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‘Survivor’ Season 46 Features Immunity Challenges 20 Years in the Making

Long-running TV shows can accumulate so much history over time, so much gravity, that it starts to crush and compress them like a black hole — they become an indescribable mass of material that can become really hard to watch. But “Survivor,” entering its 46th season in 24 years of running, has found a couple wormholes through which the challenge and production design team keeps the reality series’ setpieces visually fresh and creatively fulfilling, even though viewers may have enjoyed different flavors of them before.

It’s the constant testing of challenges and the collaboration between the art and game departments that has allowed for, among many other things, the giant geckos of the opening game for Season 46. John Kirhoffer, who’s been part of the series since its outing in Borneo, and now serves as the show’s senior challenge producer, can trace the roots of “Lizard King” through a constellation of different challenges from the show’s history, all thrown into a blender to create the larger, visually complex obstacle course that so often defines the “Survivor” season opener.

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“So often we will ask for a puzzle or prop, that they don’t think is as good as it could be, and they will just say, ‘Leave it with us, mate’ and bam! We have a beautiful hanging tuna puzzle, or a massive half-pipe wall climb that is so much better than we had planned,” Kirhoffer told IndieWire.

It was production designers Zach Jensen and Simon Ross who, knowing that the season art for Season 46 of the reality series would feature geckos, pitched adapting a snake carry from previous seasons to creating a 500 pound gecko for each of the three tribes to have to haul. The show’s seamster, Rohit, assembled a set of test geckos with unbreakable handholds, and then Kirhoffer and the show’s “dream team” of testers put it through its paces to find out what could or would break — apparently it’s much easier to carry the geckos upside down so they had to make a rule to keep it right side up while being carried, and tailored down from their original 600 pound weight as well to be moveable within the time.

Episode 2’s core immunity challenge, “Arch Madness,” is a direct heir to the Episode 11 word-bridge from Season 45, and to Kirhoffer it represents all the ways “Survivor” has kept itself churning. “We begin each season with bigger, more physically aggressive tribe challenges, while there is a tribe and tribe-mates to lean on. After the merge it becomes crucial that all immunity challenges are as fair as possible for each individual,” Kirhoffer said. That means that smaller, more tailored challenges can be incubators for the big setpieces at the opening, merge, and final challenges in the finale.

“Whenever we come up with something [we make] a smaller version first so we can make sure that physics work,” Kirhoffer said. “And so we made the smaller version [of ‘Arch Madness’] and thought, wow, all right, let’s use a smaller version for 45 and that’ll be like foreshadowing for when we make a giant version of it for 46.”

“This is Where the Legends Are Made” – Eighteen new castaways embark on the adventure of a lifetime when they are left stranded on the breathtaking islands of Fiji. Tribes must be the first to crack the code to earn essential camp supplies. Then, three castaways will go on a journey away from their new tribes, on the historic two-hour premiere of the 46th edition of SURVIVOR, Wednesday, Feb. 28 (8:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network, and streaming on Paramount+(live and on demand for Paramount+ with SHOWTIME subscribers, or on demand for Paramount+ Essential subscribers the day after the episode airs)*. Jeff Probst serves as host and executive producer.  Pictured (L-R): David “Jelinsky” Jelinsky and Jessica “Jess” Chong.  Photo: Robert Voets/CBS ©2023 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
‘Survivor’CBS

Kirhoffer credits the creativity of the challenge — in which contestants need to haul a wagon to a sandpit, dig up chests, rush it up a treacherous path to the finish line, and then construct the pieces into an arch-shaped word puzzle that spells ‘Persistence,’ — to the show’s longevity itself. It’s something possible because “Survivor” has picked up a family of artisans on the challenge and art teams, and developed a network of incredible local crew in Fiji, where the show has settled since Season 33.

“When we used to travel, we’d be in two different countries every year, and we’re looking for new people every time. But everywhere we went, we’d find at least one or two people we loved. And we used to always say that we’re, we’re like Starship Enterprise. We cruise around the galaxy picking up Klingons,” Kirhoffer said. “But Fiji has everything we need.”

Staying in a place with perfect water, no venomous animals or dangerous snakes, and an incredible local crew that helps the “Survivor” team create the resources to build and test challenges is also part of why Kirhoffer feels that the three-tribe challenges have been a success — because there’s a lot of factors that make them tricker than two.

“It’s more work for the art department. It’s more work for us. It’s harder to judge. And there are fewer people in the challenge, you know? If you have eight people on a tribe, as we have in the past, or 10 people, you can do much bigger, much heavier things than you can with six,” Kirhoffer said. “Instead of dividing the field into two, and being able to build these great big cool things for two, we have to divide it into three. It’s limiting in terms of scope.”

“This is Where the Legends Are Made” – Eighteen new castaways embark on the adventure of a lifetime when they are left stranded on the breathtaking islands of Fiji. Tribes must be the first to crack the code to earn essential camp supplies. Then, three castaways will go on a journey away from their new tribes, on the historic two-hour premiere of the 46th edition of SURVIVOR, Wednesday, Feb. 28 (8:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network, and streaming on Paramount+(live and on demand for Paramount+ with SHOWTIME subscribers, or on demand for Paramount+ Essential subscribers the day after the episode airs)*. Jeff Probst serves as host and executive producer.  Pictured (L-R): SIGA Tribe and Jeff Probst.  Photo: Robert Voets/CBS ©2023 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
‘Survivor’CBS

But Kirhoffer ultimately believes the three-tribe format of the new era is better for “Survivor,” and better for the balance of the challenges themselves. He cites Season 42’s Jonathan Young as the kind of dominant player who can ensure one tribe always wins — but with three, the winner is less interesting, and there’s more inherent drama, in the competition between the two remaining teams to not lose.

“Mark Burnett said it from the very beginning of this show, it’s not about the winner, it’s about the loser, who’s going to tribal council, and who’s getting voted out,” Kirhoffer said. “[When it’s down from three to two tribes], panic sets in and they shoot into another gear because they don’t want to lose. It’s one of my most favorite parts because 90% of the time, that’s the bigger competition.”

Panic is what can be challenge-breaking (as in the last immunity challenge of Season 45), but it’s something that Kirhoffer and the challenge and art teams try to account for with rigorous testing and visual cheats in how they set up their locations — he cites “Last Gasp” that a challenge people constantly ask him how it works safely, but it’s down to camera framing and safety divers just offscreen making sure that breath holding contest works as intended. The panic and the drama of it make it look smaller and more dangerous to audiences.

Meanwhile, it’s an openness to not panic and pass problems among the inter-departmental alliance of “Survivor” crew that helps renew older challenges season after season. “We all threw in some different ideas that the challenge team put together, the art department gets the pot and put the water in, and the challenge department throws in the meat and potatoes and then the rest of the crew throws in the spices and the little extras,” Kirhoffer said.

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