J Paul Peszko looks at four leaders in sports motion graphics to find out how they're staying on top of their game.
If you have the QuickTime plug-in you can view Troika Design Group's motion graphics work in The FSN Final Score and NBC Sunday Night Football.
Recently I attended a sports business seminar at USC. One of the keynote speakers, Larry Jones, coo of Fox Sports, presented a video of how a baseball game between the Dodgers and Cubs would have evolved over the years from the birth of TV broadcasting circa 1938 up to the present day. Aside from obvious quality issues such as color, upgraded cameras and positioning, and, of course, editing, the one striking difference between not only the black and white era but even a decade ago and today is the proliferation of 2D and 3D graphics. I asked Larry if he thought that the increasing use of graphics might lead to too much clutter. He told me that according to all of their marketing surveys the fans loved the graphics. Hopefully, that should silence the media critics who have been yelling, "Foul!"
VizRT: Leading the Way With Graphics Tools
So who are the major players in sports graphics? One has to look no further than CBS' recent telecast of Super Bowl XLI, where one of the stars was not on the field but in the telecast booth. This would be VizRT, a leading provider of realtime 2D and 3D broadcast graphics. Headquartered in Bergen, Norway, VizRT doesn't necessarily design the graphics but instead provides the graphic tools, namely the engines and software, for the production and design companies.
For Super Bowl XLI, CBS Sports deployed VizRT's HD nonlinear editing (NLE) plug-in for its Viz|Trio CG system during the live broadcast. With the NLE plug-in, graphics templates -- from a Viz|Trio system with all standard Viz|Trio controls and features, which allow the user to change text, images, 3D objects, scaling and positioning -- can be used within an NLE system without modification.
"In addition to streamlining workflow, our HD NLE plug-in shortens production time for editors to have highlights ready for halftime shows," explains Isaac Hersly, president, VizRT Americas. "Viz|Trio allows editors to create HD graphics on the fly. Given the fast-paced nature of live sports, the nimble nature of the system adds value for broadcasters. They make it, save it and production can view it immediately."
The plug-in also features VizRT's "Look Ahead" transition logic. Users can stack arbitrary pages and automatically create seamless transitions, using just one video output channel. The NFL Network also purchased several VizRT HD graphics systems for broadcasts from its LA studio in the week leading up to the Super Bowl.
Increasingly Viz|Trio is becoming the standard user interface for graphics operators. By adopting this off-the-shelf approach, sports producers need only concern themselves with the overall design and production of the templates, developed by the customer's own designers, without the need for a tailor-made interface for every sport. Using a powerful renderer to create an effective set, which allows for a number of live video windows, has helped to make VizRT software the industry standard for live sports graphics around the world.
Just how extensive is their sports coverage? "Globally more or less every important sporting event," suggests VizRT's cto Petter Ole Jakobsen. "Everything from the most important soccer leagues to cricket, most of the live graphics on ESPN to the Olympics." Although Jakobsen couldn't go into details, he expects VizRT to have a very high rate of participation in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "Where you've got high-end sports coverage, it's very likely you'll find our systems doing (the graphics). It's the same thing with elections by the way. In most of the cases where you have high-profile graphics coverage, they tend to use our tools. A good example is the last U. S. elections, which we're particularly proud of, where all of the networks, excluding NBC, were using our tools for all of the graphics on air. So, if you look at the end, for instance, they show the video of all the results using interactive graphics with tools from us. You'll see examples of this when it comes to the Final Four in March Madness where you have the brackets. I'm sure you'll see it on ESPN. (Our graphics tools) will be used with a high-level of interactivity where they'll use touch screens and things like that to move around on the graphics."
And speaking of touch screens, "There's also something pretty cool coming out now, which we're going to showcase at the NAB," Jakobsen revealed, "It's a multi-touch table. You can imagine how several football analysts can interact on that table, which is a screen, and move things around at the same time. That's going to look pretty stunning, I think."
So much for the tools behind the graphics you see on sporting events. Now let's look at a few of the major players who design the program identities and the actual on-air graphics.
Troika Design Group and Information Hierarchy
LA-based The Troika Design Group, noted for its visual brand identities, has recently created a signature look for Fox Sports Network's The FSN Final Score. Following on the heels of that, NBC Sports picked them to develop the overarching branding and design language for NBC's coverage of the NFL on Sunday nights. Most recently, Troika created a new identity, including logo and HD animation package, for the NFL Network's flagship sports news program NFL Total Access. For them information hierarchy is key for sports motion graphics.
"A show like The FSN Final Score is based on a maximum information concept -- it's all about info saturation and how much sports news can fit onto the screen, because The FSN Final Score viewer wants their information delivered quickly and clearly," explains Mark Bohman, exec creative director and partner at Troika. "On this project, we worked toward identifying the various information categories in a clear and balanced layout. These include elements such as league identification, standard team stats and scores. These are the basics, but if you look closer, there are deeper layers such as sidebars that tease upcoming stories. Even though the show features a highly complex layout, the information is structured so that repeat viewers will know where to find what they are looking for.
"Another unique challenge was the Informational Graphics we created for NBC Sunday Night Football. The tone and style in which these elements are presented became key branding components and identity pieces for this huge franchise. Something as simple as player headshots and lower third banners all work within a unified visual theme of illumination. Great attention was given to the typography, some of which is much like a dot matrix LED screen. The tone of the graphic elements creates a really powerful experience throughout the game -- and at their core they are all informational elements.
"Within any assignment, be it the HD graphics for ESPN's SportsCenter or the NFL Network's Total Access package, we consider the functional/practical needs of legibility and priority as we work through the stylistic details of treatment and animation. [When it comes to meeting these challenges], we look at varying solutions and cast a wide net in development because we want to create something that hasn't been seen before -- something that sports fans will appreciate and enjoy. Our team does a lot of research, brainstorming and sharing of ideas in this process.
In terms of creating a personality for each project as well as a balanced hierarchy that avoids clutter, Bohman adds that Troika blends its "expertise in creating branded experiences, essentially creating a thematic look and feel for a show, with our interest in sports. The typefaces used, color palettes, animation style, environmental design, sound design and music are all important aspects of the brands or identities we create, and they all work together to provide the viewer with a full, immersive experience.
"Second, we understand the psychology of the sports fan, because we are sports fans. We enjoy the dynamic aspects of sports. Finding ways to represent speed, scale, power and agility, basically combining the right visual components to express an exciting and entertaining viewing experience.
"Our goal is to balance the on-screen information in a way so the eye is drawn to the most important graphics. In doing this, we're creating a hierarchy that prioritizes what information is most viewed and what information is secondary, and so on. We accomplish this in a number of ways. Scale and style of typography, use of color and tone, back plates and animation all work in tandem to create balance and priority.
"We enjoy creating work that breaks from some of the older conventions and expectations within sports graphics. At Troika, we are looking to bring nuance into the details of information design. We also work to create immersive environments for our sports broadcast projects that showcase unique personalities and strong modular systems.
Imaginary Forces Finds "The Pulse"
L.A.-based Imaginary Forces, which also has offices in New York, re-branded the entire on-air look for CBS Sports during 2006 and 2007. The package included logo design, design and production of information graphics, transitional and feature package animations and tool-kit elements for studio show and live game broadcasts. The complete package was created in 1080i HD.
"The package deliverables (for CBS Sports) covered NFL Football, College Football, NCAA Basketball, PGA Golf and US Open tennis," explains Abby Okin, a producer at Imaginary Forces. "The brief from CBS required strong branding, unified structure, and flexible score, stats and information support. The look needed to be modern and strong, yet approachable and recognizable. They sought to avoid disconnect with their traditional viewers, while opening up to a younger audience.
"The biggest challenge was to find a unique look in a field that has an abundance of graphic work, sometimes to the extent that it appears to take over the real content. We were able to create an own-able CBS language, which extended its heritage in sports into a new era of sports broadcasting. "
Other challenges included:
The need to configure the elements and toolkits to support both studio and remote broadcast capabilities.
Support for a great deal of on-screen information and stats in various "hell" configurations. Information and other graphics elements are sometimes displayed large on partial or full-screens, while at other times needing to be displayed smaller and more discreetly so as not to distract from or obscure game-play.
The sheer numbers. For example, we versioned out graphics and animations for every team in the NFL. At times we provided the network with customizable projects that they could version in-house. IF produced almost 400 transitional animations for the NFL on CBS broadcasts alone.
And how did they meet those challenges?
"We formed a close partnership with the network," adds Okin. "The CBS producer was with us almost continuously from the start of design through the Sept '06 launch of the re-branded NFL games. Steve Fuller, IF's creative director for the re-brand, devised a very flexible and well-branded graphic language and architecture that was readily adaptable. He also rooted the entire re-brand in his 'Pulse' concept. 'Pulse' embodies the impact that sport television has on people; as he puts it, 'One pass, fumble, ace, three pointer or bunker shot can bring half the country into ecstasy, and the other half to despair.' 'Pulse' also represents individual or collective heat beat response to the action.
"The use of a circular button, which can hold the CBS Eye as well as the NFL On CBS logo, 'forms the beating heart to this concept,' he (Steve Fuller) explained in our presentation. The 'Pulse' also forms the graphic device through which the animations are displayed.
The 'Pulse' concept formed a solid foundation that lent itself to a variety of sports, each of which has its own emotions, pace and energy. Golf is not football; basketball is not tennis. This aided in designing and producing for a variety of sporting events, while maintaining a consistent brand identity."
Reality Check: Understanding the Broadcast Environment
Kory Jones, along with partners Andrew and Steven Heimbold, began Reality Check Studios (RCS) 10 years ago. According to Jones, RCS has been involved in some aspect of the broadcast graphics for every stick and ball sport on ESPN for the past four years, CBS Sports graphics (currently animation and integration only), NFL Networks Studio shows and live graphics, DirecTV Sunday Ticket, March Madness, NASCAR Hotpass, as well as Sky Italia (the Italian version of Fox Sports) and CCTV China The Asia games.
"DTV's NASCAR Hotpass is the latest and the most difficult," Jones suggested. "Why? We were given the task of getting five unique channels, each dedicated to an individual driver, on the air simultaneously. The design was one aspect of the project but the real challenge was in the creation of a system flexible enough to deliver the graphics and switch the video for the show with a three-man team.
"We wrote Compact Control Room or CCR, Reality Check's software to control multiple devices, including video routers, a VizRT-based graphics system and multi-image processors, from a single, computer based interface. This allowed us to combine roles limiting the number of people necessary for the each broadcast 'pod' to a producer/director, a td/director and a BA/graphics operator.
"The goal of DirecTV's NASCAR Hotpass project is to give race fans the ultimate insider's viewing experience for their favorite driver. Personalities for sports graphics projects come from two places: the client's personality and the type of sport. This was DirecTV so the client's personality came from Eric Shanks, their evp of entertainment, and NASCAR. Fast, driven by the individual driver's colors and numbers, and clean and anything we put on the screen needed to make sense. One graphic we came up with that we're very happy with is the individual driver's leaderboard. When you are watching a Hotpass channel you can always tell where you're driver is, who is in front and back of him, and who is the lead car."
And what about avoiding clutter?
"It's not our job to avoid clutter. It's our job to give the director and producer the tools they need to broadcast a live event. After 10 years of doing live sporting events one of the areas that RCS excels is in understanding the broadcast environment. You can create the best graphic in the world but if the director and producer can't make it work in their broadcast it won't matter because it won't make air.
"That said, creating sports graphics is continuously reminding yourself that the most important thing on the screen is the video, not the graphics. That can be hard on the ego at times. The work you do should give the network a personality and augment the broadcast but never get in the way. How do we create a brand without interfering? We have some rules for that but it might have to be another article.
"The future is in companies that can integrate great design, animation, technology, custom software and hardware build out...Graphics for live events are getting more sophisticated. You can't just hand off a digibeta anymore. As my partner Steven says, 'Graphics have grown up.' Using software like VizRT to turn data into realtime, HD, broadcast quality 3D graphics to enhance a live event is the future. Imagine being able to broadcast just the data for an event and seeing a sporting event realistically recreated in realtime on your phone, computer or TV with the graphics integrated into game."
J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.