Making TV in Europe: A New Series for 2002
By Rick Steves
After spending 84 days in Europe in the last two years, we've produced 14 new programs which debut in September, 2002, across the USA on public television. Our crew of three (host / writer — me, producer / director — Simon Griffith, and cameraperson — one of three Seattle-area shooters) works six 12-hour days to shoot one 30-minute episode of "Rick Steves' Europe."
Each program starts with a 10-page script, which has about 90 "sequences" — the video equivalent of paragraphs. Covering everything in the script is like putting together a daunting puzzle.
Each sequence is either a "voice-over" (showing things that I describe) or "on camera" (showing me talking to the camera on location). Since we can't show a history bit such as, "Tired of being overrun by barbarians, peace-loving farmers from the mainland fled to the lagoon," I say that to the camera...in the lagoon.
Good TV maximizes the visual stuff and minimizes the "on camera" bits. In producing our shows, I assume people tune in to see Europe...not me talking about Europe.
For each 30-minute episode, we take home about seven hours of footage. The "post-production" process, which takes about three weeks per show, includes editing, polishing the script according to the best footage, and recording the audio track. We give a composer a rough cut of the show with our "needle drop" selections of music (existing pieces we don't have the rights to, but which show the mood we'd like the music to convey). He watches the episode and writes original material specifically for that program.
Back at home, Simon teams up with our editor, Steve Cammarano, to piece everything together. While Simon has always been in Europe overseeing every inch of footage shot, this year Steve traveled too — taking our Best of Europe tour for a quick look at Europe's most exciting stops. Now, more than ever, these shows are by travelers and for travelers.
There's big change on the horizon for TV. The future is high-definition programming (1,080 lines of resolution compared to 480 lines today) at a wider movie-screen-type format.
On our last shoot we used the new HD camera. It shows everything — the good (every Botticelli brush stroke), the bad (every wrinkle in my wardrobe), and the ugly (each bit of pesto in my teeth). To get all that detail, hi-def cameras require more light and precision focusing. But wherever we were — picking tulips, fishing for anchovies, whacking a hurling ball — it was clear the results are worth the extra effort. We produced our new shows in the current format, but when the new hi-def, wide-screen format takes hold, we'll convert our shows and pour the glories of Europe like a sunrise into your living room.
For me, TV production is exhilarating. One morning is spent taking my cameraman into a favorite art gallery and deciding just how to show off those masterpieces. At lunch I'll munch a local delicacy — for countless vicarious eaters. And that afternoon I may introduce one of my favorite Europeans to so many Americans. I'm a tour guide at heart... and this is the ultimate gig.
But because some of my favorite teaching bits just don't work on TV, it can also be frustrating. For instance, in Ireland I wanted to illustrate the great potato famine of 1845 by showing the rows of potatoes that were planted but never grew. Unfortunately, the faint 150-year old rows just didn't show up enough for TV.
For continuity reasons, I need to wear the same shirt for each six-day shoot. I eat greasy food gingerly and every few days I scrounge up an iron. Needing to be so fastidious about my "wardrobe" is far from good travel.
And only when working on our TV series do I agonize over the weather. Sunshine and blue sky make colors pop. Without good weather we have to work twice as hard. The eight shows we shot in 2001 (Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam, and five on Italy) are perfectly sunny. This summer, we successfully danced around generally bad weather for five shows (in Ireland and Germany). Then in Switzerland — our last show — we hit the rain that brought on the August flooding throughout central Europe.
|Rick and crew interact with Swiss kids in a one-room schoolhouse.|
For five days I squinted up at what should have been brilliant Alps and saw only clouds. Day after day the weatherman called tomorrow's weather "cruel." For 25 years I've brought tour groups here and never had a three-day stay completely rained out... except this time, when my "group" consisted of so many future viewers.
The bad weather inspired us to find fascinating indoor things to shoot. We feature high-altitude cheese making, a one-room school house in action, a river-powered sawmill manned by oversized garden elves, and the village volunteer firefighters learning how to rescue Heidis in distress. Our theme became "This isn't just any Alps show."
For the first time in producing 80 TV shows over the last decade, we had to leave the cameraman behind to get the necessary glory shots. Staying on four more days, he got plenty of brilliant sunshine. Thankfully, our new Alps show will have the awesome peaks and — thanks to all that rain — an abundance of intimate cultural treats.
According to the public television network, more stations picked up our latest series than any new TV series this fall. Your local station is probably already running it. The first five episodes are in Italy. Then we head north to Amsterdam, Prague, Ireland, Germany and the lush — and ultimately sunny — Swiss Alps. We hope you enjoy the new shows.