First Look: AGT Rolls Out Drive-In Set and Heidi Klum Returns for First Pandemic Episode

PEOPLE has the exclusive first look at the new intro of the Judge Cuts episode, when the socially distanced set is unveiled to Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Sofia Vergara

America's Got Talent has a new format for its first episode filmed during the coronavirus pandemic.

PEOPLE has the exclusive first look at the new intro of Tuesday's Judge Cuts episode, featuring Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Sofia Vergara arriving at the drive-in theater-themed set built in Simi Valley, California, in accordance with the state's guidelines and safety protocol.

Klum, 47, made an emergency exit during the audition rounds after falling ill on set. In the opening clip, the supermodel makes her return to production, driving in a vintage pink convertible as newcomer Vergara, 48, follows closely behind in a car of her own.

Then, head judge and executive producer Cowell, 60, pulls up next to the ladies in a sleek black convertible before comedian Mandel, 64, upstages them all in the El Gallo Grande, a bright yellow rooster mobile.

Welcomed on set by host Terry Crews, who is placed well over six feet away from the judges, Cowell, Klum, Mandel and Vergara walk over to their season 15 chairs. "This is amazing," Mandel says as he takes in his first glimpse at the new set.

"Is this the first time you've seen each other since the auditions?" Crews asks the judges.

"This is the first time I've seen another human being outside of my own house!" Mandel quips.

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AGT's executive producers Sam Donnelly and Jason Raff recently spoke with PEOPLE about the drive-in theme and the necessary shifts that had to be made in order for the show to continue filming.

"The drive-in idea is one that came organically because, at the time, you're just reading about drive-ins," Donnelly said. "We liked the idea of being outside on a movie set location. Having the judges outside, socially distanced, but in a way that didn't feel really weird. It felt like a good solution."

There was regular testing off-set, and producers created pods assigned to specific zones where everyone adhered to social distancing. On stage, the judges and staff wore face masks, except when they were talking on camera, and contestants were placed in respective pods. (The judges and crew tested negative for the coronavirus on set, but one contestant did test positive before production resumed.)

"It was just different, unfortunately. We liked the Judge Cuts where everyone comes back and gets to perform again for the judges. That wasn't possible this year. So, we adapted the format," Donnelly said.

americas got talent
americas got talent

During the Judge Cuts episode, the slate of contestants will be narrowed down to 44 acts, who will be performing over four weeks of live show quarterfinals, compared to the usual schedule of 36 acts appearing over three weeks.

The singular Judge Cuts episode, in comparison to the four episodes in seasons past, will air on July 28. (To space out the rest of the season, a best-of auditions episode aired on July 21, and a 15th-anniversary special will air on Aug. 4.)

Though AGT figured out a way to film the Judge Cuts in June, the show has yet to publicly disclose scheduling and production plans for the live shows.

"I think the hardest thing was, and continues to be, that the world is constantly changing. Something could happen tomorrow that we might not be able to continue. Who knows?" Raff told PEOPLE. "The uncertainty of everything has been difficult for us all to get through our personal lives and difficult for us to get to what this show is."

America's Got Talent airs Tuesdays (8 p.m. ET) on NBC.

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