Bringing Story Sense — and a Few Surprises — to a Show About Craftsmanship That Defies Instant Gratification

StudioDaily discovered muscle-car-restoration reality show Graveyard Carz back in 2011, when Springfield, Oregon production company The Division had just begun shopping the fledgling program around for TV deals. We checked in again in 2013, as the show revved up its third season on Discovery's Velocity channel. Back then, it was an interesting case study because the show was riding the trend of using relatively inexpensive DSLRs to get a high-quality, cinematic look in HD. Today, the show airs internationally and is shooting its latest season more lavishly, capturing 4K with the Sony F55. Executive producers Aaron Smith and D.L. Watson of The Division Productions filled us in on what's changed and what's stayed the same.

Based out of "Mopar mortician" Mark Worman's Springfield, OR body shop, Welby's Collision Center, Graveyard Carz has always been a show that takes its time. "Most car shows are a reveal every show," says Smith. "I asked Mark, 'Realistically, with an unlimited budget, could you do a car in a week?' And he said no. It can take months. It can take years."

That's because Worman's M.O. is absolutely scrupulous, down to the factory spec of every last nut and bolt used to restore a car's original equipment. It's not an instant-gratification business. "So this has to be a character show," Smith says, referring both to the team of mechanics who work on the cars as well as to the cars themselves. "We have to make these cars characters, with their own stories, and set up mini-payoffs about finding the parts we have to have to make the car work."

Getting Into Character

Producing Graveyard Carz is about getting the most mileage out of a relatively small number of complicated restoration jobs. And a big part of that is understanding enough about the personalities on the show to make the most of their interactions at work. "We sit down with the cast and come up with cool concepts that really dive into their characters," explains Watson. "It's their personality, but we help push them along in certain situations. I will know that a certain person will be quick to react to a situation, so we may create a scenario where we tell everyone what's going on except that one person, creating a scene around him and his reaction to it. Those moments are scripted, but they're still natural, realistic moments — and we get something golden in camera."

"You can tell when it's fake, so we try to make scenes where the cast doesn’t know what's going on," says Smith, describing a scene from the last season where Worman's daughter, Allysa, took a joyride in a Challenger SRT with just 697 miles on it. "The car was going to get sold, and it had low mileage and it was uninsured. So the camera guy jumped in the car with her and said, 'Let's do it.' Mark flipped out. Really flipped out, in the way he does. He wasn't knocking things over, but there was this intensity to it. We really wondered if we went too far. And people saw it on TV and went, 'Oh, that's so fake.'"

But over time, the show has emphasized the cars more than the team working on them, with recent projects including a 1971 Plymouth Barracuda restored as an homage to the classic horror film Phantasm (complete with a guest appearance by Phantasm director Don Coscarelli) and a 1968 GTX convertible owned by former WCW and WWE pro wrestler Bill Goldberg. The show is popular enough that it has earned sponsorships that help Worman restore cars for customers who couldn't otherwise afford the work.

"If they've got a really good story, he can call up vendors in a sponsor capacity to make things happen by putting together deals for people," Smith says.

"But that comes with the caveat that it could take 24 to 36 months for your car to get done," adds Watson. "We've got about 70 cars that need to be restored, so about 10 seasons that need to be shot."

Onward and Upward

The show had a bit of a reset in the middle of season four, with a broadcast hiatus keeping it off the air through most of 2015. When the show finally returned in October, it had a new cast, all of whom were actual employees of Welby's Car Care. And Welby's itself moved from its original location on Main Street to a much larger space near the highway. By that time, the show already had another sponsor — Small Tree came on in the first half of season 4 to help Graveyard Carz upgrade its storage systems. 

"A previous sponsor had sent us an iSCSI shared-storage system," Smith says. "In trying to get that system to work, I had reached out to Small Tree's [National Sales Manager] Alan Butler with some questions. Al said, 'I love Graveyard Carz!' When things didn't work out with the other company, we asked Al if he'd be interested in helping out, since we needed a really fast shared-storage solution."

Graveyard Cars had been working with what Smith calls a "shared storage a la Best Buy solution," using a consumer-grade networked drive to distribute 1 Mbps proxies at 640×320 resolution for four different editors to work on. "It took way too much time to make the proxies and way too much time to conform afterward," he remembers. "We needed to not do that any more. But we were small and we didn't have a lot of money."

Revving Up with 4K Workflow

Thanks to Small Tree's help, season 4 was the first to edit without a proxy workflow. But today, the show is back to using proxies again — thanks to a deal with TERN International in the Netherlands, which commissioned two new seasons for its Insight UHD channel with the requirement that they be acquired in 4K 50p. To facilitate the dramatic uptick in quality from the previous DSLR-centric production, TERN is lending Sony F55 cameras to the production for the next two seasons.

Small Tree stepped up, offering a ZenStor system to handle the dramatically increased storage requirements, but the show's editorial workstations, secured through another sponsorship deal with a PC builder, aren't beefy enough to handle native 500 Mbps 4K video. "The Small Tree units are plenty fast, but the computers are too slow," Smith says. "It was a choice between getting $45,000 in new computers or just rendering proxies."

The camera original files are stored as MXFs which are transcoded to H.264 MPEG-4 proxies at 960×540 resolution using Adobe Prelude. The online project-management tool Trello keeps the team on the same page as footage is sync'd using Red Giant Pluraleyes and then edited in Premiere. Each sequence is saved as a project file that's uploaded through Trello, then downloaded and placed in a timeline for the corresponding episode.

Five-act episode structures are created for TERN, and then Watson turns them into seven-act episodes for Velocity. For the online conform, an XML file is exported and then opened in a text editor, where a global find-and-replace is used to change every "MP4" reference to "MXF" as well as to change the specified file folder to point to the full-resolution files. At that point, the XML can be imported back into Premiere. "No relinking, no headache, instant conform." Watson says. "With our editorial machines not being the greatest, we try to stay in the proxies as long as possible until we have to switch over."

Color-correction is done at full-resolution in Resolve on an HP Z820 16-core workstation with 64 GB of RAM, along with the final editorial tasks, including syncing music, checking for flash frames and other picture problems, and doing any final trims. And the show is being downres’d to 1080p25 for delivery to Velocity. “We’re using an open shutter at 50 fps, which looks like a 180-degreee shutter at 25 fps, so the conversion looks great,” Watson said. 

But not all of the footage being generated at Welby's is going to be geared toward high-end broadcasts. The team hopes to get rolling this year with 360-degree video that will put viewers inside a car while the team works on it. And a 4K Panasonic HC-X1000 4K camera will be used to shoot web content, including a "Mopar Minutes" tie-in on YouTube as well as a little something for fans of behind-the-scenes skinny — tutorials on the specific challenges of creating a compelling but authentic and unforced reality TV show.

Asked what he's learned over the life of Graveyard Carz so far, Smith says he's gained a great appreciation for the structure that makes stories work. “I think the biggest thing I learned from making a reality TV show is how much screenwriting skills come into play," he says. "Even though it’s reality, you shape the edits, plan the pick-up interviews, and write VO that creates the narrative of the show. Especially when you make a car restoration show that only finishes a car every four episodes, on overage, you really can’t create anything without a firm understanding of set-up and pay-off.”