Angelina Belcheva has been the Director of Local Production at bTV Media Group since 2015. She started working in the television in 2008, and her career and life are inextricably linked with Survivor. In recent years she has successfully developed and led the internal creative and production team, and is responsible for the strategic partnerships with the external production market. She actively participates in the planning and implementation of local television content and works in close cooperation with the Program Director Hristo Hadzhitanev. She and her teams are behind the largest, most watched and loved productions in our country - "The Voice of Bulgaria", "MasterChef", "Before noon", "Bulgaria's Got Talent", "The Nikolaos Tsitiridis Show", etc. Her name is something like a certificate that guarantees quality, bold and innovative solutions and, ultimately, high results, although for the average viewer it is just a title at the end of a favorite show. Angie, as everyone on the team calls her, is the producer of "Survivor" for bTV and is part of the group that arrives first and leaves last from the location of the format, after making sure that everything is left as it was found - wild and intact. In the new issue of "Biograph" magazine, Angie shares exclusive details from the set of the hit reality show - from the selection of contestants, to the challenges of the field and the secret ritual of choosing the winner, who remains a secret until the finale.
Angie is an example of how emotion and sharing the experience of the grand adventure of the format can fundamentally change the view of basic human perceptions such as fear, joy, strength of spirit and teamwork. The manager also shares her unusual "meeting" in the jungles of the Philippines, which we invite you to find out more about in the lines below.
What is your personal history with the format?
Survivor is my baptism in the television. I was an assistant director of production, I had only three weeks of experience and no experience in television when we went to Panama to shoot Survivor 3. I didn't know anyone on the team, I had no idea of the size of the project. Up until then, I was just a fan. I was absolutely amazed by the scale and its impact on everyone involved! I absorbed every second of this experience, went through a personal catharsis, made invaluable friendships and gained vast professional experience. I will always be grateful to the people who believed in me then and entrusted me with the work on this project. This turned out to be a flying start in my career in television. I realized that if you had done Survivor, nothing could scare you anymore. Now, in hindsight, I realize that no matter what words you try to describe it with, the Survivor experience has no analogue. It has to be experienced from first hand. It's hard, it's outrageously hard, sometimes it seems unbearable, every day you reach your limit and say to yourself "No way, I can't take it anymore!". But at the first opportunity you would always come back and do it again. And the most common question among us, the people on the team, is, "When is the next Survivor coming?" The reason I like this format so much is that the Survivor environment reveals a lot about our psyche and as with anything related to human psychology, what happens in front of and behind the cameras is always very, very unpredictable.
Do you bet with yourself about who will be the winner? Do you always guess right?
I place bets, yes. In two of all six seasons, I was able to guess right. Here is the place to say that the choice of the winner is a process that borders on a holy ritual. At the last tribal council, during the vote, only our Argentine director, one of the local cameramen and the producer stays on the set. The whole team, even Vlado, goes out. Thus, the secret of the vote remains until the very end. I love this moment. Everything is so quiet, only the sound of the jungle is heard, the faint whisper of the voter and the words sound very impactful. Then the "tape" with the material is removed very carefully and stays in the safe - until it's time for the live grand finale. I really like this "production ritual".
What was the most critical moment? The most dangerous for you personally?
Survivor operates in an extremely hostile environment. If you judge by the photos on Instagram, everything looks exotic and wonderfully distant. The truth is that out there, danger is everywhere. The locations are wild and full of animal and plant species that are dangerous to humans coming from the civilized world. The atmospheric conditions are extreme. I will never forget how, as we scouted locations in the Philippines, walking down a bumpy path through the jungle, I started to grab a branch to keep my balance. Our local guide immediately shouted at me "Don't touch this!" I was, of course, startled by the tone of his voice, unaware of the drama. It turned out that the "branch" is a well-disguised snake in the vines, which is highly venomous, stands still for hours and lurks for prey. Again in the Philippines in 2009 during the filming of Survivor 4 I had a personal encounter with a cobra. I remember for the first time feeling what it's like to have "your blood freezing in your veins." It and I were on the same path between the team's huts. And we looked at each other! I pulled out the radio very slowly and called someone from the base team, trying to sound calm.
They claim to have arrived in 3 minutes, I felt like they took half an hour. I remember that my colleague, cameraman Jean, was the first in the group to run with a camera on his shoulder to photograph the snake! This is very telling of the Survivor experience - to remain professional while always alert to danger - and vice versa.
Was it difficult to convince the television in a year of shrinking budgets and a pandemic?
Survivor is an iconic program for bTV. It is a high-budget production and the truth is that its budget is not always possible for our small market. With the inauguration of the new PPF management, the topic of refreshing and updating bTV's program immediately arose. Survivor was our first and undisputed choice. We faced the challenge of preparing and filming it during a pandemic, in the course of the COVID-19 Delta mutation. Given the usual six months of preparation for this particular season we only had two. None of this would have been possible without our partners and the great production and creative team.
How early does the preparation start?
The preparation of such a large-scale project takes between 18 and 26 weeks. This includes choosing a location and obtaining a photo permit, which in most cases is a long and difficult administrative process, given the remoteness of the site. Worldwide, the format has developed production hubs in over 50 locations. Choosing a location is not easy and it's complicated, as it must meet the concept of a season, to comply with hundreds of conditions: from sunrise and sunset hours to the topography and weather conditions, the possibility of communication and medical care, and last but not least a local production team that is experienced and reliable. We chose the Philippines for Survivor 6 because we know the place, and the deadlines and the pandemic limited the preparation time and made it even more complicated. But we managed it.
The other processes follow - such as team selection, technical capacity planning, season concept, selection and production of constructions for the games, overall design of the season and a bunch of other things accompanying the realization of an international, large-scale production such as Survivor. Last season was filmed with a team that is a perfect puzzle of many nationalities who are first and foremost good professionals. For the locals, including the Filipinos from last season, this is their livelihood and they do a great job. All the needs of the team and the production are met with local raw materials and goods, and this really helps the areas where we shoot. We think in advance about absolutely every detail - from the separate collection of waste to leaving nature intact in the way in which we found it. For example, if we have to remove a plant for some reason - we plant three in its place. In general, the whole shooting process is subject to the philosophy of Green filming - our influence and intervention in local nature to be minimal and consistent to the smallest detail with the idea of environmental protection.
A key role in the success of Survivor is the selection of contestants. The casting process is long and very precise. The idea is not to choose just stereotypes, but bright personalities that would be interesting in a team.
When all these conditions are met, we start shooting, which takes place in compliance with strict ethical rules and safety rules. They apply to both contestants and the team.
What excites besides the victory? What is left in the background, while being more important than having muscles or winning battles?
I have a theory that somehow crystallized in me after all seasons of my work on Survivor. The motive for participating in this game in very rare cases is the cash prize. Former players say this is one of the most exciting experiences of their lives, but also one of the most exhausting and terrifying. I have noticed that in the moments when it is most difficult for them or when they win, people think about their loved ones, about the small ordinary things they love. They dedicate their victories to children, friends, parents, teachers, coaches. Survivor is the thing that makes them appreciate some things they took for granted in real life.
What kind of people is Survivor for and what kind is it not for?
Survivor is not for tourists who love exotic destinations or for casual adventurers. To call this monstrous format an adventure is frivolous. Survivor is a multi-component game, both physical and mental, and involves a great social aspect in terms of relationships, building trust, assessing motives and building or breaking alliances with other competitors. Anyone who has underestimated the social element of the game has not gone very far. Of course, good physical training helps, but it is not the only condition for success in it.
Mark Burnett, the first producer of Survivor, called the format a "morality play" - a moral, ethical game. What does Survivor bring out in a man?
I have seen how stress, combined with constant hunger and lack of solitude, the great distance from your loved ones and the lack of modern means of communication push people beyond their breaking point.
Survivor brings out the best and the worst in people. Sometimes they do things they would not normally do or say just because they are hungry or unhappy. I would not be lying if I said that Survivor leaves both physical and emotional marks on everyone involved. I'm talking about both the contestants and the team. Survivor takes the little social lies out of everyday life and turns them into a competition.
"Real" life - what we do day after day at home, at work or in public places - is a series of performances with masks. Even in our most personal encounters in civilization, we present only a part of ourselves, the one we choose. From an inadvertent smile to a reluctant apology, we lie to each other all the time. To endure in Survivor means to take off your mask, which you almost always wear, or to take out many others. It depends on the strategy you have undertaken. Play the game so cleverly that those you eliminated will write your name on the finale as the Sole Survivor. But in the end, after all the games, trials, power struggles and physical exhaustion, you have to prove that your most trained muscle is… your brain.