If you watch Big Brother, one of the annual rites of passage is the reveal of the house’s new design. But the photos and the house tour given by Big Brother host Julie Chen Moonves don’t reveal all.
Behind the camera during Julie’s tour—literally—is the actual set designer, Scott Storey, who talks with her about what he’s created, and she improvises dialogue to describe the rooms.
He’s been designing the Big Brother house since season six, when it moved into its permanent home. That house is half of a soundstage on CBS’ Radford lot, plus a tacked-on back yard. And half of that half are dark passageways behind the house’s many mirrors, where camera operators slide cameras along tracks and get shots of the houseguests competing.
Storey’s career started on the Burbank lot floating between NBC productions from Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show to the game show Sale of the Century. Now, his set design work can be seen not just twice a year on Big Brother, but also on shows such as Beat Bobby Flay, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Guy’s Grocery Games.
“I’m like the luckiest guy alive. First of all, I’m married to him,” Scott told me, indicating his husband, and then referring to their two kids. “I have a great job: I’m a set designer. Like, please! Can you think of a more ridiculous job?”
He bubbled with enthusiasm for his work as we talked on an early February morning in the kitchen of his his Pasadena house, where two dogs tumbled in and out of the kitchen, through a dog door hidden under the counters.
The dogs were running into a narrow and resplendent, sunny back yard, where a small building next to the pool serves as Scott’s office. It also holds his Emmy, for the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards, plus the award given out on the VMAs, a Moon Man.
When he’s working in the office, often collaborating with people electronically, Scott says his kids now don’t necessarily stop by: “They’ll text me: Can you come in? We’re hungry.”
We talked the day after a rehearsal for the new America’s Funniest Home Videos spin-off, Videos After Dark, which he’d designed; the following week, he would be loading in a set for a show for Facebook, which had to be designed vertically to be viewed on a phone screen.
“People who watch the shows don’t see the amount of thought that goes into everything, all the details and everything,” he said of the Big Brother house.
That included me. So let’s look behind the scenes at what it takes to construct a habitat for the 16 houseguests who consistently bring CBS top-10 ratings every summer.
How Scott Storey started designing reality TV houses: Chains of Love
“The first house show I did was called Chains of Love, which was like a million years ago,” Scott told me. It was a real house, decorated for television.
“The Real World was the first real house reality show. Those houses all looked great, but they didn’t really have a character,” he told me. “I got hired to The Surreal Life—which was supposed to be called Surreal World, but then Real World said no.”
Season one’s cast included MC Hammer, Jerri Manthey, Corey Feldman, and Emmanuel Lewis, and what Scott realized was that “these are bigger than life personalities. I can make the house insane. The house was a character.”
So: “I just went crazy. One season they walked into the mouth of a giant clown. … The house sets the tone. If you want to do a lovely house, you’re not going to expect crazy drama.”
That style was surprising and unusual then, but “now it’s sort of everywhere,” he said.
How did he get started?
Scott is self-effacing and often funny, starting a story about his work in theatrical set design by saying, “When I was in high school, when there were dinosaurs running around…”
At another point, he said, “as an artist,” and then stopped himself. “That always sounds so pompous, but it’s sort of what I am; I’m a commercial designer.”
He majored in set design and Carnegie Mellon, and came back to California, where he was born and raised. He immediately started work in television with fellow Carnegie alum.
“I’ve always had a theatrical background, and what I do is really theatrical,” he said. “I just don’t do reality. I still do a lot of music, and game shows, and award shows—and it’s all theatrical. I’ve just stayed in that lane and really enjoyed it. … The little tiny bits I’ve done in scripted, I just find it really slow.”
Reality TV can move quickly, but it also takes a lot of preparation, and that’s true of the Big Brother house.
How much time it takes to design and build out the Big Brother house
A lot. Just building the space can take three months, and Scott told me that “the design process is complicated. I do these big layout boards, and we sketch, and we pull fabric. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Casting director Robyn Kass and Scott “always call each other bookends, because we’re at the very beginning and the very end” of the production cycle, Scott said.
During Big Brother 20 last summer, he was already working on the set for January’s Celebrity Big Brother. “There was no office space, because we’re shooting summer and I’m prepping,” he said.
The work takes that long because it’s not just a new coat of paint and some furniture, which has always been my assumption, and I’ve probably even written things to that effect. Instead, the house’s interior is essentially torn down and rebuilt, sometimes with considerable structural changes.
“Not everything, but yeah, I move things around,” he said. Last summer, for BB20, “the two bedrooms, they were separated by a big dividing wall, so I tore that wall down. For celebrity, I put the wall back.”
“A lot of it has to remain in place just because of the technology. There’s so much engineering, cameras—all that stuff,” Scott said. But while the overall layout stays the same “more or less,” he has found flexibility even where there isn’t any: “I can’t really change the camera track [which is behind the mirrors] … though I have changed it a little bit.”
Some changes aren’t visible to casual viewers. “For Celebrity, we added a second diary room,” Scott told me. With a shortened schedule and more-frequent episodes, producers needed to double-up because of how much time it takes to interview each houseguest.
The new Diary Room used to be “an emergency exit,” Scott said. “The downstairs Diary Room is bigger and a physical backing, and the upstairs Diary Room is really tight, and we’re trying green screen to just see how it works, because we like to change the backings out for competition backings.”
Some rooms get entirely new functions: the Pandora’s Box twist room became a gym for the celebrity contestants.
In the back yard, there are additional challenges for the winter season. “For Celebrity, I have a little tiny sliver of a back yard because they’re always building comps,” he said. “I also put a big tent over the back yard because it’s been pouring rain.”
The design of the Big Brother back yard and challenge arena
While he creates the look and feel of the back yard space, Scott Storey and his team are not responsible for what happens when it’s used for challenges.
“I do not design that. That’s a whole separate team. There’s a very talented production designer, Narbeh [Nazarian], who’s been doing that,” he said. “It’s the hardest job in Hollywood. It is non-stop.”
“It’s 120 degrees during the day. At night, because we’re by the L.A. river, all of the work lights attract all of the mosquitos from the river. It’s just a brutal, endless schedule. And those competitions are huge, getting bigger and bigger every season, and back to back to back to back,” he added.
You can see the close proximity of the river to the back yard here:
One dream of the production team is for Big Brother to take over stage 19 at CBS Studio Center, which is in the middle of the building above, under that middle cluster of air conditioning units.
That is immediately next door to stage 18 (which currently contains both Julie’s studio and the house itself), and could be used to create a permanent challenge arena for the show.
Alas, like most changes to Big Brother, that probably won’t happen, especially since it involves a major expense. The show is already a reliable top-10 summertime show, so what incentive does CBS have to invest more money in it?
How the Big Brother house’s theme is chosen, and how other decisions are made
“I’m always surprised that I can still make the house look different. You’d think that I just would wear out. But with the power of Tito’s vodka,” Scott Storey joked.
That now twice-annual design of the house, its look and feel, actually has nothing to do with the season’s twist or game’s theme. “They’re pretty disconnected,” he said, although he noted that the designs do have personalities related to the season: “Celebrity is always darker and warmer; the summer show is more crazy.”
Scott works separately from those who are casting and planning twists. For his New York-themed design of the Celebrity Big Brother season two house, Scott said, “I never really pitched it.” He just wanted to do New York after creating an L.A.-themed house the previous winter.
“I’m really fortunate,” Scott said. “I can do anything I want. I can tear the walls down, and move things, and change it up … The producers, Rich [Meehan] and Allison [Grodner], and CBS, really let me—I sort of come up with the theme, I come up with the whole thing, and they let me run with it. There’s a nice budget, and I have a great crew that works with it.”
“For the summer show,” Scott said, “I’ll come up with three different concepts: Hey, what about human zoo?” The producers will say, “Let’s go with this one.“
The producers do sometimes veto decisions or ask for changes. “I’ll do a room, we’ll build it, and then the producers will walk in: I don’t like it. So I have to, overnight, come up with a whole new idea,” Scott said.
One example: The Celebrity Big Brother season one house had “a garage … high-end automative. I had a Porsche that was hung on the wall. They were like, Eh, it looks sort of like a boy’s room. So it became Red Carpet Arrivals overnight.” Here’s that finished room:
‘Every single thing in that house, I pick’
Scott works with an art director, a set decorator, and a coordinator. But their collaboration isn’t really similar to people with their same jobs on other sets, where a production designer might create the look and feel and leave the rest to the decorator.
“On Big Brother, I’m a lot more involved,” he said. “My decorator will show me stuff, and I’ll pick. Or I’ll tell her, get this … I’m a lot more of a control freak.”
There are a lot of decisions, from the walls to kitchen equipment. “I build all of my own furniture. Every single thing, we design,” he said. “Every single thing in that house, I pick.”
All of those things have to be both livable and look good on camera—though there’s often Hollywood magic.
“People even walk into the house and say, This isn’t real. That’s my job: I’m a liar. It’s scenery,” Scott said.
What looks like tile or other elaborate wall coverings is often just a design that’s been printed out. “I have a graphic artist named Scott Harper, and he builds these beautiful textures for me, like subway tiles and things like that,” Scott told me.
He said that executive producer “Allison [Grodner] always jokes, Oh, it’s one of your stickers. Like, you walk into the bathroom, and there’s elaborate tile everywhere, and you’re like, oh, it’s just a sticker. It looks great on camera.”
Scott doesn’t want to know who the cast members are, but “I want to know if houseguests have special needs or requests,” he said. That includes Ryan Lochte’s lap pool, which was installed for this past season.
Preventing cheating—and masturbating?!—through design
Designing for the Big Brother house has lots of hidden challenges. The one-way mirror, through which camera operators film the contestants, can’t be blocked.
Those windows are “typically about 40 inches off the ground, they change a little bit here and there. I can’t make anything that interrupts them,” Scott said. “So I need to design above and below. You can’t have a floor lamp.”
Another major challenge: not including anything that could allow the contestants to secretly communicate without a camera being able to record it.
“They don’t want any small text where they can point at letters and spell words out to each other,” Scott told me. “One season, I had a typewriter in the house, but all the keys were all inked out; you couldn’t type anything.”
“In Celebrity Big Brother 2, in the hotel room, there’s a guest book, but you can’t write with the pen. It’s glued in place. Everything is glued down, because if you put it in front of a camera, that’s a problem,” he said.
But the winter cast isn’t really the problem: “Our celebrity guests, I’m not as concerned about. They’re not there as long, and they’re not as committed to the game. The summer contestants are there for game, and I have to make certain they can’t cheat,” Scott said.
“Last season [for BB20], there was a giant pin wall. “Everyone was saying, They can spell words out! I’m like, It doesn’t matter, because we can see it on camera.”
What matters is that “we are in on the secret,” Scott said. That’s why they can’t go someplace and take their microphones off and talk. It’s not that we can’t let them tell secrets among themselves, it’s that Big Brother has to know everything.”
“There can be no places where anyone hides,” Scott said.
Famously, there is a camera in the house’s toilet room, in case contestants were to try to use space to strategize. But Scott’s design has to consider other spaces, too.
“I have to enclose the bottom of the bed so houseguests can’t go under the bed. In the closet, since there’s a closet, it’s divided so you can’t stand in the closet,” he told me.
There was another, well, unique challenge. As live feed watchers know, starting with Howie in BB6, houseguests took pool equipment out of a wooden storage container in the back yard, and then laid down in it, closed the lid, and used it as a place to masturbate.
Scott and his team tried to prevent that: “So then we put a wooden divider down the middle of it. They’d take the divider down.”
“I need to think about that: Where can you not masturbate here?” he said. That’s likely a challenge that production designers on other top-10 broadcast network shows do not face themselves.
What is the Big Brother house like when the houseguests move in?
It smells. Eventually.
“The worst experience is when I go into the house near the end of the season,” Scott Storey told me. “You walk through the house, there’s rotting produce on the counter.” When he discovered that on one walk through, he said he wanted to clean immediately, “I can’t take this. They’re like, You can’t clean it up. It smells bad. It’s horrible.”
As production designer, Scott doesn’t spend the entire season on set, but he does stay for the first moments of the houseguests’ lives in the space he created.
“I stay until the houseguests move in, because I love seeing them run into the house. It’s always fun,” he said. “And then I leave. But that’s how it is with all my shows: make certain you’re done, there’s no need to be there. Set’s not going to fall over.”
“And,” Scott added, “I have stuff to do. I want to go home and make dinner for my family.”
Recommended for you: For a detailed look at what the Big Brother house—and camera cross, and control room, and studio—are like during filming, including its smell, read my two-part story that goes behind the scenes of the Big Brother house: