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Making Commercials: Lighting Up The U.S.

Picture Mill paints the NFL logo in lights across the U.S. landscape

By Michael Fickes

The National Football League unveiled a new treatment for its iconic copyright logo during the playoff games in January. It uses the familiar, tried and true voice over and a dramatic new arrangement for the NFL’s signature music, and a flyover of the U.S. showing lights coming on across the country – in the shape of the NFL logo.

The NFL’s brand marketing group collaborated with Los Angeles-based Picture Mill to create the new motion logo. Picture Mill is a feature, television and advertising design firm with a lot of experience in cinematic branding.

NFL logo
The NFL lights it up across the country.

“The marketing group asked us to contribute ideas,” says William Lebeda, Picture Mill’s creative director. “We shared concepts featuring large-scale live action, archival footage, and computer graphics.

“Ideas that connected to the fans and all of the teams caught the League’s attention. When we showed a concept board with a logo as big as the Earth, everyone started to get excited. That idea evolved into a camera flying across the country revealing the lights on the ground twinkling on to form a nation-wide NFL logo.”

Easier Said Than Done

“In pre-visualization, we wanted to figure out how fast the camera would have to pan over the lights as they came on, and how fast it would have to pull back for the reveal, said Jon Block, Picture Mill’s lead animator on the project. “To do that, we flew Maya’s virtual camera over Photoshop frames.”

Then someone suggested starting lower over city buildings during the flyover. The camera would gradually fly higher, altering the perspective of the cities – and remember, the lights in houses, restaurants, stores, bars and businesses would be turning on to form the logo reveal.

Now it got tough.

“We needed two matte painters,” said Block. “I showed them where the camera would be as it sped up and across – from the Southwest toward the Midwest. They used Photoshop to paint images of what cities on the ground would look like from the speeding camera on 15 mattes.”

Block projected the mattes onto a 3D model of the curved surface of the Earth. Then came a series of layers, each showing more and more lights coming on. “We made 4 layers of lighting for each of the 15 projections,” Block said. “Then we had to align the layers to make sure the transition between matte paintings was smooth.”

As the camera rises, you see 3D buildings that blur as the camera flies higher. Eventually, it passes through a band of clouds created by a volumetric fluid simulation, and you can see that the lights appear to be forming shapes.

With the final resolve at full elevation, Block used particle simulation to separate the lights and define a glow around the edge of the giant, fully visible NFL logo.

“A tricky part involved managing how close to the ground or how high in orbit we were and what part of the logo we were moving over at any given time,” Lebeda said. “If we didn’t know where we were, the maps would be at the wrong angle.

“Another difficult decision involved the level of detail of the buildings at different altitudes. At low altitudes you see the buildings, and as you go higher, you see the lights.

“Early testing indicated that if we didn’t have the right level of detail, especially at the beginning, it looked fake,” Lebeda continued.

The Picture Mill team assembled all of the elements using Maya and Nuke. “Maya filters high resolution, and Nuke renders more cleanly and interactively,” Block said. “Maya rendered the ground projections adding a bit of image processing. We used Nuke for the giant spherical texture matte, which had to be very high resolution.”

Tough job. Now comes the fun part: Are you ready for some football!

March 13, 2014