On location: MasterChef

Set of MasterchefProduced in Sydney by Fremantle Media Masterchef hasturned into a ratings blockbuster for Network Ten. Peter Galvin sneaked into their kitchen and found out how they’ve set a standard for the genre.

According to a Ten spokesperson, Masterchef scored a 1.96 rating for one Sunday in June and averages 1.29 million viewers a night “dominating its timeslot”. Combining the reality show with the popular but much-less sensational “cooking show” program, the series, whose concept originated in the UK, offers a high-turn over, high-volume production challenge for cast and crew. “Sometimes we have a crew of 100 to cover the action,” says Judy Smart, series producer. Based in Alexandria, in an industrial estate in the city’s inner-south west, MasterChef is made in a purpose built set, in what was once a warehouse.
The show runs Sunday to Friday. The series began with fifty finalists, selected from an open audition process. Each week the contestants compete against one another in a series of challenges, judged by award-winning chefs and a food critic. and each week two contestants are eliminated. The prize offers a publishing deal and an opportunity for the winner to “live their dream, to become a professional MasterChef.”

“Each day of shooting is an episode,” says Smart. Post-production is based in Crows Nest. “We use 20 offline edit suites and we do 72 episodes in three and a half months.” Each week TEN puts to air three hour-long episodes and three half hours.

“It’s innovative in what we are trying to do in terms of the sheer volume of output and the technical difficulties that arise from that,” says series director Kate Douglas-Walker. “To shoot up to 20 people cooking 20 different dishes and getting the coverage on that right… directorially, it’s working out a shooting style that covers everything well.”

The MasterChef “studio” combines a floor for the action, where contestants work on their recipes and dishes, while on the floor above producer and director watch a live feed in a control room (there is also a mezzanine so observers can witness the action, too). The show is recorded on tape. Also occupying the crowded control room is an editing “logger” and lighting director (audio and audio producing occupy a small room next door).

Says Smart: “What we feel the show is doing is lifting the bar on reality shows. We’re spending a lot of time and money on the lighting and set ups and location. Other productions will (be influenced) and follow.”

The day Encore visited MasterChef, contestants were just finishing one of the show’s regular challenges, “the mystery box”, where they all receive the same ingredients and must cook a dish of their own choice. Meanwhile the shows judges, chef Gary Mehigan (of Fenix and Maribyrnong restaurants) and chef George Calombaris (of the Melbourne restaurant The Press Club) and food critic Matt Preston weave in between the contestants, sometimes interacting with them, sometimes just observing. “In the control room we have five monitors covering the action,” explains Smart. “All the talent wear ear-pieces so we can communicate to them the TV side of things and let them know what’s happening, but we let them talk naturally about the food. Our job really is to make sure the story makes sense.”

Today the camera crew are using seven Fuji Beta cameras, one on a techno crane. The camera favours only three sides of the “cooking space”. “We didn’t go down the Big Brother path of everything going straight into machines but on to tape. We can go into the field and shot single cam and we’ve stayed with recording in camera on tape.”


Designed by Chris Batson, the set includes a cooking space (kitchen), a small “restaurant”, a coffee lounge, a bar and an enormous pantry, and interview rooms. The design team took two weeks to construct the “kitchen” and it includes top of the range hardware with 22 stainless steel work counters, 20 ovens and hobs (the benches are all on wheels). It feels quite “homey” too, with beaded curtains hung to break up space.

Described by the team as ‘warm’ with a lot of wood and chocolate colours, the space utilises lighting that feels organic to the setting, like light boxes, yet provides a practical solution to technical requirements. Lighting director Alex Laguna made the practicals using fluorescent tubes, “as a cost saving method” which produces “true daylight”.

“If you’re shooting multiple angles as we do here, you can never have a single backlight. We had to come up with something that could be shot and be nice and soft.” Laguna placed 6K space lights in the ceiling with full blue gel to match daylight that leaks in through the doors and windows. “With the lower light boxes no matter where you look you have a nice back light on the contestants, you always have a highlight on the face but its not too hard.”

Laguna says the set is good because it has depth and discrete fields. “You get pockets of darkness and there we put little tungsten highlights through it. The colours here are great because of the warm brown.”

Douglas-Walker is full of praise for the set. “It has an autumnal feel,” which fits the “friendly” tone of the series, which flies against the “take-noprisoners” style of most reality TV. “It was important to be able to point the camera anywhere and not get shadows over people.” The producers want to emphasise the faces and the food. “It can’t be drama-like lighting, but it works because we have this beautiful room.”

Smart says the lighting and staging offers a range of moods; for instance, a cooking challenge is bright, while the eliminations are performed against a moody dark staging which Douglas-Walker jokes as being like “film noir”.

Mehigan feels that the truly innovative aspect of the show and the secret to its success is that it has emphasis on producing “good food”. This is what is driving the show and stops it slipping into a “personality” test. It is the food that gets the “glamour” shots on the show, with the schedule leaving a healthy portion of each days shooting to allow the crew to achieve the best results in capturing the food at its best. “We’ve got a vested interest in seeing good food,” he says. The contestants thus were selected on the basis that they are “self-starters”.

“They need to be motivated by good food and love good food.”

Smart says that the feeling of warmth and supportiveness that has been popular with viewers has been designed into the show. The more typical “knives-out” type of behaviour between contestants simply isn’t part of what MasterChef is about. In truth, she says, the players are supportive of one another, if they are committed competitors. Full-time support staff look after the contestants’ emotional and physical needs, monitoring their morale and welfare.

Mehigan says that MasterChef is grounded in cooking and that as the contestants are tutored the audience learns too (“Well, I hope they do”). ■


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.