Game-Day Graphics
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 3 (March 2005)

Game-Day Graphics

For decades, the Super Bowl has crowned world champions and football legends. This year, visual effects studio Digital Dimension kicked off Super Bowl XXXIX with a dazzling 80-second animated/live-action segment featuring a new legend in the making.

The spot, aptly titled “Legends,” begins with an all-CG shot of waterfront Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. As the camera pans across the shimmering water and up to the arena, spectacular fireworks explode into the night sky.

The scene then cuts to a live-action segment of a lone player standing downfield waiting for the kickoff. At the opposite end is the player’s ultimate goal: a towering digital version of the coveted Lombardi Trophy. As the player surveys the field, towering images of past Super Bowl greats erupt from the turf, reminding him that this is no ordinary game. Rather, it’s a monumental struggle against the sport’s best, during which a defining play or a shining moment can establish a new legend for eternity.

The player receives the ball and traverses the field, battling past greats such as Mike Singletary, Reggie White, Jack Lambert, and Lawrence Taylor, until only one more figure, Ray Nitschke, remains between him and the trophy. The player breaks the tackle, shattering the ghostly image of Nitschke into millions of crystal-like shards before crossing the goal line. As he raises the ball in celebration, the camera tilts up to the scoreboard, where video of other Super Bowl legends play on the screen.
Super Bowl XXXIX featured some impressive plays by both the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. Perhaps none, though, was more exciting than the kickoff return, ending in a touchdown, that occurred in the pregame segment that kicked off Fox&

“We wanted to create something special that captured the spirit and excitement of this event,” says Ben Girard, Digital Dimension’s founder and visual effects supervisor. Doing so, though, meant topping their previous presentations for Super Bowls XXXIII and XXXVI, both of which earned Emmys for the studio. Adding to that pressure was the fact that the segment had to set the tone for a game seen around the world by millions.

So instead of crafting an all-CG animation, Digital Dimension decided to combine live action, video, and computer graphics. “This time we took more of a visual effects approach,” says Girard, “as opposed to an animation approach.”

Just about the time when players began reporting to training camps this past July with a glint of the Super Bowl in their eyes, Digital Dimension began looking toward the big game as well, only its appearance there was already a sure bet. After collaborating on a theme with designer/senior vice president Gary Hartley at Fox Sports, Girard and his team began calling their plays. First, the group spent two nights filming an actor, posing as the generic Super Bowl player, as he traversed the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Meanwhile, Fox art directors Nick DiNapoli and Marco Bacich began selecting and editing a dozen or so archived NFL video clips of football legends in action. The Digital Dimension artists mapped the footage onto video screens and enhanced the effects with HDRI reflections. The team then tracked the video and the actor with SynthEyes’ camera-tracking software.

Meanwhile, the group created the shattering video screens by matchmoving the live-action player and running the geometry headfirst into sheets of computer-generated glass. According to technical director Christian Zurcher, the artists then used Cebas ThinkingParticles to calculate a rigid-body simulation of the collision, as well as to procedurally generate glass dust and other debris as the screens burst apart.

Next, the digital artists built the virtual stadium within Discreet’s 3ds max, and filled the seats with an all-CG crowd of approximately 30,000 fans, controlled by Discreet’s Character Studio. “Usually artists use tricks such as mapping pictures of people in the stands to create a crowd,” says Girard, “but we wanted to make them look more realistic.”

The artists discovered that by using normal mapping they could achieve the look of highly detailed people while avoiding the time-consuming rendering requirements of full 3D geometry. Available in 3ds max Version 7, normal mapping is a form of texture mapping that captures surface features from dense geometry and encodes the information on simple objects using three vectors of information instead of just two vectors designated by bump maps. The objects appear to be highly detailed and respond appropriately to the direction of scene lights, even though they are actually very basic shapes.

The artists then animated individuals in the crowd using scripts to randomize their movements, seat placement, and color. “Without these processes, we wouldn’t have been able to render 30,000 3D people without making them low-res or fuzzy,” says Girard. Though the camera never zooms in for a close-up of the fans, it does come within about 200 feet-which is close enough, he notes, for viewers to see the details.

To enhance the segment, the team used ThinkingParticles to generate the CG fireworks, smoke, and camera flashes. Once this was done, the group rendered the CG imagery-which included everything except for the actor, most of the stadium grass, and the video-with Mental Images’ Mental Ray software.

“We wanted to do something special,” states Girard, “seeing that 80 million people would be watching this.” In addition, the pregame segment would be kicking off some of the season’s most innovative and expensive commercials, which would be pushing the envelope creatively and technologically, “so we had to set the pace as well,” he adds.

While the theme of the segment had been planned since July, it was far more appropriate for this particular championship than Fox, or even Girard, could have imagined. That’s because the New England Patriots, with its victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, gave the team its third world championship title in the last four years. And this rare accomplishment gave Digital Dimension the opportunity of introducing a game that officially crowned the sport’s newest dynasty and its newest football legends.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.