This Sunday, Oct. 1, The Walt Disney Company and the NFL will provide fans with a first-of-its-kind viewing experience – a live NFL game played in Pixar’s Toy Story world (9:30 a.m. ET, ESPN+, Disney+).
While the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars will travel to London’s Wembley Stadium, the Toy Story version of the Week 4 game will emanate from Andy’s iconic room.
With ESPN’s long history of alternate telecasts and innovation – and coming off the success of the NHL Big City Greens Classic game – creating the first fully animated, live NFL game was a no-brainer.
The biggest question: What would the animated environment be for the game?
“After working on the NHL Big City Greens Classic, from the very beginning, we knew we wanted to do a family-oriented, ‘fun-cast,’” said David “Sparky” Sparrgrove, Senior Director of Creative Animation for ESPN’s Creative Studio team. “The initial ideas ran the gamut of Disney’s intellectual property [IP] – including using every character associated with Disney – which, of course, included IP from Toy Story.
“Once Toy Story was suggested, you could sense the ripple in the room where everybody just went ‘this is the winner,’” said Sparrgrove. “And it just turned on a dime.”
From a brand perspective, the Creative Studio team, led by Michael “Spike” Szykowny, was drawn to the fact that Toy Story has a distinct visual style.
The image of the blue skies with the clouds, the color palette, and the universally recognizable font instantly set visual guidelines for the animation team to begin making content.
We received this incredible animation tool kit from our colleagues at [Disney-owned] Pixar, which had animations of the key characters doing various actions and movements. I really tip my hat to Pixar, the NFL, and, of course, all the different groups at ESPN. The collaboration has been incredible. – ESPN’s David “Sparky” Sparrgrove
Each step of the way, the Creative Studio team worked with colleagues at Pixar, multiple departments at ESPN, Beyond Sports and Silver Spoon (the companies that assist with the technological aspects of the broadcast), Big Studios (which assisted with the creation of multiple animated elements) and the NFL.
The cadence of an NFL game – with on average of 150 plays and 20-30-second pauses in action after each play – would require ample animated content to be created.
“In a traditional telecast, you fill these pauses with replays and broadcast booth commentary,” Sparrgrove said. “In our case, the pause in action actually gives us an opportunity to add more animated elements to our repertoire to be used throughout the game.
“We received this incredible animation tool kit from our colleagues at [Disney-owned] Pixar, which had animations of the key characters doing various actions and movements,” he said. “I really tip my hat to Pixar, the NFL, and, of course, all the different groups at ESPN. The collaboration has been incredible.”
From there, the Creative Studio team was able to take these files and create approximately 50 animations, also called “roll-ins,” that fit the broadcast – for example, Woody and Jesse dancing after a great catch or Buzz Lightyear celebrating a touchdown.
“Given that this broadcast is aimed at families that may not be avid football watchers, it was important for us to be able to teach the audience the different aspects of a football game through our animated content,” said Sparrgrove.
At almost three minutes long, this halftime show is probably one of the most epic animations that our team has ever worked on. Duke Caboom will be doing some jumping; that is all I will say. – Sparrgrove
During pauses in action, in addition to the roll-ins, the broadcast will have seven custom explainer videos teaching viewers useful tricks such as how to throw a perfect spiral and how to make a tackle safely – all in addition to the regular nuts-and-bolts elements of a traditional NFL game broadcast.
But for Sparrgrove and his team, the most exciting element might be the halftime show featuring Duke Caboom.
“At almost three minutes long, this halftime show is probably one of the most epic animations that our team has ever worked on,” said Sparrgrove, reluctant to give too much away. “Duke Caboom will be doing some jumping; that is all I will say.”
As an animator and motion designer for over 30 years, this project is a full circle moment for Sparrgrove, who vividly remembers seeing Toy Story in theaters when it debuted in November 1995.
“My jaw was on the floor throughout the entire movie,” he said. “Fast forward to today, I gladly rewatched the movies for this project. The core of it still resonated with me. The fact that our team was able to take Toy Story, the first fully 3-D animated feature film, and use it to create the first fully animated NFL game is pretty remarkable.
“I am so incredibly proud of the animation team for pulling this together. It has been one of the privileges of my life to lead this talented team,” Sparrgrove said.