Summer 2019

Overcoming Obstacles

Patrick McManus and his American Ninja Warrior team make sure they have every angle covered

By Susan Young

The colorful, highly difficult obstacle course on American Ninja Warrior requires contestants to be in elite-athlete shape. (Photo: NBC)

The circus is about to begin, and Patrick McManus strolls the set like a true ringmaster.

He gives a nod to everyone, from the grips hanging off the obstacle course adjusting their equipment to crew members clustered around cameras set to follow the action.

This day kicks off McManus' sixth season as director of American Ninja Warrior (ANW), the reality-competition series entering its 11th season that sends contestants through an obstacle course and offers up their personal stories to goose up interest in the ninjas.

But first, tens of thousands of applicants are narrowed down to roughly 90-120 people per qualifying round in each city where the show is shot. Only a handful make it on air. The number of applicants reflects the fact that ANW is one of NBC's top-rated unscripted shows, averaging a 1.07 rating in the 18-49 demo and just over 5 million viewers last season, which wrapped in September 2018.

The course is laid out in outdoor sets at changing venues in various states, culminating in a Las Vegas finale. Shooting the opener on the backlot of Universal Studios in Los Angeles, McManus carefully maps out how each camera will pick up the anticipated exploits.

But this show is more than just a competition to see which ninja will be able to complete the course in the fastest times. It's also about the stories told, ranging from flamboyant folks with gimmicks that hark back to professional wrestling to heart-tuggers that focus on overcoming physical and emotional struggles.

From the hand grasping for leverage on a dangling ring to the crazy antics going on from the sidelines, McManus requires that his camera crews be in position to get all the shots necessary to chronicle ANW's myriad moving parts.

Prior to the show, McManus walks the course with his production crew, including associate director Dave Massey and stage managers J.R. Osborne and Wolfgang Delgado. Camera angles are checked, shots confirmed and McManus constantly cautions to stay vigilant. ("We don't want anyone falling down while carrying a camera or tripping while you are running. Be safe out there.")

"This show is a beast, a gorgeous, well-oiled machine," says Delgado. "Dave knows the show inside and out, oversees it all with all the departments in his ear. Patrick is in the booth, calling everything. We are basically Patrick's eyes and ears on the floor and his hands when he needs it. He guides it all."


(From top) American Ninja Warrior director Patrick McManus, who’s in his sixth season, during a pause in the action; stage manager J.R. Osborne, who notes “once a person is on the course, there’s no take two”; associate director Dave Massey says that when McManus came onboard, he made the show “more about the characters.” (Photos: NBC)

McManus hails from a live sports background, ranging from the Super Bowl to the Kentucky Derby, always cognizant of backstories and fleeting, blink-and-you-missed-it live reaction shots. McManus says he was brought on board as director because he had experience in blending those elements into a cohesive show.

"The success of the show, and my role as a director, is not taking what I think is a beautiful shot. I take a picture of every single thing so I know that (camera) is three inches off the wall here and I'll get what I need. But if it moved, that would make a big difference."

He is specific about where he wants to shoot—and where he does not.

"Anytime I lose a face, I struggle," McManus says. "The drama on the face tells so many stories. When they struggle at an obstacle or succeed; when they are exhausted, but give a heads up to a girlfriend or son in the audience or on the sidelines."

And things that have not worked include elements that were once a staple of the course.

"I don't like nets," McManus says. "You can't shoot through them. And people get caught in them and it's not exciting. If they fall, they fall because they got their leg stuck. Not compelling."

Most people are right-handed, so if they reach out, they'll do it with their right hand, often turning their backs to the camera and their faces to the wrong side, McManus explains. He tells the crew whatever they do, think about where the face is going to be.

He points to his arsenal of equipment: Spidercams, cameras posted on walls and in the obstacles, always angled for the click, click, click that tells the story from every perspective.

Making his job easier is the extraordinarily well-lit course, for which McManus gives full credit to DP and lighting designer Adam Biggs.

"I capture the emotion and he captures the look," McManus explains. "With Adam we walk on the course and you can see every inch, and it doesn't distract from the athlete. He does it so they can run without being obstructed or distracted."

There's a huge pyrotechnic element. McManus ponders how high he wants it to go, how far behind it is in the shot.

Will the inferno saturate the shot or enhance it? McManus examines every angle, pondering how it will work during the runs.

"A lot of the shots are about subject, foreground and background," he says. "I don't ever want to just get someone walking around. I have no perspective. I want to see how bright the flame is next to them, I want to see how high the wall is, how deep the water."

When he came on board as a director, McManus started using a line cut.

"If I didn't do a line cut, with everyone just running through, you wouldn't know that we had a kid doing a backflip every time his mother went through. If you didn't do a line cut and show it to (hosts) Matt (Iseman) and Akbar (Gbajabiamila), they would never know to react to it."

Stage manager J.R. Osborne has been getting the ninjas in place to start the course since joining the show in its second season.

"Patrick's the leader and he's probably one of the most loved people here because he lets you do your job," Osborne says. "He sets the parameter and lets us do our own thing inside of that."

Osborne says calling the line cut was something he hadn't seen before McManus became the director.

"He brought the feeling of this being a live sports show, which was a whole new element here and a breath of fresh air," Osborne says. "There's less room for error and you have to get it done right the first time. Once a person is on the course, there's no take two."

Associate director Dave Massey takes over once Osborne puts the runner on the course.

"Before (McManus), the show was run, run, run," says Massey, who has spent a decade on the show, "and now it is more about the characters. But that doesn't change what we do, which is running more than a hundred people through a course and getting the shots."

The previous night, the crew had powered through a strong storm that hit L.A., placing an added degree of difficulty on an already tough night shoot.

"At the beginning of the night, we have a plan," Massey says. "And then something doesn't play like we thought so we have to adapt on the fly."

Everyone on the show has a unique story to tell, and it's McManus' job not to let those moments get overlooked.

He analyzes each obstacle. Balance or endurance. One, he points out, is all about the arms, while the previous one is all about the feet.

"As a director, you need to get the essence of the performance," he says. "You see a face. You see an obstacle. So many people fail at a balance obstacle because they are running and look up for half a second. You have to get all those shots."

McManus understands some competitors are faster, some slower. Some are superstar athletes, some have handicaps.

"And some are afraid," he adds. "I want to show that they are afraid. Some are confident and it shows in their faces."

Juggling those action shots with backstories is crucial.

"It's like doing the Kentucky Derby," McManus says. "You have an owner, you have a trainer, a jockey, horse, a bettor. When a horse comes across that line, there's a connection, a history behind that horse. So here we build those same connections."

Ninjas tackle the show's ever-changing obstacle course. (Photos: NBC)

As the Ninjas get ready to tackle the obstacle course, McManus takes his place inside the trailer, watching the wall of monitors in the cramped space filled with about a dozen people.

On the screen is a guy dressed '70s style, complete with a mullet and calling himself Chad Flexington. As he gets ready for the course, McManus is keen to capture him and his kids, all looking like mini-mulleted Flexingtons.

McManus takes command: "Show him getting the crowd jacked up." "Can you dissolve?" "Seven, are you getting this?" "Keep 'em jacked up Massey!" "Now that's cute, the kid and the whole family." "Pan to four." "Wait for me." "On the 12 spot. What kind of shoes are those? Focus on the shoes."

There's a lot of interaction between McManus and executive producer Anthony Storm, who generally sits next to him in the trailer while McManus traffic-cops the various screen shots.

Storm feeds McManus the competitors' backstories and offers up info on their athletic abilities.

If that ninja is faster than most, he'll be at the obstacle in 13 seconds—and that changes the coverage.

"You can't possibly run with a camera that fast, so you skip one spot and go to the next," McManus says. "One guy had cancer last year; now his knee doesn't bend. You show that struggle. Before each run, we find out the story and play that up."

Some get a package treatment prior to the actual completion, but most of what appears on air occurs in real time as McManus and his crew capture the quick live moments that cannot be recreated in a retake.

"I see certain things during the event or the camera people see something and they let me know so we can get those," McManus says. "I always listen to my camera people, and if they see something great and take that shot, we'll use it. We'll put it in the line cut so the hosts can react to it and bring deeper meaning than just focusing on the completion of the course."

The director, who was nominated for both DGA and Emmy Awards in 2018, emphasizes that he relies on everyone out on the course to be his eyes and ears.

"We are in the control room and you only see what's in the glass," McManus says. "I tell my camera people to take your face out of the viewfinder and see the whole world open up. If you see something, shoot it."

McManus says it all comes down to having faith in your crew and your ability to take everything in stride.

"The first time you walk into a TV truck, there are a lot of cameras and everything is going everywhere, so I have to find the visual sequence so the viewer doesn't get all twisted up," McManus says. "It's all about timing. Once you slow the game down, it all comes together."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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