Behind the scenes of The Glass House
Most of my interview with executive producer Kenny Rosen was conducted from behind one of the mirrored walls that make up The Glass House. We were standing behind the tubes from which players enter and exit, watching the players blow bubbles and answer viewer questions in the living room during the July 31 3 p.m. ET live streaming episode. They were staring at the wall and had no idea we were there; there were also five camera operators behind the living room’s two walls.
Like Big Brother’s house, The Glass House is constructed in a soundstage and has hidden hallways for camera operators. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end, from the way Big Brother’s house actually opens up to the outdoors to The Glass House’s more subtle design. To compare them, read this and then my reports on Big Brother’s set: inside the house and in the yard and control room.
The Glass House
- Before production began, producers considered using an actual house. But “lighting issues” prevented them from choosing it, Rosen told me. Plans for the house began in January and were finalized by mid-April. The time-lapse footage of its construction at the start of episode seven is pretty awesome and gives you an idea of its size and layout.
- The Van Nuys soundstage that houses The Glass House used to be used by Fox’s Hole in the Wall: Both shows utilized the H-shaped basement, with the Fox show using it for the pool into which players fell, and the ABC show using it to raise people up through the glass tubes via a lift.
- For the show’s Xbox-style voting, ABC wanted players to “pretend like they’re tapping on the glass and the glass will break,” but Initially, players were filmed voting two different ways. Rosen told me that he said, “We’re going to shoot it that way, but we’re also going to let them do whatever the hell they want. And week one, [the players are] coming out with the bows and arrows and javeline and the guns. Even Andrea, the Mormon mom, was like, bang-bang-bang-bang.” Thankfully, the network liked it, and thought it hilarious, so that stayed.
- Speaking of voting, Ashley’s voting stone was on Rosen’s desk, and he let me hold it. Those things aren’t a plastic prop: they’re really heavy.
Inside the soundstage
- The interior of the house does not look like a typical television set, i.e. imperfect and/or in terrible shape. It’s as gorgeous and brand-new as it looks in high definition.
- Hell’s Kitchen designer John Janavs also designed The Glass House, and a significant part of its look involves the two-way mirrors, which were designed so that “none of them are uniform, so it doesn’t look like just a bunch of strips. They’re all built into the architecture of the house,” Rosen told me. That “makes it feel less obtrusive,” and it really does: when you’re looking into a bedroom, it seems like a normal room, not an aquarium.
- The bedrooms, bathroom, and living room are basically lined up against the back of the space, so the interior is much more expansive than the Big Brother house, which is basically a U-shape with rooms off to the sides.
- The lighting in the house is remarkable, so I’ll remark on it. The overhead lighting rig can simulate different times of the day, similar to scripted shows, so although the players don’t have natural light, they do get simulated dusk, dawn, and nighttime lighting. The decorative panel underneath the dining room table can change 370-some odd colors, which Rosen said the players rarely notice.
- Rosen said that, unlike other shows, the lighting design on The Glass House does “embrace shadows,” meaning that everything is not washed out in bright lights.
- Behind the walls, in the camera blinds, black drapes cover each window and are pulled aside only when a camera operator needs to film through the mirror. Blacklights illuminate fluorescent tape markings on the floor. Camera operators need to wear dark clothing, or else there clothes will be reflected in the glass and get in their shot.
- The windows are crystal clear in the blinds, which is surprising since the other side is a mirror through which the players cannot see. The windows are also at different levels: some near the ground, others floor to ceiling; the lower ones allow for face shots. Rosen said they intentionally “keep the cameras not too far above [players’] heads,” which makes for a different aesthetic than the reality shows that shoot from above as a way of keeping someone’s face from being blocked by the person they’re talking to.
- The mirrors around the television made me think it was free-standing and there was a lot of space behind it. But that’s a wall of mirrors reflecting the other part of the house, and there are camera operators behind those mirrors, of course.
- To the right of Ori’s screen (i.e. the TV) is a small booth: it’s for smoking. From the outside, it looks very odd, because it has fans and a ventilation pipe attached to it, to take the smoke outside of the studio. At the end of the live streaming episodes, Rosen said that Erica, the last remaining smoker in the house, “makes a beeline for the smoking room” which makes viewers who are still watching think she’s “standoffish.” He was telling me this at the end of live streaming show, and after it concluded, he said, “My guess is…” and before he could finish, Erica got up to go smoke: “here she goes.”
- There’s a separate dressing room so the show and feeds won’t have any nudity: this is ABC/Disney, after all. There are also cameras in the toilet and showers, but Rosen said, “so far, nobody’s taken a shower [together] so far, which we’re glad about.”
- There’s a false door behind shelves in the dressing room that allows producers to give the cast clothing and supplies in their individual bins.
- The confessional room is soundproofed and has no windows, of course.
- The cast tweets from a booth with a computer, but the tweets don’t go directly to Twitter. Instead, they’re sent to ABC’s standards and practices, which makes sure tweets don’t give away what’s happening on Monday’s episode, swear, or send tweets directly to friends and family (though they have let an occasional “happy birthday”-style message through). Once the tweet is cleared, producers tweet for the cast.
- Players know what time it is because the Twitter booth’s computer has a clock in it: “We’re not trying to hide from them what time of day it is,” Rosen told me.
- While challenges are constructed in the gaming arena, it’s blocked from the house by a large backdrop that’s “not 100 percent soundproof,” Rosen said, so they have to be quiet while building challenges. After a Wednesday challenge, they tend to take down the challenge Thursday mornings. That’s because, as Rosen told me, “after a competition happens, we get really good reactions and fallout and scenes, and we don’t want to ruin those scenes with big audio of us tearing a major build, so we usually plan for the major teardown the following morning.”
- Players arrive back at the house Monday night and challenge construction may start on Tuesday, so they only have the arena about three of their five days in the house. “I think they’ve put on a lot of weight since they’ve been in the house,” Rosen told me. “I don’t know if we gave them enough workout equipment, to be honest.” (That explains the addition of an exercise bike next to the hot tub.)
- Camera operators are actually physically in the arena during challenges; at all other times, they film through the square mirrors visible in the space.
Outside the house
- The building houses offices and conference rooms for producers on the fourth floor; two floors down is the control room.
- In the control room, the director and two robotic camera operators sat in the front row, in front of a wall of crystal-clear footage. The row behind them includes story producers, who are paying attention to three or four stories at a time, and request that camera operators focus on specific people.
- In the next room over were two standards and practices people—two!—in charge of removing the fun parts of the show. “They hit the button when they see any nudity or cursing going on,” Rosen explained.
- The show has seven edit bays going five days a week; three nighttime editors work five days a week, too. Editors work Tuesdays through Saturday, lock the episode on Saturday, do online editing and sound mixing on Sunday, and deliver the episode to ABC early evening on Sunday.
- Rosen told me that 12 streams of footage are recording at a all times to a tapeless system that allows editors to go to work almost immediately. A system catalogs the footage by time and with metadata that allows them to easily search for particular moments.
- Off to the side was the executive control room sealed behind a glass wall (!) which included the web team, a crew member who updates what appears on the screen in the house for the players, and Ori, aka the Oracle, aka the voice of The Glass House, who was sitting in front of a mic. The live feed was being broadcast while I was there, so I didn’t get to talk with her or hear her voice in real life (alas), but she does have short, platinum blonde hair, which seems just about perfect.