Emmys: It Takes a Village to Make Reality Competitions Pop

Lip Sync Battle; Queen Latifa vs
Trae Patton/SPIKE TV

What do “The Voice,” “American Ninja Warrior,” “MasterChef Junior” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” have in common besides being in the reality competition race for an Emmy?

They rely heavily on the collaboration of artisans and craftspeople: Lighting designers working with choreographers, costume designers working with hair and makeup artists, and executive producers making sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.

“This show is really collaborative,” says Casey Patterson, who executive produces “Lip Sync Battle” with Jay Peterson. “The minute someone is booked and confirmed, we gather the department heads — Jeanie Cheek, our wardrobe stylist; our set designer Keith Raywood; and our art directors Anthony Bishop and Natacha Aubier-Hatch; and our choreographer Danielle Flora — and get on the phone with the talent. We brainstorm ideas, then everyone is off and running in their own worlds, sometimes with just hours to pull it off.”

Having an on-site mill and shop helps. “The minute they get the go-ahead—‘We’re doing a ’70s game show,’ or ‘Wrecking Ball’— everybody is dispatched. They’re able to pull off miracles,” Patterson says.

It’s slightly different on “MasterChef Junior.”

“I impart a vision. Sometimes it’s ridiculous and people look at me like, ‘We’ll never pull it off,’ but because they’re so committed and so good at their crafts they pull it all together,” says Robin Ashbrook, EP/showrunner of “MasterChef” and “MasterChef Junior.” The junior version of the franchise demands the most of the creative departments with such gags as distributing aprons via a Gordon Ramsey pinata or submerging someone in a giant milkshake.

“I’m all about the theater of the show, the pomp and the circumstance,” Ashbrook says. “Who wants thousands of marshmallows to rain from the ceiling? Well, we do.”

Synergy between departments is required to pull off those wild ideas, but it also fuels inspiration, according to Tom Campbell, exec producer of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

“We’re all in one place and the creative juices are flowing and the competition is on,” Campbell says. “I love being in the studio, getting our groove on. So many people come to ‘Drag Race’ and do their best year after year, and it shows. From the lighting crew to the choreographers to [show host/producer] RuPaul — everyone is firing on all 12 cylinders.”

The artisans on “MasterChef Junior” get creative with the show’s gags.

RuPaul is an aspirational figure to contestants on the show, which shines the spotlight on the work of RuPaul’s costume designer, Zaldy.

“Ru is bigger than any category and never expects to be dressed in a theme, because really, that’s for the competitors,” Zaldy says. “Basically, we have free rein to do whatever we want. Ru doesn’t ever see the sketches or anything. We make, they arrive and everyone is surprised.”

Together, Zaldy and his three team members — supplemented by an endless array of graphic designers, hand painters, hand beaders and other specialty craftspeople — set a high bar, especially for themselves. “Our biggest challenge is the size of Ru and the special dress forms we have in the studio,” Zaldy says. “We’re literally on tables and chairs and ladders to work on these dresses. It’s hilarious.”

Campbell adds, “To quote Ru, as a man he’s 6’5” and in heels and a wig she’s through the motherf—ing roof.”

On “The Voice,” costume designer Erin Hirsh’s team helps contestants cultivate looks and styles as they progress from blind auditions to live shows. They also dress the show’s dancers. Her secret weapon is simply getting to know the contestants. “Some think the job is styling, but it’s really psychology,” Hirsh says. “It’s gaining their trust and being able to put forth what we can to help them achieve the success they want.”

While the judges’ teams shrink, Hirsh’s team grows. She starts with 12 people for the blind auditions and the number doubles as the season progresses. “We essentially have 24 hours, total, to shop and fit everything before dress rehearsal,” she says. “It all comes together, so no one thinks about what’s going on behind the scenes, but it’s a pretty frantic pace.”

No major wardrobe malfunctions have happened to date, but there have been a couple of near misses. One time a contestant spilled what looked like tea on her dress during blind auditions. “We whipped out hairdryers, but there’s only so much we can do in a minute-thirty seconds,” she says.

Interdepartmental cooperation on “The Voice” starts with the songs. “Then it’s working with the artists and finding out what their choreography and staging will be,” Hirsh says. “We might have an idea of what we want to put them in, but if they’re dancing we can’t put them in high-high heels or something that limits their movement.”

As choreographer on “Dancing With the Stars,” producer Mandy Moore works primarily on group dance routines and the bumpers and rejoins going to and from commercial breaks. “I’m also there as a consultant for the contestants or the pros if they want any help or have a question,” Moore says.

Working on a live show is her biggest challenge. “I don’t know who I’ll have until Monday night and we start rehearsing Tuesday morning, so I have to create numbers based off the idea that someone is going home, but I don’t know who,” Moore says.

Group rehearsals can be logistically challenging due to the celebrities’ schedules. “Instead of it being an issue, I just accept it,” Moore says. With as little as three hours of rehearsal time, Moore has to be on top of her game and communicate with the director so everything flows properly when they go live.

“We have free rein … Ru doesn’t ever see the sketches. We make, they arrive and everyone is surprised.”

“There’s a ton of collaboration of the show. There are times I want something very specific lighting-wise, and I work with our lighting director, Simon Miles, because he needs to order things prior to being on camera,” Moore says.

“Figuring out how to light contestants for all of the different obstacles changes with every city,” says “American Ninja Warrior” lighting director/DP Adam Biggs. “The challenge is finding spots for lights to light the contestants up so they look good without blinding them, where they won’t run into the lights or affect game play. It’s a strategic dance between the obstacles, the contestants, and making the show look good.”

At each location, Biggs’ 20-person crew runs many miles of cable, uses four, sometimes five, generators, and sets approximately 1,600 individual lights for the ever-changing course. They also have to light the nighttime city around the course to show well on screen.

“We have five days to do it. We shoot in two days, then it all comes down in one day,” Biggs says. “Everyone’s working at 100%, everyone has their specific jobs. There’s no room on the set-up for error.”

Biggs collaborates closely with the art department and the obstacle construction crew to determine where lights can go. “We work really closely with those guys to make sure everything is safe, looks cool, and that we can do it efficiently.”

One of those guys is Travis McDaniel, COO of ATS, a company that designs obstacles for “American Ninja Warrior” and Netflix’s “Ultimate Beastmaster.”

“ ‘Beastmaster’ was a massive undertaking,” McDaniel says. Designing the course to fit its permanent location took roughly two years. “We started working on location 50 days before the first filming day, and brought in more aluminum truss to build the beast’s skeleton than we’ve ever used on any job. About 20 days later we started putting in the obstacles. A crew came in that had the head pieces and we assisted them with the installation of various pieces of the head and ribs of the beast.”

Safety padding doesn’t look out of place on other shows ATS has worked on, but it would be visually jarring in the belly of the beast. “The padding had to be really nuanced and built into the obstacle. We spent a lot of time and money looking at different technologies to incorporate into the padding, which sounds silly but is important.”

Another safety feature is the beast’s “blood.”

“I’ll spoil the secret,” McDaniel says, “It’s water that’s been dyed, not actual blood. It’s our number one fall protection — water is a great source of fall protection, it’s great at absorbing impact.”

McDaniel says about 70 of ATS’ 150 worldwide employees helped bring the beast to life. “We have an unbelievable cohesive team, and this was one of our greatest challenges.”