ICG Magazine: Aaron Catling, by David Geffner
Aaron Catling knows his way around a reality competition series, having executive- produced four seasons of BattleBots and co-executive-produced multiple seasons of MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, as well as unscripted versions in his home country of Australia of hit U.S.-born shows like Shark Tank, So You Think You Can Dance, and Big Brother. But even Catling admits to being awed by the sheer scale of Hyperdrive, which debuted on Netflix this past August.With a set that covered more than 100 acres and a pre-production process that involved laying some five miles of cable, the physical logistics were daunting enough. But Catling also points to Hyperdrive’s car-racing- based world as a true narrative challenge. “Unlike American Ninja Warrior, where the emotions are plain to see,” he explained a few weeks before Hyperdrive’s debut, “driving is a solitary journey, with racing suits and helmets, in dark car interiors. Any good unscripted show relies on the personal drama, so we knew finding a way into each character’s journey was the key.”
While Catling says the show could easily have turned into a photocopy of The Fast and the Furious: the Unscripted World, he was after something more compelling. And with a veteran Local 600 camera crew on- board (many of whom have long supported Hyperdrive DP/Lighting Designer Adam Biggs on Ninja), Catling was confident of success, if still a bit twitchy given the scope and challenges. “Our catchphrase was: ‘If it’s cars on the track, we lose, if it’s hopes and dreams, we win,’” he adds. “This was a real moment of greatness for many of these contestants, and I kind of felt the same way for everyone on our production team.”
ICG: Tell us how you got involved with Hyperdrive. Aaron Catling: I had the good fortune of show-running the reboot of BattleBots, with Chris Cowan of Whalerock Industries. Seasons three and four of that show moved over to Discovery Network, but during Season Two [on ABC], Chris was developing Hyperdrive. He had made a show called Bullrun, for Spike TV, more than a decade ago, and I think he was eager to get back into the car space. Whalerock is a boutique unscripted company, and under Lloyd Braun, they always try to do things bigger and better. As the show was starting to take shape, William Morris connected Chris and Charlize [Theron], who came on as a co-executive producer.
Theron is an Oscar-winning movie star who has produced many features, but an unscripted show with racing cars would not be an obvious choice. Well, Charlize has many car movies in her background – Mad Max, The Fast and the Furious, The Italian Job. She’s always loved cars and learned to drive at an early age in South Africa, so she was actually very excited to get involved. Her company, Denver and Delilah Productions, partnered with Whalerock, and they sold the show to Netflix. Since I had just done a big sports-entertainment unscripted show with Chris, he thought I was the right guy to executive-produce this new car show. After Charlize and Netflix agreed with Chris, my life was booked for the next two to three years. [Laughs.]
Adam Biggs really emphasized how important the location – the old Kodak facility in Rochester, New York – was to this show. Do you agree? Absolutely. We knew from the very beginning we were after a massive spectacle. We didn’t want to replicate a NASCAR/IndyCar format, with an oval track, so we began a worldwide search for something more urban, with size and scope. We looked at everything 40 acres and up that had some sort of structure – abandoned factories in Georgia, abandoned cement areas in Florida, even a location in Medellin, Colombia! It was crazy. But when we stumbled onto the old Eastman-Kodak plant in Rochester, I think Biggsy and I both felt the same way – there was something so poetic about using a place with all this film history to bring a cinematic unscripted show to life. That juxtaposition of a dystopian 1920s industrial look combined with these wildly customized cars and shooting 4K, at night, was a perfect fit.
Why the added challenges of shooting at night, which is not typical of most car racing on television? Of course, it would have been cheaper and easier to shoot during the day, but the aesthetic would have been wrong. Essentially, this is a 430-minute feature broken up into 10 episodes. The closest parallels were Spartan and Ninja Warrior, both of which are shot and lit by Biggsy, so he was obviously the right person for the job. Who else would be so audacious as to try and light 100 acres simultaneously? [Laughs.] This wasn’t “Let’s do 20 setups in a day and cover 100 acres.” This was “We need to shoot 360 degrees over 100 acres every day for ten days to make the show.” That’s why you get the best people in the business – Adam and his [Local 600] camera team, [director] Patrick McManus, [course designer] Martyn Thake, [stunt coordinator] Andrew Comrie-Picard, [1st AD] Dave Massey, the technical and challenge teams – for a monumental undertaking that was so far beyond anything ever done in this format.
What were the concerns of Production when the course was first being designed by Martyn Thake, who has created professional tracks all over the world? We had to approach this like a live sporting event, and take great care to keep the audience grounded – where the cars started, where they traveled, where they end up. It’s something that’s actually carried all the way through the edit. We knew we’d have to cut several minutes out of each run for television, being careful that those jumps in time are not too much of a temporal shift for the viewer. As for building the track, we really began with the obstacles, and that began with meeting with drivers from around the world to ask, “What is something you’ve always wanted to do in a race car that you’ve never been able to?”
And their answers were…? [Laughs.] Visually amazing, but hard to conceive of for television, at least at first. It really became a puzzle, where we would move Matchbox cars around this birds-eye, Google Maps-type view of the Kodak facility to see how it could all work. Patrick and Biggsy are masters at moving cameras and lighting setups – very quickly – as so many things had to land at once. How much asphalt could we put down? How big could the obstacles go within the budget? How could it all be done safely?, which was always the first consideration. It would have been easy to just tell Martyn, “Hey, go out and design whatever you want,” and work backward, but that would have been cost-prohibitive. In the end, it was at least seven or eight departments coming together in a true collaboration.
The Leveler is the obstacle that lords over the entire course. Who came up with that idea, and how early did it gestate? It was there from the very start – we were inspired by this epic Toyota Tundra ad from 12 years ago and found the engineers who built the suspension bridge for that ad. Ninja Warrior has its iconic Warped Wall, and we quickly realized The Leveler was our version. To conquer the course you had to beat it. And it was a microcosm for the whole show – The Leveler looked great on a whiteboard. But how do you build it, light it, shoot it, and still make it safe for the contestants and the crew? And it was on camera 12 times a night for 10 straight nights! By the way, every single obstacle had a different team overseeing the operation and safety, with many of the engineers coming from the feature-film world.
Safety is the first thing anyone on this show brings up. The potential for catastrophic injury was high, yet there was not a single incident. How does Hyperdrive compare to previous unscripted series you’ve overseen? I remember being on the Paramount Lot for MasterChef when I heard about Sarah Jones, and it hit us all so hard. We’re bringing our passions and talents to bear in a unique industry, but everyone has to be able to go home at the end of the day to their families, and nothing else supersedes that. I bring that philosophy to every show I work on, but with Hyperdrive, safety was elevated to the next level because you have cars going 100 miles per hour in an area that wasn’t designed for that. We’re talking a 100-acre set with multiple entry points where, in theory, anyone could get onto the track. I still remember our first meeting and telling the entire crew that safety must be the first goal above all else. We created a very serious tone of keeping a safe set, and that filtered down through every aspect of the production. Saving 10 minutes by doing something with any risk was not an option. It shouldn’t ever be, but on this show, there simply could not be any compromises. From the “crafties” to the person laying cable, the message was: “Take your time. Don’t cut corners. If you see something unsafe, raise your hand and speak up because we will shut it all down there and then. Guaranteed.”
Can you give an example of safety being taken to another level, relative to the dangers of the show? The lighting system that [First AD] Dave Massey created was one example. Different colored cues indicated when the track was “hot” and “cold,” which helped account for such a large set. But even within that, whenever a car went hot, we’d check in with 15 different areas around the track to make sure we were good to go. Dave was a superstar, as was Martyn Thake, who was such a key part of the safety team.
In Episode 7, one of the contestants’ cars stalls under the Water Cannon, and the force of the water crushes her windshield, requiring an ambulance to take her off the track. Immediately afterward, the obstacle is shut down – on camera. That’s impressive. I’m glad you picked up on that, because we had tested that obstacle for every possible outcome, and the hit when Corinna was driving, with the car being stationary and right in the sweet spot of the blast – was just a perfect storm. I made the call in the truck to shut it down, and everyone immediately agreed. It was one of the things we did not expect on the day, but the moment we announced, “We’re shutting down the water cannon for safety,” everyone got it.
What’s it like to be in the truck with a director/DP team like Patrick and Adam, who have so much history together in unscripted? I cut my teeth in the control room in Australia on Big Brother, so I’ve got a lot of hours in the truck and wanted a symbiotic partner for this show in that respect. I’m not only functioning as Patrick’s helpful navigator through the story of each run, but also trying to communicate that to the rest of the team in terms of the pre-and post-rollup. The key was all of us merging minds in preproduction on how the show would look and run. Patrick’s dynamic with Biggsy, who’s one of the easiest people I’ve ever worked with, creates a natural repartee that allowed for a calm and steady control room, which isn’t always the case. Because of the enormity of this show, there just couldn’t be any back-of-the-room distractions, and with those guys as my partners in the truck, it was certain we’d get that result.
Hyperdrive may signal a new direction for unscripted, given its blend of live sports television and cinema-like drama. Where do you see things going in the unscripted- competition genre? With the constant evolution of streaming/OTT media and the TV paradigm itself, I think the unscripted- competition genre will continue to change with the times and find its place. Subscribers/ viewers want it all, and so they should – they want the next extrapolation of a fun, studio- based cooking show, and they also want a bigger-than-Ben-Hur car show on a scale they never imagined, which tells vibrant and dramatic stories in a cinematic way. That’s what excites me about the industry right now, regardless of budget: fresh, bold ideas are getting an opportunity to shine, especially with partners like Netflix, who are willing to take a chance and be bold with what they commission.