By Will Pruett, ProWrestling.net Co-Senior Staffer (@itswilltime)
AEW made some big moves this year by debuting a new set and some new production techniques. Additionally AEW made a major hire production-wise in Mike Mansury, a former high level WWE production human, considered to be number two after longtime director Kevin Dunn. These are massive shifts in AEW production and, after some time to let them settle in, I wanted to write about these changes.
Why should I write about production? Well, it’s my actual day job. I work as a director and videographer for an arts organization. I’ve worked in production for over half of my life and have been producing shows in one way or another since I was 15. I also have a terminal degree in theatrical production. This is all to say, I know about these things.
Tweeting this photo of AEW’s current entrance set for an upcoming blog. Also because it looks nice. pic.twitter.com/fW9G1Mm8WF
— Will! (@itswilltime) April 11, 2023
The biggest and most striking change AEW has made is their entrance set. Gone are the massive heel and babyface tunnels wrestlers could dramatically walk through after turning. Gone is the Cody-vator and the signature chandelier that AEW even managed to make work during their pandemic era shows in Jacksonville. AEW’s set looked major league in 2019 when they debuted, but after almost four years, it definitely was showing its age.
AEW replaced their old set with one almost entirely comprised of LED walls. All of AEW’s walls are flat, as opposed to the one large curved wall WWE uses. AEW has built their set with dimension in mind, giving small areas for wrestlers to enter through (continuing the heel and babyface side continuity), and topping it with one large wall to be the main screen for fans in the arena to watch action on (when the camera is not on the set).
On the surface, AEW has produced a nice set. It’s clean. It’s likely simpler to load in than what they had before. It looks major league when a wrestlers’ graphics all work together on it. Of particular note are the graphics packages for Chris Jericho and Orange Cassidy, which are wonderful. They’ve also shown the ability to accommodate smaller arenas, which AEW must do as they occasionally run buildings that aren’t tall enough for their normal set. Short mode on AEW’s new set is hardly noticeable.
The set also reflects an upgraded graphics package. This package reflects the new set, with the LED wall outlines behind wrestlers on upcoming match graphics. AEW had long abandoned the multi-colored color bursts they debuted with in 2019, replacing them with blue and red bursts. Now we’ve got lines! So many lines. AEW has made their graphics look like light and screen outlines in the colors of red, white, and blue. This is more of a lateral change. I enjoyed the bright bursts AEW debuted with and have not been a fan of their shift to a darker presentation.
AEW’s shift to darkness during and after the pandemic may have frustrated me, but we’re seeing more signs of light from their recent shows. AEW is lighting crowds better and allowing us to see their passionate fans. It’s not quite at WWE levels of crowd lighting (which is often overkill), but its enough.
The ring itself in AEW has even started looking different. AEW, in the last two weeks, has moved to red, white, and blue ropes, calling back to wrestling’s pre-1997 past. Along with these ropes, since January 11, we’ve seen new sleeker barricades around crowds. Once again, these aren’t WWE’s bright LED walls built into barricades, they’re graphic wraps. Both of these changes look really nice. The new ropes add dimension to hard camera shots of the ring. The new barricade wraps look much better than the piece-meal approach AEW worked with before. Custom barricades are nice.
Thus far everything visual has been an upgrade for AEW. They needed a major league look to match their status as a major league company. They had it in 2019 and it did not age gracefully from that time. I also want to talk about sound in AEW. This is a company founded on crowd passion. This is also a company unafraid to use popular licensed music. What AEW sounds like is an essential part of the product.
First of all, AEW is ahead of AEW for in ring audio production. They mix in 5.1 surround, meaning you’re getting a broadcast that takes advantage of rear speakers and subwoofers. You have not heard a ring rattle until you’ve heard it rattle your living room as well.
Audio production is also a place where AEW is lacking. Backstage segments are constantly plagued with audio issues and peaking. Sometimes it sounds like audio was recorded with an onboard camera mic, which is absolutely a poor decision. AEW needs to clean up these backstage audio issues in a major way.
Now let’s talk about AEW production and missed opportunities. Coming out of the pandemic and going back on the road, almost two years ago, I believed AEW missed a major opportunity. It had been so long since we had seen full crowds in wrestling, I wanted to see entryways surrounded by fans. Think of footage of wrestling from Madison Square Garden in the 1980s or of the recent WWE entryways in baseball stadiums for the Royal Rumble.
I wanted fans pouring down on the wrestlers around them. AEW opted to go with their usual stage at this time and, when changing this stage, stuck with the same height. One of AEW’s advantages in the wrestling marketplace is their passionate fans. I wanted those fans to become the set for the show.
This is a difference in production philosophies and AEW is trying to look like a traditional wrestling show from 1997 to the present day. I would go with a different approach.
Speaking of a different approach, AEW should absolutely be using custom entrance sets for their pay per views. I was disappointed to pay $50 for AEW Revolution and have it look identical to AEW’s weekly television show. Especially now that their set is all LED walls, there is no excuse for not putting them into a different shape for pay-per-views.
Overall the new look of AEW has more polish to it than the prior one, but less charm. LED walls are great for a lot of reasons and much easier to transport, replace when damaged, and rig than the old tunnels. They also cause the show to lack some tactile personality. Extra dimension helps, but LED walls will always just be LED walls (I have some strong feels about WWE’s current set as well).
These are worthwhile upgrades and AEW production is better now than it was before, but I hope we are only seeing phase one of Mike Mansury’s plans. AEW is a major league national wrestling company. They also have the opportunity to make different choices, should they want to. Why build and fund a new set if you’re only going to make a pale imitation of WWE’s instead of thinking different?
Will Pruett writes about wrestling and popular culture at prowrestling.net. To see his video content subscribe to his YouTube channel. To contact, check him out on Twitter @itswilltime, leave a comment, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.