The debut of the ThunderDome infused immediate energy into the WWE product during its SmackDown premiere.
For the past five months, WWE had been performing almost exclusively from the Performance Center, but that bandbox was never designed for weekly television. The move to Orlando’s Amway Center, where WWE now has residency for the foreseeable future, led to the creation of the ThunderDome, bringing virtual fans, pyro techniques and a new atmosphere to kick off SummerSlam weekend.
SmackDown highlighted how the ThunderDome can enhance wrestlers’ entrances in the empty arena/virtual fan era, which was immediately visible during The Fiend’s walk to the ring in the opening segment of the show. Kevin Dunn, WWE’s executive vice president of television production, said he and his production team relished the opportunity to present Bray Wyatt in a unique new setting.
“Bray had a lot to do with that entrance, and the ThunderDome became his environment,” said Dunn. “We were able to put a lot of his content on the dome, as well as on the wire shot where you could see it on the video board behind him.
“A big part of that entrance is the anticipation. When someone is in the ring, and in this case it was Vince McMahon, and then a bank of lights suddenly goes out, and you hear the sound effect, you know he’s coming. That’s what it was all about, building that anticipation in our new environment and seeing it play out.”
The ThunderDome production is designed to provide the best content for viewers, as well as create the closest resemblance to a live crowd with virtual fans. Dunn was happy with opening night, but believes that significant potential still exists to further enhance the setting.
“Everyone was pumped to do something new and special, but we’re tough graders on ourselves and I think we can do a lot better,” said Dunn. “There are some nuances we need to fix that we’re already working on it.
“Our camera two, the wide shot, the boards looked flat. We need to present that better because it adds such perspective. SmackDown was a lot like a WrestleMania show with so many production changes. We learned a lot from the rehearsal on Thursday with NXT talent, and we’ll keep at it until it’s exactly where we want it to be.”
A new element for WWE is the virtual fans. The company is also working on the virtual fan experience, Dunn said, which includes surprise visits from WWE stars during commercial breaks.
“The fans were fantastic, and we’ve missed them so much,” said Dunn. “The depth of the rows of fans really creates the atmosphere of a big-time arena, and that gave more energy to our superstars. We’re going to really work on making sure the fan experience is special, and we have some surprises in store for them. It just felt so good to have fans back.”
Incorporating virtual fans into the show remains a work in progress, especially in terms of finding the most effective way to harness organic crowd noise into matches.
“We got a lot of reaction when Jeff Hardy won the Intercontinental title, which was great, and we’re learning how to shoot those boards a little better,” said Dunn. “They tend to look better on the wider shots. We had some focus issues on the tighter shots, and we’re working on that with [interactive in-arena atmosphere partner] The Famous Group. This is bigger than any amount of virtual fans they’ve ever done, and they’re working hard on this, too.”
An integral piece of the ThunderDome’s success is the ability to build an environment that can change instantly.
“The ThunderDome allows us to be whatever we want,” said Dunn. “We have such strong characters, and our goal is to create an environment that fits them, not only with our LED boards, but with projections and pyro techniques, like you saw with Bayley and Sasha Banks. This is an opportunity is to reinforce our characters. That’s the goal, tell our story. We need to tell our stories and show the emotion of what fuels our characters, which is a staple of WWE, and now we’re adding these enhanced production values.”
WWE’s production team is a collection of the company’s unsung heroes. Dunn said there were approximately 250 people working on the show on Friday, which was directed by Marty Miller, who has over 25 years of experience with WWE.
“Everyone knew tonight was a moment and stepped up,” said Dunn. “I’ll single out our production designer Jason Robinson, he’s the driving force behind this. He’s been working until about three in the morning this past week, and his work was incredible. Our cameramen did a great job, too. Now we’ll take a deep breath, do some more work and get ready for SummerSlam.”
Dunn said the goal is to project a different atmosphere and aura this Sunday at SummerSlam, one that differs from Raw or SmackDown.
“SummerSlam is a major pay per view, and there are going to be a lot of surprises,” said Dunn. “I said this last week, the goal is to show people that WWE is back, and I think we took some big steps in accomplishing that on SmackDown.”