Leading UK animation house Aardman broke from its usual style to promote BBC Sport’s Euro 2008 coverage by transforming soccer stars into actors in a classic cardboard cut-out theatre.

Those football fans disappointed by England’s absence from the Euro 2008 Championships found plenty to delight in with BBC Sport’s animated title sequence, created by UK powerhouse Aardman Animations.

Taking a very different approach to most flashy motion-graphic sporting event promos, the sequence shows the cardboard cut-out world of a toy theatre, populated by playing cards inspired by cigarette cards, with caricatures of famous international football players.

Five of the world’s most talented players are featured in the sequence – Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Ballack, William Gallas, Fernando Torres and Gennaro Gattuso – along with legendary player and manager Marco van Basten.

The eight cities across Switzerland and Austria that hosted matches during the tournament serve as backdrops to the animated players.

The soundtrack to the titles is Unkle’s version of Austrian-born composer Mozart’s Symphony No. 41.

“The original brief was refreshingly open,” says Aardman Animations director Paul Smith. “The only criteria was to mix theatre and football. But I wanted the piece to feel classic and stand apart from all the slick and modern motion-graphic title sequences on TV.”

Smith spent a couple of days brainstorming and trying to find ways to visually marry the concepts of football and theatre, which he says initially seemed very odd bedfellows.

A bit of Googling served up some initial inspiration, and the idea of a toy cardboard cut-out theatre – peopled with football-themed cigarette cards that come to life – presented itself.

“When I stumbled on images of flags on cards as well, it seemed like the idea was too good not to do,” he says. “When we presented the idea to BBC Sport, it was nothing more than a concept that sounded great in theory, and I half-expected it to be a bit too ‘out there’ to suit sports coverage.”

With the BBC producers on board, the Aardman team began research and testing. “We referenced a lot of old paper theatres, pop-up books, old illustrations of memorabilia, prints and lithographs of locations and landscapes,” says Helen Duckworth, background layout and lighting artist at Aardman Animations.

“But most of our research time was spent on the different countries’ teams and football kits, as it was essential that they were instantly recognizable.”

Animatic action

To cope with the complex mix of multiple characters and backgrounds, and to plan the camera moves, the team created an animatic to previsualize the sequence.

“The animatic, which initially consisted of basic boxes to represents different elements, allowed the director to carefully arrange the camera moves and decide pacing while including all the different characters and backgrounds,” explains Duckworth.

Ensuring that the sequence included all the locations and characters required by the client – without sacrificing the promo’s flow and pace – was a key challenge, explains Duckworth.

“The animators worked closely with the director to ensure the characters’ timing fitted into the sequence well,” Duckworth says.

Smith’s original intention was for the footballers to be modelled in CG, motion-captured, and then rendered as 2D cartoons. But lack of time and a need for the characters to look like drawings meant that Smith and his team took the safer, yet more laborious route of drawing each frame by hand instead.

“The constantly moving camera in one shot, timed to the music was a challenge, as there was no room whatsoever to edit afterward. Everything had to be timed to the frame, pretty much from day one,” recalls Smith.

Another challenge was that of handling the shots in which the camera tracks the players’ cards as they move across the stage, with each football caricature moving within the space of the card itself.

“This caused a few headaches, as I wanted them to look like they were really there on the stage,” says Smith.

“We ended up grabbing the video of the backgrounds and animating the 2D over it, effectively ignoring the card. Once we had that, we had to project the 2D animation back onto the card using a separate CG camera, so that the character appeared to be stuck onto the card even when the card turned.”

Aardman, working with new studio BustyKelp, employed an arsenal of tools on the project. Although many of the shots were hand-drawn and animated using paper and pencil, the team relied on Photoshop for drawing and creating textures, Mirage for creating the 2D animations, LightWave for creating the background theatre environments, and After Effects for compositing and effects.

“Tracking in After Effects was limited, as everything was linked to LightWave’s camera and rendered from there,” adds Jasper Scheepbouwer, background layout and lighting artist at Aardman.

“Most scenes have some form of colour-correction on them to create a vignetted, old-fashioned photography look, although careful lighting setup in LightWave helped create that look, too.”

Smith is happy that the final sequence communicates the notion of football as theatre to the viewer as strongly as it does. “It could have just looked weird or the 2D characters could have failed to convince,” he says.

“If I were to do it again, I’d have started the animation earlier in the process, and spent more time on that. Early on in this project, there was some ‘wasted’ time searching for solutions that didn’t come to fruition, such as using old prints for the background locations. There were so many unknowns when we started the process, but at the end of day I’m delighted that it all works.”

Setting the scene

While images of the footballers were easy to come by, the spot’s backgrounds were harder to find. “Although we were hoping to source old prints of Austria and Switzerland to use, in the end the backgrounds were hand-drawn by our team and placed onto 2D polygons within a 3D environment, much as if you were doing it for real by moving a tiny camera around a real set,” says Paul Smith.

The theatre backdrops, which represent the eight Austrian and Swiss cities that hosted the tournament, were created as flat planes in LightWave with imported photographs from Photoshop on them. These were then rendered out in several layers and assembled in After Effects. “The challenge was making the flat world look three-dimensional using only light,” says Jasper Scheepbouwer, Aardman’s background layout and lighting artist. “Although there’s tons of lights in every scene with nearly every element lit by its own separate light, I added lots of flares in After Effects in order to create an atmosphere outside of the isolated theatres and link them all together.”

Although Aardman initially wanted to use old photos of the tournament’s host cities as the backdrop for the ‘theatre’, finding the right images proved problematic; in the end Aardman created the backdrops, using a variety of reference images.

It was essential that each player be instantly recognizable, so the Aardman team devoted time to selecting each character’s standout feature and developing this into a full-scale caricature; considerable energy was also devoted to researching the football strips.

On certain shots, such as towards the end of the sequence where the Gattuso character has to look as if he moves relative to the camera and the stage, there’s a need for a perspective shift, explains director Paul Smith.

“This could not be done without reference to the scene, so he was animated in Mirage against the actual shot without the card. Once this was completed, the card was animated to keep him within, then his animation was projected onto the card and ‘baked out’ so that we had an image sequence of him within the card space. Finally, this was taken back into Mirage and neatened up and coloured, and then placed back onto the card in the shot as an animated texture."

CREDITS

Project: BBC Sport’s European Championships 2008 title sequence
Client: BBC Sports
Studio: Aardman Animations, www.aardman.com
Software: Adobe Photoshop, Adobe After Effects, NewTek LightWave, Mirage, Worley Fprime renderer
On the CD: You can view the sequence on this month’s cover disc.