In January of this year, Nick Bacon (Col '08) was finishing an internship at a public relations firm in Chicago. He was unsure of where he would go or what he would do next. Three days before his internship ended, his friend Ben Bartel (Col '10) called him with an unexpected offer. "Hey," Bartel said. "Do you want to come out to China?" Two months later, Bacon was on a plane to Shanghai.
Bartel had been living in China since 2010, having moved there to teach English, although his real passion was filmmaking. He soon moved into video production and by then worked behind the scenes on The Amazing Race: China Rush. The show was about to start filming its third season, and Bartel had found a position editing footage for which he thought Bacon would be perfect.
For Bacon and Bartel, the road from Charlottesville to Shanghai began with a simple philosophy: that storytelling is collaboration. The two met as undergraduates in UVA's Filmmakers Society, where they worked on short films together, often under the tutelage of assistant professor Kevin Everson, who "pushes the idea that good art comes from leaning on other people," Bartel says, "having teamwork, relying on your friends."
But the collaborative philosophy of filmmaking that Everson taught was not just an academic debate about the fallacy of the auteur theory. For Everson's students, it had real-world, practical applications and benefits—for example, as Bartel says, "getting each other jobs."
China Rush is based on the popular American show The Amazing Race. Teams of two compete in a series of challenges, and as the teams are composed of friends and family members, the show's drama stems from interpersonal conflicts as well as competition.
The American show "goes anywhere that's exotic," Bartel says. But to cater to its Chinese audience, China Rush is shot entirely inside China's borders and the contestants communicate using a mixture of Mandarin and English. "There's a strong sense of cultural pride that the show is trying to show off," Bacon says. "And there's a lot to be proud of. It's a gorgeous country."
Bartel discovered that tailoring the show for Chinese audiences means that although China Rush is apolitical, it's still subject to political forces. Producers choose shooting locations based on where they have political connections, and police chaperones are often present.
Still, Bartel says, "We stick to the truth more than I thought we would." And for all the behind-the-scenes talk about gearing the show to Chinese audiences, the similarities resonate more than the differences. "Chinese people have a very similar sense of humor to Americans," Bartel says. "We have a similar self-image."