Score of a Lifetime
Issue: Volume 37 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2014)

Score of a Lifetime

A group of students at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) didn’t know much about football when they signed up to do a gridiron-related design concept. However, they knew enough to realize that the project for Fox Sports, if accepted by the network, would play out on one of the biggest stages in broadcast: the Super Bowl. And that is exactly what occurred.

The students, 19 in all, plus a professor, spent 10 weeks during the fall term working on creative elements, style frames, and design boards for the game-day opening animation to Super Bowl XLVIII, the most-watched television event with 111.5 million viewers. The project was part of a class available through the school’s Creative Learning Collaboration (CLC), which awards credits to students while they receive real-world experience by taking on a design challenge from an entity in the professional community. This year the CLC client was Fox Sports.

“Companies approach SCAD and ask the students to lend their expertise on a design project. They come to SCAD because the school and the program (CLC) have a good reputation,” says Noël Anderson, a grad student earning her master’s in motion design who participated in the CLC class and served as producer on the project.

Students who signed up for the class, which was led by Austin Shaw, professor of Motion Media Design, knew they also were signing up for this project. The class met twice a week, and students spent additional hours working on the project outside the classroom. A few “heavy hitters” were recruited as well, many of whom were motion media students. Nevertheless, a range of skills were needed, represented by illustrators, graphic designers, a character animator for posing and moving the Fox Sports signature Cleatus robot, visual effects lighting specialists, and more.

“We had a diverse group with different skills. Even though we weren’t doing the animation, just the design, we still had to create still images of what the animation would look like,” says Anderson. “So some students were recruited for their 3D and design skills.”

SCAD STUDENTS integrated numerous disciplines into the design of the Super Bowl introduction. Here, they do motion capture that was later applied to the main character.

At first, each student had to come up with a concept and present it to the class, then the students were divided into small groups to further develop the ideas and present them to Fox Sports. After receiving feedback from the client, the students formed three groups, further honing the work before presenting it again to Fox Sports, which selected the design that would receive the students’ full attention.

Initially, there were two companies bidding on the job alongside SCAD. Early on, however, Fox Sports decided to work only with SCAD. “It was a lot of pressure to know Fox Sports was counting on us, but it was good pressure. We knew we had to succeed,” says Anderson, noting this was the first time Fox Sports had used students to work on the all-important Super Bowl production.

Anderson believes the students had an advantage going into the challenge that professional companies did not: “We are still in the academic world, and the environment is more fun and creative. We are not bound to strict rules that those in the working world have to follow,” she explains.

That said, there were guidelines the students had to follow – some absolute, some obvious, some relaxed. For instance, the animation and narrative had to take place in Times Square in celebration of the game’s much-discussed cold-weather venue. To this end, the students came up with the idea that Cleatus would burst out of a tunnel of sorts and into a scene of Times Square, which would rotate and morph into part football stadium/part Times Square. Cleatus would then run the football, which contained the top portion of the Lombardi Trophy, from one end of the “field” to the other and slam the top part of the trophy onto the base. That would set the trophy in motion, which would rise up with the 2014 logo and the number XLVIII, signifying this year’s game.

“It’s only 15 seconds long. That’s the hard part. We had to convey a narrative from start to finish, focusing on creative featuring Times Square, referencing football, integrating the logo, and making it happen in 15 seconds,” says Anderson. “We are storytellers and wanted to start Cleatus’s run in Brooklyn, but there was not enough time for that and also be able to highlight all the right elements.”

Those 15 seconds – of which the students were responsible only for the design, not the actual animation – equated to months of work. To save time, they purchased an existing non-textured digital model of Times Square. “We had to create a lot of the elements, even though Fox was doing the animation, because we needed them for the design and styling,” says Anderson. “We had to do the virtual lighting on the city elements we created to see how everything would look.”

The group used Maxon’s Cinema 4D motion graphics software to create the virtual staging. They also used the software to build other 3D models, such as the Lombardi Trophy.

TIMES SQUARE became the focus of the design.

(Cinema 4D has been used in the school’s Motion Media Design department for more than a decade and is currently used by the graphics group at Fox Sports.) Later, the students brought the 3D models into Adobe’s Photoshop, where they were stylized, color-corrected, and enhanced with lots of detail.

In addition, a consultant helped motion-capture a local high school football player, and the movements were imported into Cinema 4D, where the motion-captured and hand-animation data were converted into motion clips using Cinema 4D’s Motion System. It was then applied to the model of Cleatus from Fox Sports, which came fully rigged but not textured.

Making things more difficult from a design standpoint was the uncertainty of which teams (and their colors) would be playing in the Super Bowl, since the project had to be completed in November prior to the play-offs. Also, there were intangibles to consider, such as conveying the feeling of cold to reflect the weather of the outdoor stadium in New Jersey.

Class Skills
Anderson notes that the students were prepared for the project, thanks to the various classes offered at SCAD. This includes making single still images convey narrative, motion, and aesthetics, for instance, “and that is a real skill,” she adds. “We also do a lot of style framing, and we did a lot of that here. It is an important part of what we do. No company wants to say ‘Go ahead’ on an animation job if they do not like the way it looks.”

Where the students came up a little short was in their collective knowledge about football. But, two female graphic designers from Georgia provided the right calls. “They were a real asset and really knew their stuff!” Anderson says. Also, toward the end of the quarter, the professor decided to give the students a crash course in football and football terminology by organizing a game of touch football in the school’s courtyard. “It was both tragic and glorious. Everyone had a great time and maybe even learned a little something [about football],” says Anderson.

So, were there any pre-game jitters? “This was a big task with a big-name client, so it was nerve-racking. But, the students are strong on their technical abilities, and the professor made sure we were on the mark,” adds Anderson, noting the project gave her and the others in the class a unique chance to work with students from different curriculums at SCAD.

At the time of this interview, the students had not seen the final animation, which was done by Fox Sports, so they were unsure as to how much of their work would make it to the Big Game. As expected, there were tweaks to the design, which is the norm with clients. Yet, the aesthetic of the animation made by Fox was very similar to the design boards the students submitted.

“The colors, time of night, and general look of the city elements bare a striking resemblance to our work. The narrative changed a good deal from the concept we submitted, however,” says Anderson. “In our version, Cleatus came to life inside a dark tunnel, out of which he busts into Times Square. Those elements were maintained. In the class narrative, as Cleatus bound through the square, the city would transform from an urban landscape into a football field. But in the final animation, Cleatus tore down the field, jumping over cabs and dodging other iconic New York elements, but there was no transformation occurring from city to sports arena.”

For many of the students, including Anderson, this was the first time they were excited to watch the broadcast. “We like the commercials but aren’t so much into the football game. This year, though, we were excited about the whole thing,” she says.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.