Ahead of WrestleMania 37, which takes place next month, WWE’s veteran set designer Jason Robinson gives a unique insight into his creative process and the influences that have inspired some of the most stunning live event productions in the world. He also reveals his favourite WrestleMania sets and what makes them so special.
HOW I STARTED IN WWE AND WRESTLEMANIA:
My WWE career began in 1995. WWE had changed lighting vendors and I was asked to come and be the gaffer for the television show and run the lighting console. In 1997, I was asked to take over as lighting designer of the show.
From there I started designing and creating sets, my first WrestleMania design was WrestleMania 14 in 1998 [at the FleetCenter, Boston].
At WrestleMania 15 [at the First Union Center, Philadelphia], our sets started getting a little bigger. And the next thing you know, we’re at WrestleMania 17 [April 1, 2001] and we’re in a stadium again for the first time in a long time [the Reliant Astrodome, Houston]. I was excited for the stadium show and spoke to our Executive Producer, Kevin Dunn and said: “Let’s do something different”. Until then, WrestleMania had featured fans 360-degrees around the ring and the sets had to be really small. After that, the sets grew with the venues.
MY CREATIVE INFLUENCES:
For me, there are a range of creative influences going back to the early 90s. Obviously I watch other TV shows that have large sets and designs. The MTV Music Awards was always something that we looked at in the 90s era. Those shows were fantastic, Allen Branton was the guy behind those MTV shows.
Before coming to WWE, I worked in concerts and music tours myself but the great concerts and tours of Metallica in the 90s was another big, early influence. John Broderick was the great Metallica designer, and I did get to work with him but not for Metallica unfortunately.
Star Wars was a big influence for me, the unique shapes and the bright lights and the colors. I wanted my lighting to look like that. One of my favorite color schemes that I use was inspired by Empire Strikes Back, the deep blues, purples, and orange back grounds during the lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth. That’s one of my favorite color combinations. I bet we get fans looking out for the color combination in WWE now that they know!
Even now, sci-fi is an influence. The curves on the SmackDown set that create the forced perspective were inspired by a sci-fi spaceship drawing found during some creative research.
MY CREATIVE PROCESS:
The creative process for designing a WrestleMania set starts in September or October around six months before the event. We go to the stadium for a site survey to sit and simply look around and go: “Ok, what’s different? What’s creative about this stadium? What assets can we use? How do we want this show to look?”
It’s important to see the size and space though we might not even know the theme at that point. But we are already looking at the architecture of the building and thinking how to bring it to life.
My favorite thing is carrying Post-It notes around with me and sketching ideas. And those ideas sometimes come at three in the morning or in the shower. There’s a lot of these notes lying around or stuck against the wall that have ideas on them.
Then if I like an idea, I’ll actually start drawing it in more detail on the computer but there are a lot that get rolled up and thrown away as I’m looking for that big ‘aha’ moment.
When I get that ‘aha’ moment, it is time to go pitch it and say: “Hey, I’ve got a cool idea.” If Kevin Dunn says: “Yep, that’s a cool idea, go for it,” then I’m off. As soon as I know that I’m in the right direction, that’s where the work becomes really fun. My lighting team & I all dig in and start asking “What if we do this? Or what if we add this over here?
What if I put lights over there?” We’re always thinking of new ways of delivering once we have that focus.
My favorite part of the whole design process is the night before WrestleMania, when it’s all quiet, we’ve taken months and months to design & fabricate the set. I’ve done many site surveys and hours of planning. It’s 1AM in the morning, all the rehearsals are complete, the stadium is quiet. The lighting guys still have all the lights on and the programming is finished, and we get to quietly look around at the final design before going on air the next day.
That’s my favorite moment. I get a second just to look at it before it all turns crazy.
MY WRESTLEMANIA WEEK:
For WrestleMania week itself, I’m on the floor for rehearsals, literally running up and down the ramp. I clocked a record of over 30,000 steps on a rehearsal day one time.
During WrestleMania, there are a lot of hats to wear. I’m still the Production Designer & Lighting Director and my show position is underneath the TV camera position with the lighting programming staff.
Coordinating the props and carpenter department is part of my job as well, so I oversee the set moves. During the show, we sit right in the middle of the stadium and I get chill bumps just like the fans. When we are at front of house, I think it’s the best seat in the building.
MY TOP WRESTLEMANIA SETS
I’ve got four that just stand out in my mind. From top to bottom, the design, all the way to the end of the show.
Number four for me would be WrestleMania 34. It was the second time we were in New Orleans and man, that big Mardi Gras mask on stage, that was the “aha!” moment when it came together as the flavor of New Orleans. Seeing that and having the fans go wild is fantastic.
Number three for me would be WrestleMania 24. The South Beach hotel set. There was literally nothing in that stadium space, it was completely open at that end, so we built a 10-story art deco hotel set.
Number two is WrestleMania 33. We were back in Orlando, but with totally different flavors this time with the roller coasters. Again, there was that moment when I said: “We’re going to make a theme park,” and everybody went: “you’re going to do what??” And we did.
My number one, and I think is a lot of people’s number one, has to be WrestleMania 29 in New York, with the Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, and the Empire State Building.
When we first walked into MetLife Stadium I said: “I’ve got a great idea. Let’s put the Brooklyn Bridge right here.” I think everybody went “you’re nuts.” And then we did the design, everybody saw it and went: “That’s it. You’ve got it. We’ve gotta build our own Brooklyn Bridge!”
What fans can expect at WrestleMania 37
Well, a lot of sports fans around the world have just seen the stadium host the SuperBowl on TV. So they know what it looks like.
Now it’s our turn. We’re going in there to do something different. I don’t think it matters whether fans are seeing it again after the SuperBowl or for the first time with WWE, they are going to love what they see.
WrestleMania 37 is available to watch via WWE Network in the MENA region – www.wwenetwork.com
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