©ACKERMAN GRUBER IMAGES/MISS UNIVERSE ORGANIZATION
Among the lead features on the Miss USA Web site was a behind-the-scenes video of a controversial part of the most recent competition: the boudoir photo shoots of the contestants. Photographs of the women in bed, wearing lingerie and striking come-hither poses, drew plenty of press attention, as they were no doubt intended to do.
The video, called “Waking Up in Vegas,” shows fashion photographer Fadil Berisha working on set with several different contestants. In a voice-over interview, Berisha explains how he won the trust of the reluctant contestants so they would perform for the camera and look sexy in a “classy” way. The video also includes a voice-over interview with a contestant describing what fun it was, while she subtly lets viewers know she really isn’t that kind of girl.
The video is a mix of docu-tainment and promotion produced for Miss USA by multimedia journalists (and partners) Tim Gruber and Jenn Ackerman. For the past two years, they have been shooting stills and video behind the scenes at the Miss USA and Miss Universe contests for Donald Trump’s Miss Universe Organization. The most recent Miss USA contest was held at a Las Vegas hotel in May, and Ackerman and Gruber ended up producing 12 video stories in 16 days from the still photographs and video they shot of the contestants and events.
The two journalists landed the client through their alma mater, Ohio University, which Miss Universe president Paula Shugart also attended. She wanted reality-TV style content for the Miss Universe web sites and archives. “People are curious about what happens behind the scenes, and we have a great story to tell,” she says.
In search of a photographer, she turned to OU’s School of Visual Communication for a recommendation, and liked what she heard about Gruber and Ackerman. “They were self-starters, who would come with their own ideas,” says Shugart, who didn’t want to do any hand-holding. “They would be able to take us to the next level.”
They also had a mix of shooting and production skills, which is increasingly important as media converges, Shugart says. “No longer can anyone be just a photographer.”
Ackerman and Gruber have produced a number of multimedia editorial projects, including Ackerman’s Emmy award-winning story “Trapped” about mental illness in prisons. But the work for Miss Universe is ultimately a PR assignment. Winning the confidence of the contestants and the organization--criticized by some for degrading women—is a matter of toeing a line.
Gruber says, “We were shooting for a corporation. We knew there was this fine line drawn in the sand even though nobody talked about it. We knew how far we could push and still have it corporate-friendly.”
Ackerman says they might have approached the stories differently if they had been documenting the competition as independent journalists. But she also says they weren’t restrained or compromised by the assignment.
“I never felt like I was endorsing anything. I felt like I was telling stories,” Ackerman says. Gruber cites an example of one incident they couldn’t show: a contestant fainted during the opening ceremony. But it wasn’t an issue, because it didn’t fit the story line and therefore wasn’t something they wanted to show, he explains. (He also notes that the work for Miss Universe “opened our eyes to other avenues for multimedia work” that pay well and support their personal projects.)
Ackerman and Gruber had some student interns providing some production help, but they did most of the production and post-production on their own. They also set their own production schedule, but tried to turn stories around within two days. To keep to the schedule, they worked 12- to 18-hour days. “We would shoot all day, and then edit at night,” Ackerman says.
They also kept the gear to a minimum. Previously, they used separate video and still cameras. But this time, they shot both still and video with Canon 5D Mark II cameras. They had several hot lights on hand, and those lights were essential for the video cameras they used before. But because of low light capabilities of the 5D, they were able to use available light most of the time.
Ackerman says one technical challenge was juggling video and stills. With the 5D, it is possible to switch from one format to the other in mid shoot, but it requires a shift of mental gears, she explains, and it was awkward on the Miss USA project because they were using Red Rock stabilizers to shoot video.
“If you try to do both [ie, switch back and forth on the fly], then neither will come out well.”
So they tried to figure out in advance what format would work best for any given situation--—and then stuck with it.
“In certain circumstances you know that someone is going to be really emotional, so maybe it’s better to shoot video,” Ackerman says. Or motion is a crucial element and the lighting may not be great, as was the case with the video story about the fitness training.
“But maybe it’s going to be absolutely beautiful and the light is going to be perfect so you should concentrate on really good stills,” she says.
Gruber and Ackerman had to develop their own story ideas. When they were hired, Shugart gave them open-ended instructions: come up with compelling stories that would appeal to fans, and “have fun with it.”
To come up with ideas, they brainstorm before each contest by looking at the schedule of events and drawing on their experience at previous competitions. They run their ideas past Colin Hornett, the new media producer for Miss Universe, and in some cases past Shugart. (Hornett also provides technical support.)
But Ackerman says, “They pretty much give us full creative control to do whatever stories we want to do,” Ackerman says. “They wanted us to be real and dig deep for stories.”
At Miss USA, they covered the crowning ceremony, of course. The boudoir shoots were another obvious story. “It’s so photogenic,” Ackerman says. Gruber also shot a story called “Strike a Pose” that used time-lapse photography to show the contestants posing like models.
Stories showing the less glamorous side of the contest included “Beauty Boot Camp” which describes the grueling days of the competition, under the watchful eye of a chaperone at all times. Ackerman explains, “We wanted to show how hard it is for girls.” Another story they planned was about the diligent fitness training, which they noticed at last year’s competition: the weight and body-conscious contestants were often exercising in their hotel rooms and in the hallways. (It’s a distinctly American story. At Miss Universe, beauty queens from other nations don’t bother with exercise, Ackerman says.)
One of their challenges was getting past the guarded beauty-contest façade of the contestants, and some wary chaperones. Shugart introduced Ackerman and Gruber to the contestants and staff, but it was up to them to build rapport quickly.
“One of the biggest stereotypes is that the girls are their perfect pageant Pattys—that they’re not real, they’re plastic,” Shugart says. “You have to show that they’re real young women. We want to show that they’re eminently relatable—that they can be seen as a next door neighbor.”
Stories that Ackerman and Gruber produced for the 2010 Miss USA competition are available atwww.missuniverse.com/missusa,ackermangruber.com/projects/miss/ and on YouTube by searching under “officialmissusa.” A gallery of still images isavailable here. The "Waking Up in Vegas" video mentioned above is embedded here: