Football Futuristics

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David Fincher is interested in how your mind works. On the surface, his new spot, "Gamebreakers" for Nike and Wieden+Kennedy/Portland, depicts an epic moment from an impossible football game. But on an entirely different plane, the spot draws attention to itself by mixing media styles and playing on the viewer's expectations. The almost entirely CG-animated :60, created by Anonymous' Fincher and Digital Domain, Venice, Calif., opens with a crescent-shaped camera pan that begins on NFL quarterback Michael Vick and swings out to show all the players on the field. As the camera pulls upward, outward and around, the spot itself throws a few more curves at you. First, you see over 30 defensive players squaring off against the typical 11 offensive ones. Second, despite a single band of powerful lights pointing downward to the field, the scene is shadowy and ominous. Third, huge, slushy snowflakes shoot across the screen diagonally and while you're pretty sure this couldn't be live action, some of the flakes catch the camera lens, leaving a watery distortion on part of the screen.

The first camera move is in line with those captured from cranes at NFL games, but the following one-a shot directly behind Vick as he approaches the center for the snap-is far more cinematic and would be difficult to actually obtain without a cameraman very much in the way. We can hear the chatter at the line as players call out to one another. More cinematic shots of Vick catch his gestures and play calling. However, as the tension rises, videogame-style camera movements accelerate the action and an inconceivable camera rig sweeps the viewer along the ground between the offensive and defensive lines. "Fincher is playing with your heads," says Digital Domain general manager Ed Ulbrich. "He uses photo-optical effects-depth of field, lens flares, water droplets-and applies it to something that is art directed to look like animation."

With :02 on the clock, Michael Vick shakes off one tackler after another. But in the process of being grabbed and pulled, his body movement gives away the greatest secret a CG character can have-he is human. Vick stumbles awkwardly, regains his balance, runs desperately from defenders, places his hand on the ground for stability, all while trying to hit his target-all-star wide receiver Terrell Owens, aka T.O. "The animation is one hundred percent accurate to the subtleties of a human performance," continues Ulbrich. "I know I'm looking at CG animation, but it moves so realistically and there's the sensation of a camera and a cameraman there. Fincher is mixing up the visuals and how you're accustomed to seeing them, but in such a way that it engages you."

Of course, T.O. makes the catch despite three defenders blanketing him, but he's still 40 yards away from a touchdown. He leaps, he fakes, he sprints and eventually meets the fireworks and cheerleaders in the end zone. Back at the line of scrimmage and far from the celebration, a lineman pulls Vick off the ground. "I thought you were going to block," says Vick. "I thought you were going to run," says the lineman. The Nike logo and the address appear on the screen to end the spot-this :60 is actually pushing an interactive football site, though that may easily be lost in the all the dazzling digital hubbub. Speaking of which, every player on the field had a role, so Digital Domain motion captured every one of them for this play. "We couldn't motion capture more than three or four people at a time," explains Ulbrich, "so we had to choreograph a play with over 40 players, subdivide that into groups, motion capture, and then gene-splice it all together."

Afterwards, Digital Domain used its proprietary software packages Nuke and Voxel B to animate and composite, as well as animation packages Maya and Kaydara. "The weather thing is hardcore math," relays Ulbrich. "Doing things like seeing the breath coming out of their mouths and steam coming off their necks-that's all hard work done by programmers and our proprietary software." Maya and Kaydara were used to clothe the characters, get their movements just right, create the stadium, fans, lights, blades of grass and things no one would ever think of. Finally, everything was brought into Nuke for compositing. The only live action seen in "Gamebreakers" was shots of Vick's and Owens' faces that were placed into the animation.

After nineteen weeks under the plastic Wacom pens at Digital Domain, "Gamebreakers" emerged looking like a glimpse into EA Sports' Madden NFL 2018. "I told the animation team when we first started that this is one of those spots that we get once a year and we do it for the love of the work," says Eric Barba, visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain. "I challenged them and they rose to the occasion. I told them that the next time people want to raise the bar, they're going to have to come find it first."