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Behind the Show

by Danny Forster on Apr 13, 2010

With Build It Bigger, now in its fifth season, the trick is to do right by some very complex content and also make fun television. Each episode explores some architectural project that pushes the boundaries of what′s been done before—technologically, culturally, aesthetically, environmentally. So a good show has to explain the history of a project and its forbears, set the scene, lay out the problems, and then demonstrate how the architect and engineers have met the challenge at hand. And not by standing back and pointing, either; a good show has to get the viewer right up into the building process. It′s my job as host of Build It Bigger to stand in for the person who wants to know how one builds a park across the top of three skyscrapers, but can′t fly off to Singapore to get themselves into a gondola and ride up the side of the tower themselves. I can see it with my eyes, ask the questions you would ask, plus a few more, and thanks to Jason Longo, Build It Bigger′s tireless cameraman, you can be right there with me.

Believe it or not we do all the filming for each location in a single week. That′s right, just seven days. But preparation starts months before; it has to, if we′re going to make the most of our time. First we have to pick the projects we′re going to explore. Powderhouse Productions and Discovery and I all come up with ideas for projects that interest us. We often disagree, which is probably good, because the push-and-pull among our interests broadens the range of the show. The one rule is, we only look at projects we′re really curious about. Tunneling equipment is gigantic and cool, but only a tunnel that takes on an unusual challenge—like, say, the Alps—is going to pique our interest. OK, so now we have our dream list. But can we get access? Will the project be in active construction when we want to visit? Will we be able to put an episode together in time? Has the global recession put yet another building on hold?
It′s my job as host of Build It Bigger to stand in for the person who wants to know how one builds a park across the top of three skyscrapers, but can′t fly off to Singapore to get themselves into a gondola and ride up the side of the tower themselves
If the stars align, we arrive at the new location, loaded with research and girded with permissions. "We" are me, a producer, a cameraman, and a sound man, and that′s it. On day one we get our bearings, go to the site, scout out the situation. As everyone knows who has hired someone to redo a bathroom, construction never runs on schedule. So we′re lucky if, indeed, the glass is going up as we had been told six weeks ago it would. The one thing that does seem utterly reliable is the reaction of the construction manager when we explain we really really do want to get hoisted up on that crane along with the erection team. Really. And no, a shot from 40 feet away is not what we′re after.

The architectural idea is interesting on its own, maybe, but it′s not compelling or powerful until you physically experience it. That means we have to get up close. And it also means that sometimes what we thought was the story of the building (or bridge or tunnel) before we arrived isn′t the story we want to tell after we get there, experience the culture, talk to the workers, and get our hands on the project. That element of improvisation, combined with the time pressure, combined with the nature of shooting in real time—no second takes—makes my cameraman′s job nearly impossible and always amazing. Jason has one camera, and one take--and he′s got to film me, the workers, and the project, without a pause or do-over. He′s got to set the scene and follow the action. All while steadily carrying a 25 pound piece of equipment, and doing so while walking backward into the same high-risk situations I often enter trembling.

After 7 days, with luck, we′ve got it: we′ve honed in on what makes this project one-of-a-kind, and we have 15 or 20 hours to show for it. Back home at Powderhouse Productions, just outside of Boston, a producer and an editor work tirelessly to transform that footage into 40+ minutes of reasonable, watchable television. Meanwhile, I′m at the next location, absorbing a new culture, trying to figure out how to explain something complicated about a faÇade in a way that′s both accurate and entertaining, while convincing the construction manager and his team of lawyers that yes, we really do want to hang off the side of the building. Really.
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