University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Engineering the Fantastic

Alumnus Ben Simms made something of a head-spinning career pivot after graduating from the U of M with a degree in aerospace engineering and astrophysics.

Photo courtesy Ben Simms

Picture this drama playing out on your television: Three beefy professional wrestlers well known to WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) fans—Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods, and Big E—are approaching a forbidding mansion. Flames undulate in braziers on the porch. A symbol like an evil star clings to the stone arch above the entrance. Abandon hope, all ye who enter!

In the intensely dualistic WWE universe, these grapplers, a team known as The New Day, are the definitive good guys, representing everything positive. They have come to the lair of the Undertaker, the ultimate “heel,” or bad-guy wrestler—a pale practitioner of the dark arts.

Welcome to Escape the Undertaker, a Netflix special that debuted last October. Presiding over the whole thing as director is Ben Simms (B.A.E.M. ‘04) a former aerospace scholar. Even more unusual is that this directorial effort is creepy, campy—and interactive! At key points the viewer can choose the direction the story will take (“follow whispers/follow fog/follow lights”). It’s a labyrinth of alternate scenes and storylines.

The WWE saga is the biggest directing job yet for Simms, who has spent the last 16 years building a mainly freelance career as a producer, director, and photographer on myriad projects in Los Angeles, after first making a name for himself producing a wildlife series for British adventurer Bear Grylls.

How does an aerospace engineer end up working with animals in the wild and wrestlers on a spook-house set? According to Simms, the progression was more logical than you might think. Part of it has to do with using his engineering skills in ways quite different from, say, crafting lunar modules.

Simms struck out for California a year after earning his bachelor’s degree at the U of M, with the intention of looking for an aerospace job. “But there was a friend from high school who was working in film production in LA,” he says. “He explained the ins and outs of production. And eventually, somebody was sick on a set, and they asked me if I wanted to come in and be a PA [production assistant]. I said, ‘What’s that?’ And I showed up and just never looked back.”

A series of production assistant gigs—handling various logistics on film and TV shoots—led to Simms becoming operations manager for TV coverage of several football seasons for the NFL Network. Here, his engineering background was a major asset. He designed a quickly collapsible set for sideline interviews during Thursday night football games.

“I was able to talk with the producers, the directors, and the network, who wanted the set to function and look a certain way,” he says, “and then go and talk to the engineers and machinists. I could mock stuff up and draw how I thought things should work. There was a great deal of efficiency there because I could speak everybody’s language.”

Simms has served as a director for special forces adventurer Bear Grylls (pictured above) on roughly 100 television outings in remote areas.

After his NFL stint wound down, Simms connected with an executive producer of one of Bear Grylls’s shows, in which the former British special-forces hotshot made forays into the wilds of Panama. Simms came on as an assistant director, coordinating an oceanside scene that had to be shot in 30 minutes before the tide went out.

“Bear likes to work fast and efficiently,” Simms says. “I grew up being quite outdoorsy and I like challenges where everything is new and fast and exciting. We hit it off, and my relationship with him grew from there. I’ve shot with him in China, India, all over Europe and Africa. I’ve probably done around 100 episodes of some type of programming with him in some capacity.”

The work has been intense. “The hairs on the back of your neck rise a little bit when you’re trying to coordinate a shoot with a lion or a cheetah or a rhino,” says Simms, no doubt understating the case.

The most recent Bear Grylls series, You vs. Wild (2019) on Netflix, is also interactive. The viewer can send Bear here or there on quests to rescue threatened wildlife or find lost animals or whatever, and Simms and crew had to shoot all the options in a complicated marriage of storytelling—writers work out the basic scenarios—and improv, as Bear and Simms and crew respond to weather, animal behavior, and everything else that can happen in extreme environments. Call it a special kind of real-time engineering challenge.

Those experiences prepared Simms for the fictional multistory world of the Undertaker. The wrestler-actors are good at improv, he says, because they play characters in the ring. But he also enjoys having more control over what happens than he did in his Grylls days. “I think it’s making me a stronger storyteller,” he says, “because I’m used to having to pivot on a dime because of an avalanche or tigers being nearby.”

And then he says something that is very LA. “I’ve got a few more things on the scripted side in development now. I’m looking forward.”

Jon Spayde is a writer in the Twin Cities.

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