Shortly after its second season concluded, Survivor and its executive producer admitted to something that seemed shocking at the time: using doubles/stand-ins for the players to re-enact scenes from the show.
There are no stunt doubles standing by to leap into the ocean or slide down a plywood ramp for the contestants; they’re out there doing everything themselves.
That said, some footage we see in episodes is not of the actual Survivor players.
By now, most fans are aware of the Dream Team, which tests challenges. They’re also featured in the B-roll footage used to introduce the challenge, and shown in some aerial footage.
And there’s more to Survivor’s reenactments than just the Dream Team’s work.
Why the Dream Team reenacts Survivor
The presence of the Dream Team was actually an early Survivor controversy.
Shortly after Survivor: The Australian Outback concluded, a New York Times headline blared: ‘Survivor’ Admits Some Scenes Are Re-Enacted. Some dope even blogged that article with the headline: Mark Burnett admits to using stand-ins and re-enactments during Survivor.
The paper reported it this way:
Simple, said Mark Burnett, the executive producer of ”Survivor”: he sometimes uses re-enactments of the program’s competitions — played out by stand-ins for the contestants — to help give it the high production values that have won such high praise from critics.
For instance, Mr. Burnett said, there was one time during the fall when he wanted a camera crew to take aerial shots of a river swimming race among the contestants of ”Survivor: The Australian Outback,” which completed its run last week.
But, he said, he knew that shots taken from a helicopter would show all the cameras filming the race on the ground, ruining the aerial effect.
This is actually pretty simple, and one of the things that made Survivor so immediately impressive. Not only would a helicopter shot of a challenge reveal the presence of crew members—50 to 100 people—but the audio captured during the challenge would include the helicopter’s noise.
So instead, after the players ran the challenge, Survivor producers had the Dream Team (who also test challenges) reenact what just happened while being filmed from above and in close-up, images that are then cut in between the real players running the real challenge.
On one of the Survivor: Redemption Island call sheets published by The Smoking Gun, you can see how that plays out. The schedule for day 35 of 39, which was Sept. 19, 2010, includes filming “Bone to Pick,” the first appearance of an individual immunity challenge in which players had to retrieve bags of puzzle pieces and then build a three-part fish.
Here’s how that was filmed:
0930 Medical, Audio and Wardrobe checks
1000-1100 Shoot “Bone to Pick”
1100-1200 Shoot 2nd Unit: “Bone to Pick” (P, T)
1215-1300 Shoot Cineflex: “Bone to Pick” (6 Dream Team)
After arriving, the players were outfitted with their microphones, and met with medical. At 10 a.m., the challenge was filmed, which took about 45 minutes. Then the players and much of the crew left.
But not everyone. The second unit stayed behind. At 11 a.m., they filmed close-ups of faceless Dream Team members on parts of the challenge, footage of which is used when Jeff Probst describes the challenge.
I think most viewers are aware that what we’re seeing when Probst is introducing the challenge are not the actual contestants.
Then, the Dream Team—who have wardrobe that matches Survivor players’ clothes—ran parts of the challenge to be filmed by the show’s helicopter (Cineflex is a brand of stabilized camera mounted to a helicopter.)
Survivor: Edge of Extinction’s Lauren O’Connell talked about this on TikTok, saying that, “During wardrobe check, they take a Polaroid of what we’re wearing so that they can use that Polaroid to dress our body doubles.” She says that “we never see our body doubles; the body doubles are never doing anything that could interfere with the game.”
Even though Survivor now uses drones to capture some spectacular aerial footage, filming just the players at a challenge would be extremely difficult, because of all the equipment and people. Just go back and watch Survivor 41, when we got a glimpse behind the scenes of the marooning, and all the extra equipment in the water.
Back in 2001, when this was first revealed, Mark Burnett had a characteristically blustering response: “I couldn’t care less—I’m making great television,” he told the paper.
CBS spokesperson Chris Ender was dismissive, telling the Times it was “nothing more than window dressing,” and said, “I’m sure the Survivor conspiracy theorists will go crazy with this.”
Ender was even sassier elsewhere: “What this means is that those people chasing UFOs and looking for Elvis will probably gravitate back to their Survivor conspiracy theories this week,” he told the New York Post.
All of this makes sense to me, and for me, doesn’t interrupt the actual game or disrupt its integrity. After all, this is footage filmed later, reproducing what really happened, to give us a slightly different view of the action. But that’s actually more that happens!
How Survivor uses pick-up shots
In film and television, pick-up shots are used for many reasons. Sometimes directors will have an actor re-do a line or an action; sometimes they’ll be filming entirely new footage long after principal photography has concluded.
It’s a lot different on a reality TV show, with a cast of people who are not actors. Asking them to redo something—even something minor—often comes off as sounding inauthentic or fake. (Just look at Big Brother’s Diary Room interviews.)
A camera operator said in a Reddit AMA admitted that, as part of their job, “you do have to ask [players] to repeat things on occasion. After a couple days the contestants know to wait for a camera to film what they have to say to someone else re: strategy.”
Colby Donaldson told me about how, during Survivor Heroes vs. Villains, Amanda and Danielle’s fight for an idol clue was re-shot:
“When Probst asked the editors and producers or whoever was in charge of that why they did it the way they did, the response was, well, we didn’t have the right coverage, we didn’t have the right shot to make it play out. Probst told me, ‘We’re at a point now where we have the resources to pick up a shot.’ And that’s not to say create anything, but if you don’t have a shot of someone’s hand reaching in and grabbing something, you go reshoot that moment if you have to…”
Colby also told me that wasn’t the only example of manipulative production during HvV: “I’ve just never seen the reality manipulated and the viewer led to believe something took place that didn’t.”
Survivor Marquesas winner Vecepia Towery told EW about being asked to re-film a confessional, and how that looked odd on TV:
Also, on day 15 or so, I was told they needed to record a conversation from day three over again (now day three, I was still clean and day 15, I was filthy). So, when the second episode aired, I looked like I had been out there 3 weeks already dirty, about 10 pounds lighter and dark as night where everyone else was still fairly clean.
Richard Hatch said he was asked to reenact catching a shark because a camera operator wasn’t filming it. “Cameraman is ticked off: What the hell? … you need to do it again. You need to do it again? What the hell are you talking about? How do you do that again?” Hatch said his “ego” made him agree, and said “what a moron I am,” because when he let the shark go and recaptured it, the shark bit and latched onto him.
There are plenty of other examples of this from 23 years and 45 seasons—and plenty of rumors, too. While Rob fainting in Survivor Heroes vs. Villains was real, cameras didn’t capture it, so it’s been long rumored that he and Jerri later reenacted that moment, though I was unable to find the origin of that story.
What is clear is that Survivor has some footage was filmed for our benefit as viewers, whether that’s to make the show look more cinematic (the helicopter shots) or make sure we understand what’s happening (when a camera operator asks someone to repeat a line), the actual production adds layers of inauthenticity—and that’s to say nothing of the game play.