Top Shot: how all-stars were picked, slow-motion footage, next season

Top Shot is in the middle of its fifth season, which is also its first all-star season. It has become the first reality competition to become an entirely skill-based competition, and it’s as strong and entertaining as ever.

I talked separately with its bad-ass host, Colby Donaldson, who became a producer during season four, and its executive producer, Craig Piligian, whose company Pilgrim Studios has been responsible for some outstanding competition TV recently.

Both discussed the changes to the format and talked about the show’s future, among other things.

  • Changing to a skill-based competition.“That’s what I’m most proud of: the show continues to evolve thanks to the fans,” Colby said. “It really was us responding to the fans, and listening to what people were drawn to.” He noted that even “drama in the house doesn’t play well; it literally has the opposite effect on Top Shot than it does on other shows.” (Colby added that there was better footage “than we ever had in the house”; it just didn’t make the final cut.) Thus, voting was eliminated from the format, and each contestant essentially has three chances to save themselves. Piligian said, “We decided not to make this season a quote ‘reality show’ where there was bickering and backstabbing because we found that in that industry, in that sport, it’s very respectable. It’s a high-adrenaline sport. We wanted to just make it a pure competition.”
  • Why this is an all-star season. “You hope to be on the air long enough to put together an all-star season,” Colby said. “We always knew we wanted to do that.” Still, just four seasons in seems early in the show’s life to bring back contestants. Piligian said “I actually agree with your analysis. It did very seem very early. But we discussed it with the network and [thought] it could make for a stronger, competitive show in season five.”
  • How all-stars were selected. Only those who made it to the individual part of their season were eligible. Early discussions, Colby said, included the possibility of casting just “the top four from all four seasons,” but ultimately producers chose contestants who “competed well enough to get to where the teams were dissolved.” That’s why first-season competitor Tara Poremba—who left due to her father’s illness—wasn’t cast, because she didn’t make it to the merge.
  • Slow-motion footage. The super-slow-motion footage, such as of bullets entering and destroying their targets, are captured by the Phantom camera, which shoots 18,000 frames per second. They’re filmed by a crew that “follow along behind us and recreate shots,” Colby said, “using that weapon and one of our experts.” That’s because they don’t always have the “luxury of capturing that shot in real time” during the competition, due to the technical requirements. However, Colby said that, after season one, producers learned that “a lot of people wanted to see the verification, they wanted the over-the-shoulder camera shot,” so now “it is imperative that we have a camera behind the shooter” so viewers can see the shooter and target at the same time. Colby noted that making the show look as good as it does is “always a challenge for us because we’re under a budget,” and he says to “credit the network and Pilgrim for making these things happen.”
  • Destruction of things. Colby said that, during challenges such as the shooting gallery, there are “no mats or blankets or glass, that stuff really is flying all over the place.” Because the production leases a cattle ranch and has to leave the ground clear of debris, the art department is responsible for both set-up and clean-up, which can take hours.
  • Product integration. Like most competition shows, Top Shot has sponsors who integrate their brands into challenges. Colby told a story of one unidentified “manufacturer that came on board and sponsored a challenge and sent us the guns,” and all three weapons—including the back-up—failed, despite being brand new. The production decided to “scrap that entire weapon,” including the manufacturer’s sponsorship, and do something else with a “totally different weapon,” Colby said.
  • Colby’s producer credit. Colby says that’s “something I fought for for a long time,” in part because he’s been “brokering and fostering a lot of those relationships” in the gun community. “Craig [Piligian] was a real champion” of his work and adding him as a producer, so as of season four, Colby was became a producer, too.
  • The show’s future (and the delay between seasons). About a year passed between seasons four and five, and there isn’t a clear reason other than History has a lot of popular content. “I don’t know why the delay happened,” Piligian said. “It wasn’t what I wanted. To be very frank, I didn’t want it to sit on the shelf for a year.” So, will Top Shot return for a sixth season? Piligian told me that “we’re talking about it with the network” but that they likely want to “see the whole season through, look at the ratings.” He noted that it’s been an “incredibly competitive quarter with all the networks.” Colby added that it’s “a blessing and a curse to be on a network that is doing so well.”

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