Super Set
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 3 (Mar. 2009)

Super Set

With an event as big as the Super Bowl, not much is left to chance. Sure, the final outcome of the game is anyone’s guess, but the players are well prepared, having spent the entire season and post-season practicing and refining plays. However, nearly everything else on this special game day is meticulously planned, from the singing of the National Anthem, to the half-time show, to the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy.

The same attention to detail and planning also extends to the game commentators. While the banter and statements made by these reporters are loosely scripted at best, they come prepared, having done a great deal of homework—memorizing the stats for every player and poring over hours of game film for “spur-of-the-moment” analysis on the teams and the individuals. And when the commentators take their seats behind the on-air desk, the last thing they want to encounter are any last-minute surprises.

At Super Bowl XLIII, there were none. The announcers fit comfortably in the allotted space, the lighting was perfect, and the graphics and monitors ideally placed. That’s because every light and object was carefully planned and tested virtually using computer graphics prior to fabrication and on-site setup.

“By planning it all out first in CG, the client knows exactly what they are going to get. They can see it. We can see it. It is such a huge time-saver,” says Nate Mitchell, graphics supervisor at Innovative Show Design (ISD), a design firm specializing in scenic and lighting services for television productions, corporate events, and live theater.

For Super Bowl XLIII, ISD created four on-air positions for the NBC commentators that were situated within three sets used for the pre-show coverage. The main set—aboard the pirate ship located within the Buccaneer Cove at the north end of the Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s Raymond James Stadium—was used for post-game and half-time reports, as well. The Super Suite, a “red carpet” area, was used as the position for The Today Show’s Al Roker to interview celebrity guests, such as Kevin James and the crew of The Fast and the Furious. The third set housed two positions in the NFL Experience area. At ground level was the Top Chef segment, where two teams competed in a grilling cook-off. Elevated behind this, with the distant stadium as the backdrop, was where Keith Olberman chatted with NFL greats Tiki Barber and Jerome Bettis.

Advance Team
According to Mitchell, ISD has built many sets for on-air poker tournaments, as well as those for mixed martial-arts events and last month’s Speed Week at the Daytona 500. Yet, prior to the clash between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals, ISD had never been recruited to do a football game. So, what made NBC hire a newcomer to football for such a major event? “We have worked with NBC in the past. And we are able to show them exactly what they were going to get before we began building it. The CG animation was a big selling point, particularly with a project of this size,” says Mitchell.

ISD, which is in the game of designing sets for major televised events, uses Maxon’s Cinema 4D, along with other software, to test various scenarios for optimal results.

For this event, NBC provided the design group with parameters. The network wanted the main desk to be aboard the ship and resemble a set that had already been used, although with a different flare to it. The focus of the Super Suite was to be art deco/theater-esque. Following this directive, the group designed the sets, rendered them out, and presented them to NBC.

First, ISD’s artistic director/president, Chris Runnells, created the designs using Nemetschek North America’s Vectorworks CAD software, which provided the necessary precision. Then, he sent the files to Maxon’s Cinema 4D, where Mitchell and Mark Dowling added textures and lighting, as well as animation treatments.

“The lighting is where it can get very extensive,” says Mitchell. “We are a scenic and lighting firm, so during the initial process, Justin Garrone, our lighting designer/associate artistic director, sits down with me or Dowling and [we review] the lighting plot he created. Garrone shares his vision with us, and we’ll mimic that in Cinema 4D, down to the color temperatures and intensities of the lighting fixtures. We even have a library of moving lights, powered by [Cinema 4D’s] Xpresso, that are true to life. These have the same specifications as the actual fixtures, even the rotation abilities are the same. By using true attributes, we show the client exactly what is possible; there is no movie magic applied to add more spice.”

Along with Maxon, the designers also use ESP’s Vision, previsualization software for customized lighting scenarios. “We can sit in front of the computer and previsualize our entire show,” adds Mitchell, “which means we can write all our lighting cues without ever being in front of the stage. It is all done ahead of time. We just take it to the [venue] site, plug it into the console, and as long as the rig is hung the same way we designed it, the lighting is 99.99 percent accurate.”

On the pirate ship, there was not a lot of room; it’s a tiny deck, recalls Mitchell. “So we took a camera in Cinema 4D, copied over some attributes of a real camera, and showed it to NBC: ‘This is how your desk would be placed, and this is what the shots would look like,’” he says. “Instead of taking up a lot of time on site trying to situate the desk with the cameras and [trappings], they already knew what kind of shots they were going to get with this design.”

Also, the ISD group used the sky present in Cinema 4D to show accurate lighting and shadows for the day of the event, which came in handy, especially for the elevated outdoors set. “It was close,” says Mitchell of how well the virtual results matched up to the real deal. As a result of this detailed virtual picture, NBC could do all its preplanning—a big advantage, particularly during a hectic, crowded event such as this.

The lighting plot for the sets are integrated into the virtual design.

The designers also integrated Smith Micro’s Poser characters into the digital sets, to test comfort levels of the would-be announcers as they sat at the desk on the pirate ship. “We made them all six-foot-five and 240 to 300 pounds (to match the bulk of these former football players-turned-commentators), so we could determine how many would ideally fit,” explains Mitchell. “We showed them how close the seating would be if they had five at the desk, and then six. And what kind of shots they would get. And where the monitors would hang. Things like that,” explains Mitchell.

Animated camera moves and sweeps, including some 360-degree shots of the desk with the virtual models, painted accurate pictures of what to expect on game day.

“Some companies provide sketches, and the client sort of gets the idea. But when you show them the moving lights, the video rolling, the colors changing, the camera moving, there are no unanswered questions,” Mitchell adds.

Built for Perfection
ISD began the preplanning for the event back in April 2008. However, after the first design was completed, the project was put on temporary hold while NBC focused on the Olympics. In all, the designers did four revisions of the design in four months. After the virtual construction came the actual construction, provided by Mecca Productions. ISD worked closely with Mecca to ensure all the fabrication was realized.

“It makes things a lot easier. We design it, and we know how it will be built and lit. It’s all wrapped into one, so what you see is what you get,” Mitchell adds.
Approximately a week prior to game day, the ISD crew headed the short distance from their facility in Lake Mary, Florida, over to Tampa, to begin the setup. They completed the set on January 29, just three days prior to kickoff.

Despite the meticulous planning, did things go off without a hitch? Pretty much, says Mitchell.

“We had been planning for this since April, and we knew just about everything that was going to happen and how everything would be done. We have been doing things like this for a while, and we have an idea of what can go wrong, and we plan for those things,” contends Mitchell. “We hope for the best but we plan for the worst.”

While the Cardinals may disagree considering the outcome of the game, for the NBC commentators at least, Super Bowl XLIII did not produce any big surprises, progressing as expected.
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor for Computer Graphics World.