Simon Miles Illuminates Robotica's Mechanical Mayhem

Monster trucks? Passé. Wrestling's pre-scripted soap opera drama? So five minutes ago. The newest, coolest extreme arena sports entertainment is robot competition. Think that's an exaggeration? Robotica received over 1,000 robot team applications from across North America after its first season. The Learning Channel's (TLC) Robotica is a show for couch potatoes who actually want some intellectual stimulation to spice up their television viewing. The show's production values are pretty stimulating, too, with a Mad Max-style rusted-metal set by Steve Bass and industrial-looking lighting design by Simon Miles.

Robotica is hosted by the witty and wacky Ahmet Zappa, with floor reporting from Tanya Memme, a former Miss World Canada and graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. Technical commentator is Dan Danknick, who has written animatronic code for Tokyo Disney, where he was an Imagineer. (He also holds nine US patents on software techniques.) He has competed fighting robots since 1996, winning several trophies, and has served as a consultant to other robot builders.

Besides the actual competition, the show includes mini-documentaries in which viewers meet the team captains who explain how they constructed their robots, following the builders from concept and assembly through the contest, providing insight into their engineering skill and competitive spirit.

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

Each episode features two pairs of robots who face off in two qualifying heats. The contest begins on the diamond-shaped track of the Gauntlet, wherein the bots crash through four increasingly difficult walls--blocks of wood, weighted cans, bricks, and cement blocks. As the robots go around the course they eventually confront and pass each other, after which they must drive over the rubble left by the opponent, which is sometimes trickier than plowing through it all the first time around. After going all the way around the course, the robots turn and climb a ramp to the Central Battle Zone, where they break as many glass columns as they can to score points.

Round Two is the Labyrinth, where the bots encounter challenges such as a shaky suspension bridge, spikes that periodically shoot up from the floor, a hydraulic flip ramp, and a sand pit. After each obstacle is a glass wall the robot must break to score points. All the while, the competitors are being attacked by the Rats, the show's own robots, equipped with buzz saws capable of disabling the competitors.

The two robots who win the qualifying rounds square off in the Fight to the Finish, an elevated platform where each tries to send the other off the side, to plunge into a fire-ringed pit of steel spikes. The winners of each of the first six episodes advance to the championship finals.

Entering the Underworld

LD Simon Miles was called by the show's producer/director, Don Weiner, with whom Miles has worked in the past. "When Don called me originally, I had no idea there was a whole world of robot makers and robot vernacular," Miles says. "The first call was something of an explanation of what we were going to be presenting, which was this very diverse cast of characters, being the builders, and their very diverse creations, being the robots, and the kind of wild and wacky, competitive, and yet very friendly world of the robot builders. It was quite an intriguing concept. There is this whole subculture out there of people who are building machines that are really only designed to destroy other machines."

The set was designed by Steve Bass, whom Miles has also worked with several times. "He's a very good, young, accomplished production designer. Steve's contribution to the show was more than just designing the set," the LD explains. "He was also integral in designing the courses the robots have to go through. He worked very closely with the robot community, there was a technical adviser/robot builder who worked with Steve a lot on how the course was built, so that it would have obstacles that would be challenging for the different styles of robots."

Miles likes to work closely with production designers on shows. "The point of putting it all together is to hopefully achieve a common goal at the end of the process," he comments. For this project, the parameters were more or less defined when the set designer first came onboard, and the LD's input became a question of slight modifications in order to accommodate the lighting. The set was built in Hollywood Centre Studios, and the production used both the large, 100'x155' stages. One had the competition arena and audience seating, and the second stage was the pit area, where the builders go to repair their bots between rounds.

The approach to lighting these stages was totally different. The competition stage was lit as an event arena. "It was a very tall set; the audience actually sits about 16' above the ground and the robot competition area is down on floor level," Miles says. "It's very smoky, very shafty, kind of showbiz-y, showing off all the lights, the production values. By contrast, the pit area, is, I believe, 20'x20' areas that the people get to work in. That's lit very sparsely, like a work space, with overhead chicken coops, which are large soft sources, and Kino Flos attached to chain link fencing defining the work space, so it's a very utilitarian, kind of garage-y look." All lighting for the show was supplied by VLPS Los Angeles.

Lighting for the arena is mostly Vari*Lite® automated luminaires with arc sources. "I felt the color output of the arc source was more appropriate for the mechanical nature of the robot environment," the LD explains. "It's a cooler, more industrial color, if you will." There are Kino Flo fluorescent tubes built into the set to illuminate the robots for closeup shots and accent the feel of the set.

The non-automated fixtures on Robotica were used to light the scenery, mostly uplight accents and gobo breakups on the large, flat walls below the audience seating areas. Half a dozen fresnels lit the hosts, keylight and backlight only, and four lamps were used to light the robot drivers during the final round, when they control their robots from a perch between the audience sections.

The emphasis is very much on the robot action, intercut with reaction shots of the robot drivers on the sidelines, commentary from the hosts in the press booth, and interviews with teams between rounds. "Those moments that involve real people were about the only time I had to be concerned about TV lighting in its traditional sense," the LD says. This lighting is mostly with Kino Flo units.

"What Robotica allowed for me as a designer was to light objects without having to be concerned about their looks, their egos. It became much more theatrical, like a lighting experience rather than a TV show."

The Human Factor

TLC bills itself as "the only television network that uses real-life storytelling to connect viewers to the breadth of the human experience," and Miles found this especially true the first season he worked on Robotica.

"The thing that was amazing about series one was that the winning team was a father and a learning-disabled child who were really the underdogs," he relates. "It was a home-built robot, so it wasn't the most powerful, it wasn't the best built. They went against teams that were backed by corporations, teams that had massively powerful machines, and every step of the way, through every kind of adversity, they just kept winning and winning until they were in the finals. The really wonderful story was this guy and his son, and obviously the bond between father and son was incredibly strong, and they won! There was something very beautiful about this very human story in amongst these machines. It was a great moment when they prevailed in the final game; every single person on the TV crew cheered, and it came from the heart. It was a great experience on the show."

The third season of Robotica was aired in marathon format on TLC on July 28. Simon Miles can be reached at teacake@victorxray.com.

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All photos courtesy The Learning Channel.