Behind Britain’s most BONKERS TV show: As The Masked Singer returns, we reveal the 4,000 hours of work, 3,500 sequins and in-built smoke machines that go into creating the spectacular costumes
A seven-foot tall, four-eyed singing ‘blob’, a rainbow-bellied dragon complete with wings and smoke, and a giant singing sausage stuffed in a cone of sequin-covered chips — it can mean only one thing.
The Masked Singer is back. The first season of the ITV show was the smash hit of the start of 2020, delighting viewers with its utterly bonkers blend of dazzling costumes, singing, humour and guess-who entertainment.
Now, at the end of what has been the gloomiest of years, the show is back to deliver some sorely needed light relief.
Even the celebrities involved don’t know who is behind their competitors’ masks until the big reveal. This year we have got Blob, Bush Baby, Dragon, Swan, Robin, Harlequin, Alien, Sausage, Seahorse, Badger, Grandfather Clock and Viking
Ahead of tonight’s opening episode, the Mail was given exclusive access to the secrets of the talented design team — Plunge Creations — behind those incredible costumes.
From hasty ventilation holes to how to dance trailing an enormous dragon’s tail, costume designer Tim Simpson and producer Derek McLean tell the inside story.
The original from South Korea
It was a race against time by independent Scottish production company Bandicoot, founded by Daniel Nettleton and Derek, to secure The Masked Singer format for British TV in 2018.
Derek had heard whispers that an American network was picking up the show, which originated as The King Of Mask Singer, in South Korea, in 2015.
The Korean version is far simpler than the UK one, with no back-up dancers or razzmatazz, and singers wearing fairly simple paper masks, but Derek had seen it and sensed this was a winning idea.
‘I set my alarm for 2am each night, calling the Korean company and pressing buttons until I finally got through to someone who transferred me to someone else who could speak English,’ he says.
Rather than having budgets constrained, he was encouraged by ITV to spend what was necessary to get the very best costumes. He is tight-lipped about the total budget (rumoured to be £10 million for the last season) but says the outfits are ‘a lot of thousands’.
The team won a Royal Television Society award in November for the costumes.
Keeping the mask on
Such is the secrecy involved in bringing the show to the screen that during filming (everything was filmed across two weeks in September at a studio in Hertfordshire) a one-way system operated.
Singers were ferried on and off stage in costumed anonymity. Even the celebrities involved don’t know who is behind their competitors’ masks until the big reveal.
This year we have got Blob, Bush Baby, Dragon, Swan, Robin, Harlequin, Alien, Sausage, Seahorse, Badger, Grandfather Clock and Viking.
If any show was already geared up for coping with the constraints of life under a pandemic, it was The Masked Singer.
‘No one complained about having to sit in their dressing room and not come out,’ says Derek.
If any show was already geared up for coping with the constraints of life under a pandemic, it was The Masked Singer. A sculptor is seen making a dragon costume
As for the costume team, designers never know who will be wearing their creations.
Instead, they were given lists of measurements (height, weight and so on) back in April as the design process began at the Plunge studios in Brighton.
‘When we get the measurements, we start trying to guess,’ says Tim. ‘We are never even close!
‘We don’t know who the performers are until we get to set. We fit them to stand-ins — but, of course, they are not singing and they are not dancing and they are not the same person.’
Looking for the telling clues
There are clues about who’s inside, so keep your eyes peeled tonight. ‘Last year, with Octopus, we were suddenly asked to put whopping great eyelashes on it,’ says Tim.
‘I’m a bit of an octopus purist and wanted to argue that octopuses don’t have eyelashes, but they insisted and it’s because the wearer, Katherine Jenkins, has massive eyelashes.’
The singers offer their own clues with their voice but other costume clues last year included dressing the former Nottingham Forest footballer Teddy Sheringham as a Tree, and Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears as a unicorn with a rainbow-coloured mane, (hinting that he is a member of the LGBTQ community).
Derek reveals that former Home Secretary Alan Johnson chose his pharaoh costume because he had been a leader, whereas Denise Van Outen said she wanted to be something foxy, so became Fox.
A team of 25 worked on the costumes, including sculptors, mould-makers, metal-workers, artists to spray-paint costume parts and paint final touches, electronic engineers to fit lighting, needleworkers, tailors and an entire team of dressers
Watch out for Blobby Dalek
The public has no idea who’s in the costumes, so they have to hold the audience’s attention in their own right.
‘It’s got to be spectacular, it’s got to be fun, engaging and friendly,’ says Tim.
This was particularly tricky with some characters this year, including the one called Blob. ‘Blob started as one of the producer’s absolute convictions,’ says Tim.
‘Trying to tease out exactly what sort of blob he wanted was complicated. It was fun, though. I just kept drawing blobs. There I was in lockdown, isolated from the world, drawing blob characters and sending them over, going, “What type of blob do you like?” ’
At one stage Blob had no eyes — but the vivid pink and purple foam construction viewers will see on stage now has four, each fitted with colour-changing lights. At 35 kg (77 lb), Blob is the heaviest costume. It is closely followed by Dragon. Sheet foam is pattern-cut to create the amorphous blobbiness. There is, however, a secret hiding below — wheels. Five of them.
‘It’s like a giant blobby Dalek,’ says Tim. ‘We learned that technique with Octopus last year, because the costume, once on, was a bit too heavy for the performer [Katherine Jenkins].’
An army of craftsmen
A team of 25 worked on the costumes, including sculptors, mould-makers, metal-workers, artists to spray-paint costume parts and paint final touches, electronic engineers to fit lighting, needleworkers, tailors and an entire team of dressers.
One of the reasons the production team turned to Plunge was because the company was able to take on every facet of the costume design and build.
The only element to be outsourced, under Tim’s guidance, was fabric printing. Keep an eye out for the ‘newspaper’ wrapping on Sausage. It allowed the designers to direct some humour at the panellists and host.
It took 4,000 hours of labour to create the 12 costumes — with Seahorse the lightest at 4 kg (8.8 lb) and Dragon the heaviest unsupported (with no wheels) at 14 kg (30.8 lb).
Along with 3,500 sequins, the costumes deploy 480 LEDs, more than 30 kg (66 lb) of glue, 30 metres of boning (fibreglass) and 150 kg (330 lb) of clay, the reusable material which sculptors used to make models of costume heads on to which high-tech mouldable plastic or foam could be built.Enough foam to cover six full-size snooker tables was used along with around 120 metres of fabric of all descriptions and approximately 150 needles.
Among the more unusual elements were 300 hand-made feathers adorning Robin’s breast, 18 metres of plumbing pipe, used to create Dragon’s wings and tail, and a smoke machine fitted inside Dragon’s head.
Forget the fluffy-feathered loveliness of Swan Lake, The Masked Singer’s Swan tops 7 ft tall and is a glorious vision in red and black.
The original costume was white until Tim’s cousin in the U.S. sent him a photograph of a black swan — and suddenly only a black swan would do.
Some 3,000 tiny pieces of diamante were hand-stitched to the striking head, along with 60 to 80 metres of frills — chiffon, organza and silk — cut and sewn to form ruffles, each then stitched by hand to the costume, which includes lightweight aluminium wings.
‘They need to be incredibly light because they are sticking out to the side, as well as the back, and it’s important they don’t pull the performer backwards,’ says Tim, whose favourite costume is Grandfather Clock, a jovial figure in hand-tailored Harris tweed.
The same attention to detail was needed to create Seahorse. The beautiful head was made from dozens of tiny pieces of wire soldered together.
‘We wanted there to be a translucency to the costume so that it almost felt like it was made of glass,’ says Tim.
The suit was subtly illuminated using LEDs across the spines, a feature that did result in some ‘roving repairs’ to mend loose connections from the battery pack on the performer’s back.
On a similar — but less labour-intensive — note, the cone of chips (Sausage was originally a gherkin) was at first decreed not greasy enough. The solution? A layer of sequined fabric.
The challenges presented by being hidden inside a full-body mask are innumerable.
There’s moving, seeing (and not falling off the stage), not to mention breathing and singing, which the performers all do, live on set.
Bush Baby (this year’s ‘awww-it’s-so-cute’ contender) may look adorable but it turns out dancing in a full-fur bodysuit in a well-lit studio is more than a little toasty.
Emergency slits were cut into the top of the costume’s head to create extra ventilation. As well as ventilation, performers also need to be able to sing — and breathe. Look out for the large mesh panel at the front of Viking’s helmet.
‘The song you hear on TV is the performance they give on set,’ says Tim. ‘In order to get the best performance, we have to work with the sound team to work with the acoustics inside the mask.
‘If you have ever been in a sound studio and seen lots of little bits of foam all over the walls, we did that on a smaller scale inside some of the masks to reduce the amount of echo and bounce from the audio.’
Enter the dragon…
Bound to be a viewer favourite, Dragon is as cute as a dragon can be. ‘It’s a really fun costume,’ says Tim.
‘I kept drawing dragons and they kept looking menacing. Every time I stuck fangs and a big mouth on, I kept coming up with scary-looking dragons. Then I eventually got to a cute dragon, with big eyes and a little belly. The rainbow belly makes a big difference.’
Here’s a step-by-step guide to how Dragon was created:
1. Sculpt the head in clay before ‘skinning’ with a heat-mouldable plastic that becomes floppy and sticky when placed in hot water. The sculptor must be quick.
2. Dragon’s gold horns begin life as polystyrene to get the shape spot on.
3. Reticulated foam, a bit like upholstery foam, is pattern-cut and glued together to make Dragon’s curvy body. It is lightweight so it allows the designers to get size without heft. A water pipe, flexible and lightweight, is used to build the wing structure and also to link into the aluminium, adjustable rucksack structure used to support the creation’s cantilevered tail.
Dragon’s gold horns begin life as polystyrene to get the shape spot on. The horns are made from sheet foam that is hollowed out and covered in the same gold fabric as the wings
4. The Variform plastic mould is cut away in places to create vision panels and ventilation, while clear vacuum-formed plastic is heated and shaped to make scales, with Power Mesh, a very lightweight mesh, applied over the top that can be spray-painted green.
5. Green fabric is cut and stitched over the top of the foam of Dragon’s body before a second ‘scale’ fabric goes over the top. The gap at the front of Dragon is how the performer gets in — backwards! The rainbow belly flaps across to cover the gap.
6. The horns are made from sheet foam that is hollowed out and covered in the same gold fabric as the wings.
The Masked Singer is on ITV tonight at 7pm.
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