It's a fascinating dilemma to have: After finding the perfect oasis—the sort of multi-million dollar mansion most people only dream of visiting, let alone calling home for any length of time—Stephen Leonhardt and Isabella Scannone have to completely reimagine its interior. Without causing any permanent damage to the actual house, because in a number of weeks, it's got to revert to its original layout, as if nothing ever happened.
On the surface, that could sound very Cinderella, but it's just another day at work for Stephen and Isabella, the production designers behind MTV's hit dating show, The series, which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST, follows 22 single people as they try to find the "perfect match" living among them (as determined by an algorithm)—and vie for a $1 million prize. Oh, and it all goes down in the aforementioned mansion-turned-adult-playland, carefully designed to both draw you in—and draw out all the drama on the show. This is the side of creating can't-miss TV that most of us overlook.
"The people who live here [during filming] spend 24 hours a day in these houses," Stephen explains. "We've got to find the balance of an area that's shootable and livable. A regular couch in a regular living room can be a little bit boring, because you spend so much time there."
That's the thing most people don't realize about reality TV—particularly dating shows, where so much of the action takes place in one setting: Great design can help create binge-watchable episodes. A visually stimulating set can get people interacting in ways they might not—keeping them from having too much alone time—but it can't be so over-the-top that it distracts viewers from the storyline itself.
For Stephen and Isabella, the design all starts with the most-trafficked room—the great room, shown here, which becomes known as the "Homepage room."
"We built the Homepage room, which is essentially the living room, around a deep-pit sofa," Stephen says. "So many people can get in there, and it puts people's bodies in fun positions to shoot and encourages cuddling and interaction."
It's also unlike what you'd typically expect from a living room, so someone casually flipping through channels—AKA you—are more likely to stop and watch a while.
The first elimination challenge the show faces doesn't involve the cameras at all. Stephen and Isabella present about eight different concepts to producers, eventually whittling it down to one look for the show.
"There's a theme that enveloped every room—less pieces of decor on a wall, more an overall concept," Isabella says.
As you can see, the original house's dining room featured dark wood and was more of a classic resort. Since Are You The One? hits a younger audience, they decided to go with something a bit more playful.
"Sometimes, they're having fights, or a party, or they're having intimate conversations," Stephen adds. "We try to give them options of things to use, so there isn't a feeling of repetitiveness as the season goes on."
In a way, it's a hallmark of MTV's reality shows (just think of the Real World houses over the years!): Everywhere you look is something new to take in and grab your attention, so with a tiny pivot of the camera angle, it looks like a fresh set. Even though they're in the same place, day in and day out.
Instead of individual bedrooms for people to sleep in, Are You The One? ramps up the potential for, well, anything to happen by having the entire cast sleep in the same room.
"When you're putting 20-22 people in one room, it's already a ridiculous idea—and I mean that in a good way," Stephen says. "We're always trying to sell a big, bold, cohesive idea that doesn't look like 22 single beds stacked next to each other."
For season 7, Stephen and Isabella went with a cloud concept. It's airy and ethereal—and looks nothing like a conventional bedroom. That both avoids the boarding-school-meets-seven-dwarves potential 22 beds in a room could have and helps create an atmosphere where anything goes.
"From the ground level, what makes reality TV unique from other genres is that other shows light and design their sets for pre-planned shots," Stephen says. "With reality TV, you don't know what people will do or where to point the camera. You have to be able to walk into any room, close your eyes and spin around, and point to a place that's interesting but not too distracting [to film in]."
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