How ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘28 Days Later’ Influenced the Look of ‘The Challenge: Total Madness’

Jason Williams Cinematographer
Courtesy of Jason Williams

After two years away from “The Challenge” franchise, director of photography Jason “Ninja” Williams returned for the landmark 35th season of the MTV reality competition. The third in a trilogy of increasingly intense physical competitions, the season, subtitled “Total Madness,” was a post-apocalyptic theme that saw the players living in an underground bunker and tasked Williams and his team to make it feel like the outside world around them was completely gone.

How does the theme drive the shot style you want your operators to employ?

Through the years I’ve learned you have to follow the theme, otherwise your visual map won’t work. Also you have to make the people look and feel like they belong on this set, and make the set feel like it belongs with these people. And we have different people every season. You can’t use super slow motion all the time; you can’t use very frenetic frenetic shots all the time because it may not translate well. This season was less about the sexy, and more about the fear and more about the stress. And then in the next season if we’re somewhere tropical it’s gonna be very, very sexy.

Why did you want to come back to “The Challenge” now?

I love the adventure. And I love the gameplay and the competition; it’s really raw. And these people will do anything to get an edge on their opponents, and I come from a competitive background of doing martial arts for 22 years of my life and I’ve been into action movies my entire life, so when I do this show I’m like, “OK I can take it to this level, technology permitting.” As we’ve gotten better in the last few years with technology, I was like, “I’ve got to do another ‘Challenge’ because there’s some things I want to show off with!”

And then also, [executive producers] Justin Booth and Emer [Harkin] told me they thought I’d really like this one because some of the things I had tried to do earlier but the technology wasn’t quite there yet [could work here].

Let’s talk about that new technology. What were you shooting on and how did it enhance the visual story you wanted to tell?

We were using newer Sony cameras, like the Sony Z450 and Sony A7S ll. It was the first season we’ve used this camera. Now we are able to do slow motion and be in the mix of the action. So, for example, when they’re running down a course, the camera was able to switch between real-time motion and slow-time motion, and that elevates the feel of the show because when they’re sprinting down the course from position two to position three, it would normally just be, “All right, they’re just running,” but we were able to slow it down in the moment and show the intensity. And during elimination, right before Rogan [O’Connor] and Jay [Starrett] were about to battle, you could see the camera was now a little bit more dramatic when they’re walking into each other. It’s something that we weren’t able to do before because the camera had to be so far away. Now we’re really able to hone in into those tighter detailed shots and get into tighter places and tighter spaces and capture the actual action in a way that we’ve never been able to see before. We also have new apparatuses for putting cameras on people. We can adjust all the shutter speeds so the action seems even more intense than it is.

Also, traditionally we haven’t had cameras like these that would allow for the contestants to be seen in low-light situations. But in the bunker, we wanted to elevate that feeling of no windows, nowhere to go, you’re trapped in here. It made it really dismal and really eerie. That red hallway, for example, was something we would have never done that in the past because you wouldn’t have been able to see people with the other cameras. Every day the cast would complain that they had to get out of there, but we were setting a theme where there was no one left in the world, so sorry. The lighting definitely affected them in ways it didn’t in the past because there were no windows, so no sunlight; people weren’t getting their vitamin D that they would normally get. There was no outdoor pool. We just made sure that it was very sealed off and lit a certain way to make them feel very uncomfortable.

What were some of your reference points for the look?

“Saving Private Ryan,” 28 Days Later,” that was the vibe we were going for. We didn’t want to see any existing light — anything that says that the world was still intact, and that was tricky. For the first challenge we had that really thick layer of fog, and it really helped us because we were surrounded by barns. Later challenges, it was hard to hide the outside world; I had to create a false fourth wall of just, “We never shoot in that direction ever.” So if a cast member ran in that direction, we had to stay in front of them.

So much of this show takes place outside, following really intense action where you can’t control lighting. But inside select areas, like the bunker and the tribunal space, you can.

For the tribunal, I walked into that space and in my head it was an interrogation room, and I wanted to make it feel intense. People are going in there, pleading for their life, and in any movie that we’ve watched, the interrogation scenes are lit in a way where it’s like, “Man, I’d hate to be in that person’s shoes right now.” I wanted to make that feeling come across to the audience. Whatever the theme is, I want to make the audience feel a part of it — that’s what drives me in making television shows.

The phone room is just a boiler room with a little bit of light. Normally we would see all sorts of poppy things in the background, but they walk in there and feel really creeped out. It would make them scared and anxious, which is also good for competition because people who weren’t feeling that way would use that against the others.

What were some of the more complicated actual challenges to film?

We had never done anything in a sewer before. The contestants start above ground and they have to go underground, and they’re basically dropping in through a tunnel into the water system of the sewer, finding puzzle pieces in the dark, and then finding their way out of this maze of a tunnel in a sewer system to come back off and solve an equation. So this, technically, is one of the hardest things to do because you have to have cameras in the water and a camera to see their POV on how it feels going down a chute and dropping into a sewer. I basically had to strap cameras to people’s feet, which is also something that we’ve never done, but I needed to see the action of them dropping down into the water and the sewer. And then I had underwater cameras with a diver and a certain amount of light. But keeping this post-apocalyptic aesthetic, you have to light really low so it seems more dramatic. If it was fully illuminated, the audience would be like, “Oh this is easy.” And then I had one of the operators running backwards with a Steadicam as Johnny Bananas [Devenanzio] and his team is running at the camera, which is a really hard thing to do, especially in a tunnel where it’s wet and you don’t want to lose the shot and you know you don’t get a second chance. But we have a really good team of operators who are in physically good shape to do things like this.

How do you make sure the cameras that you strap to challengers don’t get in the way of their ability to perform the physical tasks?

It’s tricky because most people don’t want to do it. You have to find which competitor will want to have that camera on them. And if anyone has any weird ankle injuries you stay away from them. But have, we have really low-impact rigs that we’re able to put on people. So, for this one, people were really apt to do it; they were more freaking out about dropping into something. They didn’t know that they were dropping into a sewer; they just knew that they were dropping into a hole and there were some puzzle pieces down there. So putting that ankle rig on, we put it closed to Bananas’ calf; he was one who said, “Let me have that camera on me,” it wasn’t that intrusive, but it was on there — like a glove.

What is your strategy for shooting the puzzle challenges so that they are just as visually dynamic as action sequences??

I create movement. I generally have multiple angles, where I have one operator in constant movement, doing a 360-degree movement, so that the audience still gets the perspective of the person doing a puzzle and getting to see their face — and then I also do these really interesting things with shutter speeds where I ramp them really high up because when they’re doing puzzles they’re doing it for time. So, when I adjust the shutter, it shows a more rapid pace, and it shows a frenetic kind of energy — it shows how the person that is doing puzzle is feeling while they’re trying to race against that clock. I also do a lot of things with chest harnesses where I will strap a camera on their chest. That allows for the audience to be able to see from the person’s POV what’s actually happening and how they’re doing this puzzle, and I feel like that brings a lot more life to it.

What makes you focus on a particular challenger in these moments?

Sometimes we will also do extreme tights on their eyes if their eyes are moving really crazy because they just can’t figure it out. Or if there’s someone in the background that’s on the opposing team, I’ll do a rack focus where I’ll have the person trying to solve the puzzle in the foreground and the other people that are not rooting for them in the background to see that reaction so we can go back and forth. So it’s has the audience a lot more invested in person they’re rooting for and the person that they’re rooting against.