When it comes to Survivor (Thursdays, 8 pm/ET, CBS), a memorable Tribal Council requires more than just a good torch-snuffing. The set can pack a visual wallop, too. Production designer Jesse Jensen has outdone himself for Survivor: China with a 60-foot-high, three-story temple inspired by the country's traditional, vibrantly hued places of worship. The ambitious project took 57 workers seven weeks of 12-hour days in sweltering humidity to build. Not to mention 20 tons of steel framing, 8 tons of concrete and 400 sheets of timber shipped in from Russia and milled in Shanghai before being driven seven hours to the remote building site. Here, Jensen gives us an exclusive tour of the Tribal set.
The ivory pen used by the Survivors to cast their votes was molded from an unconventional source: an opium pipe. The urn where they place their parchments was originally an antique bucket the crew purchased from a local. It came with the sentiment "Prepare for honorable fight" inscribed on its side. Says Jensen, "We were like, 'Wow! That's just perfect.'"
Jeff Probst's torch snuffer features a gold-leafed dragon with a simulated jade pearl in its mouth because, in Chinese culture, those creatures are considered "heavenly." It now belongs to Probst. "That's the one thing Jeff asks for each season," Jensen reports. Each of the torches were inscribed with the Chinese characters representing fire and life, plus imprints of antique coins to represent luck. The art department applied additional dangling good-luck charms to each to provide "a little extra bling," Jensen says.
Originally, Jensen planned to use lightweight plastic tiles on the temple's roof. "But it looked so much better and actually worked out cheaper having real kiln-fired tiles," he says. The tiles themselves weigh 3 tons. Because the set is taller than the trees around it, the crew put a lightning rod on top. "We wouldn’t want to lose poor ol' Jeff," Jensen says.
Jensen and production designer Dan Munday found the seats for the Survivors in a Beijing street market and painted them with red lacquer. The elaborate lanterns that hang above are electric-powered, a rarity for Tribal sets, which are usually lit with fire.
Two fierce-looking antique stone lions — which were found in Beijing — guard the entry to Tribal Council "to protect the building," Jensen says. "It's very traditional to do that. Even the banks [in China] have those." The animal mentality must've rubbed off on the Survivors: "Tribals were especially fiery this season. They really argued a lot."
Watch the Tribal Council and more of Survivor: China in our Online Video Guide.
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