Angelou Deign is a familiar face around the set of American Ninja Warrior. She probably knows every single competing Ninja by name, and probably a bunch of other details about them.
As the Casting Director for the show and the president of A. Deign and Co., Angelou leads the charge in bringing the audience the most inspiring and talented Ninjas she and her team can find. This isn’t her first rodeo. She has cast for “The Weakest Link,” “The Singing Bee,” and, “Spartan Race.” She’s been casting for American Ninja Warrior for the past seven seasons.
With the announcement that casting of the show has begun, Ninjas all over the country are busy trying to make sure they get their shot at Mount Midoriyama.
We decided to cut out the mystery and ask Angelou herself what goes into making a stand out submission to be on American Ninja Warrior. If you’re considering applying for the show, you need to read this.
What’s the submission process? What happens after someone hits the submit button on their online application?
It depends on how early they hit submit. As soon as they submit, we can see everything that they’ve uploaded. Usually, if it’s early enough, and there’s already several thousand [applications] in there, we can look through as the casting team and see who needs help.
If the lighting is really bad, we can call that person and say, “Hey your lighting was really bad. Can you do this? Can you do that?” Or, “I’ve seen your video, and I know what the executives want to see.”
Basically we can help people if they’re not quite there yet if they get [their submission] in early enough. It’s not like we just overlook people.
We have to watch every single video.
We don’t want to miss anyone. So there’s a system we have in place to make sure that we see every video. And with that there are notes that go along with it. The person [on the casting team] that views that video can call that applicant or email them and just let them know what our suggestions are to bring it up to the standards that we’re used to seeing, because we see close to 40,000 videos.
We know what the people viewing this want, as far as executives go. We know what they’re tired of seeing, what they’re interested in seeing, what will get you over the hump to be selected. So the earlier they get it in, the better. A lot of times people, unless they’re in the Ninja community, a lot of times they don’t know how to make a video.
Sometimes they’re super enthusiastic, but they’re backlit, so the light is making them look dark. They’re standing in front of the sun and their lens shuts down and we can barely see them. Or they add amazing music and we can’t hear them talking at the same time.
That’s the first thing that happens when they click submit.
Most people, I would say 90%, click submit within the last three days of the submission process being open. So literally we get thousands of videos per day within that last week. At that point there’s no way we can call everybody and help. At that point, it’s just a matter of what’s there is what we’re doing one sheets on.
I don’t know if people realize how important their stories are for the show, but that’s a big part of selling them to the network and the executives. If they leave that story portion blank or scarce, it’s hard for us to put together a one sheet, a bio on them that says this is also important to know. Basically we put together a mini bio based on what they put in their application.
I would say 80% of the people, maybe even higher, that apply at this point are super fit. There has to be something that differentiates you from someone else. If you have nothing in that story section, it makes it really challenging for any of the execs to pay attention because they look at the one sheet and they’re watching the video and yeah, you’re athletic and you’re good looking and you’re excited about being a part of American Ninja Warrior, but that’s pretty much the standard of everyone who applies. What makes you different?
That’s one of the other things that people need to understand. If they’re telling us their story, they can’t just tell us, they need to show us. Whatever it is that you’re talking about in the video, provide some photos that show that time in your life, what you’ve been through.
It helps visually because we see thousands of videos, so if you can visually keep people interested then we know you can be on a TV show. You’re going to keep the viewers’ interest.
That’s pretty much the process at this point. We’re downloading. Everyone is focused on writing one sheets and viewing the videos and putting it in an order for which the execs can see.
It takes us several months because we go in the order of where we’re going [to shoot the show] first. There’s too many videos to watch. We know pretty much that California or the West Coast is going to be shot first, so we’re downloading all of the West Coast videos.
We haven’t seen the people in New York, or that area yet because we haven’t looked at it because we don’t have time yet. We have to get through all of the people who are potentials for the West Coast area so we don’t miss anyone. We don’t want to see somebody from Oregon when we’ve already done California and Texas and Colorado.
People tend to wonder what’s happening with their video come March because we’re still doing the West Coast videos.
So your team watches every single one of the videos and makes these one sheets and bios. Then they pass them along to the executives and they make additional notes from there?
Basically, my team watches everything and then they give it to me. I weed through everything they’ve said and beef up their one sheets to make their bios sound even better and then pass it on to a combination of executives from the company [A. Smith & Co.] as well as from NBC.
It’s not a unilateral decision. There are a lot of people involved in the decision. I would say eight plus who are making notes on each person. Everyone sort of has to agree. Two people could absolutely love someone, and the other three could be lukewarm on them.
If there are 5,000 videos for 100 spots it comes down to the ones where everyone says yes. It’s a process.
An application could be highly liked, but unless everyone says absolutely yes, it’s challenging. It becomes a discussion on the final numbers about yes no yes no. It’s quite a process and we take it seriously.
Is there something you want to see in the first 30 seconds of a video that makes you lean towards a person?
Absolutely. Those first 30 seconds are so important. It’s pretty much the energy level. Aside from the technical things we need like lighting and good audio, it’s the energy level.
People should get advice on what a good energy level is because a lot of time people don’t understand what great energy is. You can tell someone to be more energetic, and they will repeat what they’ve said in the same monotone.
The most important thing is the energy level because if you’re not excited about your life, why should anyone else be? You have to wow us and grab us with your energy level immediately. You have to be yourself. It’s also very clear when it’s not genuine.
You have to be yourself, but be yourself on a first date with someone you are absolutely head over heels for. Your charismatic self. Full of confidence and just excitement about life. It’s that first date feeling, “I adore you and thank you for going out with me.” We bring our energy up when we’re excited to be around that person. That’s the energy that people need to have in their videos.
A lot of what we see are people in the athletic field. They’re personal trainers, gym owners, yoga instructors, which is very common. So one of the other things is, immediately after introducing yourself, if you are in one of those professions, you should probably start talking about your passion outside of athletics. Your life outside of athletics.
We’ve seen so many of these people, and they’re all great, but what makes you unique? Are you a volunteer firefighter? Do you do charity work? Are you an artist on the side? Something that makes you stand out. You can’t have a show where there’s 100 personal trainers, one after the other after the other. You have to have something else going for you.
We need to hear and see that as well. If you’re talking about your passion, show photos in the video. Zoom in on photos. Whether it’s your family that makes you unique. It may not be some other job or passion. It may be your family dynamic or something of that sort. Whatever it is that makes your special.
If you don’t know what makes you special, have somebody tell you before you make your video. We all know those one or two stories that get our friends laughing. Something unique about us that we share with our friends. Something that when we want someone to get to know us that we wind up telling them. A story that we’ve told over and over again. That’s probably the we [casting] need to hear or see.
How should someone divide their video between their personality, backstory and physical skills?
The video should be about two minutes long. That’s enough to know whether or not we’re interested. Basically, if you introduce yourself and we can see you up close, feel your energy. It can be just a full on shot of, “Hey! This is Angelou Deign! Casting Director of American Ninja Warrior. I’m so excited!”
Whatever it is, if it’s 10 seconds of that and then we definitely need to see close to a minute of athletics. It would be great if it were consecutive. People will do the Salmon Ladder, or cut from two push-ups, two pull-ups, to running.
The thing about the course is it’s all consecutive. The only way we’ll know if you’re actually fit enough to conquer the course is to see you do 20 pull-ups in a row or however many you can do. That’s not going to bore us. That’s going to make us say, “Wow, this person can handle the upper body portion of this course.”
People tend to try to make it exciting visually with their fitness, and that’s good, but it’s also good to see them doing things that show their strengths that would translate to being a Ninja. That’s our biggest concern. There are a lot of fit people but there are different types of fitness.
We’ve had Olympians on the show, but if they don’t have the type of fitness and strengths required for Ninja Warrior, it doesn’t translate. They don’t necessarily do as well as we hoped.
So it’s great to see pull-ups, for example. Or if you can’t get to a Ninja gym, then hang out on the monkey bars in the park. Something that translates to what we’re looking for on the show. We pay special attention to that.
Is there something applicants should avoid having in their video?
Nothing that we really don’t want to see, BUT there are certain songs that people play over and over again! “Eye of the Tiger.” As soon as it comes on, the majority of the team is like “Oh god. Not again.” “Eye of the Tiger” and the theme song from “Rocky.” We hear those ALL the time.
If someone is a return competitor, and we get a lot of return competitors meaning they were actually on the show, when they’re doing a video they should at least update us on what has changed since we last saw them. That helps.
We kind of have a 70-30 ratio. 30% returners. 70% newcomers. Although a lot of the returners are so good physically and understand the course so well that they are the ones who wind up in Vegas for the most part.
They tend to go the furthest so it looks as if we’re not including as many new people, but we really do and we look forward to it. The veterans are great and we love having them, but it would be awesome to see what’s new in their lives since the last time.
Even if someone has submitted before but didn’t make the show, chances are we saw their video as well. A lot of times people will try to resubmit most of what they submitted last year that didn’t get them selected under the guise that we didn’t see it. We saw it. Do better. Do something different. Up the game a little bit. You can remind us briefly who you are and say that you submitted last season, but show us something more.
Ask your friends for advice, or other Ninjas for advice. One thing we’ve noticed a lot is people do go to the Ninja gyms and train and try to get other Ninjas that we know to say, “Hey put this guy on the show!” That doesn’t really help you. It would be great just to see the physical ability and hear the story.
It’s not necessarily a sad story, although sometimes you see stories that make you cry. It’s amazing to be able to tell people’s stories, but it’s the optimism behind it. The ability to move past whatever the struggle that the person has suffered through.
That’s what we love about Ninja. That people don’t quit. They never give up. We’re going to push past this brutal event that happened in our lives. That’s what we love hearing as well.
It doesn’t have to be something so devastating. Just optimism about life and the ability to never quit. We like to be inspiring and we like to be inspired.
How important are video editing skills? We’ve seen some pretty slick videos out there.
Not at all. It may be entertaining for us visually because we see so many videos. But that is not a reason to move a video forward.
A lot of competitors I fall in love with as far as their video just simply sit, and talk, and show you clips of themselves. If someone is sitting and talking at a desk but at the same time they have a video that comes on after and says, “Now I’m going to show you my athletic footage,” and it’s played with music.
But they captured you by their energy, their eyes. The sparkle in their eyes. That’s what I mean by the first date scenario.
When you’re out with someone, you just have a spark in your eye that lets them know, “I really like you.” We want to see that sparkle in your eyes. So you sitting there talking to us with that spark is amazing. We still need to see the athletic footage afterwards, but the video editing doesn’t have to be fancy or anything like that.
It can be a home gym. We see that a lot. People hang those pull-up bars and they keep going with music. But they spent the 30 seconds before just sitting or standing and telling us who they are.
Is there an advantage to submitting early aside from getting your feedback? Are you waiting for the submission period to close to make all your casting decisions?
We’re not making any decisions until after the deadline when we’ve seen all the videos. BUT you stand out if you submit early and we can get you up to par.
There’s some great people that we see after the submission deadline, and we’re watching it for our deadline and we don’t have a chance to say, “We can’t hear you!” Or, “Your picture is great, but your video is black. It’s dark.”
We can do this before the submission deadline, but there’s no guarantee after the deadline. If we get in touch after the deadline and tell you this, then we’re very close to submitting for your region. You probably have less time to revise your video and get it back in time for us to pitch when our pitch goes out to the executives.
Let’s say for example the deadline is January 2nd. I see your video on January 11th, because there are a couple thousand. But I know the first pitch goes to the executives on January 15th. I call you and say, “Hey. I can’t see your video. Your pictures looked amazing. Your story is good. So if you could revise your video and lighten it, that would be great.”
You might have plans that weekend of the 13th and 14th. And no intentions of reworking that video. But I know that pitch is coming up. You get it back to me on the 18th. Well, now it’s too late. We’ve already submitted it to the executives.
There are a few times we get resubmissions and we’re able to look at it and add it. We do our best to try to have everyone who’s good seen before the actual run. The run being the competition.
If the competition doesn’t happen until March, we’re still trying to get people seen by the execs before the end of February. At that point we have to deal with making sure people have time to buy inexpensive flights, prepare their travel, give their jobs notice, things of that sort.
When you’re looking at a rookie’s submission, how can you tell they’ll be great on the show from their application?
You never know how far someone is actually going to go because even vets go out on obstacles that leave you shocked. Like the Quintuple Steps. There’s no guarantee.
But we can tell how you’ll handle the course if you’re at a gym. Like Daniel Gil was at Sam Sann’s gym training people. So he actually showed himself going through the entire gym, doing all the obstacles, which lets us know no doubt, you can pretty much handle it.
There are some people who do the show and with the audience and the cameras there’s a different outcome. But sometimes we get lucky when Josh or Daniel just fly through the course. They kill it and you’re like, “Wow,” and the audience and the lights don’t effect them whatsoever.
So you have a better chance of us feeling confident if you show yourself going through a Ninja gym. But if you can’t do that, deciding at a playground which obstacles you’re going to run through and have filmed consecutively, to show us a simulation of what it would be like, that’s great too.
Pull-ups, or slack-lining, or walking on a bar like Parkour athletes do—it shows us that you can handle it as well.
Editor’s note: The walk-on line format was changed for season 11 and was not able to be included for season 12 due to COVID restrictions. We’re keeping the information below that was originally published with this article in case the walk-on line returns in future seasons.
Do you also handle casting from the walk-on line?
Yes. In the early days, walk-ons had not submitted for the show. Most recently, the majority of walk-ons have submitted. Once we collect their names [from the line] we kind of know who they are because they submitted.
Can you tell us more about how the process works once someone is in the walk-on line?
We get their names and give them numbers based on how they arrived or the line that is formed once one of the casting producers is on-site.
We download the one sheets because we’ve seen all the videos from those that have submitted, and put them in order for the execs to see who’s in the walk-on line.
If by chance there’s one or two people in the line that didn’t submit, then we have them fill out information that’s similar, but a much smaller package that tells us about themselves, so we can do a one sheet and put them in the package that goes to the executives.
What’s your role on set when shooting is happening?
One of the things that I do is I’m still looking at videos for the next city. Or hopefully two cities ahead. It’s making sure that things stay organized. That my team is feeling comfortable and that the Ninjas are comfortable.
If there’s any issues, or Ninjas feel like something unfair occurred, I can go talk to Standard and Practices, which is the unbiased group that is on set to make sure that the competition is fair and everything is running smoothly. Make sure that the Ninja knows what happened. Why they were disqualified or why we shut down for a second to fix an obstacle or anything of that sort.
Just making sure that everybody is on the same page. You just want to make sure that even though everyone knows what they’re going, it’s a well oiled machine. Be there to make sure everyone is happy and comfortable and things are going they way they should be.
You just want to be the advocate for the Ninjas. Not that the executives wouldn’t be, it’s just that usually they’re focused on other things that pertain to creating a great show.
Is there anything else you’re looking for in season nine’s applications?
Have fun. Make sure your video is like a fun infomercial about yourself. I’m just hoping that people realize their lives are not as boring as they think they are. People will downplay themselves a lot.
You’re selling yourself. You’re up playing. Don’t downplay yourself. “I’m no different than anyone else.” No, you are! You’re unique.
So please, if you don’t know why you’re unique, let your mother tell you, let your brother tell you, let your girlfriend or boyfriend or husband tell you. You are unique and share those reasons with us.
I’m excited about seeing all the videos. Again, it DOES inspire us. We may see a lot and it feels overwhelming sometimes, but you often get those videos that make you feel like life is awesome because this person made a great video and they had such great energy. It’s a beautiful thing.
There you have it, new and returning Ninjas! Pour your heart out and avoid “Eye of the Tiger.” You have until December 10 to get your submission in for season 14 of American Ninja Warrior!