ESPN’s Monday Night Football kicks off its 10th season (46th overall) tonight – Philadelphia Eagles vs. Atlanta Falcons (6:55 p.m. ET) followed by Minnesota Vikings vs. San Francisco 49ers (10:15 p.m.) – with an entirely new look, including a high-end graphics and animations package, and a new show open.
The past two years, ESPN’s open featured an innovative timeline concept created by Hollywood filmmaker Peter Berg. It combined memorable MNF moments with touchstone cultural events that occurred simultaneously during the first 40-plus years of the series.
This year’s MNF open – the work of ESPN’s in-house Creative Services group and Carsten Becker of Motomo Studios in Santa Monica, Calif. – is a new iteration of that idea.
“The history of MNF is the thing that differentiates us from other networks and other shows,” said Michael “Spike” Szykowny, ESPN’s senior director of Motion Graphics, who has overseen the creation of the new open, along with MNF producer Jay Rothman. “Peter’s open served us well and this year we wanted to freshen it up with something new while continuing to focus on that history.
“We came up with a concept called the ‘infinite field’ – this one football field that goes on forever and includes all the great plays in MNF history,” he said. “The field is surrounded by a massive hall of lights, and we wanted the camera to find all the plays on this field in one move as they happen. That was genesis of the idea.”
Trying to find iconic MNF plays from different angles was a major obstacle since the series uses far more cameras now than it did 15, 25, 35 years ago, so some plays were only available from very specific angles. Antonio Freeman’s miraculous catch on his back for the Packers in 2000 was one of them.
Explained Szykowny: “The only shots that exist of that play are wide overheads. It was raining that night and it’s SD footage. There was no tight shot of him with his hands when he pulled the ball just above the turf.”
Szykowny and his team solved the footage challenge by recreating iconic MNF moments like the Freeman catch in computer generations (CG) and blending them with real live-action, making parts of the open resemble a video game.
ESPN also used an animation technique called rotoscoping — tracing over footage, frame-by-frame to lift the subject off its natural background – to place the players in a three-dimensional environment, a difficult task when mixing standard definition footage of the ’85 Bears with a piece of HD video of J.J. Watt from 2014, as an example.
In all, the open is about 50-50 live action vs. recreated CG. There’s also a balance of modern day players like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Calvin Johnson with NFL legends such as Earl Campbell, Jerry Rice and Terry Bradshaw. MNF’s broadcasters past and present are also featured prominently – from an opening hologram of Howard Cosell to iconic calls from the likes of Frank Gifford and Al Michaels to the famed “Fail Mary” play of 2013 voiced by Mike Tirico.
The new open will air tonight at 6:55 p.m. ET and run subsequent weeks at 8:15 p.m. Below is the list of moments featured in the roughly 60-second piece.