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Interview: WWE’s Genius Set Designer Jason Robinson talks the Return of a Live Audience at WrestleMania 37 and the Creation of the Thunderdome

Courtesy of WWE

WWE’s veteran set designer Jason Robinson has created some of the most spectacular sets over the years, but one thing he would never have expected is making sets for crowd-less arenas. After the COVID pandemic begun last year, Robinson and his team were forced into thinking on their feet and coming up with a way to have WrestleMania 36 in a completely empty arena.

Fast forward a year and this past WrestleMania 37 was an incredible two-day event that saw the return of a live audience to the company’s show of shows. It featured incredible set design, lighting and pyro and gave WrestleMania the big show feel once again. But creating a set with social distancing and COVID protocols in mind was a whole new challenge.

WWE have also made headlines for their state-of-the-art thunderdome, an arena that has spanned three different locations to get a digital audience involved and create the ultimate fan experience. The work that Jason and his team have put in over the years has been groundbreaking in the entertainment industry, and the way they have handled the challenges of the last year have been exceptional.

As a lifelong WWE fan I was lucky enough to talk to Jason Robinson, the creative mastermind behind the WrestleMania 37 set among many others, which I can share with you below:

BW: Thank you for joining me Jason. Firstly, I want to talk about last year’s WrestleMania 36. How much of the set was made and ready to go before you got the news that the show would move to the performance center because of COVID, and what was your reaction to this?

JR: The set was probably 85% done. I was at Raymond James Stadium that day for a final walkthrough when we got the phone call that our Smackdown show in Detroit had been cancelled. Things moved so fast in the next 24-36 hours, and it was just a shock. We didn’t have Detroit, but we still had to prepare for a Smackdown show that week. I guess the shock was how things moved so fast. Everything was beginning to shut down and we knew there was going to be no WrestleMania. But the awesome thing about WWE is that we just moved. We thought about how to make WrestleMania 36 different and once we absorbed the shock of not having a live crowd for the first time in 36 years, we thought about how to do it. We all got behind the idea and even though it was a different WrestleMania, it’s one we will remember.

BW: So, I’m interested, how much of the performance center was ready for a live show, and did you have to work around the clock to make that look as good as possible?

JR: It was interesting. NXT had been at Full Sail as it always is, and every year Full Sail needs their facility for their graduation ceremony. It just so happens that during that week, NXT had to move to the performance center and had set up a temporary ring and stage for their show that Wednesday. Hunter said “Should we leave this up just for today and see what happens?” and we all agreed. So instead of loading out that Thursday, we held onto it, and luckily, we got the rest of the trucks and equipment over to the performance center. You can imagine what it was like having 23 Semi’s rolling up at the same time. From that night until WrestleMania 36, we evolved and changed the set-up from NXT’s show into what it ended up as.

BW: It’s remarkable, and I don’t think you and your team get enough credit for how you handled that in such a small amount of time. So, if we fast forward to this year’s WrestleMania 37. Originally 37 was planned to be Hollywood-themed, but because of COVID restrictions, Tampa Bay was the destination once again. Were you happy that the planned set and pirate ships from last year would finally get to be seen by fans?

JR: Oh yeah, believe me. When we got the word after WrestleMania 35 that we had chosen the pirate theme for Tampa Bay for WrestleMania 36, that was a creative shot in the arm. Me and the whole team were excited, because we had this one theme to work with and we knew how we were going to do it. Then after the cancellation, it was a let down, because fans wouldn’t get to see what we had planned. The set we used this year is not the same as what we had made for last year. A lot of that set involved performers and certain equipment being closer to the audience. But it’s spectacular and the 36 design has still never been seen. We wanted to make that stadium look the best it could, and the way we would have to deal with social distancing was a different challenge. We took what we had for the pirate theme last year and modified it for this year’s show. I don’t know which one is best!

BW: Right! I often think about Kevin Owens talking about how he wanted to jump off the pirate ship at WrestleMania 36. I wonder when you’re designing a set, how much thinking goes into the superstars and creating a platform where they can do something wild on stage?

JR: I think after 26 years here, there are times I’ve been surprised when guys have said what they want to do. But now, I’m totally down for it. I often think “somebody will want to jump off that or go through this.” We had swinging ropes and a lot of fun stuff, and in general sets are designed now with the mindset that the talent needs a platform not just in the ring.

Courtesy of WWE

BW: Now you said you’ve been with WWE for 20+ years, is there a particular set you’ve made that stands out above the rest? One that sticks out to me is WrestleMania 30 and the backdrop to Daniel Bryan celebrating with the World Championship, I’m interested in what your personal favourite is?

JR: WrestleMania 29 is a favorite of mine from a creative point of view, which was the New York City theme with the Brooklyn Bridge. I specifically remember walking into the stadium that year and saying “I’m going to build the Brooklyn Bridge” and pretty much everybody said “You’re going to do what?” So, I had to draw it up so everybody could see it. I think in the last couple of years, I really like the second New Orleans WrestleMania which was WrestleMania 34. It was fun to build the roller coaster.

BW: They are fantastic choices. So, moving away from WrestleMania, if we move on to the Thunderdome, what were the challengers for building a set with no fans at all? How did you approach this differently to other sets?

JR: Well, we approached it knowing that we wanted fans. We knew if we had the opportunity to go to Amway, and have an extended time there, we wanted Raw and Smackdown looking more like a traditional WWE shows with the arena feel. That included the big sets, the lights and the pyro. We wanted the fans to look like they were there. You already know where the ring and the set is going to be in an arena, so it was about translating it into a fan experience. It was all about making the audience feel like they are a real audience. That was the atmosphere we wanted. We had started seeing digital audiences elsewhere on TV shows, but it was always very clear they were watching monitors and never really felt alive. So that was the biggest challenge, to make the audience feel alive. This also gave us the opportunity to put lights and pyro everywhere to create a more monumental, encompassing feel.

BW: Well, it comes across incredibly well on television. I remember the first time seeing it and I was in awe. Do you remember any comments from talent or management backstage the first time they saw the Thunderdome?

JR: Not specifically, but I do remember the overall sense that we were getting back to work. It felt like we are back, and the WWE are back. That was the overall feeling backstage. We figured out where the cameras were, where the entrances would be, and we now had the infrastructure to tell the stories and put on the shows that WWE want to do.

BW: Regarding pyro and fireworks etc, do you feel like you have more freedom knowing you don’t have to worry about things like health and safety and the impact on a live audience?

JR: 100%! It’s turned into our pyro guys’ favorite thing. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we have lasers everywhere now because we don’t have to worry about hitting anyone with them! We can have them anywhere we want to. I think those guys will be a little bit disappointed going back to fans, because they had carte blanche with pyrotechnics.

BW: Hopefully you’ll be able to have some leeway and get some lasers in with the live audience.

JR: Oh yes! Correct.

Courtesy of WWE

BW: Now with the world opening up again, we have the first Saturday SummerSlam since it was held at Wembley Stadium in 1992. I’m not expecting any reveals, but do you have a good idea of what the sets are going to look like at the Allegiant Stadium?

JR: I believe so, yes. It’s ever evolving, but we do. We did an incognito site survey several weeks before it was announced. It is nice and brand new and hasn’t yet had the first beer spilled yet. It’s fantastic and has given us a good platform for ideas. We’re going to make it nice and big for everybody. We’re excited, and everyone here is very excited to have a PPV with fans.

BW: The excitement and anticipation for SummerSlam this year feels on par with a WrestleMania.

JR: Agreed. WrestleMania was great and gave us a taste for it again. Sitting in the crowd that night and having 30,000 fans gave us goosebumps. It was crazy when all the talent came out onto the stage at the beginning and the crowd were screaming. I’m. very excited to get back to that.

BW: Is there anything you’ve learned from designing sets over the last year for no audiences that you would like to incorporate in the future when fans are back weekly?

JR: Yeah, absolutely. There’s always subtleties and we’ve had the opportunity to try a lot of stuff because we didn’t have to worry about fans, like lasers and lighting. The WWE show itself is always evolving, and it would be a case of putting something over there for a show and saying, “well that doesn’t work, let’s try it over here next time.” We’ve moved lasers, lights and video products, and even the evolution of the Thunderdome has changed subtly across the three different locations we’ve had for it. At the end of the day, we’ve learned a lot without fans and how to make things better. I know the pyro guys look forward to putting new lasers in new locations.

BW: I’m curious about where you find your inspirations, whether it’s within the Sports Entertainment industry or do you take inspiration from films and elsewhere?

JR: Yes and no. I’ve always been a studier of the industry itself. So, when we came up with the Thunderdome, that was an idea of Vince coming up to us and saying he wants something to cover this entire arena with lights. And as soon as he said ‘dome,’ I knew how we were going to create this. And there are inspirations here and there. I do a lot of internet research, but I don’t want to say I pull from one specific genre. Of course, the technology lends itself to the sci-fi genre and I will always look at various stills online for inspiration. Our industry – the entertainment industry – is always looking to push the limits on how we can do something different. But for inspiration, it depends on the theme of the event. I’m not going to research the sci-fi genre when we’re having a show themed around pirates. To take the pirate theme for example, I didn’t want to take anything from Pirates of the Caribbean, I looked at more traditional British galleon ships. I would look at pictures and watch videos and films from that genre. You’ve got to be able to use a variety of genres and not just focus on one. Does that make sense?

BW: It does, absolutely.

JR: But ultimately, it’s just a lot of internet research. My wife will sometimes call me upstairs and ask me “what are you doing?” and I’m telling her that I’m on the internet doing my research, looking at pirate ships!

BW: Well, your commitment and research efforts show through. WWE is always praised for its production value and its presentation and now we know it comes from this meticulous attention to detail.

JR: Thank you, very much.

BW: We touched briefly on the WrestleMania 29 set and the Brooklyn Bridge. Has there ever been an idea that is so outlandish and seemingly impossible that you weren’t able to make it?

JR: No, I think that’s what is awesome with our crew and those on tour with us. And the WWE itself. I’ll never come up with an idea that is too out there, but everybody has such a great attitude here that there is no no. Things may not turn out exactly like the first drawing, but it’s always in the spirit of it. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and we love the sets just as much as you fans do, and we are so proud of them. When the crew finished making the roller coaster for WrestleMania 34, everybody was so proud of it they were stood there taking pictures of it. How many people in the entertainment industry can say they had to make a real-life roller coaster?

BW: It’s remarkable.

JR: I have a great group of guys who are always excited for what the next set is going to be.

BW: Do you always know the theme of a show before you plan a set, or have there been times where you’ve had more flexibility to just create anything with no specific core idea to work from?

JR: Oh yeah. So, for New York’s WrestleMania 29 like we spoke about, we are going to have the Statue of Liberty in there of course because it’s in New York. But we never had a specific theme going into that WrestleMania, so I had that idea nearer the time to do the Brooklyn Bridge and it was well received. For WrestleMania 30, the first New Orleans show, it was our 30th Anniversary show, so we decided that the occasion was bigger than having a specific theme. And as you said, you remember that WrestleMania well because you remember Daniel Bryan’s celebration, which means we did our job. It’s about creating a moment you’ll remember, and maybe if there was a Mardi Gras theme for that WrestleMania instead, it might not have been as memorable as having the three X’s celebrating the 30th Anniversary. That’s where we are able to adjust, especially with people like Kevin Dunn and myself where we can get a feel for how these things will look. There are moments it’s predetermined, and we have a good idea where it’s headed – pirates for example – and there are others where we can come up with ideas on the spot and see what works.

BW: On the topic of WrestleMania moments – one last question for you. I’ve spoke about the image of Daniel Bryan celebrating sticking with me forever, is there a moment that has always stuck with you?

JR: Wow, well as far as superstars go, we also get to do some of the entrances. I hate to keep going back to WrestleMania 29, but I always remember The Undertaker’s entrance. He broke the stage up, and the guys are clawing at him and he comes up from the depths of hell with the lights and smoke behind him. Those images don’t really tie into the set, but I will always remember that Undertaker entrance. Getting to do those cool entrances is another thing I like. I always remember the Booty-O’s box in Dallas for WrestleMania 32.

BW: It’s a truly remarkable entrance. How often would superstars request set ideas for an entrance?

JR: There’s a lot of guys that are always coming up with ideas, especially to match their costumes. And sometimes they will approach us and say, “I have this cool idea” and sometimes we will go with it.

BW: I would like to say thank you very much Jason, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you as a lifelong fan. I am very excited to see what the future SummerSlam set will look like later this year.

JR: Well thank you so much, we’re ready to get back to it. Good talking to you.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)

You can catch the Thunderdome on the USA Network for Raw every Monday and on FOX for Smackdown every Friday. PPVs such as WrestleMania 37 are available to stream through the WWE Network on Peacock.

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