WWE Slams Into HD

The body slams and chair bashings of World Wrestling Entertainment are looking even more realistic now that the traveling production has upgraded to high-definition.

Spread over three shows each week on three channels plus pay-per-view events, WWE’s operation brings its characters, crews, pyrotechnics and in-house mega-screen on a never-ending tour of some 120 shows annually, including two swings each year to England.

“What we are is a complete hybrid. We are a rock-and-roll show. We are a live event. We are a TV show,” said Duncan Leslie, WWE vice president of event technical operations. “We’re truly an amalgamation of many skill sets.”


WWE broadcasts “Monday Night RAW” on USA Network (its top-rated show). Tuesdays on Sci-Fi, using the same production crew but different wrestlers (or “superstars,” as the company likes to call them) is “ECW” (Extreme Championship Wrestling). Fridays is “Smackdown” on CW, although that arrangement is ending in 2008. And then there are periodic pay-per-view events with names like “Royal Rumble” and the annual Wrestlemania showcase.

The HD (1080i) launch Jan. 21 followed upgrades at WWE’s Stamford, Conn., headquarters. There, the company added a Grass Valley K2 server, and upgraded graphics and nonlinear editing suites to a Grass Valley Aurora system.

At the events, producers have to furnish not only the live TV feed but also power their 40-by-50-foot HD screen inside the venue (powered by a Christie projector) as well as audio elements for the PA.

The transition to HD came fast. Over the course of several weeks, the company took delivery of Sony HD cameras, two custom-built trucks from NEP Supershooters, and a dual-path (C and Ku bands) satellite truck from PSSI, with Tandberg encoders and decoders. Leslie said much of the equipment in the truck was chosen for flexibility and capability for expansion.

(click thumbnail)At the center of the ring for WWE’s HD production is a Grass Valley Kalypso switcher and a Harris Centrio virtual monitor wall.At the core of the video truck (“NEP Black”) is a Grass Valley Kalypso HD switcher, a giant Harris Centrio multi-image virtual wall monitor, which WWE selected for its multiple scalable viewing modules. Behind the producers at the Kalypso is a Deko 3000 graphics station and an RTS intercom station. The truck has about 20 phone lines coming in—plenty of bandwidth for audio and video, including some coming over satellite from Stamford.

Audio and video come from multiple sources during the production. A typical show might use 11 Sony HD cameras with Fujinon lenses (including three ENG cams for ringside and backstage coverage), each one miked. They also use some very small cameras—Iconix HD-RH1s and Elmo MN400 lipstick cams (one of which was destroyed during the Royal Rumble Jan. 27 by a wrestler’s body.)

There are the interviews and other action, live and taped, from backstage and from rooms rigged to look like locker rooms or the office of Vince McMahon, WWE’s chairman, who plays the role of evil corporate overlord in the ongoing WWE soap opera.

And there are always plenty of highlights from previous shows to keep the audience up to date; eight Sony HD VTRs help supply as many as 100 tape rolls a night.

Audio/video goes into 26 hard drives in six tubs, providing plenty of fodder for highlight reels, DVDs, Web content and more. Six EVS servers supply replays.

The production runs on a script. But like the wrestling itself, it involves plenty of improvisation. “People don’t realize how much we do on the fly,” Leslie said.

Outbound, producers feed the giant screen and in-house Jumbotron (if there is one) as well as the lighting setup that includes LED blocks, the skeletal, nearly transparent Mitrix fixtures (from Barco) and the wildly dynamic VersaTubes (from Element Labs). It’s a lot of gear, but the show has a lot of elements. During truck design, the thinking went, “If a normal truck needs six, we need 12,” Leslie said.

(click thumbnail)A Calrec Alpha handles grunts, thuds and sound effects from a variety of sources.SOUNDS LIKE PAIN

Audio in the “NEP Red” truck includes sound effects and the wrestlers’ entrance music. Audio comes from all the cameras plus crowd mics, Thumper mics (from Vodaphone) under the ring, Shure Beta 87 mics on the ringposts and Sony ECM 77 lavalier mics and others.

A Calrec Omega handles the submix of arena sounds and creates an arena master for use in numerous outputs including international shows. The main audio board is a Calrec Alpha and audio effects are stored on 360 Systems servers. The Alpha also provides audio for the house PA mix.

Now, the production is in stereo, but WWE uses a surround mic from Holophone and plans to go to surround later this year.

The audio truck connects to the video with fiber. But most connections form house to truck are triax, which Leslie said is easier to maintain in the usual tough conditions.

Unlike major pro sports, which deal with only a few dozen venues each year, WWE invades sites ranging from top-notch to small-city, and has to work with the space it has. Behind the scenes, in additon to the mock locker rooms and other sets is a mini-studio including a chromakeyer. Monitoring is needed in numerous places, including the “Gorilla” area (just behind the wrestlers entrance, named after famous grappler Gorilla Monsoon), the pyro station, and McMahon’s offices (both real and prop).

“We utilize basically every room the venue will allow us,” Leslie said. One of WWE’s many trucks is dedicated just to backstage elements.

(click thumbnail)Parked by the production trucks, a third truck includes a storage area that can double as an additional production and editing area for Web or other purposes, including live Spanish language commentary.

The run-and-gun style of WWE also calls for field maintenance of equipment, so there’s a workroom with soldering and other capabilities.

The production crew includes about 15 full-time staff and numerous freelancers from site to site. Among the WWE’s fleet of trucks are seven full sleeper coaches to help the crews rest, at least until they get to local hotels.

“You have to be tough,” said Leslie, echoing what the wrestlers themselves have said over the years. “It’s brutal.”