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Based on title alone, The Masked Singer was perhaps the most pandemic-ready of any show on TV — masking up is not only part of the competition, it’s the whole premise. Of course, these masks aren’t exactly endorsed by the CDC. In reality, the team behind Fox’s unscripted hit faced the same pandemic-related roadblocks as every other TV series that went back into production in 2020 — but they got around them in some very creative ways.
According to executive producer Craig Plestis, there were two main concerns he and his team had to address before they were able to film the fourth season of the star-studded singing competition. First, how to keep the cast and crew safe — which they tackled using frequent testing and other safety protocols, ones that evolved and changed with each new scientific development — and second, how to make the show feel the same as it did before COVID-19 shut down the world in 2020.
“That second part really opened up a lot of avenues of creativity for us,” Plestis says.
While many audience-based shows turned to Zoom setups or audience-free filming, The Masked Singer turned to technology to make seasons four and five (filmed in mid-2020 and early 2021, respectively) feel exactly like the first three, complete with host, judges, competitors and, most important, audience. They used old audience reactions for close-ups and CGI virtual ones for the crowds.
“We auditioned an absolute cutting-edge company that designs virtual audiences for sports games in New York,” says the show’s director, Alex Rudzinski (who won an Emmy in 2016 for directing Fox’s Grease Live!). But instead of adding 20,000 people to a stadium cheering for a football team, they used “graphic CGI technology from the gaming world” to add people cheering for costumed celebrities’ cover songs.
“For two or three perspectives in our studio — in the big wide shots and in the tracking shots that we have over audience shoulders — we inserted a virtual audience in the foreground,” the director explains. “So when you cut to the big wides, you still see an audience; when you cut to a dollying low wide shot, you still are seeing audience. The technology is so good that even our executives were fooled.”
The slimmed-down crew acted as an audience while the celebs performed, with sweetened applause sounds filling the soundstage and the CGI crowd appearing on the monitors in the studio. Other departments, like lighting, were handled via remote control to reduce the number of bodies in the room, and costume designer Marina Toybina and her team would do fittings over Zoom to avoid congregating in a space for too long.
“I feel like people’s artistry came through,” Toybina says. “We started to really explore new techniques, new ways of how to do this all, even though the stores were closed.”
Most crucial, though, was the knowledge that everyone involved in the series was interconnected and had a responsibility to protect one another.
Judge Ken Jeong, who was a physician before getting into comedy, took that to heart and consulted several doctor friends to make sure the show was employing the best safety policies possible. “I really had to think like a doctor far more than I’ve ever had to in my entertainment career,” he says. “It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s also calming if you have a plan.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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