VFX Voice

The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.

Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.

Subscribe to the VFX Voice Print Edition

Subscriptions & Single Issues


October 10
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

HOW ESPN, PIXAR SCORED WITH NFL’s TOY STORY SUNDAY FUNDAY ANIMATED SIMULCAST

By CHRIS McKITTRICK

Images courtesy of ESPN Creative Studio and Disney/Pixar.

“Toy” football players stood in for the real-life Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars players.

“Toy” football players stood in for the real-life Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars players.

“Calvin Ridley said, ‘Trevor Lawrence, you’re my favorite deputy!’” For viewers of the Sunday, October 1, 2023 Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars National Football League game on the Disney+ and ESPN+ streaming services, that unlikely play-by-play call by Drew Carter made perfect sense in the context of the unique presentation of “Toy Story Funday Football,” a first-of-its-kind NFL game presentation that offered a fully animated live simulcast of the football game set in Pixar’s Toy Story Universe.

The broadcast is the latest innovative presentation in ESPN’s long-running “MegaCast” alternate presentations of live sports, an initiative the network began nearly 30 years ago when ESPN2 broadcast an in-car feed of the 1994 IndyCar Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix as an alternative live presentation of the event for viewers. The presentations are bolstered by the work of ESPN Creative Studio, a division of ESPN’s production team that focuses on developing motion graphics and other assets to enhance live sports presentations on the ESPN family of networks, including the ESPN+ streaming service. In recent years, ESPN Creative Studio has explored dynamic and unique ways to present live sports to help inform and entertain audiences.

“When somebody suggested Toy Story, it was like boom, home run. You could just tell from the collective energy in the room.” In developing the idea, ESPN Creative Studio landed on the conceit that the game would take place on the floor of Andy’s Room, the primary setting of the first three Toy Story movies and the world in which fan-favorite characters like Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Rex, Bo Peep, and Hamm have had their most memorable adventures.”

—Michael “Spike” Syzkowny, Senior Director of Animation, Graphics Innovation & Production Design, ESPN Creative Studio

“Toy Story Sunday Football” builds on the previous success that ESPN Creative Studio had with another live sports simulcast presentation with Disney characters. In March 2023, ESPN presented the “NHL Big City Greens Classic,” a simulcast of a National Hockey League Washington Capitals and New York Rangers hockey game on Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney+ and ESPN+ that animated the players in the style of the hit Disney Channel animated series Big City Greens. ESPN Creative Studio moved the action of the game from New York’s Madison Square Garden to an animated rink in the middle of the show’s city setting.

ESPN Creative Studio added acceleration effects for running plays.

ESPN Creative Studio added acceleration effects for running plays.

The “NHL Big City Greens Classic” broadcast was made possible in part by Beyond Sports, a Dutch data visualization technology company that was acquired by Sony in July 2022. Beyond Sports’s technology has utilized player tracker data to create real-time alternate-reality presentations of sports games, including select NFL games that have been simulcast on the youth-oriented television network Nickelodeon beginning with an NFC Wild Card playoff game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints in January 2021, which at points featured players, announcers and the crowd animated in block graphics (i.e., “blocky style”) similar to the style of popular video games like Minecraft.

The tracking data for the “Toy Story Funday Football” broadcast is provided by NFL’s Next Gen Stats, which captures the real-time location data, speed and acceleration for every player during an NFL game by utilizing sensors throughout the stadium that track radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags installed into each player’s shoulder pads as well as on the game’s officials, pylons, sticks, chains and even in the game ball. Since first installing RFID tags in players’ shoulder pads in 2014, Next Gen Stats has provided NFL teams with invaluable metrics on player performance with every single play of a game. From 2018 on, the Next Gen Stats data for each team has been shared league-wide to help support several NFL initiatives, including health and safety protocols.

“The trick for us was maintaining our rules for the Toy Story world, i.e., the toys can’t be alive when humans are around; they have to play dead. So, the football players had to be toys as well. We had to start with being in Andy’s Room and Andy is playing a mock football game with all his toys. We had to have that conceit before moving forward. Once we had that figured out, they wanted the maximum Toy Story involvement they can have, but we also wanted to make sure that it’s a football game you’re watching and not the Toy Story characters playing football.”

—Jay Ward, Creative Director of Franchise, Pixar

The practical purpose of collecting game tracking data also allows for unique presentations like “Toy Story Funday Football.” The primary motivation behind these alternate simulcasts is to bring new audiences to the broadcast. In that respect, the experiments have been an overwhelming success. After the airing of the “NHL Big City Greens Classic,” ESPN reported that the game drew a much younger audience than a typical NHL broadcast, with viewer median ages of 12 (on Disney XD) and 14 (on Disney Channel) – decades younger than the median age for general NHL game viewership on television (approximately 52 years old). It also drew a female-majority audience (58.7%) in contrast to the estimated 37% female viewership of typical NHL games.

“Audience expansion is a big thing for us with viewers changing habits,” remarks Michael “Spike” Syzkowny, Senior Director of Animation, Graphics Innovation & Production Design at ESPN Creative Studio, who has spent more than two decades with ESPN and has won 10 Sports Emmy Awards for his production work on their broadcasts. “The MegaCast is what kicked it off for us – the granddaddy of them all. When we did ‘Big City Greens,’ that was really successful. I go back and I watch that, and I think we nailed it there. It felt really good and got a lot of positive publicity. The other leagues looked around and said, ‘Hey, is there something we can do like that with ESPN?’”

After the success of the ‘Big City Greens’ broadcast, ESPN Creative Studio and the NFL discussed how they could do a similar presentation for an NFL game. “We thought, how can we build upon what we did?” Syzkowny notes. “Because this technology is never easy. Everything that goes into this is very innovative. You’re breaking new ground, and when you’re doing that you’re solving for a lot of challenges.”

The “field” in Andy’s Room was captured in several camera angles.

The “field” in Andy’s Room was captured in several camera angles.

In determining the right IP to use for the network’s first foray into a real-time alternate presentation of an NFL game, ESPN has the advantage of being a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. Because of that arrangement, ESPN Creative Studio had potential access to decades of the corporation’s beloved characters. However, the team knew it hit the right concept with Pixar’s Toy Story. “When somebody suggested Toy Story, it was like boom, home run,” Syzkowny recalls. “You could just tell from the collective energy in the room.” In developing the idea, ESPN Creative Studio landed on the conceit that the game would take place on the floor of Andy’s Room, the primary setting of the first three Toy Story movies and the world in which fan-favorite characters like Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Rex, Bo Peep and Hamm have had their most memorable adventures.

Though ESPN and Pixar share the same corporate parent in Disney, ESPN Creative Studio still needed to pitch the idea to the groundbreaking animation studio to demonstrate that the broadcast would not only be viable but would also adhere to Pixar’s high standards of animation and storytelling quality that have helped make Toy Story a beloved franchise that has entertained audiences worldwide for nearly 30 years – across feature films, shorts, theme park attractions and merchandising.

To demonstrate proof of concept, ESPN Creative Studio developed a mock-up of what a toy football game would look like on the floor of Andy’s Room. The mock-up was presented to the team of Pixar, including Jay Ward, Creative Director of Franchise at Pixar. “The level of quality without our input already looked really good,” Ward shares. “They pulled off quite a bit with just this test that they did, so it was a good starting point.”

Ward’s approval of the project was essential for it to move forward. In his role at Pixar, Ward is responsible for overseeing how the company’s intellectual property is utilized in outside media. He began his career at Pixar in production working in the art department on films like Monsters, Inc. and Cars. Following the explosive popularity of Cars, Ward was assigned to creatively oversee Cars as a franchise as the property expanded into shorts, theme park attractions and other media. His role later expanded to oversee all franchises at Pixar.

“Setting up the studio and making sure that everything works on the spot when you bring up the system – you’re combining that in real-time. You can’t say, ‘Well, the first quarter didn’t go well, let’s go back and re-do it.’ It has to happen. We do rehearsals because the director cutting the game does not see real cameras.”

—Michael “Spike” Syzkowny, Senior Director of Animation, Graphics Innovation & Production Design, ESPN Creative Studio

For Ward and Pixar, it was important that the project not only adhered to Pixar’s expectations and standards for animation but also its parameters for the “world” of the Toy Story characters. “Authenticity is a big word to us, making sure things are authentic to those worlds,” Ward says. “Keeping the storytelling intact – what would Woody or Buzz do or not do during a football game in Andy’s imagination – what rules do we set for that?”

Similarly, both ESPN Creative Studio and the NFL had high expectations for the presentation of the football game as well, as the concept would inevitably fall apart if the animated presentation did not allow for fans to follow the game’s action. “Of course, everyone is very protective of their IP, as they should be,” Syzkowny points out. “The NFL wants us to present an authentic game that is still fun and speaks to what we’re trying to do, but it still needs to have a certain standard. And it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t love Toy Story, so we have to be respectful of that. With our talent, we have to make sure they are comfortable with calling the game as animated characters, which doesn’t happen every day. Combining those things is the challenge and being respectful of everybody’s positions amongst those things.”

“The trick for us was maintaining our rules for the Toy Story world, i.e., the toys can’t be alive when humans are around; they have to play dead,” Ward adds. “So, the football players had to be toys as well. We had to start with being in Andy’s Room and Andy is playing a mock football game with all his toys. We had to have that conceit before moving forward. Once we had that figured out, they wanted the maximum Toy Story involvement they can have, but we also wanted to make sure that it’s a football game you’re watching and not the Toy Story characters playing football.”

With the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars players in formation, fan-favorite Toy Story characters can be seen watching the action.

With the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars players in formation, fan-favorite Toy Story characters can be seen watching the action.

The NFL and ESPN selected the October 1 game between the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars, one of three 2023 NFL International Series games, that was scheduled to be held at Wembley Stadium in London as an ideal game for the “Toy Story Funday Football” broadcast. Because the game was played in the U.K., it meant that the game was scheduled for the family-friendly time of Sunday morning across the U.S. Once approved, ESPN Creative Studio worked on the production of the broadcast for approximately three months, working on it through game time.

Much of that work focused on preparing the technology to ensure a smooth broadcast. Brooklyn, New York-based Silver Spoon Animation assisted ESPN with the mocap of the announcers. “Setting up the studio and making sure that everything works on the spot when you bring up the system – you’re combining that in real-time,” Syzkowny says. “You can’t say, ‘Well, the first quarter didn’t go well, let’s go back and re-do it.’ It has to happen. We do rehearsals because the director cutting the game does not see real cameras.”

Pre-production work also ensures that the player animations will look fluid no matter how the athletes move on the real-life field. To assist with the animation, Pixar provided ESPN Creative Studio with Toy Story assets, models and “toolkit animations,” which Ward describes as “pre-done animation that is usually used for promotional purposes like TV bumpers and trailers.”

“A couple of pieces on the data visualization side were exciting challenges we undertook. The first, combining active tracking data and optical tracking data was unique for this experience. This was the first time anyone has combined the two sources of data to output in a virtual recreation in near real-time (less than 0.5s). The second was seamlessly blending between single-point and limb tracking-based animations.”

—Sander Schouten, CEO and Co-Founder, Beyond Sports

“Player tracking is always a challenge to make the players’ movements as realistic as possible,” Syzkowny explains. “Working with Pixar’s IP, they want their characters to move a certain way and act a certain way. While they gave us source material and a toolkit to work with, sometimes that’s harder because you have to match what their stuff does.”

Ensuring the proper movement for the characters posed new tests for Beyond Sports. “A couple of pieces on the data visualization side were exciting challenges we undertook,” notes Sander Schouten, CEO and Co-Founder of Beyond Sports. “The first, combining active tracking data and optical tracking data was unique for this experience. This was the first time anyone has combined the two sources of data to output in a virtual recreation in near real-time (less than 0.5s). The second was seamlessly blending between single-point and limb tracking-based animations.”

Syzkowny also notes that Beyond Sports’ player tracking technology has existed for several years now, but the challenge of utilizing is determining how to best apply it to storytelling. “I think the key to this is how do you do it in a way that still connects with a broad audience of people,” Syzkowny says. “You have to make sure that it comes down to the storytelling aspect and how you make it feel like something new. A lot of what we did with ‘Big City Greens’ as well as ‘Toy Story’ is cutting-edge technology, but it’s all been around there for a while. How are we combining it to make it into something that feels new and unique?”

The drive to make “Toy Story Funday Football” feel new and unique led to advancements on the part of Beyond Sports to bring new visual elements to the presentation of NFL games. “Beyond Sports’s data visualization technology has been continuously evolving since the development of our blocky characters, and can now produce ‘blocky,’ humanoid and stylized IP-based animated characters, as done for the ‘Big City Greens’ and ‘Toy Story’ alternative casts,” according to Schouten. “Regarding the production itself, the technology’s ability to provide unique perspectives or viewpoints of the game (i.e., first-person view, or in the ‘Toy Story’ case, a ‘helmet cam’), and to integrate more directly with sport-specific elements, such as sideline triggered events, officiating triggered events, etc., are additional advancements Beyond Sports have worked on.”

ESPN Creative Studio rendered the “stadium” for “Toy Story Funday Football,” placing the action on the floor of Andy’s Room, the setting of the first three Toy Story movies.

ESPN Creative Studio rendered the “stadium” for “Toy Story Funday Football,” placing the action on the floor of Andy’s Room, the setting of the first three Toy Story movies.

A highlight of the production for ESPN Creative Studio was developing a special halftime show featuring a motorcycle jump by daredevil Duke Caboom, a fan-favorite character introduced in 2019’s Toy Story 4. “The Duke Caboom Daredevil Spectacular came out of us sitting around thinking, ‘Okay, we have halftime – think about the old Evel Knievel videos or Travis Pastrana for the next generation,” Syzkowny explains. “We have this character that loves to jump stuff. Why don’t we put on his own halftime jump in Andy’s room?’”

Like the rest of the broadcast, the halftime sequence was entirely animated by ESPN Creative Studio with a Pixar animator advising ESPN Creative Studio. “When they did the initial Duke Caboom jump, we took it and showed it to a Pixar animator and asked him for notes,” Ward says. “He gave that to them, and they were really good about collaborating and addressing those notes, and it got to a really good place.”

The production of the halftime show vignette, which almost serves as a new Toy Story short in itself, is just one example of the close collaboration between ESPN Creative Studio and Pixar for the broadcast. “We set the parameters and guardrails, and we said, ‘Come back and show it to us,’” Ward notes. “Pixar doesn’t expect things to be perfect. We’d rather see it early so we can give you notes, affect those things and have you make the best thing possible than for them to wait until the last minute because it wasn’t good enough yet. That’s not really collaboration. We really do prefer a collaborative culture because that’s how we work and that’s how they work, which has been really nice.”

For ESPN Creative Studio, which is constantly working on the production of upcoming broadcasts throughout the year. Working on elements for the various broadcasts often requires a versatile approach. “We use all the tools in our toolbox – we use Unreal, Octane, Cinema 4D,” Syzkowny says. “Whatever works for whatever piece we need to do, that’s what we’re going to apply to it just to make it as best as it can be.”

The experience working with ESPN Creative Studio on the project was also enlightening for the team at Pixar. “ESPN was incredibly fast at this, I think because they do television,” Ward notes. “Every day they are throwing stuff up in real-time, while we’re very slow. I think the thing for me is, could we work quicker? Is there something we could learn? We have a very different business model because we make films one movie at a time and it takes four to six years to make one film, and it takes them four to six days to make one sequence. Maybe there’s something to learn there. I think the bigger excitement for me is that we are maybe reaching people who otherwise are not football fans that will tune in to watch it and learn about the game, and hopefully for the NFL they get some football fans of theirs that didn’t know much about animation who now will want to see some Pixar films. Who knows? It’s been a really great collaboration. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Watch highlights of the October 1 broadcast of  “Toy Story Sunday Football,” an NFL game animated in real-time and set in Andy’s Room of Toy Story. Click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-02LiBdS1BQ


Share this post with

Most Popular Stories

THE CONSEQUENCES OF FALLOUT
15 April 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
THE CONSEQUENCES OF FALLOUT
Westworld team brings Megaton Power to game adaption.
LAS VEGAS’ SPHERE: WORLD’S LARGEST HIGH-RES LED SCREEN FOR LIVE ACTION AND VFX
15 April 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
LAS VEGAS’ SPHERE: WORLD’S LARGEST HIGH-RES LED SCREEN FOR LIVE ACTION AND VFX
World’s largest high-resolution LED screen immerses audiences.
SINGING PRAISES FOR UNSUNG HEROES
15 April 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
SINGING PRAISES FOR UNSUNG HEROES
Recognizing ‘hidden’ talent pivotal to making final shots a reality.
AGING PHILADELPHIA FOR THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE
03 April 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
AGING PHILADELPHIA FOR THE WALKING DEAD: THE ONES WHO LIVE
The final season of The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live follows Rick Grimes and Michonne Hawthorne.
EXPANDING THE MIND FOR INSIDE OUT 2
06 June 2024
Exclusives, Television/ Streaming
EXPANDING THE MIND FOR INSIDE OUT 2
Expanding the cast of Emotions and vocabulary of shapes.