of our van to film a smooth shot of Rick riding a horse cart…all while Simon held onto Karel’s belt with one arm, and steered the van with the other. These two will literally stand in traffic to get just the right shot.
An avid still photographer, I’d assumed that a good shot on my camera would translate to a good shot for TV. But I forgot about the fourth dimension of video: motion. On a previous shoot with this crew (in 2009), I was excited to take them to a huge World War I mausoleum overlooking Slovenia’s scenic Soča Valley. When we arrived, I sensed letdown. What’s the problem? Finally, Karel explained: “It’s a cool building. It’s just…static.” Clean white lines against forested hills may be a striking photograph, but it’s simply boring on TV. They made it work by having Rick and his guide walk around the structure while the camera slowly panned up.
That’s why, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that most shots include either motion (people, cars, boats, trees blowing in the wind), or, if it’s a truly static scene, camera moves — either pans or zooms. Motion helps keep the viewer engaged. When shooting a scenic landscape shot with a meandering rural road, we sit and wait…and wait…and wait…for a car to drive up that road. Only then is the shot complete. (If no car comes, Simon’s been known to hop in the car and drive into Karel’s shot himself. These types of scenes — often used to transition between destinations — are called “drive-bys.”)
In addition to operating the camera, Karel does double-duty as the sound engineer (just as Simon doubles as the grip). This lets a two-man crew do the work of (at least) four. This mighty duo is a finely oiled perpetual-motion TV-making machine. Even when they have an extra pair of hands (mine), there’s very little I can do to make things go faster or easier…just get out of the way, and try to keep up.
The other impressive thing about Simon and Karel: they’re two of the smiley-est people I know. I’m not talking fakey grins — I mean, big, toothy, genuine smiles. They love what they do, and it shows. And it helps, too — if we’re trying to make something happen (for example, get permission to film a museum on the fly), Simon and Karel’s big smiles instantly defuse any tension. This was particularly handy for our Romania show, where we wanted to cut together a montage of Romanians from all walks of life. To build up enough material, we set aside a few minutes each day to film as many people as possible. Karel would set up his camera, and Simon would go looking for random people willing to stare into our camera for a few seconds. That seems like it’d be a hard sell. But thanks to Simon and Karel’s lovable, upbeat nature, most people were instantly at ease and agreeable to be filmed.
And finally, I’m impressed by what great travelers Simon and Karel both are. They don’t just work hard — they are fully present and completely engaged in the experience of traveling. After shooting footage for the show, they pause for a moment or two just take in the beauty around them (and, often, pull out their iPhones to snap a photo for their own personal reel). And when Rick finishes interviewing a local guide for the camera, ever-inquisitive Simon and Karel quiz the guide with follow-up questions. If anyone has earned the right to be jaded travelers, it’s these two. But amazingly, they still bring an almost childlike enthusiasm for travel to every shot of every show. In my mind, that’s the secret ingredient of what makes Rick Steves’ Europe so special.
This is part four 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.