Spring 2020

Known Unknowns

For Alex Rudzinski, directing The Masked Singer is like working with a blindfold, but he and his team were hooked by "this beautiful riot of color and craziness"

By T.L. Stanley

A contestant dressed in a typically outrageous costume performs on The Masked Singer, on which the performers' identities are unknown by most of the crew. (Photo: Michael Becker/FOX)

There's a giant cardboard cutout of Ken Jeong's head that needs to find its way onto the set of The Masked Singer without alerting the comedian-judge to its oversized presence.

It's a delicate task, but worth the effort for a silly sight gag that's a spot-on match for the outlandish visuals and raucous personality of the hit Fox series.

"It's not scripted, so we'll have to fit it in," says Alex Rudzinski, the show's director and one of the stunt's co-conspirators, monitoring it from the control room recently during filming episode six of the current third season. "Maybe do it during Kitty? Jenny's going to take it? And somebody needs to distract Ken."

Fans of the show—and they're legion—will quickly understand those references. For the uninitiated, Kitty is a disguised celebrity taking part in the most popular unscripted program on television. (Her identity, at this point in early January, is unknown and strictly guarded.)

And the surprise for Jeong, during which Jenny McCarthy lovingly teases her fellow panelist from behind his corrugated doppelgänger, is right in line with a show that Rudzinski describes as "flamboyant, colorful and surreal."

Cases in point: On this particular winter afternoon at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, Rudzinski is overseeing an hour of TV that features a contestant dressed as a life-sized taco (with chefs as backup dancers and hot sauce bottles as props) and statements from the crew like, "The order is: Taco, Banana, Kitty, Frog."

Rudzinski, with associate director Josh Cimbol to his left, takes a moment to answer questions about the high-energy reality contest during a quick break. Seconds later, he's laser focused on 22 cameras cued up to catch the action.

Calling out strings of numbers, Rudzinski sounds like a quarterback on a football field when actually he's accumulating shots that boomerang from host Nick Cannon and the judge's panel (with Season 1 winner T-Pain as a guest) to the elaborately decked-out singers and the emotive on-site fans.

"We shoot this more like an awards show, and the high number of cameras gives us more flexibility," says Rudzinski, a two-time DGA Award nominee and three-time Emmy winner. "We want a good breadth of coverage because we're capturing moments—like when audience members have big reactions—since it's half game play, half entertainment show."

The veteran director has occupied this chair many times for TV musicals and events like Fox's Grease Live! and the MTV Video Music Awards.

And while those experiences laid the foundation for his current gig, nothing could quite prep Rudzinski for The Masked Singer, a South Korean import that features accomplished entertainers and athletes singing popular tunes while wearing outrageous, sometimes gravity-defying outfits. This season they're competing tournament style, with one singer unmasked every episode.

The whole enterprise is wrapped in a Fort Knox-level of security that protects the contestants' identities from armchair detectives on social media and almost everyone involved in the production.

"I immediately looked up the original shows because it was hard to visualize from just having a description," Rudzinski says of his early research. "What I saw was this beautiful riot of color and craziness. At a time when so many formats are derivative, I said, 'Wow, this is different.'"

Recreating that magic, with flourishes and tweaks for the U.S. market, became his primary goal. Getting there has presented a variety of challenges, from the technical (contestants can stay in those heavy, claustrophobic getups for only so long) to the interpersonal.

The Masked Singer's concept, unfamiliar to American audiences, made it a risk initially. Its rise or fall would come from its execution; fans not only embraced the show's uniqueness but helped turn it into a franchise with a 45-city live tour kicking off this summer and a spinoff, The Masked Dancer, in the works.

"The show needed to look nothing less than spectacular, and Alex has done that," executive producer Izzie Pick Ibarra says. "He's also embraced the wacky and the fun."

The Masked Singer director Alex Rudzinski, in the booth. (Photo: FOX)

That Thingamajig You Do

Among the most compelling aspects of The Masked Singer are its star performances, which let the world know just how comfortable, or far afield, the players are in this vocal milieu. (In Season 3, the contestants tout a combined 69 Grammy nominations, 88 gold records, 11 Super Bowl appearances, and three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame).

Rudzinski was the go-to director, Izzie Pick Ibarra says of her former Dancing With the Stars colleague. "He has a very glossy style and an interesting eye. The way he shoots performances is amazing. He never shoots things in a straightforward, traditional way."

But Rudzinski can't tackle The Masked Singer's song segments the way he has those on projects like the 2019 Billboard Music Awards and Hairspray Live!

"We're used to living in the close-up, where you get so much from the facial movement and emotion of the artist," he says, noting that viewers weaned on The Voice and American Idol expect to see those kinds of dramatic images. "But I can't tell that story because we can't see their faces."

Only about a dozen people, mostly network casting and legal executives, know the stars' identities. Rudzinski isn't one of them, and the arm's length relationship with talent is a first.

"Normally I'd work directly with the artists, reviewing rehearsals and discussing their performances with them," he says. "Here, I don't have that intimacy, purposely."

The ensembles—which this season count T-Rex, Rhino, Mouse and Kangaroo among the 18 creature-contestants—come with static expressions. Looking for feeling and intensity, Rudzinski tracks every bit of body language, from hand gestures to head tilts, and, when the outfits allow, choreography and dancing.

"If you're wearing a 200-pound costume, you won't be stage diving, and you're limited on your physicality," he says. "So I'm trying to pick up every nuance and tell the story of that song and that character."

What initially seemed like a hurdle has turned out to be an aesthetic boon, Rudzinski says, because it gives the team license to get weird with the staging elements.

There's another distinction in Rudzinski's approach to the musical sequences. He first asks Cimbol for beat-by-beat breakdowns of the genre-spanning songs, which range this season from dance hit "She Bangs" to the Motown classic "I Can't Help Myself." That turns into a musical script, shot lists and storyboards.

"It allows the creative team to fine-tune the performance and get really precise in how it's presented," Cimbol says. "It's a very creative and musical way of working."

The series, recently drawing north of 27 million viewers for its post-Super Bowl episode, shoots live-to-tape. Its contestants are singing live and unaided behind those masks, which brings up other hurdles for the director. The stars' field of vision is "incredibly blinkered," Rudzinski says, because the headgear is "like an astronaut's helmet." (In fact, one singer wears an entire space suit this spring.)

"If you're wear-ing a 200-pound costume, you won't be stage diving, and you're limited on your physicality. So I'm trying to pick up every nuance and tell the story of that song and that character."
—Alex Rudzinski

Stage Managers' Role Crucial

At its core, the whimsical show doesn't take itself too seriously. Still, the crew flexes all its well-honed muscles, says Jonathan Marks, lead stage manager.

"We're doing a little bit of everything in this genre—dancing, singing, costumes, effects, rigging, choreography, screens, lighting," he says. "For those of us who love stage craft, it's a blast. And Alex pushes everybody to do better work and to keep learning whether you've been doing this for five or 25 years."

Marks, acting as Rudzinski's logistical point person on stage, and his eight team members "are the last ones to put our hands on the talent" before cameras roll. "With all nine of us in place, it's like zone coverage in a sporting event."

The competitors need help finding their marks, facing the right direction and staying on rather than tripping off the side of the stage.

Jennifer Marquet, the lead talent stage manager, leads the stars, often by the hand, to their marks. "Because they have limited visibility, I'm actually holding their hands, telling them, 'OK, we're taking two steps forward, watch out for that cable, we're climbing up the stairs,'" she says. "It's a vulnerable position to be in, so I just reassure them the whole time."

Armed with an ever-present flashlight to help navigate the way, Marquet relishes the one-to-one contact with the performers. "The Fox told me that he felt like it was the first day of school and he was being walked to class," Marquet says. "The Banana said it was the favorite part of his day."

One of the very few crew members who knows the identities of the singing stars, Marquet is tasked with keeping the competitors under wraps, literally, during every minute they're on set, including the walk between their dressing rooms and the stage, starting with rehearsals and leading up to tapings.

"Even their ankles have to be covered," Marquet says. "And they sometimes need makeup under the masks so that no skin is showing."

Mindful of the weight of the costumes coupled with their sauna-like temperatures under studio lights, Rudzinski limits the amount of time that participants stay in their regalia to about 20 or 30 minutes, less for competitors "of a certain age.") An older contestant, for instance, felt fatigued during camera blocking because of the weighty mask. Marquet quickly brought in a chair so the star could rest.

The Masked Singer (Photo: Greg Gayne/FOX)

Something to Talk About

In addition to filming every celebrity movement for the broadcast, Rudzinski takes full advantage of the other characters on set, namely the judges and audience members.

It's no accident that the judging panel—McCarthy, Jeong, Robin Thicke and Nicole Scherzinger—are physically removed from the stage, armed with tiny telescopes and binoculars.

"There's motivation for them to move around, and that tells a story," he says. "By design, you're helping to accentuate the bigger construct of this game."

There are 10 cameras trained on the panelists, who, along with guests like Jamie Foxx, Joel McHale and Jason Biggs, offer their best guesses on the singers. (Pre-taped clue packages and post-performance interviews leave a breadcrumb trail.)

The placement of the judge's table shifted for the current season to broaden the show's scale and make room for more fans, who play a vital role in the on-set dynamic.

Rudzinski added a Jita camera in Season 2, which he still uses, because he's partial to "immersive shooting and a 360-degree playground," though he also employs a Steadicam on stage.

Can You Keep a Secret?

The cheeky Wednesday-night reality series—which pulls in a broad, multigenerational audience and regularly lights up Twitter and Reddit—hinges on its reveals. (NDAs abound.)

The singers use voice distortion gadgets or write on whiteboards when they need to communicate with the crew. They wear jackets that say, "Don't Talk to Me," while their few points of contact on set wear shirts with the opposite message, "Talk to Me."

Marquet doesn't call any of the stars by their names even after their identities have been revealed, and she certainly doesn't let the cat out of the bag when friends quiz her in her off-time.

There have been a few close calls—a piece of too-sheer face covering, a certain bright light—that keep Rudzinski ever vigilant. "Even the flesh tone could give you half the answer," he says.

As fans have become more rabid and the series' popularity has grown, security has tightened.

"We go crazy trying to make sure people don't ruin it, and from the very start we've asked, 'How on earth are we going to keep this under wraps?'" Rudzinski says. "We want everyone to have a shared experience, so we need to protect what's truly special about this show. It would be no fun if everything leaked on day one."

Variety-Reality TV
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