Survivor: Behind-The-Scenes SecretsPublished on April 27, 2016. Updated February 3, 2020
The U.S. version of Survivor is one of the longest-running reality series on television! The show films in different locations all around the world and is now well past 30 seasons! The fact that the show has been around for 18 years means it has an extremely loyal fan base who love to tune in to watch contestants compete against one another for the big money prize. Filmed around the clock for seven weeks, there are thousands of hours of footage that gets edited and condensed into the 13 hours of aired episodes. The success of Survivor depends on the hard work of A LOT of crew members, producers, and preemptive planning. There can be up to 75 producers and crew members working on the set at any given time to gather footage and audio, take notes and monitor the challenges. We’ve decided to do some digging and find out what really goes on behind the camera — here are behind-the-scenes Survivor secrets:
There are a lot of places off limits to contestants. When contestants wander down the beach to have private conversations or strategize with people from their tribe, there are sometimes strict limits to how far they can walk from camp. Producers try to limit their wandering space because contestants might run into something the crew members don’t want them to see, and whatever they come across could even ruin the game! Of course, they don’t want contestants to wander onto another tribes camp or see challenges beforehand and get an unfair advantage. There is also a nearby base camp for crew workers or camera camps around which are off limits so that interaction between crew members and contestants is limited.
14. Camera Shy Contestants
Viewers watching at home might have noticed the contestants never need much time to adjust to the cameras, and for the most part, these strangers seem to pick up friendships or relationships within their tribe quickly. When former contestant Yau-Man Chan’s three-year contract with CBS ended he was able to talk about the show, so he did a brief interview and divulged some behind-the-scenes tidbits. In one portion of the interview, he discusses how contestants get along easily and never seem to be camera shy. He said at the beginning of each season people are extremely non-talkative and many come off as guarded because they have never been followed around by cameras before — especially because there can be up to 15 cameras around at all times! However, once a few days go by without showering or brushing your teeth, eating very little and not keeping up appearances, people become a little more comfortable with each other and tend to forget about the cameras. Contestants also realize that not everything ends up on the show. A lot of their footage goes to waste in the editing room. The only conversations that will appear on air are the ones that pertain to the storyline of the show.
13. The Challenges
Have you ever wondered how the contestants pull off these challenges with nothing but that brief description from Jeff Probst? There’s actually a lot more that goes into the challenges than what viewers see on camera. Once Jeff explains how to do the challenge, John Kirhoffer, the mastermind behind all of the challenges, does a walk through with each tribe. During the walk through the contestants are allowed to ask any questions and develop a strategy. To make sure everything is done fairly, someone from CBS standards and practices division walks along with them. Former contestant, Chan said in his interview that each challenge takes about two hours to complete and one episode is roughly three days worth of footage. Even before all of this, the show has “The Dream Team” run through each challenge twice. The Dream Team is made up of young crew members who take on small random jobs on set to get experience, kind of like interns. These people usually work on the show because they want to return for future seasons as part of the official production team. These practices are filmed as a kind of a “dress rehearsal,” giving the crew a chance to practice getting their shots and the footage can be shown to Jeff beforehand so he can properly explain the challenge.
12. Transporting Contestants to Locations
While filming, the producers like to add to the authenticity by showing things like the contestants walking to challenges with sticks or packs to make it seem like they traveled miles and miles on foot, but these shots are just a set up from the beginning and end of their journey. In reality, the contestants are transported on wheels or by boat from one location to the other to save time while filming. Producers like to keep these locations secret — for example in the Gabon edition of Survivor, contestants were transported in a jeep with black-out window coverings to prevent them from seeing where they were going or other parts of production like base camp. When they arrive, they are held in a waiting area until Jeff gets there and that’s when the cameras start rolling for TV. Contestants aren’t allowed to speak to one another until the cameras start rolling so that no important footage is lost.
11. Medical Treatment
As viewers have noticed, there is always on-site medical assistance for contestants in case anyone gets hurt, and medics can be called to the scene when necessary. What fans of the show might not know is that contestants have to visit with medics before and after each challenge — they also go through a screening process before being cast on the show to make sure their health is in good shape. A medic who works on the show named Craig “Squizzy” said in an interview with Today: “During the game, though, they’re playing the game of Survivor for $1 million. So, we try to have as little to do with them as possible.” Minor injuries are apart of the game and there have been very few major injuries or illnesses that have forced people out of the show. Chan said in his interview that throughout filming of the show there are psychologists on set to monitor the contestants’ well-being.
10. Long and Boring Days
When you’re stranded on an island with a bunch of strangers with nothing but the bare necessities, the days can seem long and boring. When we don’t see contestants doing one-on-one interviews or attending Tribal Council or participating in challenges every two or three days, their days are spent lazying around, looking for food, or just sitting around talking with other contestants. Each contestant does at least one confessional interview a day with the on-site producers, but there’s definitely a lot of useless footage that never makes it to the show after filming the contestants all day long, 24/7. Footage can easily get ruined in the humidity or from someone walking in the background of a shot.
9. Contestants are Never Alone
The contestants don’t get any privacy, except when going to the bathroom of course! Producers and film crews are set up at each tribe’s camp day and night. The reason for this is so that no footage is ever missed. They want to catch everything they can that will contribute to making the show more interesting. When spending long days at camp the film crew sets up in an “off limits camouflaged” area known as camera camps with cots, food, and equipment storage. The crew works in shifts so that the same people aren’t living at these basic camera camps all the time and can switch off to the larger base camp (see next slide) once in a while. On the seasons with “exile islands” a producer with a camera will stay with the exiled contestant.
8. Survivor Life for Film Crew
Ever wonder where the camera crew, producers, medical team or even Jeff Probst sleep and eat when they aren’t filming the show? For many of the locations there aren’t nearby cities — if there is the crew will be stationed in a nearby hotel. But when the show takes place on a remote island, crew members sleep in tents until their prefabricated cabins are assembled which include bathroom facilities. Compared to the contestants on the show, these guys are living the good life! The crew uses trailers or cargo containers as make-shift offices while other times temporary living conditions or offices will be constructed before filming begins. When it comes to dining, everyone except contestants eats in a large catering tent. The buffet starts as early as 4 a.m. for crew members who need to be on-location first thing in the morning to start filming.
7. Contestants Personal Hygiene
Some people wonder how real the show is and if the competitors are really forced to go weeks without showering, washing their hair or clothes. Their only means of getting clean is a quick rinse in the ocean. There are a few exceptions. The contestants do have access to a container of necessary supplies like feminine products, birth control, vital medications, contact lens solution, sunscreen and insect repellent, anything outside of these needs is left at home. Things like razors, toothbrushes, or other conveniences aren’t provided. Gross! If viewers notice that women or men aren’t growing hair it’s because they had laser hair removal done before going on the show. The same goes with sparkly white teeth; many contestants will have their teeth whitened before going on the show.
6. Tribal Council
Tribal Council is held every couple of days and is a ceremony dedicated to casting a contestant off the show. The ceremony is usually held at the end of an episode and for viewers watching at home, they only last a few minutes, but in reality, these meetings take about 45 to 90 minutes. Of course, each one varies depending on the situation, but for the most part are a lot longer than what viewers see in the final edited footage.
5. Survivors Are Provided a Wardrobe for the Show
Cast members are allowed to bring their own clothes to film for the show, but there are regulations on what is allowed and producers will ultimately decide what is worn when they arrive on location. Cast members must wear camera friendly colors and certain forms of clothing are not allowed like shirts and caps with logos. The producers will meticulously select their wardrobe so people on the same team are wearing similar colors and ensure no one is smuggling things into camp. When it comes to challenge days, contestants will often be told what to wear because each person has a stand-in or body double that will be used later to gather additional footage. Not only do they select what clothes they can and can’t wear, but producers have also been known to dress a contestant to illustrate a particular ‘role’ and have even brought people their bathing suits or asked them to wear something they might not typically wear. For example, Survivor winner John Cochran had never worn sweater vests before the show, but producers told him to wear them because it added to his “character” which was supposed to be smart and nerdy.
4. Recruited Cast Members
The reason the producers of Survivor recruit people for the show is because when applications come in from the general public, they hardly ever get anything of substance. Lynne Spillman is in charge of casting for Survivor and The Amazing Race, and in many interviews over the past few years, he’s been candid about the process, stating these shows receive tens of thousands of applications with only a handful that work. As a result, the show will recruit its own cast members and often times these candidates are models or actors (but not always), and even though they’ve been recruited for the show, they are still forced to go through a rigorous casting process. Every person on Survivor Fiji was recruited except for one. In addition to making the process of finding contestants for the show easier, it also allows the producers and directors to cast people who are of certain stereotypes. Producers want people who are loud mouths, egotistical, smart or a “dumb blonde” type because such diverse personalities working together will make better television. Yau-Man Chan was recruited to bring more ethnicity to the show. In an interview with Chan, he said he was approached by scouts for the show who were seeking more diverse cast members.
3. When Survivors Get Voted Off
Contestants have to take seven weeks vacation to appear on the show, but if they get voted off early they can’t just go home. They have to hang around until the end and typically people who are voted off really early just use the rest of their vacation time to travel nearby. Those who get voted off will stay at a nearby camp or facility, and the contestants who don’t make the jury will just leave altogether. Those who make it for the jury have to stay on location so that they can attend Tribal Council every third day.
2. Tallying the Votes
Fans of the show are all too familiar with Jeff Probst’s favorite three words, “tally the votes.” When the votes are submitted, Jeff walks away and chats with the producers who have been watching the confessional footage in a live production booth far away from the actual Tribal Council. They make a decision based on the outcome of the votes and what was said in the confessionals on what order the votes will be read by Jeff. They meticulously organize the reading order to maximize drama and create as much suspense as possible. Jeff will always read the votes viewers saw first before he reads the unseen game-changing votes.
1. Body Doubles
Mark Burnett, the producer of Survivor admitted to using body doubles as stand-ins when shooting scenes for a challenge. When asked about it, he said, “I couldn’t care less – I’m making great television.” Body doubles are an important part of creating the show and are used for aerial or panoramic shots. When a challenge is happening there are tons of camera crews everywhere getting close up shots and following contestants around on foot which producers, of course, wouldn’t want in their wide shots, so these must be filmed later. That’s why viewers will never hear a helicopter when watching because those shots were filmed after the challenge took place. There’s even a stand-in for Jeff Probst! Not only does it add to the audience’s experience, many times the camera crew only has one opportunity to get a shot, and if it gets ruined either by someone walking in the background, lost audio or some kind of camera malfunction, new footage must be recreated. For example, Chan said in the scenes where viewers see a pair of legs running, those usually weren’t his — they were the legs of a body double. So who are these body doubles? These body doubles are usually people on The Dream Team.