Keeping it Amazing

By Nick Grant

Nick Grant does his best to keep up and out of shot with Christchurch's Race competitors.

The New Zealand competitors in The Amazing Race.
The New Zealand competitors in The Amazing Race.

Whatever you might think about how well The Amazing Race lives up to its title onscreen, the behind-the-scenes organisation that goes into making the popular reality television game show is truly remarkable.

Living got a peek into its inner workings when the Australian version of the series filmed in Christchurch in March this year.

It's the Aussie iteration's third season and the first time it's been co-produced by Channel 7 Australia and TVNZ, which means half the contestants this time around are Kiwis.

By the time our small New Zealand media contingent - two journos, one photographer, one publicist - turn up at Christchurch's Latimer Square Park at 7am on a crisp Saturday morning, the production is already gearing up for the gruelling day ahead.

The 10 pairs of contestants have camped the night in the park opposite the Cardboard Cathedral on Hereford St and they're milling around and limbering up when we arrive. So are the crew who will be following their every move.

There's no doubt it's a tough competition - it's shot in real time over four weeks and teams only get 12-hour pit stops between legs.

If they're very lucky there might be a logistical hiccup involving international flights like last season, which meant the contestants had an extra day to recuperate so the crew could get to the next location first and set up for their arrival. Otherwise it's go, go, go.

Still, when you're marvelling at how hard the teams work, spare a thought for the crew shadowing them. Yes, the competitors are constantly on the run, but at the side of every pair, just out of frame, is a cameraman and sound-recordist who have to keep up while carrying their equipment.

It's no holiday for those co-ordinating the production either. As Aussie producer Deb Byrne notes brightly, "I don't get to bed until Sunday night."

The "giant road show", as Byrne describes it, has around 68 core crew travelling with it, although those numbers drop off as the contestants do. Local screen industry professionals are also employed along the way; 16-17-hour working days are typical.

Proceedings kicked off at Uluru (formerly known as Ayres Rock) in central Australia; Christchurch is the show's second leg and the teams that did best in Australia will get a head start today.

"It's a bit rabbit in headlights at the moment," she says of the teams.

"They tend to get a burst of adrenalin and not read the additional information until halfway through a challenge, despite my telling them three times to read everything carefully."

Contestants get a final briefing and then they're off across the road to the cathedral where the first clue awaits. Some teams are much quicker on the uptake than others, with Christchurch brother and sister Jono and Emily first to head in the right direction.

"See over where I'm pointing in the corner of the park - no, don't look, gotta be covert," whispers Byrne. "There are cars with clues in the glove compartment ..."

Now it's time for our small media team to get on the road, too, and try and beat the contestants to Peel Forest Park.

We pull up just before the team in third place - the Christchurch siblings, who've lost some ground.

We watch them paddling along the Rangitata River from high on a clifftop opposite the bank where they have to spot and retrieve half a golden hoop that has been buried in the sand.

Camouflaged crew members hide in the bushes to film them.

Jono and Emily's voices carry up to us clearly. They have a good line of patter: "Amazing Race? The amazing dawdle!," says Jono.

"Can you go faster?" says Emily. "You're a beautiful sister, you're so amazing," Jono replies with a hint of cheerful sarcasm.

The crew refers to all the teams by assigned numbers, except for Byrne who cast them and can't remember the codes. One team seems to have already been given the nickname "the Oompa-Loompas" - see if you can pick which one.

Rafting completed, it's down the road to the next challenge at Rata Peaks Station - a slalom course involving huge hay bales and enormous tractors. Emily's in the driver's seat and Jono's impressed with her skills: "She's smashing it!"

We follow the siblings across the paddocks to the next task, being careful to stay out of shot. They have to single out and catch a sheep that's wearing the other half of the golden hoop from amongst a penned flock.

Once again Jono takes on the role of cheerleader while Emily goes to work.

She appears to have decided that, in order to catch a sheep, you have to think like a sheep, and does a crouching walk towards the woolly huddle, bleating.

When that proves to be ineffective, she tries negotiating with her target: "You're tired, I'm tired, let's be cool ..."

By now the hot sun is high in the sky, and the race has barely begun.

The Amazing Race screens on TV2 at 8:45pm on Tuesday.

- Herald on Sunday

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