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The fine points of American Ninja Warrior course evolution

Adam Sawyers, head of design at The ATS Team, fills us in the obstacle development process for season nine.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

The ATS Team are the uniquely devilish minds behind the American Ninja Warrior course. Together with NBC and A. Smith and Co. productions, the ATS Team brainstorms, builds and manages the course as it makes its yearly tour around the country.

With the season nine cities announced, the courses are one step closer to coming to life.

Adam Sawyers has been working with ATS for the past five years. Beginning as a carpenter, he has now led production design on seasons six, seven and eight of American Ninja Warrior. As the reigning Head of Design at the ATS Team, we went to him for an update on how the newest Ninja-killer obstacles are coming along.

Adam Sawyers

What does the title ‘Head of Design’ entail?

“Ninja Warrior is a show that comes alive with many people’s efforts. From top to bottom, every persons’ input and hard work over many seasons has made this show what it is today.

For this particular show, I start out by ingesting the imagination and vision from the producers at A. Smith and Co., along with the ideas from the creative minds here at The ATS Team. It is then my job to take those ideas from concept to reality - into functional, safe, challenging and visually appealing obstacles. This process takes knowledge of Computer Aided Design, materials, engineering, and an understanding of construction. I oversee other ATS designers and guide each element from an idea, through fabrication, to the finished obstacle contestants run on the shows.”

What’s your background experience?

“I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts [degree] with a concentration in photography. I grew up as a carpenter and in the trades like that. Moving out here [Los Angeles area] I found art department jobs. Which turned into construction. It was just sort of a position that worked out really well for me.”

How did you fall into the ATS family?

“The way many people do. I was living with some people who were working at ATS. It’s such a family company. There are so many people who got their jobs through their friends working there.”

Mitchell Leff/NBC

What do you have to add to the obstacle design timeline from your perspective of head of design?

“We start in November, December with loose concepts of obstacles that get turned into more of a conceptual render. It’s a sketched up model that doesn’t have any of the actual mechanics of how an obstacle would be built, but it has shapes representing obstacles so that we can talk about it with a visual. A lot of times these things are hard to understand without visuals.

From there [the producers] either like it or they don’t. If they like it, it generally goes to the shop with whatever instructions they need.

That’s where we are right now. The demos we’ve had with producers have been just bits of obstacles showing movement, showing concepts. Proof that these ideas could work. Then in January we’ll begin to put them into a full pool of space.

We’ll come back from the holiday with redesigning some of these obstacles to be spaced out properly, by what we learned from some of the loose demos and develop them into something that might actually make it on the show. With the correct spacing and the correct difficulty.”

How does the very initial idea process work? Do you have brainstorming meetings?

“We do have [meetings]. Our crew that’s out on the road, they’re always coming up with ideas. People like Kyle DesChamps [field agent] especially. He’s had tons of ideas. Nate Moore [head of testing] has tons of ideas. They’re out on the road either domestically or internationally and they see stuff that inspires them and come back with great ideas.

Some of the greatest ideas we had last year were Erik Petko [fabrication designer], for the Flying Squirrel in Vegas. He just had this idea in his head, put some stuff together in the shop, that one didn’t even come from a drawing or anything. He just had a day where he put some stuff together, showed it to the producers and they loved it.

Sometimes we sit down as a group, and with position five in mind, for example, we just think about what would be a good obstacle in that position. Then a drawing is created from there.”

David Becker/NBC

Do you go into it knowing how many new obstacles you’re going to debut versus how many are going to return from the last season?

“Sure. That’s always been dictated by NBC. The past seasons they’ve required three new obstacles. With the first city and second city they wanted four new ones. This season, across the board we had three new. Two new ones on the front, one new one on the back half [of the course]. So we have 18 unseen obstacles this year.”

How many obstacle designs are presented to the producers and make it through versus how many are rejected?

“I think we’re getting better at it. So the ratio has probably improved since season seven where there might have been a greater number of rejected obstacles. And it’s hard to quantify, I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of what exactly that number is.

We might have 40 concepts and half of them make the show.”

Can you tell us the story of developing a specific obstacle? Like the Flying Squirrel. How many iterations did it go through? Were there debates about it?

“The Flying Squirrel is a great example. Erik had a concept. He tried to talk about it in a morning meeting with the team and he got a lot of glossy eyed responses. And he said, ‘Well, I’m just going to go make this then.’ Because we weren’t quite following. He put something together in the shop and everyone loved it. It was really awesome.

We had a couple different versions of the pieces that were hanging that the contestant would actually grab a hold of. We showed it then to producers on the next demo.

They liked it and we talked about how much space it would require, how many moves are there, back and forth, and realized that this wasn’t necessarily an appropriate obstacle for the road. Which, this happens quite frequently. We’ve had a couple obstacles this year that they’ve said, ‘It’s great, but let’s push it towards Vegas because it doesn’t fit real well on the road.’

So we tabled that one momentarily. Then when we got into Vegas, we did a couple different versions that made it something to fit that space really well. Two big moves into that cargo net, which we demo-ed, and then with that one I designed the layout for what that piece looked like.

Which is sort of the common process. Really rough representations of the obstacle. Then it goes to the actual design level and we come up with what the whole thing is going to look like. Or how it functions. What the mechanics are if it’s a mechanical obstacle. Then it’s built for the show.

David Becker/NBC

In your role as head of design, you have to make everything work together. Do you ever have to reject someone’s idea?

“I try not to ever reject ideas because then it shuts people down. But yeah, we only have a finite number that makes the show.

We did have this discussion just last time. We had a couple really great ideas for position three. At the moment we don’t need anything for position three. So we said let’s table these ideas just until we know if they lock what we have on the grid right now or not. Those ideas might come back another season but at the moment, they’re just set aside.”

So it’s not like they’re rejected, they just go back and wait for their moment.

“Yeah, and we’ve had this frequently as well. There have been obstacles where, two years ago, the concept was cool, but we didn’t have any idea on how to implement it. So we put it aside.

We just learn so much every year, every season. We learn something new. Some new process. Some new material. That makes some of those obstacles, some of those concepts from earlier seasons actually possible.”

What’s a lesson that was learned in a past season that helped guide how things were done in the future?

“The progression on my end has been a lot of process and materials. That has also allowed some obstacles that weren’t possible in the past to become possible.

Early it was 2x4’s, plywood, and carpet flipped upside down as the traction surface. Over the years we’ve started building with more aluminum, more CNC [Computer Numerical Control] cut parts, and we coat everything with polyurea. We’ve brought that all in house in fact. We have specific chemistry and process that is actually only available to ATS at the moment.”

Brandon Hickman/NBC

What’s your favorite part of being head of design?

“I do love the process of designing something. I love the opportunities I have to research materials and processes for creating these obstacles. Like the polyurea, or, we had a small amount of carbon fiber on the show last year. We’re using more polycarbonate. Different materials that we hadn’t looked into years ago. I really enjoy that.”

What inspires you to go in a new direction when looking for course materials? I imagine you don’t just Google obstacle course materials.

“It comes from seeing these products around. You see stuff that’s made with them. Or looking at how other things are made around us and try to think outside the box. Maybe this product that’s used for something in automotive will be great for us. We try it.”

City locations were recently announced. How much does city location affect the course design?

The shape and the space available is really important. Disc Runner in Indianapolis for example. Those rings were almost 6 feet wide, and we’re leaving room for someone to fall off into a pool. That pool needed to be, I think, 18 feet inside dimension, and 20 feet outside. And that, for example, just isn’t possible in Universal Studios on the backlot. We couldn’t put anything that wide.

So knowing the cities and knowing the locations, we can think about which obstacles would play better. You remember Tick Tock was a really long pool in Universal. We couldn’t have done that in Venice, for example, because we didn’t have any room to lengthen the course. That obstacle wouldn’t have played then, with a shorter pool.

It allows us to manipulate the obstacles to the appropriate difficulty and knowing we have the space, or we don’t have the space. And then in turn we sometimes have to shuffle them around in different cities.”

Joe Robbins/NBC

Is the process knowing what the obstacles are and then puzzle fitting them into the city and course that works best for them?

“Yeah. Sometimes. That’s a large component of it.”

Do you know of any obstacles from season 8 that are not coming back for season 9?

“I’d have to look at the list. I don’t have it in front of me.”

So is there a wish list of obstacles?

“Oh yes, there’s several lists.”

How many obstacles would you say are on the list at the moment?

“We probably have 50 obstacles on a list. Maybe more than that. There’s stuff that we liked from past seasons. There’s stuff that A Smith and Co. [producers of American Ninja Warrior] like from past seasons. There’s stuff that we like from new concepts. Kent Weed and Anthony Storm [executive producers] of course pitch new concepts all the time as well.

There’s probably 50 or 60 obstacles and we are choosing which ones to prototype. Choosing which ones we think would be best for the course. Some of them will get prototyped and trashed. Some of them make it all the way through. Some of them we won’t even talk about. That happens all the time.”

Do you have personal favorites on that list?

“I like mechanized obstacles because it’s a challenge on the design end. Psycho Chainsaw was one. While it was a real thorn in my side it was really a lot of fun to accomplish something like that.”

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

Is there a least favorite obstacle? Is there one where you were like “Okay, that was really bad to make.”

“I see them from so many different perspectives. Tilting Table is one that was a really wonderful obstacle for game play. Production loved it. We weren’t such fans of it because it was massive and heavy and it’s hard for the guys to install in the field. Things like that.

We’re always back and forth with A Smith and Co. They have their picks, their favorites, and sometimes we really don’t like their favorites. Or the reverse and they don’t like our favorites. But we come to compromises.”

What are your thoughts around the course formula? Starting with some kind of steps. The Warped Wall. Do you ever wish you could scrap all of it and do something completely new?

“It at least gives us parameters to work towards. When it’s completely open ended sometimes it’s difficult to pick a direction. When we’re developing an obstacle for position three, we know it should be a balance obstacle. Position two should be this downhill sort of obstacle.”

Would you ever want to retire something like the Warped Wall since it seems like competitors have pretty much mastered it at this point?

“I wouldn’t, because, it does seem that way, but we still see people go out on it. It still serves its purpose I think. And it’s iconic.”

Since you have that list of 60 potential obstacles, would you give any training tips to the Ninjas?

“No. I can’t do that. I mean, we’re always developing new things. And that’s part of the fun is to try to stay ahead of them.

It’s actually been really interesting, seeing the obstacles that we develop for the show that the contestants have never seen before, and then seeing those obstacles, or some sort of version of that, or some sort of training technique, in gyms all over the place and backyards. That’s really exciting.

It is fun to try to develop a technique that they’ve never put their hands on before.”

What’s next in the process after the holiday break on a day to day level? Some obstacles will go into fabrication?

“Yes. We have a handful of them right now that have gained some traction. Everyone likes them. The proof of concept has worked. Now it’s developing those into the appropriate space. If it needs a longer pool. Or a wider pool.

We start developing the full obstacle next. Figuring out what the beginning and end are. With some of the rough prototypes, we lift testers up on a forklift, they grab on, do a couple moves, and they drop down on to pads. Obviously that’s not the full obstacle, so we need to figure out how they start and how they finish.”

Do you have a favorite obstacle you’d like to see in season nine? Tell us in the comments!