Rob Shaftel, founder and executive producer at Hit + Run, which produces Animal Planet’s I Was Prey, speaks with TV Real about how sound is used to create suspense and what to expect in the show’s recently premiered second season.
Finding yourself face-to-face with an aggressive bear or in the clutches of a shark’s powerful jaws is the stuff of nightmares. Yet those are exactly the types of situations the individuals featured on Animal Planet’s I Was Prey—produced by New York-based Hit + Run—find themselves in. While it’s safe to assume no one wants to be in their shoes, TV audiences in the U.S. and around the world are having a hard time turning away from the harrowing, near-death experiences they share on screen.
As Rob Shaftel, founder and executive producer at Hit + Run, explains, I Was Prey takes a unique approach to retelling the terrifying stories of animal attacks. “Previously, most shows in this genre focused primarily on the animal attacks and conflicts, not the people. We allow the stories to take the main stage and it pays off. More networks are contacting us to crack spaces in more creative ways.”
And that is how I Was Prey was born. As Shaftel tells TV Real, “Kurt Tondorf [the senior VP of development at Animal Planet] came to us and asked us to crack a ‘personal ordeal’ show. We pitched him I Was Prey with the angle that we would go against the grain by leaning heavy on story and sound and not gruesome animal-attack footage.”
“We took a much different creative approach on this show; there are no actors in re-creations, [there’s] hardly any footage of animals, no experts, etc.,” he says. Instead, viewers see two survivors per episode recount the details of attacks carried out by sharks, chimpanzees, grizzly bears and other creatures.
“Sound design is really the secret sauce of I Was Prey,” Shaftel adds. “Most people would think that music drives suspense, but in I Was Prey, the suspense comes from a lot of dramatic pauses and sound design of the environments where the attacks take place.”
Season two, which premiered on Animal Planet over the weekend and airs on Sundays at 10 p.m. for a 13-episode run, continues to use sound to create drama and draw viewers into the animal-attack victims’ plight. “This season, we have a Foley artist creating custom sounds to bring the environments to life even more so than in season one,” Shaftel explains. “The Foley designer has the ability and knowledge to differentiate between something like different depths of being underwater, which lends the moment more authenticity.”
The storytelling technique also remains consistent across the first two seasons, with two victims recounting their experiences simultaneously across the course of an episode. “In act one, viewers get to know two subjects as opposed to having to watch an entire story through to the resolution before meeting the second person,” Shaftel says. “It helps with pacing and viewers love it because it keeps them interested in multiple stories.”
Expanding the number of episodes in the sophomore run to 13 from just six in season one allowed Hit + Run to cover a wider range of animal attacks. Shaftel notes, “This season, we have everything from bears and sharks, like we had in season one, to giraffes, sea lions and even kangaroos.”
The first season aired in more than 200 countries and territories. “I swear I got an email from a long-lost relative who saw the show in Cambodia,” Shaftel quips. “We’re a young company, so it was huge for us to have such success so early on.”
As Shaftel looks to the future, he says that Hit + Run aims to build on the success it has found with I Was Prey. “We are developing more past-tense shows in different genres; we have some incredible characters on deck as well as an international co-production for a blue-chip sports documentary.”