SVG Sports Graphics Forum: Inside ESPN’s Creative Process for the 2016 MNF Open
The team was able to go from inspiration to implementation in three months
When ESPN’s Creative Services team was tasked with creating a new open for Monday Night Football less than three months before the kickoff of the 2016 NFL season, Spike Szykowny and his team snapped into action. In the whirlwind months that followed, the senior director of motion graphics and his crew conceptualized and produced a red-carpet–themed MNF open that offered a fresh on how to open an NFL primetime telecast.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have much money, and we didn’t have an idea, so that put us in a pickle,” Szykowny said during his keynote presentation at the SVG Sports Graphics Forum in New York City last week. “But ideas can come from anywhere. A lot of the times they’re born out of the circumstances that you’re given. It encourages you to think outside the box, which is exactly what we did.”
Coming Up With the Concept
MNF’s existing open incorporated iconic MNF moments from throughout the years, along with calls from legendary announcers, including Al Michaels and Mike Tirico. However, with Tirico departing ESPN to join Michaels at NBC Sports, ESPN felt the open needed a makeover.
“It didn’t make sense for us to keep the open that we had,” said Szykowny. “We even tossed out the idea of not having an open. But we knew that wasn’t going to work.”
Because it was just three months before the kickoff the 2016 season, Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman tasked the ESPN Creative Services team to come up with a concept as soon as possible. So Szykowny went searching for inspiration.
“We were all big fans of Entourage,” he explained. “They did a lot of red-carpet scenes, so we decided to take a look at what they did and see if it would work for Monday Night Football — except making the players the stars for the biggest movie premiere on the planet.”
The Creative Services team put together a ripomatic featuring a red-carpet scene from Entourage integrated with existing Monday Night Football elements and clips from ESPN’s NFL Draft and ESPYs red-carpet coverage.
Getting Approval and Setting Up the Live-Action Shoot
Once the Entourage-inspired red-carpet pitch was approved internally at ESPN, it had to be approved by the NFL and top MNF sponsor GMC.
“Once we were on board together at ESPN, we had to get it approved by the NFL, and they liked it,” said Szykowny. “Then we had to get it approved by GMC. We made storyboards to [illustrate] the concept, and they loved it. This open actually became a centerpiece of a bigger [sponsorship] deal with them.”
Once the concept was greenlighted, ESPN had to confront the litany of challenges ahead: most notably, setting and securing the budget, securing the NFL players to appear in the open, scouting a location for the live-action shoot, planning out the live-action shoot, and cutting a new version of the iconic “Heavy Action” MNF music theme that would fit with the new format.
“[For the location,] we needed a runway for the cars to pull up, a runway for the players to walk down, and then an atrium so we could build a CG stadium around it. We looked at a lot of different buildings in Southern California, and this was the hardest part.”
Eventually, ESPN found a venue that met all these needs: the old Bandai Toy company headquarters in Cypress, CA, which had been abandoned since January 2016.
ESPN secured about 25 current and retired NFL players to appear in the open, as well as its MNF announce team of play-by-play man Sean McDonough, analyst Jon Gruden, and reporter Lisa Salters. Most of the players agreed to participate in the live-action shoot; a handful of others were shot separately using a green-screen background.
Inside the Shoot
The live-action shoot was timed to take place just after the ESPYs to ensure that players were in the SoCal area.
“A shoot like this should have taken three days of setup and two days of shooting, but we didn’t have the budget or time for that,” said Szykowny. “So we did setup in a day and a half and shot everything overnight.”
The shoot began at roughly 9 p.m. and wrapped the following morning at 5:30 a.m., at which point the production team went back to the hotel, showered, and immediately headed to downtown L.A. to shoot green-screen segments with other players. Among the players shot with green screen were Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, Clay Matthews, and Rob Gronkowski.
Soon after the shoot, the production team worked with GMC to produce the beginning of the open featuring a GMC SUV driving through a virtual city and arriving at the red carpet with McDonough, Gruden, and Salters in tow.
Although ESPN created the bulk of the animations and virtual effects in-house, Motomo Studios was used for some editing and special effects. In addition, Habana Avenue helped produce the live-action shoot and ESPN worked with APM music to produce a new cut of the “Heavy Action” theme song (the final version of which was produced at Abbey Road Studios in London).
The Final Product
Despite the hurricane of planning and production, ESPN was able to deliver the sleek new open for Monday Night Football in time for the Steelers-Redskins opening game on Sept. 12.
“When you put it all together,” Szykowny pointed out, “we brought the idea to the creative team, we did a bunch of initial planning stages, we sold the NFL and GMC, we got the NFL stars, we executed the live-action shoot, we completed all the green-screen shoots and the car shoot, we recorded the music, and we added the visual effects to come up with the final MNF Open.
“Ideas can come from anywhere,” he added. “You just have to keep pressing along. You can always solve whatever you need to solve. There is not a right or wrong way to go about it. It’s just a lot of problem-solving, ingenuity, and keeping at it.”
For more video interviews and coverage from the 2017 SVG Sports Graphics Forum, visit SVG On Demand.