Who Designs the Fiendish Obstacle Courses for “Wipeout,” and How Do They Make Them Safe?

By Core77 on August 13, 2015 in Design - Other
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With obstacle names like “Big Balls,” “Branch in the Face” and “American Sucker Punch,” ABC’s “Wipeout” competition thrills viewers who enjoy the potent cocktail of athletic competition, slapstick and failure. Or at least it did for the first seven seasons, as it appears it won’t be coming back this year. On social media, lamenting fans have thus been circulating their favorite clips of the show, like this one:

The show was filmed at a ranch north of Los Angeles, which obviously did not come with the obstacles pre-built. So who designs and builds these things? The man in charge was Matt Hooper Pennington, who’s not only a production designer, but also an extreme athlete during the show’s off-season. As he revealed in an AOL interview,

“I’ve seen a lot of different ways for people to fall,” he says, explaining that he created the course for failure. “The show is called ‘Wipeout.’ If someone can easily get all the way through the course without wiping out, I haven’t done my job…. The best part is that whatever you can imagine, you can build here. If you come up with an idea that is absolutely colossal, you can create it.”

Pennington’s sadistic creations—some inspired by cartoons, he reports—are bolstered with suggestions contributed by staff and other producers. They’re then constructed with safety in mind; the show’s budget for foam padding alone is “easily more than $100,000 a year,” Executive Producer Matt Kunitz revealed in a subsequent interview. A team of 30 people are employed just to pad the structures and contraptions. “I think the cool thing about the show is that the hits look really hard,” says Kunitz, “but the reality is, they’re always slamming into foam. They’re never hitting anything that’s going to hurt them.”

As for what type of foam it is, “Wipeout” Stunt Producer Jonathan Arthur describes it as “the highest-grade medical foam—it’s like you get whacked by a TempurPedic mattress.”

Arthur’s job is to test the obstacles for safety, and he doesn’t do this alone; he runs a team of extremely ballsy, primarily 19-25-year-old crew members nicknamed “The Black and Blue Crew” who volunteer to run the course. Amusingly, they intentionally navigate the obstacles like flailing idiots, simulating what a physically incompetent contestant might do; in this way they hope to guarantee that even the worst of the worst will remain unharmed.

The Black and Blue Crew, by the way, are not professional stuntpeople: “One of them is a professional skier. There are two females who are Marines. And then we supplement them with other just crazy kids, who just want to get out there and constantly test the stunts.”

While “Wipeout” is allegedly canceled, competing obstacle course show “American Ninja Warrior” is on the air as we speak, and still pulling down high ratings. Which begs the question, what’s the key difference between the two shows? With “American Ninja Warrior,” a highly-skilled athlete can actually expect to complete the course on his or her own merits; with “Wipeout,” failure in the form of unfair and unknown surprises is baked into the concept. My guess is that in this era of political and economic uncertainty, folks no longer enjoy watching a stacked deck, no matter how clever the contraptions.

Well, it was fun while it lasted!

See Also: Six Ways to Get the Obstacle Course Experience