One post-production facility is using its experience in reality-based TV to profit from the growing demand in the faster, cheaper programming craze.

Wild Woods, based at the foot of the Hollywood Hills in Studio City, has generated gross sales growth rates of 25 to 30 percent a year since 1995 by churning out sound mixes of three, sometimes four shows a week.

Currently working near capacity, the studio is producing sounds from the Australian Outback for the second season of "Survivor," and for MTV's latest "Blair Witch"-style reality show, "Fear." In addition, president and co-founder Derek Luff and his staff are hard at work on 14 other series, often turning around sound mixes for shows only hours before they air. The company's bookings extend into 2002.

Reality shows such as "Survivor" and Fox's "Temptation Island" can be made at a fraction of the cost of episodic or feature productions.

It's high-volume, low-margin work. Wild Woods charges $300 an hour and has become the acknowledged leader in audio post production for reality TV, having won five Emmys Awards for mixing and sound editing on a variety of documentaries and reality programs.

"We've always specialized in this field," said Luff. "It took us many years to get our system perfect. At other facilities, it's one room (of audio post production), with one assistant doing all the work."

At Wild Woods, the staff specializes, working in seven different rooms, with Luff as the sound supervisor. With several editors and mixers working simultaneously, Luff and his team can produce a finished session in a fraction of the time that it takes Wild Woods' competitors.

"Wild Woods tends to bend over backwards in making their schedule work for us and coming in under budget," said K. Todd Tisdell, executive in charge of production at Arnold Shapiro Productions, a documentary and reality television company that works with A & E;, CBS, MTV, HBO, MSNBC and the History Channel.

Low-budget start

Luff opened Wild Woods in April 1995, and the company began by working on audio post production for low-budget feature movies. Luff soon transitioned back to his roots in reality-based television, but he kept the movie-production style of operations.

"Because of their process, Wild Woods is able to reschedule and adjust their times," said Tisdell. "They can adapt to an emergency and are flexible in a way that other facilities (without their setup) can't always be."

In addition, the efficiencies of Luff's setup allow Wild Woods to deliver an episodic- or feature-quality sound at reality-television prices.

Rick Norman, chief rerecording mixer, who's currently focusing on "Fear" and "Blind Date" said his extensive film mixing background helps boost the quality of Wild Woods projects.

"I help bring that dynamic into reality sound mixing," he said. "It raises the bar in sweeting the raw reality stuff and makes it more theatrical."

The company's rates are considered among the most competitive in the industry.

"There are only a few places that work with the money that I have," said Steven Plutte, coordinating producer at Scripps Production, whose cable reality programming reaches around 130 million viewers through the Food Network and other outlets. "We can present a budget to Derek and know that he'll work within it. We get the same quality and attention as episodic work (would get)."

The quick turnaround time that Wild Woods offers minimizes the chance of leaks an important consideration on shows like "Survivor" where contestants must sign a confidentiality agreement.

But this can cause high-pressure conditions.

"Due to confidentiality and production considerations, we're constantly staring an air date in the eye," said Luff. "Many times we're actually creating the sound just hours before the show airs."

And the challenges go beyond budget and time constraints.

Sound challenges

The cast members of "Survivor" often walk outside of microphone range. There are sudden, loud noises such as waves or crickets to combat. The need for transitions that keep the sound level in one scene consistent with the next has to be factored in.

In response, Wild Woods stocks a sophisticated library and does research on specific sounds.

"Wild Woods helped 'Survivor' sound to viewers exactly as if they were on the island,'" said "Survivor" Executive Producer Mark Burnett, praising Wild Woods' work on the show's first season.

Luff began his career in 1988, working on the sound for "Totally Hidden Video," a precursor to today's reality shows.

"It was the beginning of reality TV in that they were trying to allow (unfiltered) hearing," said Luff.

It's a trend that shows no sign of abating. Wild Woods is keeping documentary work for PBS and the Travel, Discovery and History channels on the docket. But Luff's bread and butter continues to be reality television.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.