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Innovation Wednesday: Filming Dirty Jobs, A Behind the Scenes Look

Want a dirty job done right? Ask some dirty boys to do it.

Want a dirty job done right? Ask some dirty boys to do it.

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That’s the takeaway from my visit to the “set” of Dirty Jobs, the runaway hit series from the Discovery Channel. Mike Rowe, the star and rogue philosopher behind the show, is profiled in this month’s cover story. But I would be remiss, and he would be disappointed, if I didn’t spend a bit of time talking about how it all comes together. Because it’s dirty work indeed.

Filming the show is inherently challenging. The crew have to show up to an unfamiliar work site and try to capture what someone does – and what they teach Mike to do – on film, without missing anything or getting sucked into some sort of machine. Or worse. Dan Eggiman, who toggles between production assistant and occasional camera operator, describes his first time with the crew, filming “Cave Biologist,” last fall. To get the story, they had to crawl through miles of treacherous caves in Kentucky hunting for new species. “It was physically tight, and a two-day shoot. We basically crouched in muddy caves carrying 100 pounds of equipment that couldn’t get wet.” One wrong step, and you’d slide into what appeared to be a hellish abyss. But Dan, a recent college grad who has had only one previous job, couldn’t be happier with his new gig. “This is the greatest job in television,” he grins. (And not just because his first one was a reality dating thing called “Girl Meets Cowboy.”)

Besides the untimely death of crew members – or the destruction of expensive HD cameras – other problems can occur. Many elements of dirty jobs are things that only happen once – once a tree is down, it’s down, for example, – so getting the shot right the first time is important. No easy task, since every job, location and cast of characters are utterly different. Think of it as improv theater with heavy machinery. “It took a long time to find this crew. And I waited a long time to find Barsky,” says Rowe. “He’s a process person. He gets the mission. He may even care about it more than I do.” Barsky doesn’t have a lot to work with. “There are no location scouts, no advance people, and no scripts,” he says. The hosts have to get comfortable with doing their jobs with Mike and the cameras around. And the crew have to aware of their potential impact while on location. “One example: We’re in a salt mine. There are explosives around. We have people and equipment to protect. Not to mention, this is someone’s actual job.” Barsky pauses. “The people we visit have to feel comfortable with us because there is so much at stake for everyone.”

But things do happen that even Barsky doesn’t see coming. He describes with obvious annoyance being interrupted on a job site in Louisiana (spraying insulation, the kind of thing that’s hard to orchestrate a do-over) by a local reporter who toddled into the shot on high heels and with higher hair, to get the scoop on what was happening. “Did the owner call her to get local publicity? I don’t know,” Barsky said. “But I tossed her off pretty fast.” It may be someone else’s actual job, but it’s Barsky’s set. (The crew members are freelancers, so they occasionally rotate out when when they get other gigs. Barsky, however, is always there.)

Doug Glover (fans may remember seeing Doug throw up on the abalone farming episode) is the lead camera. “He gets the wide shots and sets the scene,” explains Barsky. Doug also is the butt of numerous jokes regarding his artistic vision – the former indie film cinematographer is frequently teased about the amount of time he spends setting up a shot. “ARE YOU WORKING ON YOUR REEL AGAIN?” is a frequent Barsky taunt. But at the end of the day, Doug helps sets an important documentary tone for the crew. “It’s not a real visual show, we’re not trying to be the best looking show in the world,” he explains. “We’re trying to serve the content. So we really focus on the process, and mainly try to give Mike as much freedom as possible – he’s at his best when he gets to do whatever he wants to do.” Something is working: The show was nominated for an Emmy in 2007 for “Outstanding Cinematography For Reality Programming.” (In addition to directing, Barsky also operates a camera, filming the host.)

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Chris Whiteneck is Camera B, and films Mike. Chris is now a worldwide celebrity after having been famously attacked and bitten on the leg by Paddy, a profoundly disturbed monkey. (They were filming an episode that took place in what can loosely be described as a monkey sanctuary in South Africa. ) As a result, the fans love to see his scar. On the subject of work, Chris says: “The only thing I would say is that I try to follow Mike’s lead. So, I try to stay as close as possible to Mike, which brings the viewer closer, and gives them a more intimate experience.” He also provides an invaluable service by filming the mishaps of other crew members who have been punked, or perhaps, have lost drinking contests. (It is simply amazing what one intrepid filmmaker can do with a camera phone under challenging lighting conditions.)

Audio is expertly handled by Chris Jones. Frankly, it’s hard to hear people on these job sites under the best of circumstances, let alone elevating the didactic chit-chat to broadcast quality. And anyone who has had a microphone go wild during a powerpoint presentation understands the challenges of the medium. Forget the animal noises or diesel engine burps: “You definitely don’t want to have to do a re-shoot because of static on a mic, or a dead battery,” he says.

Rounding out the crew is Ira Leonard, the production assistant, who brings an unusual grace and humor to his relatively humble place on the production food chain. Put out your hand for anything from a cord to a prop to piece of equipment, and he’s there. (He also gets the lunch from whatever local eatery is near the shoot, and keeps track of all the stuff that Mike wears for each episode.) I would suggest, however, additional safety gear for him. Perhaps something in Kevlar.

To put into perspective how sparse the operation is compared to other shows in the genre, Mike describes a funny encounter they had with another film crew, while shooting the recent eel boat episode, which is on rotation now:

“Against all odds, we’re in Maine – just getting off an eel boat. And Extreme Home Makeover was there doing a shoot on the same street where the eel processing facility was. By way of contrast, we get off the boat. Six guys. Looking like we’ve been to hell and back. We had a call from the EP [executive producer] at Home Makeover. Everyone on the crew is a fan of the show, and they want us to come over to have lunch in their incredibly catered trailer. So I said of course, and we go over. Maybe about 400 people from these various businesses are there working on the house, everyone drops what they are doing, and they come over. And it’s just the six of us. Who have been vomiting for hours and are lucky to be alive, basically.

Three hours we sit there and we answer questions and we eat. It was very instructive. We’re a show about work with six guys. Totally unscripted, completely organic, doing it as we go – versus this big network hit with hundreds of people, all the talent all wearing earpieces, being told what to say. Everything is orchestrated. It’s such a different world, and it was stunning to see it all play out this way.”

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In my next installment, I’ll introduce you to Campbell Coxe, the South Carolina farmer who was the good-natured host of the show I observed, and who taught me a thing or two about rice, tornadoes and wild boar.

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