The Masked Singer Season 9 Set Decorator | Putting The Live Back In Live Television

The Masked Singer Season 9 Set Decorator John Sparano posits no matter how large your video screen is on stage, live personal electricity and set pieces are far superior in the world of Reality Competition Shows.

As The Masked Singer Set Decorator, frequently working on reality competition shows– I’ve kept my eye on the utilization of video screen content. Video screens that started out as simple playback years ago have morphed into enormous monoliths displaying everything from live stage content to entire three dimensional sets. Every show I have worked multiple seasons on has increased the stage area of projection screens. I can’t blame them.

No matter how large your video screen is… live personal electricity cannot be recreated.

Screen content is now rendered with laser like clarity and their animated and live possibilities are endless. The Masked Singer Season 9 was a breath of fresh air into that gigantic frame of infinite pixels with its reimagined design. A show that started out with major video enhancements, including a season with solely Artificial Reality projection put in during post, took the leap into a 360 degree stage and the belief back into live set decoration.

When I became a Set Decorator, my first competition show was the WB’s, America’s Next Top Model in 2008. The job consisted of an elaborately designed house for the contestants to live in and a variety of model related challenges culminating with a runway show. These shows were usually shot on location and required bringing in all the scenic elements.

The Masked Singer Season 9 Digital Set Rendering by Dwayne Burgess

Digital Set Rendering by Concept Artist, Dwayne Burgess

Video screens were in their infancy and far too expensive for the show’s budget. To bring the drama and the spectacle to the proceedings I designed and decorated fashion shows with a twist. Runways submerged in pools, through fire, on a giant record turntable and many others ranging from the outrageous to somewhat perilous.

My next show, Dancing With The Stars also gave the creative team and myself the opportunity to use live scenic elements to fill out the dance routines. Unfortunately, video content came into its own in my fifth season and the use of hard scenic elements was scaled back. Gone were the days of putting three wall sets onto the stage live during a three minute commercial break and installations of twenty-five foot trees and fully landscaped gardens. The process was quite remarkable with dozens of stagehands and riggers working fluidly and efficiently to complete the sets in the live breaks. Recently however, it is my experience that the use of video screens as a focal point or a scenic background have started to wear out their welcome.

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Keeping a hit show fresh in the reality world is much harder than in scripted. Most reality shows live and die on the concept alone. The Masked Singer became a hit based on the elaborate costumes and the unmasking of a celebrity. After a few hugely successful seasons, the audience began to wane. While scripted television can add new arcs and completely change the direction of a show to hold audiences, reality competition shows such as The Voice, American Idol, and Ru Paul’s Drag Race rely on presentation.

“Enhancements” as they are known in the business started appearing in the form of elaborate lighting, additional screen content and in my case, some shows employ a decorator to put together fresh live looks with practical items. In today’s world of giant video screens however, that kind of detail and extra production support has been pushed to the wayside.

Digital Set Rendering by Concept Artist, Dwayne Burgess

In Season 9’s redesign of The Masked Singer, our Production Designer Steve Morden was tasked with integrating the audience further into the performances. Due to the offstage demands of a show as massive as Masked Singer, redesigning it arena style was daunting. Many departments must be represented close to the stage during taping, so making the set shootable in the round would kill off a great deal of that space.

After several incarnations trying to satisfy many producer concerns, a design was approved. To meet these concerns, concessions had to be made to the enormous video screen that was featured in previous seasons. The screen had to be scaled back, which sent shudders through the creative team. Luckily, the producers trusted the design and building commenced.

When the stage was completed and rehearsals began, an unknown benefit appeared. Extra playing areas in and around the audience could now be exploited in a new and different way without screens as a background.  A slow roll out of a VIP area on stage that was previously a small area in the audience, began bringing new energy to the show.

Michael Becker | Fox

Steve Morden and I oversaw conceptualizing this new thematic space. Having worked with Director, Alex Rudzinski before on the Fox’s Rent Live! (Emmy winner for Production Design) I had a good idea of his aesthetic and knew the filling out of this area would be crucial under his eye. We started out simply with a bus bench for the New York Show.  Quickly it became apparent that this corner of the stage brought new life and energy to the shot choices. As the season progressed, the area became more complex. Sesame Street Night was the height of scenic element incorporation into the show.

Anytime you work with the Muppets, it’s a rewarding and almost magical experience. Even when the puppeteers aren’t performing, the Muppets seem to occupy living space. The regard in which audiences hold them is quite astonishing, so when the Muppets perform, great care and innovation must be taken to cover the human element behind them.

Michael Becker | Fox

Working on a 360 degree stage wasn’t as easy as just making a box and cramming a puppeteer inside. We had to develop intricate hides coming from the floor and for camouflage to be quickly rolled out on stage, as the Masked Singer is done live. It was my great honor to recreate the iconic Sesame Street stoop in our newly valuable VIP area, and Steve Morden and I were able to create multiple hides with multiple playing spaces with very tight constraints. The show was one of the highest rated episodes in recent seasons.

My hope is that this season of The Masked Singer brings back more live interaction on reality competition shows. There is an energy that no matter how large your video screen is, or how vast your number of moving lights and special effects explosions are, live personal electricity cannot be recreated.

When Who Wants to Be A Millionaire indelibly changed the production design of these types of shows, it reinvigorated the genre. The lights, the music, the isolation of the contestant all brought new dynamics to the format. It seems now we have come full circle and the reincorporation of decorative arts and personal interaction has broken through the glitz. Or, as in the case of my livelihood – I can only hope.

The Masked Singer Season 9 Set Decoration – Putting The Live Back In Live Television Share on X
The Masked Singer, Season 9

Fox Alternative Entertainment
Production Designer: Steve Morden
Art Director: James Yarnell
Set Decorator: John Sparano

You can connect with John Sparano on his Website, or on Instagram.

To read more of our First Person Series posts on Art Departmental, click here.

Posted by John Sparano

John Sparano’s career started in theater at The Catholic University of America. After moving to Los Angeles and graduating from Cal State University, Northridge, his short, “Peter” about a reality TV show abusing an unwitting victim, was cited by the LA Times in an article criticizing reality TV. His next, “Reality School”, a mockumentary parodying reality TV, screened all over the world. Ironically in 2008, he started decorating reality, and live television, winning an Emmy in 2019 for “Rent Live!”

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