If you flipped on your TV with no sound, you’d still recognize American Ninja Warrior within a few moments of its start. Why? That look. That dramatic, heroic look that just lets the fans know the Ninjas are about to storm the course.
A huge part of that visual atmosphere are the lights. The blues, reds and countless hues that bath a city and the athletes in a robe of grandeur.
Adam Biggs is the show’s Director of Photography. He’s the mastermind mind behind that lighting design with 20 years of experience in the film and television industry. He genuinely and deeply loves this stuff. He’s in a deep and committed relationship with the power lighting has over the viewers emotions.
Like all good love stories, this one starts with a romantic kiss on a beach at night.
“I did this documentary. We had no money. As you are when you're young, you have no money. So you have to work with what you've got, which is nothing. I had to make up some scenario on the beach at night with a scene between two people kissing. We had no lights. It was dark, and I'm thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ So I took my car, shone the headlights into a white car, and bounced it off them.
Sometimes the simplest form of lighting can be the most beautiful. And it was amazing. People look at that and go, ‘Oh that's really cool. How did you do that?’ It’s the headlights of my car!
What I really loved was that you could go from creating this simple, no money lighting scenario, and it can look beautiful, and then you can go to American Ninja Warrior, and you can have 1500 lights. Where you can make it like an explosion of color and vibrancy and movement and animation. It can create the same intensity, mood, feeling, drama, just in totally different ways.”
Adam’s career path led him to American Ninja Warrior many seasons ago. He’s been along for the ride as the show went from a cult-favorite to a national sensation. We got to have an in-depth conversation with Adam on just how he creates lighting that feels like a form of escapism into the action of the show.
“On Ninja Warrior, I'm the Director of Photography, but I'm also the Lighting Designer. It's a very unique position. With Ninja Warrior, I'm in charge of the camera department and the lighting department. I work with the director to figure out where the cameras are going to go, what lenses we use with the engineer. It really goes hand in hand.
I think that if you know camera and lighting, they both help each other. It depends on what camera you've got for what kind of lights you want. Where do the cameras go. The angles. The angles of the lights. All that together, they help each other.”
“I joined American Ninja Warrior in season two. It was (filmed in) daytime. We were a completely different show. It was daytime in Venice. It was very much a reality show. It was a little bit of competition. Then we did this whole reality elimination bit in Simi Valley. It was like a bunch of guys living in a camp together and they were training to go to Japan (to compete in Sasuke).
Then somebody came up with the idea of, ‘Hey, what would it look like if we did the City Finals at night?’ And I go, ‘That sounds kind of fun. Let's do it.’
Now everything is so joined together. The obstacles look better. The lighting looks better. The camera angles look better. The art direction is better.”
“It's like a traveling roadshow. We go there. We set it up for five days. We shoot it. Then we rip it all down and we truck it off to the next city.
It's a fusion of conventional cinematic lighting and theatrical lighting. Looking at the course, you have to be careful because you have to put lights in places where it's not going to blind the competitors and it's not going to interfer with the game play.
I would say 50 percent of the lights on the show, you can see. The other 50 percent are behind the scenes doing other things that you can't see.
With the obstacles, it's like going in with a fine scalpel. With the background, it's lots of big lighting and moving lights. But for the obstacles, you have to go in for very detailed lighting. I've got to think about the camera angles, competitors, making sure it looks good, making sure the background angles look good, and every city has different obstacles.”
“So we have to re-do the lighting design in every city. But it's fun. Every city is different. The course changes. The obstacles are different. The city background is different. All that has to change. The lighting has to change. The colors change. Everything is different. We use different lights on different buildings. Sometimes we're lighting up one building, like Denver. Sometimes we're lighting up six city blocks like Cleveland. Or like Indianapolis where we're in a banana half circle, where we see almost 360 degrees.
You have to light it in a way that's going to invoke both the cinematic quality of a dynamic obstacle course and also a theatrical, cool, vibrant, colorful competition show.”
Let’s get technical
- Months it takes to plan lighting for a location: 5
- Days it takes to set up lights on the course: 5
- Average number of lights on each set: 1200
- Size of lighting crew on average: 18
“The cool thing is everyone on the crew comes from different backgrounds. Half my crew are rock and roll guys who come from the music world. The other half come from the movie world. You need both. There's strengths from both sides of it.
But they all come from different walks of life. Butcher, baker, candle-stick maker. It really is. It's crazy.
I have the chief lighting technician. He's in charge of all the power. He's my right hand person. Then I have my left hand, which is the programmer, lighting director. The two of them make me look good.”
Scouting for the perfect American Ninja Warrior backdrop
“When we go location scouting, it's a team process. The art director goes, the producers go, the director. One of the things we look for is the height of the background and the layers of the background. Unless it's a unique building like Denver where that building is curved. We look for anything that's not flat. The important thing for the background is that there's height and multiple textured surfaces.
In Los Angeles, we shoot on the back lot of Universal Studios. Every building has a different look to it. Every building we light just a little bit differently. Different color, different texture to it. If it was one building, with one kind of texture to it, one flat wall, it doesn't look as interesting. As the contestants go from one obstacle to another obstacle, the background changes as well.”
“How close are you to the background? If you're too far away, it's too small of a background and you can't really see anything. You just see black sky. Okay, not only do we have to fit this 400 foot long behemoth of the course somewhere on this thing, but we have to remove, sometimes, stoplights, parking meters. Because we have to fit cameras in there, we have to fit audience in there. So you have to think about all those things too. It's not just the obstacle course. It's everything else. You have to have the steady cam pass, all the machines and condors over there. It's a big footprint.”
How do you even begin to imagine what a set could look like?
“20 years of experience. It's all pre-visualization. My mind just works that way. If you asked a painter or an architect how they know something's going to look cool. How you know in your head. Put it all together, that's what it is.
In my head, I look at a background and I'm like ‘That would be cool. It's got different layers and textures. I can light it with this kind of light. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't.’
I can see maybe 75% of it will work. And I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do with the other 25%, but I know I'm going to do something with it. Sometimes it doesn't come to me till a couple of months later. I'll look at the pictures and lay all the pictures out, and I'll think, ‘Okay, how am I going to light this section? How does this section work?’ I'm thinking about the camera angles. Here's where the course is going to lay in.”
“We bring a couple different things because until we get there, we're not quite sure if it's going to work or not. That's one of the cool things though. So we get to try new things. Different kinds of lights. Different kinds of technology. We're always looking for the latest technology. With Denver we're using some wireless. In Vegas we use wireless. A lot of the controls, we have iPads that control the color and lighting and intensity and focus.”
There are lights in tiny towers on the very tops of buildings. Someone has to actually climb up and place those?
“Yes. My guys love it when I say, ‘You know what'd be really great? We need to put some beams on top of that building.’
Here's the greatest thing about my crew. I come up with these ideas. And it's easy to say let's put some lights on top of that building. But what you don't know is, the amount of cable and how do you get those lights up there? They go up there by crane. The amount of cable that goes up there. It has to be wired somehow. It takes awhile.
You have to know before you go there what you're going to do because there's no time to re-do stuff.”
Have you ever had a city official look at you like you're crazy when you've asked for access to the very top of a building?
“Oh yeah. They tell me no one's ever done this before. And I'm like, ‘Perfect. That's why I want to do it.’
We want to do things no one has done before. That's what I love about it. We do get to do things no one's ever done before. That's the greatest thing about it.
What's the farthest away you've lit a building and had it be part of the American Ninja Warrior set?
To close out this look behind the scenes, we asked Adam to elaborate on a few of his favorite American Ninja Warrior locations.
Las Vegas: National Finals
By the numbers
- 2000 lights
- 20 miles of power cables
- 30 miles of data cables
- 4 separate generators each with 3000 AMPS
- Half of the lighting is LED and half is conventional
“It's kind of a daunting task when you first look at the big empty lot in Vegas.
It never feels ‘ROUTINE.’ Every city is different. That's the challenge and the fun. Each city gets it's own personalized lighting design.
Vegas is never routine either. There's different creative, different obstacles, different challenges. I love it! Vegas is probably one of the most difficult lighting designs I've ever done. From simply powering the massive set-up of lights to creating dynamic shots with techno cranes and cable cams, Ninja Warrior is never a dull moment.
We just wish it wasn't so bloody hot.”
Daytona Speedway: Season nine
“Here's a crazy idea. We want to shoot at Daytona. Let's shoot on the backside of the stadium. Why? Because it has so many different layers of material and architecture. It's really cool. It's really, really cool. It's very different. It's very modern, futuristic. But again, it's architecture, and it's high and it's close to us. And then we went in the back and we were filming the top 30 with drones right on the speedway. You don't get to do that all the time.”
Military: Season seven
“The battleship was amazing. First of all, who gets a chance to light a BATTLESHIP for a game show?
We saw this as an amazing opportunity to create something that had never been done before. With multiple textures, nooks and crannies, not to mention giant gun turrets.. We gave the USS IOWA a unique lighting design and color.
The IOWA was very different than a city block. The color of the metal makes the lights change color and we had to experiment with a variety of lighting units to make the different sections of the ship really come alive. It's easy to just throw a couple of big lights on the ship, but we wanted it to really pop with texture and color.
This meant working with the ship crew on where to place and hide lights. The IOWA is a museum so it was incredibly important that we protect and respect the location.
No one fell overboard!”
Denver: Seasons six and nine
“You look at Denver. Denver is a completely different style from Cleveland. Every building has its own architecture. It's not just, H‘ey let's light it like a movie and make it look natural.’ Some of the buildings we do that. But some of the buildings we want to have look unique. Like you'll never see it lit this way again. Unless we come in again and replicate it. You'll never see it again done this way. Even if a movie comes in. It will not be lit the same way we do it.”
Philadelphia: Season eight
“One of the unique locations we had was Philly. That was really cool. That was the first time we'd done anything with that look. That one was really cool. That stands out. It was very different. It wasn't a cityscape, it was a really industrial, cool vibe. Totally different. We did some effects to make it look like it was still working. Some sparks of light. Smoke. That was really cool. I like that one.”
Indianapolis: Season eight
“The difficult one with that was because downtown is open. There's people. There's businesses. So we have to thread our course through all that. We have to figure out ways to maneuver our lights all around and our cameras. The monument itself, we have to light that in several different ways and color. And then we have all the buildings all the way around. Now we have a round course and we're looking back across 360 degrees. So we have to light buildings that are behind us that we don't normally do. That was probably the largest amount of light we have used.”
Atlanta: Season eight
“One city that was really cool was Atlanta. We were in the courtyard of the stadium. That was cool because we had so many different kinds of architecture behind the course. There was the stadium and the lights back there. And brick buildings and these modern buildings. Old buildings. That's what I love about it. You can go into a different city, different location and they have amazing architecture and you're just like this is really cool. How do I light this up?”