How Survivor SA drew inspiration from sci-fi shows for this season's tribal council design

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Survivor SA: Return of the Outcasts.
Survivor SA: Return of the Outcasts.
Photo: M-Net
  • DStv subscribers got their first glimpse of the Tribal Council area in Survivor SA: Return of the Outcasts on M-Net (DStv 101) in the latest episode.
  • The design this season plays on the idea of a sacred, abandoned village.
  • "We took earth, wind, fire and water and basically built the entire production season's look and feel around those elements," says co-executive producer Leroux Botha.

DStv subscribers got their first glimpse of the latest Tribal Council area in Survivor SA: Return of the Outcasts on M-Net (DStv 101) in the latter part of Tuesday night's second episode: A design creation playing on the idea of a sacred, abandoned village, where the wind has over years worn it down and with the elements taking their tolls amidst crystals glowing softly.

"The overarching theme of this season is the elements," Leroux Botha, who is co-executive producer, creative producer and series director, tells Channel24.

"We took earth, wind, fire and water and basically built the entire production season's look and feel around those elements, taking quite a lot of little pinpricks from different science fiction tropes."

"There are a lot of sci-fi tropes built into Survivor South Africa: Return of the Outcasts, so if you're into that - for instance the voting urn is based on a Goa'uld pyramid ship from Stargate SG-1 and you'll see a lot of the Star Wars Tatooine sand people in terms of the camera huts at Tribal Council," he says.

"In the first challenge you'll see a type of Star Trek Klingon bat'leth built into one of the challenges. We play around a lot with sci-fi tropes this season from which we draw inspiration for the Tribal Council area because it's never been done before – it's either a fishing village or a kraal last season."

"In terms of the production design we had a lot of fun. Later on DStv subscribers will see, for the Tribal Immunity Idol we took some inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons – and later with the Immunity Necklace holder inspired by Magic: The Gathering."

"So there are quite a lot of little sci-fi tropes which pop through the entire season. It basically started with the entire idea of playing with four elements and The Fifth Element is one of my favourite movies, so we played around with all of those things in the production design this season."

There are a lot of sci-fi tropes built into Surviv
There are a lot of sci-fi tropes built into Survivor South Africa: Return of the Outcasts.

Handrie Basson, Survivor SA co-executive producer, says the location itself on the Sunshine Coast in the Ndlambe municipality in the Eastern Cape province was also an inspiration.

"From the first recce's that we did last year – because it's still the same province in South Africa, the landscape is quite different between the Wild Coast and the Sunshine Coast. There's a particular area that we utilised for our big challenges where you would see these protruding rocks coming out of the soil – whether it be uncovered soil or grass-covered soil."

"These almost represent mini-monolith in different shapes and sizes. At a glance, for someone who is not as au fait with the various sci-fi genres and all the little easter eggs that Leroux and his team planted, it felt to me like a foreign landscape. It feels like this is something that could be prehistoric."

He adds: 

You will see at the Tribal Council area there are throwbacks to monoliths and it looks like these rock pillars coming from the earth. That is definitely not only because of the inspiration and creative licence that the art direction took but also because it speaks and echoes the environment itself.

"Survivor is always tropical and beach and there are a lot of those elements as well but what was really interesting this time as well and to differentiate it as well from the two seasons is that we have these rocks just there and we amplify those in the construction that we did."

To tribal while blindfolded

In this new 9th season all of the different spots like the physical Tribal Council area are located relatively close to the production base camp.

"The tribe camps were about two to three kilometres from one another and the distance to the Tribal Council set – which was very, very, very close to the actual base camp itself – was about 5 kilometres. So the castaways would travel from their tribe camp to the Tribal Council set in game-viewing vehicles whilst being blindfolded," Basson explains.

"From a distance perspective they never had sight of the actual Tribal Council area, or of the production base camp resort itself and they never could see each other's tribe camp. It was on the same stretch of coastline but it was quite far removed from one another."

Thunderstorms and lightning

The Tribal Council area was constructed within days.

"What is absolutely remarkable about our art and construction team – Tribal Council basically sprung up; within a week the foundations were laid. There was absolutely nothing on the site. As part of Survivor's ethos and philosophy – once we remove it, you can't see that anything has ever been there."

"So what we did is, we cleared out some vegetation and then we put the base of the Tribal Council down, which you will see is a type of concentric platform. Then we built these huts which very much represent a sci-fi themed aesthetic," Basson says.

"In total, the Survivor SA art department spent a month to get everything ready for the first technical rehearsal once all of the gear comes in and the lights get rigged."

Where season 8 saw the Tribal Council area, host Nico Panagio and the castaways get battered with a deluge of rain during tribal council sessions, the season 9 set had to contend with thunderstorms and lightning.

"From a sturdy and holding up for filming purposes the set design and the construction of season 9's Tribal Council area were very well preserved. The only thing that sometimes would be a threat to us was thunderstorms – actual lightning."

"Whether it be rain or wind, we kept filming – because you know, the show must go on. In terms of monitoring the lightning and storms, we only had about two this season compared to the previous season where it was a lot more frequent."

"And only once did we have to make the call and say 'Okay, everyone go find cover, get into your safety positions'. Tribal Council is quite an intimate space but the support area – the control room and holding areas and so forth were constructed and weather-proofed in such a way that every crew member knew exactly where they had to go and find shelter."

Castaways at Tribal Council.
Castaways at Tribal Council.

"It was literally one 5-minute break we did and then thankfully the storm moved not over us but past us. Sometimes you have to take that safety measure. From a weather perspective, we still had quite extreme days on the Sunshine Coast but it was far less than what we've had in the Wild Coast," Basson explains.

"Yes we do have rain, yes it is cold, yes we have prevailing winds but in much smaller measure than compared to Survivor SA season 8 Immunity Island."

Worn down by wind

As to how functionality – what the show needs to get and where cameras need to be hidden – influenced the Tribal Council area's design this season, Botha says this season took inspiration from the location.

"You'll see when we finally introduce the hidden Immunity Idols, we used river stones which were readily available and did carvings into those. The art department did a bang-up job on that. We took inspiration from what was available in the area to make those things work."

"There was quite a lot of inspiration taken from the immediate area and what was available."

Basson says the Individual Immunity necklace that kicks in with merge represents "that stone, rock, monolith insignia as well".

"Always with things like that – from a technical perspective – over the years you learn that it needs to be sturdy and it needs to be visual, but it can't be too heavy, it can't be too noisy otherwise it interferes with the recording."

So everything that has its own unique differentiation from previous seasons – even the voting urn – as much as we knew it was the shape that we wanted, it still needed to be big enough for the parchments to fit inside so that nobody can see any other parchments so that it's easy enough for Nico to manoeuvre and to handle the votes for example, and to slide it under the base of the voting urn once read.

"It's all those kinds of things you don't just create for the design aesthetic but it has to make practical sense as well."

"The huts around Tribal Council – it has to look tattered enough so that there are holes for the cameras to shot through – and that's all a design decision to be made. Of course, when you create it, it looks perfectly intact but then it has to be this desolate, kind of sacred village which has been abandoned, and over the years the wind has worn it down and the elements have taken their toll."

A trickle of water

There is something beautiful in Nico Panagio's background at Tribal Council, says Basson.

"Where we always have a flame source – there is a wok there – there is also a big monolith in the back of him that has a trickle of water that comes down constantly, so that it looks like there's a water source there to tie in the four elements.

"We had to figure out how powerful can and should that water trickle be? Because we can't have that noise interfere. It's always 'great idea!' and then a little bit of troubleshooting and a tweaking here and there. That's what the technical rehearsals are for."

"It all has to speak to the overall thematic and the overall elements, but there are always some design tweaks which happen in the week leading up to the first shooting day where we do all of these tweaks and tests," Basson explains.

"Last year we had a lot of problems from a wind perspective with the torch designs because the wicks were relatively narrow and they would blow out quite easily and then you had to relight. So for example, in anticipation of and not quite knowing how the weather would behave, the team designed wider mouths for the torches itself so that they could sustain heavier winds."

Host Nico Panagio with the voting urn.
Host Nico Panagio with the voting urn.

"It worked beautifully and presented really well. But that also means the snuffer needs to be slightly different and needs to be able to fit. It's like a jigsaw puzzle with a lot of elements going into it."

In terms of the elements in Tribal Council, Botha says the water is behind Nico, the fire is in the firepit and the torches, the huts have billowing winds coming through for air, "and then you have the floor which is very much earth tones and rocks."

Glowing crystals

The look of the Tribal Council voting area actually got improved by the addition of glowing crystal lights – actually a fix to try and eliminate a dark patch on camera.

"You can't put in these big lights which look out of place. It has to look intimate and moody. Our art department came up with these stands where they would place crystals, and the crystals would get illuminated," Basson says.

"It just gives this soft hue, it almost looks like a 'medicine man' environment – slightly more sacred than what the other spaces are because there are these feathers and leather installations hanging at the back and then you have these little crystals glowing on the side of it."

"That was purely done because we felt we needed more light on the contestants' faces. And it's such a small light source but it literally eliminated a block of shadow that was on the voting table. It was a fix that improved the overall look and feel of it with these two little crystals glowing on the side."

Glowing crystal lights at the tribal voting area.
Glowing crystal lights at the tribal voting area.

Survivor SA: Return of the Outcasts is on M-Net (DStv 101) Mondays to Thursdays at 18:00.

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