Santa Monica, CA September 11, 2006 ­After ESPN scored the NFL’s Monday Night Football franchise, TV’s largest sports broadcast package, the cable network sought an on-air look on a par with the coup it had scored. Instead of approaching the usual suspects, ESPN’s radical take had them approach companies with high-end commercial and feature film experience. The Syndicate’s visually rich concept of a photoreal city, which transforms to become part of the game when Monday Night Football comes to town, won the show open and is wowing football fans since its debut Monday.

“We were given a mandate from the heads of ESPN to create the best broadcast package ever, truly phenomenal, something never seen before on Monday Night Football,” reports Chris Mantzaris, creative director at ESPN. “We were familiar with all the design styles for sports and decided to approach the open as a high-end effects movie. The Syndicate’s reel, and the work they did for us, reflects what we always expected the open to be — awesome.”

“We wanted to do something cinematic and more filmic than big, shiny, moving 3D objects,” says Rick Paiva, ESPN’s vice president of creative services. “The Syndicate pitched us and won based on their transformation idea and their impressive track record. They have years of CG experience and the ability to do whatever we could dream of in terms of special effects. We paired The Syndicate with directors/designers Matt Checkowski and Kurt Mattila (Imaginary Forces alumni known for their work on Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report) to create a powerful team.”

A Massive Win for The Syndicate
“This was a massive win for The Syndicate. ESPN’s Monday Night Football is probably the single biggest network sports broadcast package in television history,” says The Syndicate managing director Kenny Solomon. “The broadcast package includes the Monday Night Football open, informational graphics within the game, and graphics for the entire NFL package on ESPN seven days a week. Every football show Monday through Sunday was branded with a new identity for the franchise. Thousands of elements were involved.”

The Syndicate tapped its commercial and filmmaking expertise to take the Monday Night Football open to a new level, combining design, CG and live-action components to create a mini-movie about a transformed city the likes of which viewers have never seen before on television. “Materials for the package to use throughout the week are culled from that defining moment,” Solomon explains.

ESPN’s Hyper-Real City
“The concept for ESPN Transformation was large, but we didn’t have a deep well of experience in CG and graphics,” notes ESPN’s Paiva. “So we had to count on The Syndicate’s expertise. My expectations were limited going in but when I saw what they could do it was time to think much bigger.”

“The Monday Night Football open is something of an American icon. Millions of people tune in weekly, and this is the first year ESPN is telecasting the franchise,” says The Syndicate producer Richard Mann. “So there was a little extra pressure on us knowing that the media and fans will eagerly devour every aspect of the show.”

Mann emphasizes that while the show open is effects intensive, viewers “can watch and enjoy it as a piece. What’s occurring isn’t possible but it unfolds so naturally that you just absorb it and move along with it. There’s so much for the eye, so many subtleties that repeated viewings of the open give viewers an opportunity to catch things they didn’t see the first time.”

The Sixty -second open begins with a live-action aerial shot of a city downtown at night. It fades to black then cuts to a close-up of a football helmet, with the ESPN logo, on a rain-slicked street. As people pass by a young man picks up the helmet, puts it on and a blue energy effect triggers a transformation of the entire city.

Transformation on the Run
A man runs for a bus, his business suit morphing into a football uniform as the energy effect envelops him, and charges into a line of opposing players with a explosion of light. The energy effect ripples up the side of a skyscraper and tall stadium light grids take shape among the buildings. A bicyclist, hit by a burst of light, transforms into a player carrying the ball; as he steps into traffic the asphalt progressively morphs into astroturf under his feet. Another football player leaps over a taxi aglow with energy as white yard lines paint the turf. A GMC Sierra pickup barrels down the street and through a tunnel where six players running abreast are illuminated by the blue energy. Another line of players rushes past a storefront where TV sets transform to display team logos and the ESPN Monday Night Football title.

But that’s not all. A man on the street talking on his cell phone transforms into a coach wearing a headset. A football player running down the street crashes through the open door of a car. Excited crowds gather on the sidewalks. Tiers project out of skyscrapers like open drawers, forming stands filled with cheering fans. A huge electronic billboard bears an animated ESPN logo.

A cop at a street corner blows his whistle and morphs into a referee as nearby passersby transform into cheerleaders. More players charge by. Suddenly a wide shot reveals that entire football stadium has formed downtown ringed by buildings and lit by enormous light grids whose klieg lights crisscross the night sky. The city’s transformation is complete. Let Monday Night Football begin.

Crafting the City
“Creating a photoreal city is always challenging,” reports Mann. “Everyone knows what a city looks like so there’s no margin for error. And when you manipulate the city, you have to make it look grounded, that it’s structurally possible for it to change. You have to make it feel as if this is really happening.”

“Every shot in the open has been manipulated in some way with visual effects,” reveals The Syndicate vfx on set supervisor Luke McDonald. “The backgrounds have been greatly manipulated.”

Initially, The Syndicate shot on location in downtown LA. But the environment just wasn’t magical enough so The Syndicate rotoscoped people off plates they had shot and recreated the backplates with CG or front projection mapped onto geometry.

“Since we’ve done so many city shots in other projects, we find the best approach is to build yourself a toolkit,” McDonald explains. This modular toolkit consists of “a library of buildings, each in low, medium and high resolution, which can be used in different shots,” says digital supervisor Danny Braet. “Depending on the shot we can manipulate the buildings further, move them, rotate them, and break them up. We can use a combination of texture painting on 3D geometry, matte painting, and front projection of real pictures onto simple geometry according to what the shot needs.”

Such an asset library typically gets The Syndicate about 50 percent of the way there in building a city. However, “This was our first night city,” points out McDonald. “All the surfaces, reflections in the windows, had to be repainted and reapplied to the geometry.”

The Syndicate began with an intricate, low-resolution animatic for the directors and creatives. “It gives them a good idea of how the city will lay out,” says Braet. “Then we refined it.”

Shooting All-Night in Downtown LA
The Syndicate staged four all-night, live-action 35mm shoots in downtown LA. Although the first aerial in the open is live-action enhanced with CG people, subsequent aerials are totally CG. An additional day on a soundstage was required to shoot athletes performing the parts of the transformed football players; a Photo-Sonics camera shooting at 900 fps lensed the slow-mo leap over a taxi. Crowds were further filled out with The Syndicate shooting greenscreen. Additional background elements were captured on location with a rented HD camera.

Danny Braet created the blue energy effect, which radiates from the magical ESPN helmet. “It’s a combination of techniques: particle systems, collision detection against the buildings and compositing,” he explains.

“Directors Matt and Kurt wanted the energy effect to spice up each shot but not overpower it,” notes McDonald. “We refined the effect until it was quite subtle. It had to be visibly noticeable yet not take away from anything else in the scene.”

An additional concern was that the energy effect “not be destructive or explosive,” Braet points out. “The transformation had to be quite magical,” McDonald stresses.

The Syndicate, Students of Football
To immerse The Syndicate in the gridiron world ESPN furnished the company with as much reference material as possible and sent team members and the directors to watch a pre-season game from the field and to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame to get a sense of its history.

The transformation of the people on the street into game participants became a ballet of time stretching, warping, manipulating and morphing. “Minory Sasaki took the bull by the horns and came up with lots of effects and CG elements that are fairly unnoticeable but look real,” says McDonald.

Even the transformation of the asphalt into turf, which appears pretty straightforward, was carefully choreographed. “The speed at which it moves is very important,” Braet notes. “It’s not a simple wipe. The turf transforms first then the yard lines come up.”

No Assembly Line for This Truck
As the lead sponsor of Monday Night Football, GMC is well branded throughout the open with its 2007 GMC Sierra truck barreling down the street into a tunnel, and with signage appearing prominently in the transformed city.

“The story of ESPN Transformation drove the open but The Syndicate had to integrate GMC seamlessly into it. It was like product placement in a movie, working the product into the storyline,” ESPN’s Mantzaris observes.

When the show open was in production the 2007 GMC Sierra had not been built so The Syndicate created a photoreal version of the truck. The Syndicate’s creative director Ben Grossmann traveled to Detroit with staffers from Eyetronics (SPELLING?) to scan the Sierra prototype

According to Richard Mann, “We did an animatic previz for ESPN and GMC laying out the length of the shots, the action of the truck and the position of the billboards so they could approve the sequences before we started to work. The animatic became a blueprint.”

“When we do CG cars we often don’t light them in their environment — it’s more showroom lighting,” McDonald explains. “In this case, we needed realistic lighting, shading and reflections in the city environment. We wound up meeting things halfway by creating a kind of traveling showroom lighting for the car in scenes with otherwise real-life conditions.”

“The Syndicate’s ability to create the Sierra, which won’t be released until October, was a wonderful element they brought to the table,” says ESPN’s Paiva.

Since no advertising had been created for the 2007 GMC Sierra yet, The Syndicate also found itself using the CG car to make posters and signage on view in the city.

A Stadium Like No Other
The final shot of the fully-formed stadium ringed by the city is probably one of the biggest in the open. “It’s 100 percent CG,” McDonald notes. “Not only is it a full CG city at HD resolution, we had to come up with a full 10 seconds where it looped for broadcast. The amount of work and effort by the team headed by Minory Sasaki and Anthony Vu was amazing.”

“Matte painter Vlad Bina helped us lay out and composite the last shot,” adds Braet. “We set up the idea how far to go out with the camera with low-resolution buildings. Then Vlad took a still and started painting, giving us an idea how things might be if a stadium was in the city center and how to make it look interesting.”

“I was tremendously impressed with shots of the city’s buildings growing and changing and becoming part of the stadium,” says ESPN’s Paiva. “I was also wildly surprised at how much work it takes to create these scenes. It takes patience and vision to accomplish what The Syndicate did.”

Surprise Celebrity Appearances
The Syndicate also customized the show open to make it possible for ESPN to insert a surprise celebrity into the third shot following the appearance of the glowing helmet. “We built it so ESPN can blend the celebrity of the week into the layered composite of the environment,” says Richard Mann. “We gave ESPN the creative latitude to fill that space as they wish.” First up on the celebrity roster will be California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Syndicate telecine artist/partner Beau Leon took the open further “to the edge” with his “very dynamic” color correction, says McDonald. “Beau sat down with the directors to set a cinematic look. ESPN was willing to take risks with the color palette: They used the full spectrum, including dark blue, grays and greens that you usually don’t see in sports opens.”

The Syndicate tapped Newtek LightWave for CG, Eyeon’s Fusion for compositing and Autodesk’s Discreet Flame compositing the open. Adobe After Effects and Photoshop also played a role as did Boujou tracking software.

Concurrent with the open, The Syndicate also created seven15-second bumpers, most composed of elements different from the show open. They include a helicopter transforming into the ESPN blimp; a football player diving over a taxi with the ball; and a cheerleader dancing in silhouette on top of a building with grid lights behind her.

“Every time I watch the open — and I must have seen it 155 times — I still pick out something new and different each and every time,” reports ESPN’s Paiva. “The level of detail used to create ESPN Hyper Real City is remarkable. There are visionaries working at The Syndicate.”

Paiva emphasizes that “no matter how great the idea, if you don’t have a good working relationship with the studio you won’t get the best product. We meshed very well with The Syndicate. In fact, we liked them so much that we’re using them on another project, ESPN NASCAR.”

“Everyone at The Syndicate put their all in it,” says ESPN’s Mantzaris. “We decided to take quite an unusual approach for sports broadcast design. What The Syndicate created will resonate with all fans and make them conscious of our brand.”

For its part, The Syndicate also gives kudos to ESPN. “ESPN was phenomenal to work with,” says Kenny Solomon. “They were so receptive and open to ideas and so supportive. It is a wonderful relationship.”

“Rick, Noubar (Stone) and Chris at ESPN were so open to creative discussion and so trusting that it wasn’t like working with clients, but more like working with friends,” echoes McDonald. “Our artists also had a lot of face time with the directors, and that’s rare. Working with Matt and Kurt was like doing a project with friends.”

“We came away from this project with a really good feeling and very high morale,” notes Braet. “Everyone feels that they have a piece of themselves in it.”

With the innovative Monday Night Football open McDonald believes “ESPN has set the tone for the next year or two for sports broadcasters.”

The Syndicate (1207 Fourth Street, Santa Monica, CA), (, a division of the ComputerCafe Group (Santa Maria, CA), is a 45-person VFX and telecine studio specializing in all aspects of final picture delivery, compositing and CGI for commercials and music videos. The company combines CafeFX’s award-winning CGI and VFX studio with The Syndicate’s three veteran partners: telecine artist Beau Leon, LA; executive producer Ken Solomon; and director of new business Leslie Sorrentino.


PROJECT: ESPN Monday Night Football show open and graphics package
TITLE: ESPN Monday Night Football
AIR DATE: September 11, 2006

PRODUCTION COMPANY: The Syndicate/Santa Monica
DESIGN/VFX STUDIO: The Syndicate/Santa Monica
VFX PRODUCERS: Richard Mann, Nicola Wiseman
FLAME/EFFECTS ARTISTS: Les Umberger, Kevin Prendiville, Mike Eck, Todd Hemsley
DAILIES: Jeremy Sawyer
CG ARTISTS: Josh McGuire, Minory Sasaki, Adrian Van Der Park, Anthony Vu, Bruce Branit, Eddie Robinson, Paul Ghezzo, Steve Graves, Trevor Harder, Trevor Peirce
ROTO ARTISTS: Alana Aranki, Tim LeDoux
COMPOSITORS: Tim LeDoux, Josh LaCross
DESIGNER/ANIMATOR: Chris Lopez, Anthony Honn, Eric Keller, Grant Okita, Geoff Mark, Oliver Arnold, Paul Parker, Roy Cullen
EDITOR: Bella Erikon


About the author

Justin Cone

Together with Carlos El Asmar, Justin co-founded Motionographer, F5 and The Motion Awards. He currently lives in Austin, Texas with is wife, son and fluffball of a dog. Before taking on Motionographer full-time, Justin worked in various capacities at Psyop, NBC-Universal, Apple, Adobe and SCAD.