Ultimate Lighting for Ultimate Fighting


The explosion of light and sound in the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas galvanizes the already-rowdy crowd of 14,000 into a screaming, waving mass of hysteria as the cacophony of sound and light washes over them. Behind the octagonal ring, nicknamed the “Octi,” and up a 50' (15m) ramp, is the entrance from which the combatants in this almost-no-holds-barred fighting extravaganza appear to do battle. A dazzling display of lighting effects, lasers, and pyro welcomes each fighter. High up in the arena, one man coordinates it all: George Smith of Frank Gatto & Associates. His goal is to make the show as exciting on Pay-Per-View TV as it is live — no mean trick, given the different demands of each experience.

The Las Vegas event, held last November, was the 30th Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), most of which have been lit by Smith. They are similar to boxing events, made up of eight bouts, with five four-minute rounds. The fighters use very light gloves, are allowed to use their feet, and can wrestle as well. It's a wild show, to say the least.

Even with so much experience, Smith says each venue presents unique challenges. “I usually map out my plan on a laptop, during my flight to the venue,” he says. “Our challenge on the Vegas show was the size of the fighter entrance and the video screens. Since the promoter wanted smaller screens, we had to redesign the lighting so the fans could see the action on the screens.”

After setting up his control location, with lighting boards (in this case, two Avolites Sapphire consoles), TV monitors, and computers, Smith programs his lighting cues while his staff hangs the rig, consisting of 56 moving lights (24 High End Systems Cyberlights® and 32 High End Studio Colors®) and conventional units (166 ETC Source Four PARs, 28 Source Four ellipsoidals, 60 PAR-46s, and 12 Altman 9-lights). They also handle an extensive rigging package, from Total Structures, with hoists and motors. As the octagonal ring is built, TV cameras are set up, and pyro staff place the flashpots. With everything in place, live rehearsals allow for finishing touches. Smith choreographs 17 pages of lighting cues, one page for each fight, plus the opening. (Also included in the equipment package are two DF-50 hazers from Reel EFX and five Antari Heavy Foggers.)

After the opening, Smith follows the live TV direction on headset, as the fighting takes its bloody course. He must also react to unexpected events, making sure that celebrities are well-lit at ringside. “Lighting a live event for fans in the stands and also handling TV lighting is a big challenge,” says Smith, adding, “Tonight, we knocked their socks off!”

Smith, a native of England, worked mostly in live events like rock concerts until he met Frank Gatto in 1987. Gatto, a graduate of the NYU Design Department, worked his way through affiliate TV stations, eventually working on ABC's Monday Night Football, the World Series, ESPN's SportsCenter, and other news and sports programs. Speaking of Smith, Gatto says, “George reached out to me to learn more about TV lighting and it's been a great collaboration. He made UFC what it is today, with exceptional lighting design for the past 30 shows.”