The news is good for Survivor and its current followup series, Survivor: The Australian Outback, because the Emmys just added a category for "reality" programming. But as anyone out of the single-digit age and IQ range should realize when watching these shows, reality is relative. The standard documentary mediations of editing and music are obviously employed on Survivor, but that’s not nearly the extent of it–there is a full art department crew onsite, led in both cases by production designer Kelly Van Patter. You didn’t think that tribal council circle just materialized out of the outback, did you?
"I feel like we deserve the million dollars, because we had to work, making everything and schlepping everything around," says Van Patter, who spent four months in Australia working on the latest series. "What people don’t realize watching it is that it’s full on: this time it was 42 days, last time the cycle was 39. Every day’s a big setup for the challenges, and just the logistics of getting to the places, having to use four-wheel-drive vehicles and boats to areas that weren’t accessible by vehicle…." On the other hand, unlike the 16 on-camera contestants, crew members (as well as host Jeff Probst) had nice single-occupancy tents to retreat to, and a diet that consisted of more than rice and whatever could be scrounged from nature.
And Van Patter makes it clear that whatever hardship she endured wasn’t that hard. In fact, she says, "It was the perfect dream job [for me]–being able to design and be outside in an exotic environment. And my crew loved it as much as I did. It was like getting paid to play." Paid less than a million dollars, but paid nonetheless.
The designer’s well-known love of the outdoors helped her get the job on the first Survivor, which was filmed on a Malaysian island. "I’ve gone off on treks to Nepal," says Van Patter, a non-unionized jane-of-all-genres who has commercials, music videos, television, shorts, and low-budget features on her résumé. "The original director of the first series, who subsequently dropped out, had called his ex-wife and said, ‘I need an art director that loves the outdoors.’ She said, ‘You have to call Kelly Van Patter.’ "
Van Patter indeed jumped at the chance, but spent her time on the first Survivor on a real learning curve. "I didn’t have enough of a crew," she says. "They said, ‘You’ve got 15 Malaysian guys who will be helping you.’ They were all wonderful guys and hard workers, but some of them couldn’t even speak English. Plus they never quite got the concept–that I wanted everything to look old and battered; not cut with a chainsaw, but just broken off. I had a much bigger and more experienced crew on this." In addition, the amount of preparation required for the location had really sunk in: "When you’re working here in Hollywood, you’re so used to having everything available," says the designer. "It doesn’t work that way on Survivor. I had comprehensive lists of things we needed on a daily basis, things that you take for granted here. But at least the infrastructure in Australia was better than in Malaysia."
For Survivor: The Australian Outback, Van Patter got started several months before production began in October 2000. First, "I went over there for a location scout," she says. The site is in the tablelands of Queensland state, about four-and-a-half hours southwest of Cairns, on the Pacific coast; offshore is the Great Barrier Reef. "Close to the ocean, there’s rainforest, and the further out you get there are beautiful green rolling hills and dairy land. The tablelands is kind of an arid region, except during rainy season, when there’s a lot of green." (The Survivor production schedule segued into the beginning of rainy season.) "Otherwise, there are scrub oak trees and things like that.
"Of course, there had to be an element of water for the contestants, so there was the Herbert River," Van Patter continues. "And Herbert Falls was right where the tribal council ended up being." The tribal council site is in a gorge, while the waterfall–which actually comprises two branches of falls–feeds into a deeper gorge. "It was a logistical problem, because we wanted it to be close to the waterfalls, but we didn’t want to jeopardize anyone’s safety. Plus, we had to worry about getting our materials down there."
After scouting, Van Patter went back to the US to work on her design for the tribal council. "[Executive producer] Mark Burnett wanted a Stonehenge-like feel," she says. "I wanted it to look like something that occurred in nature, like the fins and spires at Arches National Park in Utah, shaped by wind and erosion." She settled on five columns, 12' to 17' high, arranged on a roughly 1,500-sq.-ft. oval platform, plus an arch and "clamshell" hole simulating an ancient cave. "I wanted it to look like, over the years, different tribes had used it as a ceremonial or sacred site," Van Patter explains. "In the center is the fire, and I did a couple of rings that are like sand rings around the fire. Originally, my intent was to use this as a showcase for indigenous Australia, but then I found out you can’t do anything that has to do with the aboriginal people without special permission." Consequently, the sand rings and line drawings of animals on the site are simply "inspired by aboriginal designs."
When the design was approved, Van Patter headed back to Australia with a lighting designer, to decide on a lighting plan for the site. "Unlike the first one, which had a big rain hat, this one was open-air, and fully shot by helicopter," she says. "We had to figure out how it could be seen during daylight from the helicopter, without seeing the lighting structures. The idea was to build the lights into the upright columns." Thinking a solution had been reached, she headed to Sydney to hire her crew and buy materials for the show. The lighting designer returned to the US, and "told the producers that it couldn’t be lit without having a big truss. I was adamant–I thought it could be done. They were like, ‘Kelly, why don’t you build some big trees for the trusses?’ I said, ‘That would look like Land of the Giants; it would look horrible.’ I finally persuaded the producers to let us get a second opinion. We had this guy from Brisbane, Ian Quatermass, who had been working on the Olympics, come in to consult. He said, ‘I think it can be done.’ " Eventually, lights were installed in four of the columns, and a lighting balloon was added for fill light. It was too bright. "So we took all the lights out of the columns with the exception of one. There was the center fire and these big cairns with propane-controlled fire, so practically the whole set was lit from firelight."
Meanwhile, Van Patter was doing all she could in Sydney to prepare for her weeks in the wild. She gathered up a proper crew, people who were "multitaskers," she says. "It wasn’t like a film, where you have propmakers and carpenters; they had to do everything." She also interviewed scenery companies. "I wanted my crew to focus on the challenges, so I hired an independent company to build the set," she continues. "The guy I ended up using, John Rega of What’s Your Scene, suggested building it onsite. I originally thought I would build it in Sydney and have it sent in pieces. If it was blown foam, that would be easier and better for the environment." But Rega had no intention of using foam; his notion was to build the columns with cement. "It had to withstand the elements–the scorching sun, torrential rains and floods," Van Patter explains. "So I really liked his idea. Cement could also withstand the heat of the lights in the columns, and with our cairns and torches, stone seemed to be the perfect solution. We didn’t want to have a fire."
The cement was sprayed on in three coats, with wooden frameworks, wire, and hessian molding the shape. Somewhat facilitating the process were gimbals, originally put on the columns to help change lighting positions. "The guys could stand on scaffolding in the center of the platform and spin the column while they were building," Van Patter explains. The structure was then painted to match the surrounding canyon walls. "I wanted it to look like it blended in completely with the environment, which was every possible color–oranges and pinks and grays and blacks. The cement took the paint so well that it looked like real rock." The platform was also sprayed and painted to look like the existing rock.
But let’s back up here a minute–how did the construction crew get all the materials down into the gorge? "We had to have a huge hoist system, almost like giant freight elevators," says Van Patter. "We had a company put that in as well as a stairwell that went 190' down. There was a long scaffolding that went straight out, until you could go straight down. Everything was wheeled all the way out, put into the hoist, lowered nine or 10 stories to the next level, wheeled over to the next elevator, and taken to the bottom of the gorge. Only materials could go in it; people had to trek down the stairs every time. We put trees and hessian on the hoists so you didn’t see it on the helicopter shots, but it was such a big structure that it was too difficult to completely camouflage. So they framed most of it out of camera."
The hoist system slowed down construction on the set more than Rega and the designer had figured. One item, the cement hopper, was so big and heavy that it couldn’t be hoisted to the bottom. "So we had to run cement lines, long hoses, from the hopper. It was so intensely hot that as the hoses were going over the rocks, the cement would start hardening. So we ended up doing our cement work really early in the morning or sometimes late at night."
As the set was completed and the October shooting date approached, Van Patter and her team started concentrating on the challenges. There are two challenges pitting the Ogakor and Kucha tribes against each other per show–one that provides rewards (matches, fishing gear) to the victor, and one to establish immunity. "The challenges are very challenging," quips the designer. "Nothing can fail in terms of the props and the structures the people are using. If one person calls unfair, then we’re in trouble. It’s hard, because there are so many working parts to some of the challenges. Each episode is a three-day cycle, so there’s a challenge the first day, a challenge the second day, and tribal council the third day. We had to fabricate almost everything, because we wanted it to look rustic. So we were constantly setting up–we might have had five things being built at one time." This included everything from freestanding structures and platforms down to props and rewards.
"Then everything has to be thoroughly tested," says Van Patter. "We had to make sure the challenge didn’t discriminate based on someone’s athletic ability or whether they’re male or female or how old they are. This time, we hired eight people, adventure backpackers who were a mix of male and female, to come in and test everything. It’s easier when they’re working as a team, because you have your average of everyone’s pool talents." Later, though, as the contestants are whittled away and challenges come down to individual face-offs, "it becomes much more difficult to make it equal and fair for everyone. There are so many challenges that they came up with that were thrown out or that we decided were not fun enough, or for some reason or another didn’t work." (The testing system was not foolproof–in the third episode, a pole supplied to balance heavy jugs of water broke in two mid-challenge.)
Having been through the experience in Malaysia of creating challenges out of meager materials, Van Patter tried to stock up on "natural-looking" construction materials–bamboo, matting, hessian–in Sydney. "I also hired a buyer from Sydney to stay in Cairns," she says. "She sent stuff up to us every day. There was a bus that would transport people in and out, and there were also trucks. South Pacific [an upcoming ABC TV movie] was shooting outside of Cairns, and a buyer on that gave us a lot of good information about what was available. But Cairns is not a big city; it’s a tourist gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest, and it’s very limited as far as materials. Any specialty items had to come from Sydney."
From a conceptual point of view, Van Patter sometimes had her work cut out for her trying to blend the challenges into the environment–balancing the demands of theatre and reality, in other words. "One of the challenges had a western theme to it," she offers as an example. "So I did a miner’s camp at the very end. I set it up to look like something that could actually be there." For another, she created a crumbling homestead, complete with outhouse and corrugated-metal water tank. "A lot more goes into it than you might think, just to make it seem natural," she says.
"We tried to vary the locations for the challenges, so you could see the diverse terrain around the area we were in," the designer continues. Always, the locations had to be kept out of sight of the contestants. In addition to the testing, there were run-throughs of the challenges for camera blocking, lighting, audio, and all the other reasons rehearsals are usually held. In those run-throughs, the challenge testers also served as stand-ins for the contestants.
"We had almost no contact with the contestants," Van Patter adds. "If they asked us a question, we were supposed to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m really not supposed to be talking to you.’ They would definitely see the crew, we’re there during the challenges in case we have to reset anything. But they didn’t want the contestants’ reality to be broken in any way."
As far as Van Patter’s reality during both Survivor shoots, it pretty much came down to a seven—day work week. "My crew worked on six—day and five—day work weeks," she says. "They would work six days, have a day off, work five days, and then be sent into Cairns for two days. I really needed to do that, but there were so many things going on all the time that the challenges producer, John Kirhoffer, the two executive producers, Craig Piligian and Mark Burnett, and I were always having meetings and last-minute changes. Every once in a while, I’d go, ‘OK, I’m going to leave for an hour.’ But for the most part, I was there."
And after it was over for the contestants in November, it certainly wasn’t over for Van Patter. "We had to strike everything," she says, estimating that 27 tons of material were hoisted or flown by helicopter out of the gorge where the tribal council structure stood. "The land we were shooting on I think will ultimately be a national park, so the Department of Natural Resources came and checked everything and made sure that nothing was damaging the environment. Any holes drilled into the rocks had to be filled, and we always made sure that our hessian was right underneath the cement, so it could peel right up at the end. When you’re on a set like that, people assume it’s just like the other rocks, so we had to be very aware. We didn’t want camera guys, etc., scrambling down the mountainside and causing erosion." After the strike, Natural Resources guides came in to closely inspect the area where the set had been, and sign off on the restoration.
Van Patter returned to Los Angeles by year’s end, but she’s already anticipating the next Survivor, which will possibly send her and the next 16 contestants to Africa. But wait–is her work on Survivor: The Australian Outback truly finished? Does everyone involved in the show really know who the final survivor is, and are they all keeping mum until the final episode April 26? A shroud of secrecy has descended; you’ll just have to tune in to see.