SHERMAN OAKS, Calif. — At first blush, it is a perfectly normal modern production office: standing desks, an indoor putting green, a casual dress code. There is a Whole Foods right around the corner.
And then you look a little closer.
At one desk, a 50-year-old man with gray hair and a gray goatee stared at a computer screen that displayed a fit man, completely naked, swinging from a rope, à la Tarzan. The clip played in a loop, over and over again.
At a nearby computer, a 43-year-old man scrolled through a spreadsheet, preparing for the day’s assignment.
“Boobs blur insufficient,” read one directive on the spreadsheet.
“More opaque crotch blur for him,” read another.
Welcome to the production offices of the Discovery reality show “Naked and Afraid.” For the uninitiated, the premise of “Naked and Afraid” reads a little like a “30 Rock” parody of a reality show: Two contestants, both nude, roam a faraway land in search of food, water and warmth while enduring the harsh elements in locales such as a Bolivian jungle or the Himalayan foothills.
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That premise is certainly what draws viewers. But the people who make these shows possible are the five full-time visual effects maestros who painstakingly blur all the private parts.
And they admit, it’s a little odd.
“This is a totally weird work environment,” said Shaun O’Steen, the 45-year-old leader of the team, which calls itself the Blur Man Group. “I mean, what job can you say, ‘Oh, my God, look at that penis,’ and not have to worry about H.R.?”
His colleague, Erin Gavin, added, “I’m definitely used to looking at spreadsheets, but not like this.”
The stakes for a network like Discovery are high. The show produces real ratings for the network, as does its spinoff, “Naked and Afraid XL,” which debuted to the best numbers of any first-year unscripted cable show last year with an average of 3.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen. (The shows have broken through in other ways: “Saturday Night Live” had its own “Naked and Afraid” spoof this month featuring Peter Dinklage and Leslie Jones.)
The risks are high, too. After the first wave of success for “Naked and Afraid” in 2013, other naked-themed reality shows like TLC’s “Buying Naked” and VH1’s “Dating Naked” followed. Two years ago, a woman sued VH1 and the production team of the show “Dating Naked” after she contended that a blur did not fully cover her crotch. (The suit was thrown out.)
“It’s something we live in constant fear of,” said Steve Rankin, an executive producer, referring to prospective lawsuits. He added: “The Discovery Channel is not an R-rated network. It’s seen by families. We don’t want to upset people.”
Enter the Blur Man Group.
Just a few years ago, these designers were having a difficult time finding regular work. They were all graphic artists, and most of them were moving through different jobs in television.
Then the production company Renegade 83 conceived of “Naked and Afraid” and Discovery gave it the green light and a Sunday night time slot. But the only way to do a kind of nude “Survivor” was to find people who could make it suitable for broadcast.
And what a job it is.
“People talk about the whole aspect of nudity,” Mr. O’Steen said. “That goes away really quick.” He added, “There’s a job you have to do.”
For Mr. O’Steen, the task is slightly complicated by one more fact: His desk is opposite that of a 27-year-old who is the only woman and, by far, the youngest member of the blurring group. She is also his wife.
“That’s the No. 1 question I get,” he said. “‘Don’t you feel weird about your wife looking at naked men all day?’ Well, I look at naked women all day.”
That does not mean they do not have their disagreements. Later in the day, Mr. O’Steen and his wife, Ilgin Esemenli, got into a debate over whether fake breasts or real ones were easier to blur.
“The real ones are easier to work with,” she said.
While her colleagues insist there is a numbness to all the nudity that settles in after being exposed to it all day, Ms. Esemenli confesses that sometimes she cannot help but wince.
“I’ve seen things that I’ve never seen before,” she said, looking a little pale.
She has learned to set limits, such as spending her lunchtime surfing the web. Lunch and the unvarnished human body do not mix, she said.
The job is not for everyone. Mr. O’Steen estimates that about 15 people have cycled through over the years, many finding it all a little overwhelming.
“One person didn’t last very long, maybe two weeks tops,” Mr. O’Steen said. “He said, ‘I just can’t.’”
And like any job, it can be tedious. They labor at their computers using a stylus and a tablet to create an amoeba-like blur. It requires examining each episode, frame by frame, finding and blurring and carefully replacing anything — like a leaf — that got covered while blurring. It takes at least 50 hours to blur an entire episode.
The point of the editing process is to make the blur as elegant as possible, so that it does not disrupt the viewing experience. Compared with some other shows, the blurring on “Naked and Afraid” is smaller and smoother.
“A blur is not necessarily appealing,” Mr. O’Steen said. “Think of ‘Cops.’”
It took a season for the team to perfect the art of the blur, and they can be sensitive to slights about the work they do.
“They’ll discount it: ‘Oh, it’s just a blur job,’” said Johnny Hestich, a 49-year-old designer, referring to others in his industry. “But it can get really hard. I’ve been doing this for three years, and I’m thinking, Man, this is kicking my butt.”
Even so, it is hard to escape the fact that the show is about naked people.
“We were walking by the other day,” said Mathilde Bittner, an executive producer of the show, describing a scene at the Blur Man Group’s workstation. “There are these crazy notes. And it said, ‘More vagina,’ ‘extend the crotch shot,’ or ‘bug biting vagina.’”
Contestants have been known to occasionally make requests. (“Some of the guys have asked for bigger blurs and have been like, ‘Help a brother out,’” Mr. Rankin said.) But the blurring is not meant to titillate. Better-looking people do not get smaller blurs, the producers said, though people whose bodies are in less than top shape may get bigger ones.
To date, they said, no untoward body parts had slipped through the vetting system and onto television screens.
The last line of defense is Adam Burns, 34, a supervisor whose specialty is spotting what others have missed. “I can recognize a nipple from 600 yards in the background behind a leaf at this point,” he said.
Reflecting on the work, he began to laugh.
“Thankfully we stay pretty hectic around here,” he said, “so I don’t have a lot of time to sit back and think about the path my life has taken.”
Source: By JOHN KOBLIN; www.nytimes.com