Ambitious Goal
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 7: (July 2010)

Ambitious Goal

The FIFA World Cup occurs just once every four years. But for the country awarded the privilege of hosting the most widely viewed sporting event in the world, the work begins long before the first kickoff.

For the 2010 World Cup, held June 11 through July 11 in stadiums throughout South Africa, preparation began when the country was awarded the competition, approximately six years ago. Almost immediately, builders, city planners, government officials, production companies, marketers, and brand executives sprang into action. With the sports world looking to South Africa, the demand for compelling, high- quality animation and visual effects content increased dramatically.

Stepping into the field of play was Ministry of Illusion (MOI), a company with more than a decade of experience creating visuals for award-winning features, television series, commercials, and music videos out of its Johannesburg studio. “Our involvement in creating visual effects and 2D and 3D animation for FIFA World Cup projects started in 2007 with live-event graphics for the Preliminary Draw event, and completely snowballed from there,” says MOI senior producer Elena Nicolettis. The depth and breadth of work MOI undertook in connection with the World Cup is impressive; ultimately, the staff was able to deliver under tight deadlines, overcome demanding creative tasks, and navigate through complex workflows.

With its skilled artistic team and a comprehensive tool set for visual effects, the company ended up creating content for 100 television commercials, one broadcast package, and even live-event graphics for the FIFA World Cup Preliminary Draw, Final Draw, Closing Ceremonies, and other FIFA World Cup-related special venue projects.

To help move the projects along, MOI’s 12-person in-house animation team turned to Autodesk’s Maya, while the company’s remaining crew (compositors, VFX supervisors, editors, machine-room and multimedia operators, audio final mixers and composers, and producers) utilized Autodesk Flame, Flint, and Smoke stations. MOI’s involvement with the World Cup created a tremendous opportunity for the company to push itself creatively and technically with results in terms of sheer volume and effects artistry.

South African-based Ministry of Illusion created numerous projects for the World Cup that incorporated local wildlife (below) and landmarks (above) into the scenes.

“We’re a team of 37 people, and part of why we’re able to push through such a high volume of work is our efficient and reliable pipeline,” says Marios Nicolettis, MOI founder and VFX supervisor. “We’ve been using Autodesk digital entertainment creation tools since we started the company in 2000, and we complete 170 to 200 commercials a month. The big challenge for us, especially in relation to the World Cup, was time to completion. We have a complex and fast-moving creative workflow, where multiple artists collaborate on projects. We can’t waste time troubleshooting technical problems or translating files between different software applications. We need a fast, efficient, and reliable workflow that lets us concentrate on being creative.”

The Qualifiers

MOI first got involved with FIFA when developing graphics to screen on the Jumbotron during the Preliminary Draw, an event that takes place far in advance of the World Cup itself, whereby 100-plus countries compete to qualify for 32 World Cup team slots. For this event, FIFA wanted to integrate 3D visualizations of the nine impressive new soccer stadiums that were under construction throughout the country in preparation for the main event. Since the venues were not yet built, MOI used Maya to create photoreal animated CG renderings of stadiums in Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Nelspruit, Polokwane, Pretoria, and Rustendburg, and composited them into live-action aerial footage using Flame and Smoke.

The FIFA World Cup Final Draw is another qualifying event marking the announcement of the 32 teams selected to play in the World Cup. For that, MOI worked with director Ian Wilson of The Front Production Company to create a video insert into which live-action footage of native African animals appear to play a game of football in the Kruger National Park. MOI’s team achieved the spot’s compositing and tracking using Flame, and built the CG ball handled by several of the animals in Maya. The artists also had to perform extensive rotoscoping, tracking, 3D enhancement, and clean-up, as many of the animals were filmed in captivity, requiring cage walls and fences to be painted out. In addition, since only two of the 15 animals featured were filmed with actual soccer balls, CG balls were added into several scenes. The resulting video insert is both amusing and technically impressive, with effects so photoreal that audiences might believe that this game actually took place.

One of the more challenging projects on the road to the World Cup was a four-minute video showcasing the newly announced qualifying teams. “I was in Cape Town, where the Final Draw was taking place, while our animation and VFX teams were in Johannesburg editing footage, preparing graphics, and inserting clips into our spot treatment on the fly as the teams were being selected. It was quite challenging to construct the clips, capturing the exact moments from hours of soccer gameplay footage to meet FIFA’s specifications,” says M. Nicolettis.

Before the World Cup event even started, MOI crafted graphics for the Preliminary Draw qualifier (top left). The facility also integrated renderings of the stadiums, which were under construction, into the landscape (top right) for Preliminary Draw marketing campaigns.

In the end, the 2010 FIFA qualifying video was a great success. The clip showcased all the represented countries and included an all-CG flyover of Earth that zeroed in on frames of the selected soccer teams against well-known South African rock art textures. This sequence ultimately became a visual signature that was used as a graphic element throughout the FIFA 2010 Final Draw.

Tie-ins around the Nation

MOI also worked on another FIFA World Cup-related project, a 30-spot ad campaign for MTN, a leading South African cellular network that is preparing to promote brand awareness and football spirit during the event. The commercials involved extensive compositing, with MOI artists working around the clock to deliver a record number of spots in a short time frame. These spots involved extensive finishing and 3D compositing work, which included the creation of digital fireworks and confetti, digitally re-creating the bright-purple blossoming of jacaranda trees, digital crowd enhancement, and more.

MOI’s CG work in connection with the FIFA World Cup also extended into custom broadcast identities created for SABC (South Africa’s national host broadcaster), which runs three television channels in 11 languages. SABC needed graphic identities, network bumpers, promotional spots, and more. MOI answered that call by building and animating all 3D elements in Maya during a four-week time frame and compositing the clips, some consisting of hundreds of layers, in Flame.

“The compatibility between the Autodesk creative finishing applications has helped us tremendously. We can easily pass entire Action setups between Flame and Smoke, allowing artists to better collaborate,” says M. Nicolettis.

MOI’s World Cup work wasn’t just limited to the small screen. Using Maya, the artists created 3D graphics for promotional billboards and in-show stage projections for a live-theater production based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “The Boys in the Photograph.” The show takes place during Ireland’s Civil War, and tells the story of the fates and fortunes of a Belfast soccer team. It opened May 23 and runs through mid-August at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre.

Closing Ceremonies

When asked about the most exciting aspect of working on FIFA World Cup projects, MOI’s M. Nicolettis responds, “[FIFA World Cup] has completely revitalized production in South Africa, and has brought a renewed energy and enthusiasm to virtually all market sectors. For us, a highlight was getting to go to Zurich to pitch FIFA and Host Broadcast Services (HBS) for the production of the animations, teasers, break bumpers, and replay wipes that were broadcast internationally during the event. It was amazing not only to present to the heads of FIFA and HBS, but it’s also been one of the pinnacles of our careers.”

The closing-ceremony graphics were based on treatments that MOI developed for VWV, the event production company hired by the South African Organizing Committee and FIFA. Screens were placed behind performers and athletes, and 16 minutes of custom graphics and design elements were created to run as projections during and between acts. The graphics were delivered both as 3200 x 3200 QuickTime animation files to be projected during the live event, and in HD directly to broadcasters to use as cutaways in their own edits of the closing ceremony.

E. Nicolettis notes, “We have an incredible team of talent, and with the reliability of our pipeline, the artists can focus on making art, rather than getting their systems up to speed to support 2k files.”

As this article was going to press, MOI was putting the finishing touches on closing-ceremony graphics and also creating identifier clips for HBS for each of the 1800 shots of players in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. HBS is supplying MOI with 10-second clips of each player, which needed to be rotoscoped and composited onto a consistent FIFA-themed background, all within a span of 10 days. The team anticipates that every Flame, Smoke, and Flint operator at MOI will composite 100 to 200 sequences per day in order to meet the 10-day turnaround window. These clips then will be broadcast to introduce lineups for upcoming matches both in the stadium and on television.

E. Nicolettis summed up MOI’s World Cup experience: “FIFA World Cup has created a huge boon for the production, graphics, and visual effects industry in South Africa. There is a lot of airtime to fill, and screen space across the country requires hours of visual content. Artists at MOI have been working non-stop to contribute visual effects and design content. We operate like a well-oiled machine and have to keep the schedule and pipeline tight to stay on top of the current load. We’re very excited that World Cup football is bringing so much focus to South Africa and allowing us to have our work viewed on the world stage.”