Times have changed. Back in 1991, when William (“Willy”) McLachlan was working on the original American Gladiators, he had 22 moving lights. The show's latest incarnation, designed by Oscar Dominguez with McLachlan as lighting director, employs nearly 600 moving lights, and as McLachlan says, “We could have deployed 150 more moving lights and not even noticed.” Filmed on a sound stage just shy of the size of a soccer field, the set requires lighting coverage for long shots, underwater shots, and on-the-move shots of contenders who are seen in a high-drama environment but must still look human for close ups. The first challenge was the scale of the production. “Numerically, it sounds like a lot of light, but it's swallowed up in that space really quickly,” says Dominguez.
The production works more like a big special event or awards evening than a game show, and the network was keen to create drama with the lighting, but the show's creators also require visual aids to focus attention on who is winning and losing, and who is reaching the end of a contest versus the beginning, especially in a large arena where the action can become confused. Dominguez appreciates the rising expectations, but adds, “Sometimes, it is difficult for producers to understand how to build cues and effects. There are no little elves inside the console that magically crank out cues.”
To overcome the lack of magic elves, Dominguez drafted his design in 3D using VectorWorks and split most of the rig between a PRG Virtuoso® DX console, with 455 moving lights programmed by McLachlan, and an MA Lighting grandMA with 150 moving lights programmed by Benny Kirkham. “It was an inspired choice of Oscar's to put the grandMA on those parts of the design, and he put the Virtuoso on the parts of the design that played to its strengths,” says Kirkham. Regarding controlling his portion of the rig, McLachlan notes, “The Virtuoso has been my weapon of choice for a long time. It is an efficient and fast programming environment.”
Dominguez says that, while the bulk of the rig went on the Virtuoso for McLachlan to control, in order to accommodate the tight schedule and “to get the nuances out of the LEDs and VL500s, we thought, ‘Let's put them on the grandMA, so we can do some bitmapping.’” Dominguez adds that the arrangement allows the two consoles to “merge and work symbiotically within the big picture,” and he specified a third console, an ETC Expression 2 run by Gene Webber, for around 650 conventionals.
“Willy made a great choice picking the lights for the grandMA,” Kirkham says. “The board is really good at handling a lot of channels, wave effects, and chases.” All the LED instruments on the show are run through the grandMA, and much of the programming on both boards was done once the cameras started rolling, so they could see the final look. “There's not a lot of sitting about in a darkened room on this show,” adds Kirkham. Dominguez credits gaffer Darren Langer with handling such a huge amount of equipment and running the crew, saying, “We would have been sunk without him.” The boards and most of the fixtures were supplied by Illumination Dynamics of Pacoima, CA, and the conventionals controlled by the Expression came from the Sony sound stage where the production was shot.
In addition to the mandate for a big, extravaganza-like production, American Gladiators' director, J. Rupert Thompson, had a hand in creating its look. McLachlan says, “He envisioned the climbing wall as cool and steely at the bottom, but warmer at the top, as if the contenders were emerging through the clouds into the sun.” Each event has a different color palette. The field events tend to be ambers and golds, and the water events, teals and blue-greens, while other colors denote status. “We use a very, very deep red to indicate a loss, and a cool white to indicate a winner to help visually differentiate winners and losers,” explains McLachlan.
Dominguez had worked with Thompson on some episodes of Fear Factor and is used to his cinematic approach to creating a mood. “On Fear Factor, a PA would show up at my house with a movie and a note about creating a feel for a shoot. For example, he would reference a green from the film Excalibur in a swamp location.”
Fear Factor was also great training for the water events on Gladiator. The pool must be lit for long shots of the entire arena as well as to show depth when contestants are competing in and above it, like during the joust, where contestants beat each other with padded poles while standing on platforms above the water. Dominguez uses the reflective qualities for visual texture. The designer used a combination of 16 1kW HydroPars from HydroFlex and 18 Robe Lighting/Anolis ArcSource Outdoor 36 LED pool lights. The Anolis fixtures came from the Czech Republic and cleared customs just in time to make the production.
Dominguez was impressed with the LEDs' look and reliability. “Typically with the HydroPars, you have to pull them out of the water every couple of days and wipe them down, but the lights from Robe are all stainless steel-encased. We basically left them in the water for the whole run just to see what would happen, and they worked flawlessly.”
Another large feature of the American Gladiators' set is a pyramid made of huge, padded steps (guarded by gladiators) that contenders attempt to climb. Dominguez outlines the structure with eight Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 72s on each side to bring some light and movement to it. McLachlan comments that the scenic design/lighting design overlap seems to be so common these days that scenic designers ask for certain LEDs by name.
Despite the bold colors and intense moving lights, there were surprisingly few safety issues where lights were blinding people, McLachlan says. “We had a couple of stuntmen guinea pigs who did the stunts first, but they almost never had a problem with angles and beams.” One area where they were particularly careful, because contestants were confined to one place, was for the joust. “We used 7kW Xenons from Xenotech, but we angled them so they weren't blasting into people's eyes,” Dominguez says.
In the center of the space, the rig has a three-ring configuration where Dominguez hung Morpheus PanaBeam™ XR2+fixtures for “when we need a frenetic, big, all-hell-breaks-loose look.” Dominguez adds, “What's cool about the light is that it can just spin and has no stop, and instead of just moving from side to side, they all fly up and spin back into themselves. It has a unique light quality and looks funky, so it creates a different look.”
Once the lighting team created the big event atmosphere around large set pieces and filled the huge expanse of the arena, they almost had to backtrack to avoid swamping the gladiators and contestants. “We would set up these cool looks and then think, ‘Oh, the humans are here now. We have to carve out a space so we don't annihilate them,’” jokes Dominguez.
The contestants are primarily lit by followspots, as McLachlan points out. “My job is to create a space around them with a background but eliminate splashes of color on their faces so that the cast look human,” he says. Dominguez strategically placed 10 Strong 2kW Xenon long throw Super Troupers around the sound stage and, where they couldn't get a good angle, ellipsoidals at varying degrees.
Director Thompson used handheld cameras for some close-ups to give the show intimacy in the huge space, and for those occasions Dominguez says, “Where we couldn't get a good angle, say for a handheld interview, we'd have a guy run in with a Chimera on a stick to get good light on a face.”
At its largest, the crew totaled around 25, including six followspot operators and a diving electrician from Local 728. The show returns later this year.
2 PRG Virtuoso DX2 Console
2 MA Lighting grandMA Console
2 ETC Expression 2 Console
145 Vari-Lite VL500D Wash
68 Vari-Lite VL2500 Spot
123 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spot
38 Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash
41 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Profile
50 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash
40 Morpheus PanaBeam™ XR2+
10 Clay Paky Alpha Profile 1200
8 Xenotech 7kW Automated Searchlight
18 Robe/Anolis ArcSource Outdoor 36 LED Pool Light
150 Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12
40 Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 72
10 Strong Super Trouper Long Throw Followspot
4 Arri Ruby 7 Multi PAR Fixture
18 Kino Flo 4' Four-Bank with Black-light Tubes
16 HydroFlex HydroPar 1,000W Tungsten Fixture