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An amazing race: shooting reality TV in Juneau

Posted: December 19, 2013 - 12:04am
The "end game" for "The Amazing Race" episode filmed in Juneau.   Courtesy of Bob Crockett
Courtesy of Bob Crockett
The "end game" for "The Amazing Race" episode filmed in Juneau.

Alaskans who have lived here long enough to take more than four flights know that weather leads to unpredictable delays. The weather does what it wants and no amount of money – or fuss -- changes that.

So when producers from a primetime television show got in touch with us at Piksik, an Anchorage-based production support service company, and said they wanted to film the finale episode of their show on location in Juneau under the bright summer sun, there were some concerns about delivering on the “bright” part of that scenario.

The show, called “The Amazing Race,” is a reality show on CBS that pits teams of people against each other as they attempt to race around the world. The route is defined by a series of clues and navigated by a variety of modes of transportation. A team’s ability to remain cool when dealing with unexpected obstacles is the key to staying in the game. With just one day in each location and usually just one chance to advance, any of the two-person teams can lose their lead with a choice as simple as jumping in a taxi with a driver who can’t guess the meaning of whatever arcane clue they hold in their hand. And with $1 million at stake, cooperation gains a looser definition.

Alaska’s position as an easy port of entry when flying from Asia to the US was the main consideration when the producers of the show called in early March.

“What does Alaska have for a small town feel?” they wanted to know.

Glad you asked. The big-wilderness-small-town feel is actually our brand.

Next question: “Can we count on good weather?”

In this business, the answer is always “yes”. Yes, when the weather cooperates your shot will look amazing. With that in mind, the production team chose July 2 as the race day.

In addition to its small town appeal, Juneau was chosen for the amount of activity happening on any given summer day. The prospect of a race involving helicopter rides, dog sledding, glacier trekking, boat riding, and zip lining enticed the producers.

The clincher was that half of the considered activities relied on the right weather for them to even happen at all. So while the underwriters figured out insurance for the risk associated with helicoptering contestants to a glacier for some crevasse crossing, the producers banked on the weather being clear on the one day they needed it. A backup plan was in place, but it wouldn’t have been as exciting as the race they wanted.

But the weather is only the most obvious variable among the huge range of factors involved in pulling together a single hour of reality television – most of it behind the scenes. Given the amount of work that goes into any production, responsibilities are divided among departments. Naming just a few departments, the coordinating is done by what is commonly called Production. Camera Department is in charge of the cameras and, not be confusing, Grip Department is in charge of camera support. The Transportation Department is in charge of all the vehicles and tracks all vehicle movement. Transportation knows who has which keys and if you go home with keys in your pocket (a rookie mistake I’ve made), they know. Most often, the largest department is the Art Department. If it’s not digitally created, Art finds or builds everything you see on screen.

My job for the shoot – other than promoting my home town -- was assistant locations manager. The Locations Department is in charge of anything related to setting up and permitting a shooting location. Locations crew must know and predict all variables for any given place that production chooses.

In order to understand the scale of the logistics of pulling a finale off, let’s take a look at just one small but rather important component. At every finish line, the host and all eliminated contestants welcome the winning team from a low stage covered with a large red carpet that displays the name of the show.

That stage, a raised flat metal surface, proved to be the source of much frustration.

The 600-pound, 12’x24’ stage didn’t exist in Juneau. Sourced in Eagle River, it was loaded into a truck, driven 750 miles down to Haines, ferried 6 hours to Juneau, and unloaded into a warehouse; where it hung out for a week until the stage tech flew down from Anchorage to build it on race day.

Fortunately, the stage was not weather dependent. It would work rain or shine. The stage tech was scheduled to fly in on the morning of July 2. If he didn’t make it in, neither would the contestants. If that happened, there would be no need for the stage.

Meanwhile, the Art Deparment was busy handling some of the more unusual responsibilities of the project, including burying clues for the racers in ice, building a giant target, filling sand bombs, and manufacturing giant, totem-shaped structures and game pieces for the final game.

The totem poles and pieces were assembled in a warehouse in Juneau by a dedicated team of local, amazing production assistants. In the days leading up to race day, they worked around the clock in shifts prepping and painting the 6 totem poles and 135 game pieces.

On the day before race day, the Executive Producers arrived and decided that the setting of the game wasn’t green enough. With exposed dirt and anchor wires running every which way -- as a few pedestrians hiking the Treadwell Ditch Trail that day saw -- it looked like the makings a circus and not, as one producer pointed out, at all like a jungle.

Tasked with turning a dirt parking lot into a rainforest, Art purchased 22 pallets of plants from a local store at 7 p.m. The totem poles and pieces still had to make it to the set too. For the next five hours, production’s three large box trucks were occupied with moving pallets of plants to set.

At 10 p.m. the request was made to Locations to get the stage loaded and ready to travel to the finish line first thing in the morning. For myself, the next 4 hours was something of an amazing race to get keys for a truck with a cargo area large enough to hold all the sections of the stage. With the amount of prep yet to be done, Art was holding all the trucks hostage. Three hours and many phone calls later, an agreement was reached that the stage would be loaded into one of the trucks when they were done with game set up. And most importantly, they would tell the Transportation which truck the stage was in.

A very minor victory considering all that had yet to be done before the racers landed. Work on the glacier needed to be completed, vehicles needed to be topped off, end game pieces still needed to get to set, the finish line had to be prepped, and the list continued; but with determination of all involved there was no doubt it would happen.

The morning of race day, the weather was overcast but the race was still a go.

The stage was driven to the finish line location and unloaded. A spot was chosen and the stage tech arrived to set it up. It was leveled off. Seven crew, including yours truly, wrestled for a half an hour positioning the heavy, red carpet perfectly atop the platform. Finally, the show’s Director signed off.

Prep continued until it couldn’t because we either ran out of whatever item we were prepping or because it was finally safe for contestants’ arrival. At each of the five locations, the teams of crew had worked long hours and days to get ready, but when the racers showed up the only thing left to do was get out of the shot.

Positioned at the finish line, we waited until the contestants’ imminent arrival was announced. Then all crew hid themselves and watched as the contestants ran from their cab and down the driveway. The racers eyes lit up when they turned that last corner and saw the stage. Oh, that glorious platform of victory and the work that went into getting it there! Traveling across six continents, they’d long dreamt of being the first team to step foot on a stage that had traveled half-way across Alaska just to support them.

Despite the less-than-perfect weather, with joyful hearts the contestants quickly covered that remaining distance and stood before that $1 million dais. Meanwhile, we stood in the shelter of the trees and breathed a collective sigh of relief, knowing that it was the result of the close collaboration from all involved.

This episode of CBS' "The Amazing Race" aired on Dec. 8. Watch it here: www.cbs.com/shows/amazing_race/video/N_v1snUhy2qCNHf2aNVS4IbqlpSSYN12/the-amazing-race-amazing-crazy-race/

* Originally from Juneau, Brice Habeger is the Video Production Manager at Piksik. For more info on Alaska productions: www.piksik.com/amazingrace

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