ESPN, Disney Take Next Tech Leap in Kids-Focused Broadcast With Live, Animated ‘NHL Big City Greens Classic’

The entire game will be presented with motion-captured announcers, Big City Greens characters

The puck drops tonight on the next chapter in kids-focused sports broadcasts. ESPN’s Big City Greens NHL Classic featuring the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals will be the first-ever fully animated game telecast.

Besides live, real-time volumetric animation of players on the ice, ESPN Creative Studio and Silver Spoon have created motion-captured animated versions of ESPN commentators Kevin Weekes and Drew Carter calling the game, as well live interviews with characters from Disney’s Emmy Award-winning animated series using live facial-capture technology.

ESPN, Disney Channel, and the NHL are teaming up to bring fans the NHL Big City Greens Classic, the first-ever live animated NHL game telecast, featuring the Washington Capitals vs. New York Rangers, on March 14 at 7 p.m. ET.



Weekes and Carter will wear motion-capture suits to allow the full-body animations of them in the Big City to mimic their movements while calling the action from a studio in Bristol, CT. Series talent Chris Houghton (co-creator/executive producer, Big City Greens, and voice of Cricket) and Marieve Herington (voice of Tilly) will use facial-recognition technology to imitate their reactions to the game remotely from Disney Television Animations studios in Los Angeles. Additionally, ESPN Creative Studio has created a full Big City Greens-centric graphics package and scorebug for the broadcast.

The Big City Greens Classic is being produced in conjunction with ESPN Edge Innovation Center and NHL EDGE Innovation partners Verizon, Beyond Sports and Silver Spoon.

Cartoons on Ice: Tracking Data, Beyond Sports Drive Player Avatars, Animated Characters

The first-of-its-kind alternative presentation uses the NHL Edge puck- and player-tracking data from SMT and Sony’s Beyond Sports AI-based data-visualization platform to re-create the action on the ice in real time while featuring Big City Greens characters skating alongside animated versions of the NHL players. ESPN Creative Studio designed and modeled stylized 3D players to be used as avatars representing the players and animated via the live tracking data in conjunction with Beyond Sports.

ESPN and Silver Spoon built a motion-capture set for announcers in Studio Z in Bristol, CT.

“Alternative broadcasts like this are all about trying to expand your audience,” says Michael “Spike” Szykowny, senior director, motion graphics and production planning, ESPN Creative Studio. “This is more for the casual, younger fans, not our normal super-fan who is already watching ESPN. We have been trying to find an opportunity to do something like this, so this a great opportunity for all the different parties involved.”

Cricket Green will take the place of the Rangers’ Vincent Trocheck, and Tilly Green will play in place of the Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov. Meanwhile, Grandma Alice and Bill Green will be in goal for the Rangers and Caps, respectively. Placey teases that viewers could see some surprise characters throughout the game.

“Beyond Sports Group has done a great job in showing us how they can manage that data and make it very user-friendly to do a production like this,” says Placey. “Oftentimes, [new technologies] may look cool but aren’t as nimble and instant as you need them to be to do a live game. But, when we saw how fast and user-friendly the technology was, we said, ‘Why don’t we just go ahead and do the whole darn game?’”

Beyond Sports is driving the animated game action.

The broadcast will be produced out of a production-control room in Bristol, and only the NHL Edge tracking data and nat sound (no cameras) will be sent from the arena to create the animated telecast. Director Jeff Nelson, at the front bench alongside producer Pete Dellaria, will be calling cameras to two TDs operating switchers: one will cut between the 49 virtual camera angles; the other will handle the rest of the animated enhancements.

“We have more cameras on this show than we have at the NFL Draft, which is pretty amazing,” says Nelson. “In addition to all the other cameras, we can click on each character and see an angle of each individual player in case you want to talk about somebody specific.

“We’re creating our own monitor wall with still images of each angle,” he continues. “We’re putting them on paper and printing them out, and I’m sticking them in front of me. As I go through the game, I know the angle I’m looking for even though I can’t see what’s happening before I take that camera. It has a lot to do with feel and awareness.”

ESPN will have 49 virtual camera angles to cut between during the broadcast.

Nelson says the actual game broadcast will be roughly 10 seconds ahead of the animated production, alerting him when a key moment is about to take place. He adds that, since there will be no crowd incorporated into the broadcast, he will have to get creative for fan cutaways and other transition shots.

“That was my biggest concern when we started testing this: What can we cut away to?” he says. “Thankfully, we’ve remedied that and have a bunch of fun cutaway shots ready to go. When we started rehearsing, we chuckled every 10 minutes that this is what we were doing. But it’s going to be a lot of fun, and we’re really excited about it.”

Animated Announcers: Silver Spoon’s Motion-Capture Technology

Using full-body mo-cap technology and custom avatars, ESPN will turn announcers Carter and Weekes into characters straight out of Big City Greens. The announcers will wear full-body motion-capture suits as they call the game and execute face-off and goalie demonstrations as their Big City Greens avatars.

ESPN tested the mo-cap technology last week in advance of the broadcast.

“When this project first came to us,” says Szykowny, “the plan was just to have the announcers call the game as themselves. But we thought, ‘We’re in a cartoon world here. Wouldn’t it be great to stay in that world?’ So we decided we would take our talent and make them full-body mo-cap characters so that the illusion stays totally in the cartoon world.”

For the volumetric capture, Silver Spoons is using 43 Vicon motion-capture cameras inside a green-screen studio in ESPN’s Studio Z in Bristol. Roughly half the cameras are mounted in the grid above the stage, and the rest are spread around at floor level on tripods.

Joe Franklin (right) and Jake Szykowny standing in for announcers Drew Carter and Kevin Weekes during rehearsals

“We’re getting great coverage,” says Silver Spoon Executive Producer Laura Herzing. “We’re capturing live their whole body, face, fingers, everywhere they go in the volume as well as a couple of tracked props. They will also have a tracked pen in their hand when they’re calling the game. And then we have two different demonstration setups — a face-off demo and a goalie demo — where they’ll have tracked hockey sticks and [their avatar] will have a wardrobe change. We’re trying to combine the entertainment aspect with the educational aspect all in a fun format of animated characters.”

Silver Spoon set up a 43-camera system for volumetric capture.

Silver Spoon is deploying Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, Autodesk MotionBuilder animation software, and Erizos Studio graphics-control platform to create the announcer animations. The facial-capture technology is a combination of off-the-shelf technology utilizing the iPhone and its facial-tracking software, along with proprietary tools that Silver Spoon has built on top of that. The system can capture a broad range of expressions and is married to the full-body–capture data to create the full avatar.

“It’s a first-of-its-kind experience,” says Charlie Collin, manager, motion graphics design, ESPN Creative Studio, “and it’s a natural progression for visualizing the game, which is really exciting. We had only about eight weeks to set this up using a small team, so it was a very short timeline. But Silver Spoon has been a great partner, and we can’t wait for [Tuesday night].”

Animated Interviews: Cricket and Tilly Get in the Game

Facial-capture software will enable voice actors from the Big City Greens cast to bring characters Cricket and Tilly to life, giving interviews from the ice and the player’s bench live during the game. Houghton and Herington will be in Los Angeles for the interviews and will be integrated into the show remotely via video call. David “Sparky” Sparrgrove, senior creative director, animation, graphics innovation and production design, ESPN Creative Studio, who spearheaded much of the design of the broadcast, will be on hand in L.A. to work with the voice talent.

The ESPN and Silver Spoon motion-capture team: (from top left) Matthew Houstle, Ed Placey, Jeremy Allen, Joe Mayerski, Shane Norton, Haili Manard, Amy Nelson, Laura Herzing, Charlie Collin, Melissa Canavan, Pete Collazo, Sean Conover, Michael “Spike” Szykowny, Izzy Heron, Jake Szykowny, and Joe Franklin

In December, Silver Spoon worked with CBS Sports and Nickelodeon to present a live interview with SpongeBob SquarePants’ Patrick Star powered by real-time facial-capture technology. Tonight, they will bring the technology back for the Big City Greens Interviews, motion-capture face and shoulders of both Houghton and Herington.

“The show creators have been super supportive because they’re actually hockey fans themselves,” says Amy Nelson, manager, graphics innovation, ESPN Creative Studio. “With the motion-technology, we can interview them, and they can speak directly to the talent from L.A., and the characters will talk back — similar to a miked-up segment for our MLB [broadcasts].”

ESPN Creative Studio also took the existing insert look for ESPN’s NHL Hockey brand identity and brought it into the Big City Greens world through custom-designed elements, colors, graphics, and characters to create a seamless look.

“This has become a labor of love,” says Placey. “People have been willing to extend themselves to be a part of something that’s new and different. And we’re seeing that all the way from the folks in the tape room running replays to the TD making new effects to the graphics team creating a new package and scorebug. Everyone is finding time to give a little bit more because they love being a part of such a cool project.”

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