The ATS Team are the men and women behind the American Ninja Warrior courses. They design, build and manage the courses in each city, as well as the National Finals in Vegas.
JJ Getskow and Spyros Vamvas are what’s known by The ATS Team as “Green hats.” This means they’re project managers. On the American Ninja Warrior set, if you have a question for ATS, they’re going to tell you to go talk to the man in the green hat.
It’s a surprisingly simple little communication tactic that lets ATS streamline information through one source: The project manager.
We visited with JJ and Spyro at The ATS Team offices to learn what goes into heading up a little something like the American Ninja Warrior course and why they love their jobs so dang much.
What are your official titles?
SV: Project manager for international projects as well as American projects. I do a little bit of everything. And JJ is the same.
JG: Project manager. Course design.
It's not specific to Ninja Warrior?
JG: It's everything we do around here.
SV: I do a lot of Ninja. Mine is geared towards Ninjas. I've led the show as a green hat for one season. This past season. But I've been on four Ninjas. Seasons five, six, seven and eight. I've been with ATS for 10, 11 years.
JG: I'm coming up on 10 years now with ATS. I've been with Ninja since season four, when the company started the American Ninja Warrior branding.
What do you do on set during a shoot? Like night one of shooting the National Finals in Vegas?
SV: On any night of filming, I come on the set. The first thing I'm going to do is gather our team together. We go obstacle by obstacle by obstacle to make sure it's safe. Make sure all the padding is in place. Make sure all the clamps are tight. Make sure the obstacles are working correctly.
That's generally the very first thing when we come in. That's our checklist. Make sure everything is safe and film ready.
We're wiping down pads. We're putting towels out. Depending on the weather we might be putting tarps out to cover up, pulling them off. That's like our pre-prep before the game starts. Then we start touching base with the assistant directors, lighting departments. Make sure they have all the things they need.
Everything is a big old team collaboration, we all have to bring it together.
Then we're on stand by. Once filming starts it becomes our job is to make sure each contestant running that course is safe. My focus, JJ's focus, is right on that contestant. We're watching everything they're doing.
The rest of the ATS team is resetting obstacles. Behind the scenes stuff. We're climbing up in grids. We're fixing this. We're fixing that.
So everyone is watching this guy running, but once he gets past something, one of our guys is resetting this. Or fixing that. By the time that guy is done, the next person is coming up, these guys are working on that part of the course. We try not to skip a beat. There's a lot of choreography behind the scenes.
JG: We start our day. We lay out the overall plan every night because if things change, producers want obstacles tweaked or changed, we address those situations. But ultimately when it becomes filming night, our main goal is just the safety of the course, and then following the person that is the running of the course, the resetting of the course.
Basically all eyes, usually him or I, maybe one other person, walks completely with that one contestant throughout the entire course in the event they fall, they get injured, whatever.
We've got eyes and we know exactly what happened. You don't have medics that walk the course. That's not their job. Their job is to come in afterwards if there is an injury.
Our ultimate goal is to watch them. In the event that they do have an injury we can clearly relay that information to the medic as he comes up. He knows he can get almost a play by play, exactly what happened to the individual. They can do their job and assess the situation.
When it comes to film night, our goal is to make sure the course is always ready before every other department is ready. So as one contestant finishes we want to make sure that the course is ready for the next one before the camera is getting repo'd into position.
On an average course night, we do 125 runs. 125 contestants through the course and how ever many hours. Eight hours of darkness. We make sure it doesn't miss a beat. They're never waiting on us. Even if there's a slight malfunction in an obstacle, or it's taking a little longer to reset, we need to be able to address that quickly and efficiently.
If they're waiting on us, it slows down the show. What will happen is they'll go start filming something else and the course isn't being run. It really falls on us to make sure the course is ready as soon as that button gets pushed. We're ready for the next one.
SV: That's one of the funnest challenges. Every department has to work together as that team to make everything go. This department needs this. We need this. They need that. Okay, we're going to take five so you guys can go do this. We'll take 10 because you gotta go do that.
So there's all this collaboration going on. All this intricate dancing that you never get to see but it's a wonderful thing to do because it just creates this nice bond with everybody. It's a very tight family atmosphere.
Fun fact, on a filming night, I was walking about 13-15 miles a day.
How does the process before the filming break down? Design, pitching the network, etc?
JG: Spy and I both do the same thing. He does a lot of the international, but he also works on the American side. But with American Ninja Warrior, we normally start the whole season around October. That's when the creative starts.
So we're coming up with new obstacles, from that instance designing and helping create visuals for producers [A. Smith and Co] to look at. Basically we're putting together a really large menu of obstacles.
The producers go through them and say “Like it, like it, love it, hate it.” From that stage we either do tweaks to it on paper and once they say yes, let me see a demo of it, then we go and are like “Okay, how do we fabricate it?”
We build a mock up of it. We do internal testing on it. Producers will come into the shop and we show them. We bring in our testing team. They run through it.
The producers really get to wrap their heads around “Alright, what about this? Can we do this to it? Can we make it harder? Can we make it easier? How do we make it more functional?” Or they go “It just doesn't play the way we want it. Can we just put it on the shelf and show us something else?”
There's a lot of times where they're in love with the obstacle at first sight. And there's other times they're like, “Oh god this is horrible.” But then, we can do tweaks to it. A lot of times we know in our heart that “Hey, this is here, we just need to refine it, retool it.”
SV: Some polish.
JG: Then sometimes they'll come back and they won't even ask for that one, but we'll show it in a new format and they'll be like “Oh okay, now we see it.” And they like it. A lot of the times it's really just playing with what they want to see and trying to give that to them in a design format.
We'll go through all the design, all the prototyping, then it goes into full design. What we have to do is not only go through that whole process, but then start to place them in cities and give them a layout.
You can't have the same obstacle in the same region. So it's this whole game of “This season we had it in this region, so we can't do it.” It's a lot of manipulating the layouts.
Then all the time that's going on, we're also designing the truss packages, ordering the truss packages. Ordering everything that goes into the physical building of the course on each location. The pads, the liners. Everything from nut and bolts...
SV: Zip ties, velcro, nuts and bolts. There's a lot.
Have you ever forgotten the zip ties?
JG: Normally not where we didn't bring any, but like “Ooh we didn't bring enough.” Over the years, those are things you start putting on your checklist. You just learn from past experiences.
It's a lot of just remembering back and picking each other's brains. What did we do that season? Remember this time? That's why it's helpful that our core group for Ninja has pretty much stayed the same. The guys that started back in Seasons four and five are still with the company.
SV: But even that translates to the bigger picture too. When JJ is designing the course out of truss, the design is going to be based on the location that we go scout.
When we're scouting, we go out there with the art department. We're out there with the producers. We pick a place and it might not be straight.
Like Indianapolis was the curved course.
SV: Yeah. We're always going to need certain supplies in a certain amount. But then we get into these situations where the course is different, it's not a straight line. It's not easy.
Now we've got this curve. Now we have to adjust for that. That could be in the form of ordering more truss. There's always these fun challenges. That's what it is to me, it's just a fun challenge.
“Oh wow. This is a semi-circle, how are we going to do that?” How do we go straight to a hard 90, to this kind of a turn, and its got to be jumped over the curb? We always have a lot of fun.
What's the most rewarding part of being the lead on American Ninja Warrior?
JG: The way I look at it, the most rewarding part is actually being able to work with your friends every day. That's truly what it is.
SV: Here's a picture of us in Oklahoma City on the Warped Wall. [The ATS Team is happily clustered on the wall, smiling and goofing around.] That's the bond that we have with each other. It's real family oriented. There's real love and respect. We can take pictures like this and the expressions are genuine. We're happy.
JG: But leading the group, there's nothing better than the last night of filming and knowing that what the production company asked for, you delivered. The obstacles worked exactly the way we designed and played them in our head.
They got the right number of fails and successes that they wanted. It was challenging. There's nothing better than them coming to us and saying “Hey, this is exactly what we wanted. You guys did it.”
We spend 10 days in one location on one course. You're looking at five days of just brutal building. Playing those games of how do we figure it out. Problem solving. Making it work for five days. Then going through all the changes to make the obstacle either harder or easier. Then filming it for two nights straight, then tearing it down in two days. All the way down to zero. Putting it on the trucks and watching the trucks drive away.
But when you get to see the course run and play the way it's supposed to, then you leave that city you're like “We had a successful time. We all had fun. Everybody was safe.” That's all you can really ask for.
The National Finals in Las Vegas were much more than 10 days, right?
JG: Right. Vegas, I drove out at the beginning of the month. So May I got out there and we went all the way to July. End of May to July. That's just getting out there and you're in a dirt field watching holes get dug. But you gotta make sure those holes get dug in the right spot and are the right size and the right length.
Think of semis [City Qualifiers and Finals] and Nationals almost as equal in the amount that's built for the course. It's almost the same amount of truss. Nationals are a little bit easier than the whole entire road, but the amount of obstacles are about the same number. If you took all the road [courses], and bundled up all those obstacles and put them all over at Nationals, it's about that same in that aspect.
It's almost like a sprint when you're on the road. Each city is a sprint. Then you get to Vegas and now it's the marathon. You go in and you take each day as it is, and you try to do your best, but you know that you're there for a month.
Then it all comes together and you've got days on end of filming. And then you have three days to tear down what it took you a month to build.
It's always amazing to build it. But to watch something you just built disappear, you're like “Wow.” But at the end of the month you're pretty motivated. That's when the sprint starts on the tear down because you're like “I really want to go home and see my family and not be in a dirt bowl.”
You're getting it done safely, quickly, efficiently and it is very rewarding when you slam the last truck load. Done. Everyone just sits there covered in dirt, looks at each other and goes, “Alright, let's go back to the hotel and relax.”
Usually the end of the season party is all of us sitting somewhere in front of the hotel, having a beer, by the pool. Then a lot of us just go to sleep. Wake up and hang out in Vegas for the day, or jump in your car and drive home. And see all the guys you just worked with in a few days for the next project.
SV: It's usually like that for us. It's the end of that project, and a few days later we're packing our gear up to go do something else. It's always back to back to back.
JG: Yeah, Spy was green hat for the road, but he had to jump on a plane and fly to Europe. Then I came in and did the green hat for Vegas. So he was like "Oh, see you later."
SV: I didn't see him for months. Really. We finished up the last road show which was Philadelphia, and then I went from Philadelphia straight to Denmark. Then while I was in Philadelphia, JJ was digging holes in the dirt in Vegas.
JG: Someone's got to dig 'em!
SV: So I FaceTimed him. Hey buddy. Have a great time. See you later. Then I came back. He was already working on another show. So I jumped right on to that. We finished that and...
JG: Now he's doing another show, about to take off.
This career is so fascinating! What are your professional backgrounds that lead to this?
SV: Mine was very random. Prior to coming on full time with ATS I owned a restaurant and a bar in Orange County. So that was my background.
The humble beginnings of ATS was being an outdoor adventure guide company. My close friends were the owners of that company, so on weekends, when I had time, I'd go out with them with clients and teach rock climbing, canyoneering, kayaking. We'd take people out. I just had fun with that. As ATS grew, more things were coming down the pike and I was like "I want to do that. I want to do that."
I had the opportunity. I owned my own business that was kind of running itself. So I'm going to go hang out with my friends. To make the full 100% conscious decision to leave behind the business and sell everything to come here, it was more because of who I work with. I love them like brothers, so I was like that's where I'm going.
JG: Similar story. I started out taking classes from Travis [McDaniel, COO of ATS]. He was my first instructor for canyoneering. My background in college at the time was Kinesiology, the study of the human body in relationship to movement.
Because I fell in love and these guys became my brothers, that's what we did on the weekends was work, but it wasn't really work. We just hung out and did safety and took care of people and taught them amazing new sports. As the company evolved, it was just natural to stay with family and get paid to hang out and do amazing things every day. So as the company grew and we had to evolve.
Because the company keeps growing and growing. You throw yourself into it, learn as much as you can and keep learning to stay ahead of the next big thing that shows up in your way. You get the opportunity to come to work every day and just be with your family. It's amazing.
More on how American Ninja Warrior is made
- 5 things you should know about the team that builds the courses
- The ATS Team is coming up with new American Ninja Warrior obstacles right now
- Behind the scenes where the obstacles are born
- Meet the green hats, the people in charge of the American Ninja Warrior course
- The past, present and future of the company at the core of the course
- The other insanely cool things the company the makes the course are doing
- Get your hands on the course as a tester
- Jen Hansen has the coolest job on American Ninja Warrior
- Meet the man dedicated to destroying Ninjas
- What you need to know about being an audience member
- 5 surprises from the American Ninja Warrior production trailer
- How many people does it take to pull off an episode of American Ninja Warrior?