Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 2 (Feb 2002)

Game Graphics

Fox sets the tone for the Super Bowl with its animations

By Karen Moltenbrey

Millions and millions of viewers around the world tuned in to Super Bowl XXXVI, making it one of the biggest broadcast events of the year. But their eyes were not just glued to the gridiron action. Even the most seasoned armchair quarterbacks found it difficult to turn away from the TV during the commercial breaks, which, as usual, featured some of the most innovative 30-second advertising spots to air all year.

Setting the tone for this ultimate showdown of football players and commercial creators was no easy task, especially for the small animation department at Fox Sports, host of this year's Super Bowl. The game graphics and animations had to dazzle viewers amid the exciting plays and million-dollar commercials, while also maintaining a cohesive look used by Fox Sports throughout the 2001 football season. "Our goal was to generate the excitement and activity that surrounds the game without straying too far off course," says Dave Thompson, lead animator. "No matter what cool or new idea you come up with, it still must tie in with the existing season's package."

Throughout the past season, Fox Sports has given a high-tech edgy look to its graphics, which was also the underlying theme during the championship. "We're not a big effects house, so it's not practical for us to create a design that will only be used once," says Thompson.
Producing the animation package for the Super Bowl thrust the small team of animators at Fox Sports into the ranks of the big league. As a result, the group used as many postproduction effects as possible, which made the rendering process faster and easie

Even so, creating the graphics for the big game required the same amount of work-about two months-as generating a new look for an entire season. "It becomes a very large project in a short period of time," notes Thompson. The Super Bowl graphics package entails numerous pieces, such as interstitials, replay wipes, and bumpers, that are used throughout the broadcast. The two main segments-the opening animation and the player lineup, which Thompson calls the "eye candy"-are shown only once, yet required the most effort. "These are the first things that viewers will see, so a large portion of our budget was used for these two segments."

For the broadcast's opening sequence, the animators used Discreet's 3ds max software to create a flythrough of a futuristic, stylized New Orleans, the location of this year's Super Bowl. "The camera moves just about everywhere inside this massive environment, so we had to make sure that the models were highly detailed in the close-up shots," says Thompson. The scene ends with a shot of a digital version of the Lombardi trophy, the embodiment of the championship game.

Within a Mardi Gras scene with a Fifth Element-like feel, the animators created high-resolution models, which were procedurally textured using The Essential Textures (Digimation/Worley Lab oratories) and Simbiont (Darkling Simulations) plug-in shaders, as well as Photoshop (Adobe Systems). The group then populated the scene with live-action footage of revelers, using Adobe Systems' After Effects.

According to Thompson, the team opted to use video footage because of the time constraints of creating photorealistic humans for the close-ups. For the distance shots, however, the animators added low-polygon CG characters, modeled and animated in 3ds max, to create a bustling city scape. A matte painting, created in Photo shop, served as the far background of the city scape.
Animators for Fox Sports created a flythrough of a futuristic-style city scene in New Orleans to kick off Fox Network's live broadcast of Super Bowl XXXVI. Animators at CGI studio Digital Dimension assisted the Fox team by adding atmosphere to the det

"All the other graphics that we used, like the player bios, were camera moves that took place inside this large city," says Thompson. "So we had to make sure it was as detailed as possible." In all, the flythrough consists of approximately 60 layers of 3D models, atmospheric effects, film composites, and matte paintings. And with a hardware base of just six Intergraph NT2000s, the group had to be savvy when it came to rendering the 3D imagery.

Early in the project, the team used 3ds max's X referencing feature, which enabled various artists to work on different segments of the city at the same time. "Before everyone left for the day, they would save their files to a master file, and max would pull all the files together and render out one large image for us to review the following morning," explains Thompson. "This enabled us to see what had been updated and where we still had holes to fill in the environment."

When the cityscape grew even more complex, the team became thrifty, rendering a base specular, diffuse, and shadow lighting pass for the imagery, then tweaking it in After Effects during the compositing process.

"With 3ds max's rendered elements feature, you can render RLA files, which maintain the Z buffer data and other elements to aid in the composition stage, and then read them into After Effects 5.0," explains Thompson. "The bigger effects houses have large rendering farms, so they can afford to try something new in 3D, and if it doesn't work, they can re-render it. We didn't have that luxury. Given our minimum rendering capability, we did as much work as we could in [compositing]. If we would have done everything in 3D and found out a week prior to delivery that our specular pass was really blown out, for instance, we would've been looking at an all-new re-render that would have killed us."

Even though the style of the graphics package was futuristic, especially with the flythrough's tall neon-reflective buildings, the overall effect of what Thompson calls the "eclectic conglomeration of imagery" still reflected the dark, bluesy feeling of the Big Easy during this special, electrically charged night of hard-hitting action.

Key Tool: 3ds max, Discreet (