Jason Robinson's life with the Rock, the Undertaker, and the rest of the WWE gang

Readers who aren't fans of World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly the World Wrestling Federation) may not be aware of just how pervasive it is. In fact, six hours' worth is prepared for broadcast, either live or on tape, each week. Most of it is lit by Jason Robinson, WWE's production designer, who spends half his time running around the country setting up new rigs in different venues.

With this constant pressure, Robinson has a challenging job. But any challenge pales next to that of lighting Wrestlemania, WWE's annual bash to end all bashes. This year, Wrestlemania X8, the 18th anniversary gorefest, was staged March 17 at the Skydome in Toronto, where a crowd of 69,000 cheered on the WWE gang, including the Rock, the Undertaker, Ric Flair, and Hollywood Hulk Hogan, among others, as they (seemingly) beat each other's brains out in a series of grudge matches. Any WWE event features outrageously campy personalities locked in long-running vendettas, with the action sparked by superstar entrances and staged-to-the-hilt scenes of mock violence. But Wrestlemania is WWE's spectacle of spectacles. “It stands in the fans' minds as the Super Bowl of wrestling,” says Robinson.

The LD spends a considerable amount of his time on the road with WWE, traveling to a new city each Sunday, and loading in for a live broadcast on Monday night at 9pm Eastern Standard Time, with an hour's worth of material taped for broadcast on Saturday as well. “Then we load out, move to another city on Tuesday, and load in again, reconfiguring the equipment to make a completely different-looking show. Then we tape four more hours of wrestling for rebroadcast on two other networks.” Lighting is no small part of these events, as Robinson puts large amounts of moving lights to work on elaborately designed rigs. “It's like a rock-and-roll show,” he says, “but with a different artist and set list every night.”

However, Robinson stresses, Wrestlemania is a unique event with rules of its own. “It's become a much bigger show in production values,” he says. “There's more staging, more scenery, more people.” This year, there was a regular WWE broadcast scheduled for March 18, one night later, in Montreal, a six-hour drive from Toronto, so the regular touring rig could not be used. “I had to design a whole new lighting system,” he says, “and with a new crew, because the nine electricians who usually travel with me had to go to Montreal instead.”

The Skydome, notes Robinson, “is huge, one of the biggest indoor stadiums around. There are seven levels of seats. In the outfield, there's a hotel with a Jumbotron set into the building. I had to mask the hotel and incorporate the Jumbotron. I also needed a rig that was probably four times as big as usual.” The rig was constructed out of concentric circles of trussing, which spiraled down towards the floor in the shape of a tornado. “The interior ring was 40' [12m] wide, then the next one was 70' [21m], then 110' [33m], 160' [48m], and 200' [60m],” he says, sketching out the dimensions of this work. Certainly, the LD needed every light at his disposal: “With eight cameras covering 360° of the room, there's no area that's not lit for television.”

The bulk of Robinson's rig was made up of Martin Professional units: 84 MAC 2000s, 240 MAC 600s, and 100 MAC 250s. “I chose the 600 because there's not a lot of smoke on this show,” he says. “The cameraman doesn't like it, so I can't use the lights as beam effects. The 600s have a better wash, and I can use them to cover the space with color. The fans associate each wrestler with a different music and lighting — they need that so they can recognize who's entering from 500' [150m] away.” The LD adds that he chose the MAC 2000s because he needed units that could punch across long throw distances, “and for their ability to wash with a breakup pattern and get a nice color.” The 250s were lined up on the floor along the 100' [30m] entrance ramp, “to create a path of light for them to go in and out of the arena.” (At Wrestlemania, much of Robinson's showiest design work came in the introductions, as each wrestler made an over-the-top entrance with lots of video, vivid color washes, moving light effects, and music, all of which continued full blast as he or she strode down the runway to the ring.)

In addition to the Martin gear, Robinson made use of 16 Xenotech 7kW units and eight 3kW units from Syncrolite; these, he says, were useful for lighting the audience in the upper tiers and also the ceiling. “It also works to have four or eight big beams of light that are part of each wrestler's entrance lighting cue.”

For the matches themselves, Robinson relied on 72 PAR-64 units. “I use tungsten as my base color temperature for the show,” he says. “Some shows are going to a daylight look, but I have to light wrestling matches that go on for several minutes without a lot of movement, and the tungsten-based PAR cans work better. I can get a flatter field with them. We also use ETC dimmer racks, which hold up extremely well with four or five hours of constant voltage going through them.”

In fact, at Wrestlemania, Robinson faced an all-in-one lighting challenge, going from the extreme flash of the stars' entrances — batteries of moving beams, gigantic chases, and maximum-saturation color washes — to a more controlled, understated look for the matches themselves. The show was built out of two simultaneous and very different designs.

Of course, Robinson points out, his lighting decisions at all WWE events are very much driven by the storylines dreamed up by the writers. “At the last minute — a day before the event — things can change,” he says. Suddenly, it will be announced that a fight will spill out into the crowd, “or they'll be in a cage, or climb on the lighting rig, or jump off the set,” he says. “Several years ago I put a bunch of MAC 250s on the ground at a Wrestlemania. I now have a videotape of a guy getting body-slammed into a MAC 250. I sent it to Martin and they ran it that year at LDI.” Robinson notes that an important part of his job is to interact smoothly with the writers and producers, all of whom have their own points of view.

Usually, Robinson works with an ETC Expression 2x for conventional units, plus the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog for moving lights. However, he says, at Wrestlemania, he also had a grandMA console from MA Lighting (distributed in the US by AC Lighting). “The programmer was more comfortable with it,” says the LD.

All equipment for Wrestlemania was supplied by Bandit Lites (except the grandMA, which came from AC Lighting), the company that supplies all of WWE's events. Robinson himself is a former Bandit employee. “It was a great place to work,” he says. “They really educate and care about the staff and crew. I have a great relationship with the office, and it's a comfort factor to see their crew and gear at the shows.” He took over as WWE lighting director in 1997, when broadcasts were only once a month. “At first, it was a side job. Then we went weekly for UPN in 1999,” he says, “and it got more intensive — I got more involved in the lighting.”

For the most part, the LD doesn't seem to mind the constant travel that makes up the job. He's also appreciative of the peculiar hybrid nature of what it is that WWE does. “It's an entertainment show, with a storyline like a soap opera. It's all based on who is better this year. The show is never the same. For that reason, we can play major markets like Los Angeles two to three times a year.” Whatever the location, Robinson keeps the lighting coming, providing the WWE warriors with all the flash and glamour they can get.

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.

WWE Wrestlemania X8

Production/Lighting Designer
Jason Robinson

Production Manager
Steve Taylor

Stage Managers
John Hoffman, James McKinney

Crew Chiefs
Mike Aldcroft, Thomas Campbell, Chuck Hastings

Board Op
Ben Hay

Techs
Jeff Blevins, Dave Butzler, Buddy Gonzalez, Tyler Greene, Dale Jewett, Rick Monroe, Chip Perry, Eric Shafferman, Cliff Sharpling

Lighting Supplier
Bandit Lites

Selected Equipment

84

Martin Professional MAC 2000s

240

Martin MAC 600s

100

Martin MAC 250s

16

Xenotech 7kWs

8

Syncrolite 3kWs

4

Lycian 4kW spots

4

Strong Gladiator 4kW spots

3

Strong Truss Troupers

104

6-lamp bars

72

PAR-64s

6

ETC 72-way touring dimmer racks

2

ETC 96-way touring dimmer racks

2

ETC 12-way touring dimmer racks

3

Flying Pig Systems Wholehog IIs with four Overdrives

1

ETC Expression 2x

216

Coffing Hoists motors

204

James Thomas Engineering 10' A-type truss

5

Tomcat custom A-type truss circles

44

James Thomas Engineering PRT truss

1

MA Lighting grandMA console (from AC Lighting)