With COVID-19 restrictions making in-person audiences temporarily impossible, WWE set about creating an elaborate immersive experience that would capture the essence of its hugely popular live shows. The solution? The ThunderDome: a state-of-the-art facility setup inside Orlando’s Amway Center, featuring massive LED screens, pyrotechnics, lasers, cutting-edge graphics and drone cameras.
Making its TV debut on 21 August, the WWE ThunderDome was an instant hit. “WWE has a long history of producing the greatest live spectacles in sports and entertainment, yet nothing compares to what we are creating with WWE ThunderDome,” commented WWE Executive Vice President of Television Production, Kevin Dunn. “This structure will enable us to deliver an immersive atmosphere and generate more excitement among the millions of fans watching our programming around the world.”
Central to the concept was the ability to allow fans to experience the action up close and personal, bringing them into the arena via live video on massive LED screens. “The intention was to give the WWE Universe via technology, the most immersive experience that we could think of,” stated Senior Vice President of Event Technical Operations at WWE, Duncan Leslie.
Tasked with this challenge was video display solutions specialist, Screenworks. Part of the NEP Worldwide Network, Screenworks has been working with the WWE for some two decades and, according to the company’s Vice President, Kevin Hoyle, it’s a relationship that has been long and fruitful. “This isn’t the only new challenge that has been thrown our way during our long relationship with WWE,” he began. “Our task has always been, and will continue to be, to support them however we can during these difficult times.”
This particular challenge saw Hoyle and his team facilitate more than 1,000 fans in ‘virtual seats’, using LED screens populating the sides of the ring, captured by WWE’s hard camera. From their seats, the fans could cheer and interact with the WWE superstars. “It gives that live interaction between the fans and the WWE superstars that makes the shows so special,” Hoyle explained. “This virtual audience solution has changed everything – it’s not just one big Zoom call. The team has recognised frequent fans who dial in regularly, whole families get involved and it has really helped the WWE superstars keep the energy up. The possibilities for this really are endless, and it could be used in so many other settings.”
The ThunderDome set includes 2,194 LED panels, with a stunning 16 million pixels. In addition to the LED screens used, over 30 projectors were added to achieve the result. ROE Visual Carbon series CB5 and Magic Cube MC7 were used to create both the set as well as the fan boards.
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With the immediacy of the COVID-19 lockdown meaning that the teams had to scramble to get the facility up and running quickly, it’s no surprise that the number one challenge as far as Hoyle was concerned was time. He revealed that, within just nine days from getting the original call, his team had fabricated, cleaned and installed everything in the Amway Center.
“It was a big challenge, but there was a great camaraderie between all of the vendors and staff out there,” he reflected. “We all banded together. We sent out 24 guys from Screenworks to get it up and running. They just jumped in and everyone helped out.”
While health and safety is always a major consideration, the current climate around COVID-19 meant that extra measures were necessary to ensure the safety of everyone on site. “ThunderDome is a completely sealed environment, which means that no one comes in without being COVID-19 tested,” Hoyle revealed.
He added: “Once you are inside the ThunderDome, everyone is masked up, social distancing, the whole nine yards… Also, consistency of crew is crucial to keeping the bubble and keeping everyone healthy.”
The Vice President thanked some key members of the team, including Project Managers, Neil Broome, Andre Nolan and Jeff Hoyle; as well as techs, Jason Lowe, Shawn Wollard, Matt Mueller, Eric Nickloy, Derrick Terveer, Jason Keyes, Andy Wlazewski, and Bradley Barrier. He also praised Show Designer, Jason Robinson, and Production Manager, Jeremy Shand.
“Jason is 100% responsible for everything designed on this show – he is an amazing talent. He creates a larger-than-life visual experience and then gets it into a camera frame. Jeremy puts Jason’s ideas together, working with all of us vendors. They’re both magic.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic leaving an indelible mark on all live events this year, Hoyle reflected on the hard work that he and his team have put in to ensure that the crisis hasn’t meant a complete shutdown of all forms of entertainment. “We are all craving entertainment right now for a little extra joy in our lives, and these types of virtual solutions can really help enhance productions, allowing audiences to connect beyond just watching,” he concluded. “At Screenworks and across NEP, we have really seen our staff digging in and innovating during this crisis. It has been really great to see all the new virtual solutions our teams have come up with, from virtual studios, to remote production, virtual audience, and virtual events. We have really been trying to use this as a time to innovate.”
This article originally appeared in issue #256 of TPi, which you can read here.