Thirty-three seasons into MTV’s “The Challenge,” the reality competition series has spawned a band of traveling producers and engineers who fly around the world to create one-of-a-kind games. This includes placing cameras, smoke elements and a puzzle inside a plane that was suspended more than 30 feet above water.
Executive producer Justin Booth joined “The Challenge” in 2003 and wanted to take it on “an international adventure,” he says. To do so, he and his colleagues started out by finding local crew in whatever country they were filming in that season. But some members kept getting invited back, despite the need to fly them to the new location.
“A lot of the things that we endeavor to do are never done before,” says Booth, “and that can be overwhelming for people. So I need strong personalities who don’t get flustered and have a work ethic and unflappable attitude.”
That includes stunt coordinator Guy Norris and segment producer Diego Amson, who were both integral to the plane challenge in the most recent “War of the Worlds” season, which filmed in Namibia. Norris had worked on stunts on the “Mad Max” franchise, which he feels best prepared him for the scope and scale of “The Challenge,” while Amson had been producing films in Argentina prior to joining the MTV reality giant.
The airplane game saw the challengers tasked with solving a puzzle inside the fuselage of the plane while a crash was simulated around them, including water rushing in, smoke filling the cabin — even the plane rotating upside down. Challengers eventually had to safely leap out of the craft and into the water.
The game’s conception started during the season’s second week of pre-production, Amson recalls, and took months of planning and weeks more to procure the plane and then build the rig. That left about a week to do testing.
“We sat down with the engineers and really worked out how to best do it so it looked great,” Norris says. “And we made sure the plane didn’t buckle. We talked about the weight of the plane with the challengers, how far off the water they could hang it — all pure, mathematical rigging questions.” The water and smoke elements added to the degree of difficulty. To shoot the challenge, Norris adds, drones were brought in as “sweeteners.”
Amson was tasked with finding the right plane for the game. The show, he notes, teaches you to be intuitive and resourceful. “I went to a small airport,” he says, “and asked, ‘Do you know where there’s a place where they trash planes?’”
Though the season was filming in Namibia, he found the plane in Botswana. It was a recently decommissioned aircraft with the cockpit intact and the interior that Booth was looking for: three seats on either side of the center aisle. Amson had the plane cut down and then arranged transport on a giant truck to the production site.
The aircraft needed to fit all of the remaining challengers at once, in addition to crew and cameras. The safety of everyone involved was of primary concern, with both Booth and Norris testing the rig to prove that it could hold the proper weight. But they also wanted to make the challenge “as exciting as possible,” Norris adds. “We’re happy to take it to the nth degree.”