Screen Africa journalist Carly Barnes spent a day with other media personnel
under the watchful eye of “Biggie’ and ventured beyond the two-way mirrors and
through blacked out passage ways, where a steadfast crew work around the
clock to produce Season 11 of the hit reality series (Season Three of the Mzansi
As I hand over my valuables and any device which could connect me to the
outside world, I can’t help but wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. My would-be
housemates have the same bewildered look on their faces and as we are lead
through the final door at Sasani Studios, I’m transported into a kind of pseudo-
reality where there are no clocks, no ad breaks and no escape routes.
It isn’t long before the initial excitement and clear awareness of the cameras
and microphones dwindles, leaving human nature to its own devices. Friendships
are forged, leaders emerge, irks begin to simmer and defences slowly
disintegrate, along with PG13 language.
It’s only when the booming voice of Big Brother announces a new challenge or
calls us into the diary room that we realise we are all just part of a microcosmic
social experiment, which for the actual contestants, will mean a whopping one
million rand prize, if they can withstand the isolation – and each other.
As Big Brother’s guests for the evening, we are made to do our own
housekeeping, our own cooking and our own entertaining which is when the
popularity contest ends and the shortlist of potential evictees begins to stir our
minds. If we really were going to be trapped here for 63 days, as the real
housemates will be, perhaps the first contestant to go would more likely be the
one opting out of chores and challenges, instead of one who is the most
potentially threatening to the end prize.
Setting the scene
Inside the house we are surrounded by modern Afrocentric decor, indigenous
plants and a plethora of voyeuristic equipment. Every move we make is captured
by 30 Sony Q-ball cameras capable of recording 360 degree movement, 10
GoPro cameras, two Pencil cameras, 11 Dome cameras and nine Sony handheld
Sennheiser EW 500 G3 microphones are permanently attached to each
housemate, barring shower hour and the time we spend asleep. Ambience
around the house is recorded by a number of discretely placed microphones,
including: 23 Sennheiser MKH416s, four Sennheiser Boundaries, 27 Sennheiser
KM184s, four Sennheiser MKH60s, five Sennheiser MKH70s and three Sennheiser
There really is nowhere to hide. Even the blacked out screen where the toilet
camera and audio is set up can be uncovered and unmuted, should housemates
partake in any non-bathroom related activities.
The diary room and store room are the only places where members of the
production team are able to gain access to the house. Through a mirror in the
diary room, they leave printed instructions, fresh batteries for housemate
microphones and any other props required. Access is controlled throughout the
house by the use of Maglocks.
As we prepare to leave the house, our fingers itching to tweet, type and tap
against the screen of a smart phone, we are given an exclusive behind-the-
scenes tour and begin to understand the effort and efficiency it takes to run a
24-hour live production.
Endemol’s crew of 120 professionals, including 12 technical directors, 11 content
directors, shaders, audio operators, loggers and co-ordinators work in relay-
style shifts, day and night, to deliver an around-the-clock broadcast as well as
daily and weekly highlights shows, which audiences will watch on M-Net’s Mzansi
Magic. Stories and plots are directed and planned as the action takes place; only
four seconds before it appears on television, while highlights shows are created
from footage which is roughly cut in an offline edit and then sent immediately to
a final edit.
The signals from 120 microphones are fed through five Yamaha digital audio
mixers while the Big Brother voice and house music is distributed by a Yamaha
DME64 digital mixing engine, cascaded to a Yamaha DME16 and fed to five
Electro-voice amplifiers powering 23 Electro-voice speakers.
The main desk mixing stream consists of two digital Yamaha M7s. Ambience
microphones are connected to seven Yamaha SB-168 Ethersound stage boxes,
which convert analogue signals to digital, and are linked to three Yamaha LS 9
mixers. The video is controlled by a Pro-Bel router able to send any source from
the master control room.
During my session in the diary room, I was asked if I could ever partake in the
real-life Big Brother Mzanzi competition, to which I smugly replied: “Why, of
course! In fact I think I’d stand a good chance of snagging the million rand
prize!’ In retrospect I think I may have taken too lightly the challenges faced by
a group of strangers, who for an extended period of time, have to live together
in close quarters. Even greater was my underestimation of what a hard working
crew is required to run such a well-oiled reality churning machine.