Watched by a record 144.4 million viewers in the United States last year, the Super Bowl is annually the nation's highest-rated TV program and the most-watched single-day sporting event, according to the National Football League. What's more, this year's Super Bowl, which airs at 6:00 p.m. EST on Super Sunday, February 6, will be broadcast in more than 200 countries worldwide, providing further testament to the immense popularity of the whole Super Bowl experience.
Given such impressive broadcast credentials, it's not surprising that FOX, the network airing the game this year in the United States, chose the talented artists in Digital Dimension's Los Angeles studio to create the one-minute opening sequence that kicks off Super Bowl XXXIX. Also not surprising is Digital Dimension's choice of 3D software with which to create this important animation: 3ds Max.
This is not the first time FOX has chosen Digital Dimension to create a Super Bowl opening sequence. The network and studio teamed up for the 1999 and 2002 events as well. For both of those projects the Digital Dimension artists relied on 3ds Max software to create outstanding, entirely 3D animations that successfully captured the raw excitement surrounding the Super Bowl. The studio did such a great job, in fact, that it was awarded an Emmy for each of those sequences.
Although this year's opening sequence sports an entirely different look compared to that of past years in that it's a combination of live action and 3D, it's just as exciting. Designed to represent the enormous challenges teams must overcome throughout the football season in order to make it to the Super Bowl, the sequence opens with a shot of Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida, where this year's Super Bowl is being played. As the camera pans across the landscape, viewers see shots of the St. Johns River, which flows past the stadium, as well as fireworks bursting in the distance. The camera closes in on the stadium, and then flies into it, showing the crowds of roaring fans in the stands.
Next the camera focuses on Donny Tucker, a fictitious football player standing on the field, preparing to start the game, and then it pans up to show five jets flying overhead. Suddenly, at the opposite end of the field an iridescent screen pops out of the turf, and on the screen is footage of legendary kicker Jan Stenerud, who kicks the ball to Tucker. Tucker receives the ball and proceeds to make his way down the field, heading toward the end zone for a touchdown.
As he's running, more screens pop out of the ground, with each screen showing footage of such football legends as Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Mike Singletary, and Ronnie Lott trying to block the play. Tucker manages to completely dodge all but one of the screens, which, when he nicks it, shatters like a sheet of glass. As he nears the end zone for a touchdown, with the crowd cheering wildly, viewers see an enormous version of the Vince Lombardi Super Bowl Trophy looming 100 feet into the air. Then one last screen-this one showing footage of football legend Ray Nitschke attempting to block the play-emerges from the ground, but Tucker lowers his head and smashes through the screen, shattering it to pieces. As the sequence ends, all the remaining screens shatter, and broadcast of the game begins.
According to Digital Dimension CG supervisor Jason Crosby, the live-action elements comprised the footage of Donny Tucker (played by an actor), and some of the shots of the ground, which viewers see from Tucker's perspective as he's running. The artists created everything else in 3ds Max, including the interior and exterior of the stadium, the landscape, the crowds in the stands, the trophy, the jets, and the screens onto which they texture-mapped the old football-legend footage. To create the fireworks and the shattering glass effect, they relied on Cebas's Thinking Particles plug-in to 3ds Max. All rendering was accomplished with mental ray®, the integrated rendering solution within 3ds Max.
Lead animator Justin Mitchell says he and his colleagues have always found the modeling and animation capabilities in 3ds Max software to be extremely full-featured yet user-friendly, ensuring optimal results quickly. But he and the team point out that some of the features in 3ds Max were particularly indispensable for this project.
Perhaps the most important feature was normal mapping, which enables users to create the illusion of extra geometry in real time. 3ds Max animation technology includes tools for creating normal maps and previewing the results in the viewport using DX9 shaders. Plus, the software supports normal maps in the rendering process, allowing artists to add amazing detail while limiting the total volume of geometry in a scene.
As senior technical director James Coulter explains, a normal map uses the RGB information from a texture to change the direction of an object's surface normals, but with more accuracy than a simple grayscale bump map. "You create the normal map with a high-density mesh, and then use the map on a low-polygon version of the same object," he says. "This results in a low-polygon object that looks very close to the more detailed original."
For this project the artists used the normal mapping feature in 3ds Max to create the crowds in the stands. "Traditionally it's very difficult to have thousands and thousands of characters in one scene at one time because it places a huge burden on the computer," Coulter says. "With normal mapping, we could project the normals of a high-resolution character onto a low-resolution piece of geometry to make it look like it was high-res, without having to deal with difficulties in terms of processing.
"We did that once, and then multiplied it thousands of times to get the crowd," he continues. "Then we used shaders and scripts we wrote using the MAXscript capability in 3ds Max to create variations in terms of clothing, skin color, and so on."
Another feature they found to be particularly beneficial was the Material Editor in 3ds Max. "I enjoyed working with the Material Editor, particularly for the Lombardi Trophy and the scoreboards," says Andy Roberts, senior CG artist. "To make these elements appear photoreal we had to create some really nice textures. The Material Editor's visual layout enabled us to combine some of our own shaders and procedurals, along with scanned photos, to get the rich, deep textures we required."
Meanwhile, Mitchell cites the software's scriptability and plug-in architecture as his favorite tools. "We used the MAXscript capability in 3ds Max to develop in-house tools that allowed us to distribute the crowds around the stadium and solve other problems in an automated way," he enthuses. On the flip side, he says that the plug-in architecture of 3ds Max allowed the artists to use external tools, such as Thinking Particles, to create additional effects including the fireworks, the shattering glass, and flashbulbs popping in the crowd.
Coulter also gives kudos to mental ray. "For this project it was definitely an asset," he says. "The live footage of the football player was shot with a raw, handheld feeling, which creates a lot of shaking camera motion. This sort of motion is very difficult for renderers to handle because of issues with motion blur.
"But the mental ray renderer that comes integrated in 3ds Max has a rapid motion blur feature, which allowed it to handle the motion blur on scenes like these."
Thanks to the hard work and talent of the Digital Dimension artists, coupled with the sophisticated capability of 3ds Max, viewers around the world who tune in to Super Bowl XXXIX will be treated to an opening sequence that promises to excite as well as delight. And who knows: the sequence could win the studio another Emmy. "It's certainly something we're very, very proud of," concludes Roberts.
Note: mental ray is a registered trademark of mental images GmbH & Co. KG, licensed for use by Autodesk, Inc.