For its 11th season, Face Off will look different: not just because it’s the show’s first-ever all-star season, but because the contestants will compete in pairs all season long, affecting the way each episode is structured.
Instead of weekly eliminations, as the show had for its previous 10 seasons, the show will now alternate. Tonight’s episode (Syfy, 9 p.m.) won’t end with one artist or a two-person team going home. Instead, one team will win.
Next week, one team will go home—both artists. That will continue all season.
Why did they make those changes? And how did they decide on teams? And how did they get away with casting for success, not conflict?
I talked to Dwight D. Smith of Mission Control Media about those things and a lot more.
Along with Michael Agbabian, he produces shows such as Spike’s Framework and NBC’s Hollywood Game Night. (Tangent: For an amazing story about how Hollywood Game Night was pitched to NBC, listen to their interview on the podcast Reality of Reality.)
Casting for success, not conflict
While casting this season, producers did the opposite of what you would expect from most cable competition shows: they made sure the teams would work well together.
“That was something that was very important to us: that those teams were all set up for success,” Smith told me. “I’m sure you know: Face Off is not a show that we engineer drama and a lot of conflict. If there’s creative conflict, we’ll embrace that and go with it, but we’re not trying to do personality conflict. So it was very important to us that these teams were set up for success, and we wanted the artists to be excited about who they were going to work with and actually be able to do their best work.”
“We consulted all of the cast about who they would like to work with,” he said, so it was “a collective decision between the artists and the producers about how they would be teamed up. But it really was looking at people’s strengths and their abilities and their sensibilities.”
The result, at least in the first episode, is that everyone is surprisingly joyous about working together—and they actually do work well together. It’s the opposite of most reality TV team challenges.
Being the opposite of most reality shows has been part of the show’s DNA for most of its life.
“After season one, we really took a look at what the show was and really decided to embrace the process and the artistry of what these people do and push aside the conflict, and I think the audience has really responded,” Smith said. “We see lots of comments on social media from viewers who love the fact that our cast is supportive of one another and actually help one another.”
The network has not pushed for conflict or fake drama, either. “Syfy has been completely on board with that,” he said.
I pointed out just how wonderfully atypical this is in the reality space. “It is very unusual,” he said. “There’s enough conflicts or problems in the process for drama. Molds are locking, things are not working, they’re having self-doubts—there’s also sorts of inherent drama in the process, and it doesn’t need to be manufactured. We’ve always tried to keep Face Off as pure as possible to the makeup process.”
How teams will affect eliminations
Having teams gave the producers the chance to bring back people who “had so much more to show,” Smith said. And keeping them in teams gave the production an opportunity to stick to the reality of the world of special effects makeup.
“There’s very few times that an indvidual will do what they do on Face Off,” Smith said, considering the artists do everything from conceptualizing a creature to creating every last detail. Working with others is “more reflective of the business, and we’ve always tried to make any sort of twists or creative layers be something that is grounded in the world of special effects,” he said.
All of the all-star cast, Smith said, are “really solid artists, we knew they were going to be able to do amazing work, and we also knew the audience was going to be really happy to see a lot of them back.”
The decision to alternate eliminations every week came after “a lot of discussion,” he said. That’s because having teams “does create a situation where you can’t eliminate a person a week”—or there will be an imbalance, or the show will burn through its cast too quickly.
Smith said that the judging will take two weeks of work into account for eliminations, but botching a makeup one week doesn’t mean a complete reset: “you don’t get a free pass if you screw up, you get another chance,” he said.
Will that format continue in future seasons? “Maybe,” Smith said, though “I think we’ll probably be trying a couple other things at first.” He said they have ideas for twists for a few more seasons.
What we don’t see about the Face Off process
There’s a lot that happens behind the scenes, like on any show, including everything the models go through. (Read my interview with Face Off models for more on that.)
Part of the Face Off crew is dedicated to running the lab, and Smith said “they do a phenomenal job,” stocking it with basics and also purchasing challenge-specific items. “We want our artists to succeed and have every possible material,” he said.
The materials are a “considerable amount” of the show’s budget, and the artists “usually lose their minds when they get loose in the lab. They don’t have the resources to have the breadth of materials we have in that lab.”
One thing that’s not shown on screen every week: “a consultation with the wardrobe and the art department” to costume their characters and provide a prop. “We have an amazing wardrobe team who basically creates all the costumes for all the makeups in a little over 24 hours,” Smith said. Some costumes are hand-made, while others are rented.
I asked if they’d ever considered showing that process—I’d love to see some of it, at least—and he said, “It’s tricky. In season one we actually shot and were going to include it in the show.” However, while “the judges will sometimes be critical of an artists’ wardrobe choice,” it’s not something the contestants are technically being judged on, and thus is excluded.
Keeping Face Off fresh, but not unfamiliar, after 11 seasons
During our interview, I asked Smith to justify a practice that is an industry-wide behavior, and is something I’ve been critical about with Face Off: the tendency to have the artists explain, in an interview, what we’ve just seen. For example, they walk in to the lab where there’s a box on the table. Cut to an artist saying, I walk into the lab and see a box on the table.
Why do those soundbites exist? Smith told me, “part of it, I would say, is a request from the network.” The other part, he said, is “getting inside” what the artists are thinking. “We try to make to [those soundbites] a little more of an emotional response.” That’s so viewers can understand how they’re responding to whatever’s happening.
Another challenge producers of a successful competition show face is continuing to evolve the show without alienating viewers.
“I think we’re always trying—I know you’ve been critical of us in the past about feeling like we’re stuck in a rut, and not mixing things up and freshening things up. The tricky thing about that is that you can’t please everybody,” he said. “If you change it too much, people start to complain, and if you don’t change it at all, people start to complain. And there’s always going to be a faction that isn’t please. On Face Off, we really have tried to stay away from as many reality show contrivances and layers and twists as possible, because we want to be a show about artistry and talent.”
“At the same time, I get it; we’re in season 11, and you want to keep the show fresh, so we have definitely tried to do that. We definitely made a huge push in season nine—which you wrote about, and we really appreciated that you recognized that and acknowledged it, that we’d really freshened it up with new challenges.”
“It hurts when people don’t love it,” Smith told me, and “we love it when they do.”
Smith said the production is confident Face Off: All-Stars delivers.
“I’m incredibly excited about this season; I think it’s one of our best seasons yet,” he said. “There’s really interesting challenges and there’s some incredible artists. Their personalities are huge and their talent is amazing. They’re such a great group of artists and the fact that they all came back so enthusiastically meant a lot to us, and it just set up for a very exciting season.”