UPDATE: The article below was released shortly after season eight of American Ninja Warrior. Things have changed a bit since then!
American Ninja Warrior has generally taped its episodes outdoors, touring around the country to five or six locations a year to set up Qualifying and City Finals courses. Additionally, the Ninjas ran the course after sundown, and the cameras would roll until 5 am or later, keeping the lighting perfectly dramatic. This meant the Ninjas, crew, and audience were at the mercy of the weather (and a bit of exhaustion).
In season 11, the show tried something new by setting up the course indoors at the Tacoma Dome for the Seattle/Tacoma region. This allowed the show to film during the daytime. It seems like the test was a success. Season 12 will feature four indoor Qualifying regions. Two will be in Washington, D.C. and two will be in St. Louis, MO.
To explore that change, we had another conversation with Kristin Stabile, the Executive in Charge of Production, who is included in the article below. So read on to learn about how the show historically found its locations. Then hop over to this article for an update on the future!
American Ninja Warrior season nine seemed to roar into reality with the announcement of the six qualifying cities and potential taping dates for 2017.
Ninja Warrior fans know these cities become essential components to the history of the show. Dallas will forever be the city where Kacy Catanzaro became the first woman to defeat the Warped Wall. The lights of the Las Vegas Strip will always be the backdrop to Isaac Caldiero and Geoff Brittens’ ascent of Mount Midoriyama.
Kristen Stabile, part of A. Smith and Co, is the show’s Executive in Charge of Production. That makes her responsible for finding and planning out these locations. It’s no small task considering the hundreds of people and semi-trucks of equipment that will take over these locations. Stabile took a few minutes to talk to us about what goes into finding and securing the perfect American Ninja Warrior city.
(Responses are lightly edited for clarity.)
Finding a place that feels special
“We like to go to large cities, but large cities that aren’t too big. We’re an event for them. There’s certain cities like Cleveland this year, we’re a major event to them. Kansas City. We’ve done Indianapolis before. These are cities that embrace the opportunity. That’s a factor.”
A lot time
When did you start looking for season nine’s locations?
“Pretty much at the same time we were shooting season eight. We kind of throw around ideas because we’re [the producers] all together during the season. We kind of go, “This would be interesting,” but full fledged, what I call the kickoff of looking for locations is the end of July, into August.”
Some serious space considerations
“One of the biggest things is actually the course. The course footprint is longer than a football field at the end zones. So by the time you put it down, it’s about 369 feet long. Then you need space on either end of that. So I’m always looking for a space to accommodate 400 feet long.
Then the width. The course, at its widest, is 20 feet. Then I need to have a camera lane, fire lane, audience. So I’m always looking for ideally about 75 feet.
But here’s the caveat, I want something really interesting behind it. Something I can light, something that says something about the city. Something interesting. Like in Pittsburgh we had the steel mill. It might not look like much during the day, but then you light it up. We have the ability to make whatever building, whatever architecture, structure behind the course look good. It can’t be too flat. It can’t be too far away. Really, that’s what we’re looking for.
Also the surface we set the course up on needs to be concrete. And it needs to be able to support our weight. We’ve gone to areas that may seem fantastic but there’s tunnels underneath, there’s a parking structure underneath. That cannot support our weight.
This course can be set up in different ways. Sometimes we’ve turned it 90 degrees. Sometimes we’ve kind of made a horseshoe out of it, like Monument Circle in Indianapolis. We can change the construction of the course to fit certain spaces. But the length of the course and the width of the course doesn’t change.”
Weighing a ton of options
“I put a long list together of cities we’ve never been to before that could be interesting. We take into account how strong the NBC affiliate is that’s there for coverage. Population size. What’s going on. What makes it interesting.
So with Cleveland this year, that’s a pretty interesting sports town. The Cleveland Cavaliers ended up winning a championship. You have the Indians that were in the World Series. Interesting. So that’s a reason a city comes up on your radar.”
A lot of people working together
“Just because a city wants [to host a course] doesn’t mean they have a good location. Again, it’s that footprint. That’s a tall order. Even in the cities we’ve gone to, there’s one, two, maybe a third weak location that we could consider.
We have to own that area [of the city] for ten days. So [for a city] to say that, ‘Why don’t you set up in front of here, or there.’ Okay, shut down your road for ten days. ‘Oh, no no no. We can’t do that.’
How did taping at Monument Circle in Indianapolis come together, in the middle of a busy part of the city?
Indianapolis was a two and a half year project.
We approached them. We go and meet with the cities. We propose what it is. We have whole presentations. We put out how many room nights will be taken, how much money will be brought in. This is the exposure you’re going to get on prime time television. And you do meet with all the city officials. Everything from parks and rec, film permitting, the police, the fire department, economic development.
They were like ‘No, next year.’ Okay. They had some time to digest it.
I met another person from the [Indianapolis] sports commission at a conference and they were like ‘You know what? Let’s try this again. We really want it. We think if we get some more steam behind it we can really start pushing it.’
They basically took the lead with it. They went to a number of different organizations, a number of different branches in the local government and said “We should make this happen.”
Then it was like ‘Okay, we’ll discuss.’ Instead of just a flat out no. We did the presentations in front of more people, and they said yes. It worked out great. They can’t wait for us to come back.”
“You have to understand. We’re done shooting by the end of May. There are certain places in the country that are so dicey weather-wise and we shoot in the middle of the night. There’s only so far north we can go. It can be really nice during the day, but at night you could be getting frost. Trust me, we’ve been snowed on in May.”
The local community
So what makes for a great repeat city like Denver?
“The enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of the people. Denver is one of our best walk-on [lines]. We’ve got some of the best walk-ons in Denver. Young, athletic, active. It has a good energy about it. The city is very inviting.”
Knowing when things are just perfect
What’s the thought behind keeping the National Finals in Vegas year after year?
“Vegas has a feeling of celebration. You’re right there on the strip. A lot of lights. Big, accommodating infrastructure for moving a lot of people. It’s just one of those things that was decided a long time ago.”
We’ll get a first-hand look at the new locations when season nine of American Ninja Warrior returns to NBC in the summer of 2017.