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Director Patrick McManus on creating the pieces of the American Ninja Warrior puzzle

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McManus has directed the show since season six, helping to guide the development of those emotional and inspiring runs.

If you’ve followed this site for very long, we hope you’ve gotten an idea of how many different parts have to operate in collaboration to create American Ninja Warrior. From the work done by producers ahead of time to find the cities, to the casting department seeking out Ninjas, to the nights of recording, which look like a hybrid of a three-ring circus and air-traffic control.

At the heart of that live circus is Patrick McManus, who has been American Ninja Warrior’s director since season six. Under his guidance, thousands of Ninjas have run down the course with a small army of camera operators chasing them down. He’s responsible for capturing the fleeting moments that are then turned into the unforgettable memories we all have from the show.

Once the controlled chaos of season nine wrapped up, we had a chance to talk with McManus about his work. He gave us an in-depth look at how the American Ninja Warrior team works together, as well as his predictions for what’s coming next in this booming sport.

Responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s your career path been like? How'd you get started in television?

I always wanted to get into sports television. Went to college and after college became a gofer and a runner. I started out in 1978 as a runner at the PGA at Oakmont in Pittsburgh. Got hired at ABC in 1986. Production assistant at ABC sports.

I started to direct shows in 1991. I left ABC as a staffer at 1998 or ‘99. Right around there somewhere, and I still do football. I also work for NBC a bunch.

I was an AD at the Kentucky Derby at ABC. I do a lot of horse racing at NBC. I do track and field at NBC. I did the Olympics last year in tennis. I'll do short track speed skating this February. I've been fortunate. I've done studio shows at NBC. I've done Super Bowl pregame shows. I've done a whole mixture.

Basically a long career in directing live sports, both at NBC and ABC. I branched out into other things about 10-12 years ago. Ended up getting the call for Ninja Warrior when it came to NBC, for season six.

How was Ninja Warrior first introduced into your life?

I think Anthony Storm and Kent (Weed) were the first guys that contacted me. When it came to NBC, they wanted it to have more of the feel of a live event, like a live sporting event.

It's been great. It's been a great challenge. It's been a fabulous collaboration between all the producers, the art department, the lighting department, the technical department. It's been great.

What are some of the unique challenges of directing a show like American Ninja Warrior?

All the different departments bring their sort of expertise, and look and feel to the show. Whether it's casting, and the importance of the characters, or the athletes and their families and their connections. Every athlete has a connection. Whether it's someone in the crowd, some family member, some cause. Always remembering that is one of the challenges.

How the obstacles are put together. Where they face, where is the most dramatic part of any, what I'll call performance, or when anyone goes through the course. What are the parts of the obstacle that really tell a story. Is it a strength move? Is it a balance move? Also the struggle that the Ninjas have to go through to complete the obstacles.

It's lighting. How do you make the lighting on their face clean, not obstructed, no shadows? You have the foreground composition. The background composition. You can show how difficult these obstacles are. How far the big lache is, how high the (Warped) Wall is.

And the art department. Hiding all the things that don't look so great. Make the background look spectacular. Make the audience feel like as big a part of the event as the athlete on the course. Placing Matt and Akbar, including them in a lot of the shots. Sometimes we have shots where people fall into the water or fail on an obstacle, and you have this great reaction of Matt and Akbar in the background.

I try to bring all the pieces of the puzzle together. Whether it's technical, art, lighting, casting, the producers. Like Anthony (Storm), what does he want to get out of every story? What’s the narrative of every single athlete that goes by, that runs the course?

The success of completing an obstacle and getting ready for the next one. That anticipation you can see in their face. How they're going to beat it, how they're going to conquer it and move forward. Trying to bring all those things together. Either through camera angles, through lighting, through movement in cameras, through showing relationships, between a Ninja and the obstacle, or a Ninja and the connections they have that are watching them.

I try to bring all those things together so the producers can go into the edit room and have all the pieces of the puzzle to make these runs really compelling and have a lot of dimensions to them.

What’s one aspect of working on American Ninja Warrior that you really enjoy?

I think a lot of it is the collaboration of everybody. It's a real puzzle. You've seen how the camera people all sort of do a hopscotch and juggle around. Knowing what kind of equipment we have and making sure there's a safe working environment for the camera people. That they all can move and get into the next position. As you well know, some of these Ninjas fly through that course. The faster they go, it's tough to keep up with them and capture the essence of their run.

I like the collaboration with everybody together. Everyone on the same page; the technical people, where we move these cameras. If you move them a foot either way, you give up something, but you get something. You move it two feet away, you get something else, but you give up two more shots.

You have to weigh each little nuance of a position, as far as angles, what lens you use. Some cameras we put tighter lenses on so you can see the face and the sweat, the hands holding on. The other shots, they're wider so you can see the relationship of the athlete on the obstacle, and where they have to go and what they're looking at, and the crowd behind them. So you try to mix and match wide shots, tight shots, good shots, bad shots. People anticipating what's going to happen next. Celebrating in their success.

That's the big thing for me, to bring all those little pieces of the puzzle together and try to make it as compelling as possible.

McManus directing Akbar, Matt and driver Ben Kennedy in Daytona.

Do you have a role in reviewing the audition tapes?

No. I will look at some of the tapes. But basically that's the producers' narrative. When we're on the air and when we're recording them, I have a book and I ask Anthony (Storm). He and I talk about each individual Ninja. What the story is about this person that makes them unique. It might be a connection to a fan watching, a brother watching. Someone who might have a story, whether it's Parkinson's Disease with Jimmy Choi, or someone who's lost a leg. Whatever it is, I try to connect those. So we're not surprised by, "Well no one ever told me this guy was missing two fingers and I didn't know to shoot his fingers tight." Just as an example.

We go through the athletes. What about this guy? Sometimes there are two or three connections per person. This year we had a woman (Zhanique Lovett) on the course. She was great. Her family was a great story, but one of her sons was doing backflips. I didn't know the kid did backflips! But as I shot it, "Oh that kid's doing backflips! Stay with him!" I'll show that to Matt and Akbar and they can make that connection deeper. You know how good Matt and Akbar are. They're great. They can make a lot of funny comments about this woman on the course and her son watching doing backflips.

Trying to keep an open eye towards the things that develop that we don't know about. But before each person goes, I have a pretty good idea of what their story is and what we want to try to make sure we don't miss.

How many conversations are you juggling at once? As you're seeing things happen the sideline, as you’re seeing things develop on the course. How many different things do you have to balance at one time?

It's a straight line, so it's not too difficult. Trickier is like a football game when you have to talk about 50 things at once. I listen to the announcers closely. I listen to the producers, like Anthony. Basically he and I map out, before each run, how this camera will shoot the mother, this camera will shoot the whole family. Have two other cameras on people in the crowd, on the Ninja’s students from third grade who all came out.

We map all that out. But then I see certain things during the event, or the camera people see certain things. I tell the camera people that no one is excluded from the creative process. If you see a shot, if you see something that's great, we'll use that. We'll put in the line, so Matt and Akbar can react to it, bring deeper meaning to what we're doing there.

You continue to be sensitive towards what's the most important thing happening at any one specific time as they run through the course.

After all these years and runs, are there some competitor's stories that still get to you on a personal level?

Oh yeah. The one this year with the kidney donation. The woman had watched the show the previous year. Kenny and his daughter Hazel. Those kinds of things.

We're rooting interest in people. We're rooting interest in their story. You feel like you could accomplish what they're doing. Whether they're overcoming an obstacle, whether they're bringing awareness to something, whether they're challenging themselves to be better or stronger.

You have the sense of anticipation before they go to the next obstacle. Almost like a pitcher in the ninth inning. It's a 3-2 count. Is he going to throw a fastball low and outside? Is he going to hang a curveball? That anticipation before they go. How are they going to get through that obstacle? They have to use a technique, or they learn from people on the side.

So you look at all these things that make a show successful. All kinds of little things that connect the viewer to the competitor. That deep connection really pulls viewers in and I think the farther people get down the course the more you tend to welcome them into your home, and root for their story, to succeed.

And no one roots against anybody, you know? It's interesting. You want to see everyone go far. And if you hit a buzzer, you want someone else to hit it too. It's a huge component that you can identify with these people and their stories. Overcome odds and obstacles.

What are some of your favorite runs that you've seen live?

The Kacy (Catanzaro) and the Jessie (Graff) stuff, the wow factor in those runs was just incredible. This year when we saw Jessie do sort of a butterfly, a cheerleader split between the two pieces of Plexiglass in Daytona, that just blew everybody away.

Like Kevin Bull (at the 2014 Venice City Finals), when he did the backflip. Whenever someone pulls off something no one ever thought would be done that way, but he did it that way. The wow factor was just huge. Wow. Everyone was just screaming in the production truck. Never thought that that would happen.

The women we've had on the show have just been spectacular. The women who are like five feet tall, like Kacy, if she has to lache six and a half feet, that's a lot harder for her to do than a guy who's six feet tall. So in a sense it's a disadvantage. But that's also just a testament to how skilled the women are now. It's just amazing how well they do. It's fun to watch them.

After watching thousand of runs, are you pretty well versed in Ninja strategy? Can you tell right away if someone's going to do well or not?

Yeah. I think I can. We try to have some fun picking who we think is going to do well. I always say some people try to go through the course way too fast. There's no need to go too fast. Your margin of error will increase dramatically if you try to fly through the course and set a speed record. Most of the people who are really good, who fail, make a silly mistake because they were going too fast. There's no real benefit to going too fast. Just go a little slower. Get through the course, you'll move ahead.

Do you have enough tactics and strategies memorized that you think you could do a few obstacles yourself?

If you gave me Brent Steffensen's body, maybe.

As you've watched the show grow and sport develop, where do you think it will go in the next few years?

I've said all along that I thought obstacle course racing would be an Olympic sport within 10 or 12 years. Because so many people do it. You need so many more physical attributes and strategies to do an obstacle course than you do on a half pipe. It's way more exciting to watch people on an obstacle course than the half pipe at the Olympics.

It's a fair competition. Look at sports with judges like figure skating. Through the years, do you see that the best dance pairs at the Olympics always win? They don't. Because someone might have given them a point six higher score than somebody else. Someone goes home with a silver and someone goes home with a gold. It's not always the person who wins the gold that's the best.

American Ninja Warrior, the farthest the fastest is your winner. The people on American Ninja Warrior can do some remarkable things with balance, strength, endurance, speed. Think of all the different components the athletes need to be successful. It's pretty remarkable.

Look at Vegas. The first Vegas course is balance and feet. Course two is a lot of upper body strength, some balance with strength, a couple more gimmick type of obstacles and then speed at the end. Three is basically just brutal strength and climbing. You go from balance, to balance and strength, to massive amounts of strength and agility. It's amazing.

Do you think if it became an Olympic sport, that would push the earlier stages of American Ninja Warrior to be less about human interest stories and more of a clear cut sport?

Yeah, potentially. And I think the team concept could be a lot of fun too. There's been all kinds of team sports. World team tennis. Team track and field. But the side by side (Ninja Warrior) competitions are really compelling. People love them.

So the team Ninja concept could be a lot of fun. A lot of potential for growth and development. There could be all kinds of really good qualifying events, national events, national championships. Olympic teams. We've almost gone there now with the ‘USA vs the World’ and the ‘All Stars’ competition.

The teams of ‘USA vs the World’ season eight
David Becker/NBC

If you think of a lot of events in the Olympics, that not many people do. There's a lot more people involved in Ninja gyms now than there are fencers in America, right? Not even close. How many people do you know that fence? And it's an Olympic sport.

How many people do you know that go to the gym and now do Salmon Ladders? Every person that I talk to, when I tell them I work on American Ninja Warrior, they go, "I love that show. My kids love that show."

That’s another thing about Ninja Warrior too, it's a show people cannot turn off. Say you're at the beach house with grandma, grandpa, the grandkids, cousins, brothers, when someone turns on that show, no one will ever say, "Turn It Off." If you turn on a baseball game, someone might like the Braves or the Dodgers and be like, "Eh, turn off the Braves." Or someone might like a show that's inappropriate on one of the pay per view channels. But who's going to say, a 3 year old, a 7 year old, a 90 year old or a 60 year old, "No, turn off that show, we don't like that"? That will never happen. No one will ever turn off that TV show.

Once you watch it, you're hooked. Grandpa says, "I can do five push ups." And the grandkids say, "Okay, do it!" Next thing you know, you've got Grandpa doing push ups or pull ups in the doorway of the kitchen of the beach house at the Jersey Shore. That's the way it goes with that show.

Ryan Tuttle/NBC

Back to the other sports, if you went through the Olympic sports, Badminton is a big Olympic sport. Short track speed skating is a big Olympic sport. Do you know anyone who plays badminton competitively? I'll be directing short track speed skating next year in Korea. But I don't know a single short track speed skater and I play hockey.

I think the IOC (International Olympic Committee) will realize, to grow the Olympic brand, to make the brand competitive, and get people involved from all countries around the world, is having obstacle course racing. Where people can build a Salmon Ladder in their backyard, build a Warped Wall in their backyard. So many people are deeply interested in it. They love it.

There's no real downside. You think about this. A lot of the sports that you're going to play these days, even Olympic sports, there's potential for significant injury. Blow your knee out playing soccer, concussion getting hit in the head. Boxing is an Olympic sport, and that's hitting someone in the face. So if you have children, do you want your kids to get punched in the face?

But after all these years on American Ninja Warrior, I've seen very few injuries. The most have been like separated shoulders when someone does an obstacle incorrectly. A shoulder pops out and doc goes over and pops it back in and tells them to take it slow and put ice on it for the next couple of days.

It's good for cardiovascular. It's good for balance. It's good for agility. It's good for strength. Not a lot of downsides. And it's competitive. You go to the gym and next thing you know, you and everybody else are doing mini competitions, push ups, pull ups. Flying up the wall. Doing any of the obstacles that they're building in gyms across the country.

What's it mean to you to have the show nominated for an Emmy two years in a row?

I'm very proud of the show. I'm extremely proud of all the collaboration from every single person on the show. From the producers, to the ADs, to the art department, to the production department, to our line producers. Everybody. The people that build the obstacles. It's remarkable.

What is it about American Ninja Warrior that connects to you personally?

I think it's the collaboration between everybody, getting everyone on the same page. That's one thing, as a director, I try to connect all the departments. Lighting might not know anyone in the art department. The audio guys might not know the lighting guys, who don't know the tech guys or girls, who don't know makeup, the wardrobe department.

I like to bring everyone together so we're all on the same page, so everyone has some direction. Whether it's in the schedule, whether it's in what we're trying to accomplish, whether it's a safety issue.

Everyone needs to be brought together on the same page. Understand what our common goal, our purpose, is. Making sure that everyone has a fulfilling experience, a worth-while experience, a safe experience, a challenging experience and works together as a team to build something great.