Sunday, February 7, 2010

There Is No Fumble: The Wachowski Brothers Come to the NFL

EDIT: There was a really good article on CNN today, suggesting that instant replay has ruined both sports and life. Frankly, I think he stretches the point too far, but it's a good piece.

Wow, how 'bout them Saints, huh? So what is there to talk about other than a heartening upset and a second-half comeback for a city that's overdue for something to celebrate? No, the NFL announcer meatheads will cover all that- you know the ones, the guys that yell at each other over the action, like a bunch of arguing patients in a head trauma ward.

How about the cameras?

Yeah, that'll work.

Saints 2-Point Conversion- Neo from New Orleans?

Watch the video above, and watch it very carefully. It was exactly at this moment, when we watched Lance Moore float down to the turf, stretching the football toward his ankles for a 2-point conversion, that I realized Hollywood filmmaking techniques had changed the face of sports as we know it.

There's a reason this shot, and most NFL slow motion shots like it, make you think of The Matrix. Essentially, it's the same filmmaking technique that the Wachowskis used to freeze Carrie-Ann Moss in a crane stance and unnaturally resuscitate Keanu Reeves' career. To put it very, very simply, the cameras shoot an incredibly impressive number of frames per second as the camera zooms around the subject, taking it in from all angles, then splices the frames together digitally. This technique is why the NFL cameras seem to always be at just the right angle to see whether the ball crossed the goal line. It's known as EyeVision, and is responsible for every digitized first down line and field readjustment during instant replay.

To prove that the similarities in these systems are no accident, see article below, in which the makers of EyeVision are clear about their inspiration:

NFL Cribs Notes from The Wachowski Brothers

Ok, so maybe my revelation is nearly a decade late. EyeVision is nothing new for the NFL. It premiered in January 2001 during Super Bowl XXXV- a more innocent time when the Backstreet Boys sang the national anthem, General Schwazkopf made an appearance for the 10th anniversary of Desert Storm, and we all thought the joint halftime show between Aerosmith and 'N Sync would certainly be the largest national disaster befalling us that year. When it premiered, most people thought of EyeVision as a gimmick-little more than instant replay on psychedelics, that is, until it helped uphold a fourth quarter touchdown by Jamal Lewis. Today, it's a fairly standard weapon in the Ref's arsenal of play reviews. If you watch the NFL, you see it every so often. It's become part of the gradual digitization of the football field.

Even so, I find it fascinating that Hollywood technology is being used for practical applications. (There would be those that would suggest that referee play-review is not a "practical application," but screw them, we know better.) Really the only difference between EyeVision and the Matrix rigs is the network of cables and zip lines that let them circuit the players, rather than swooping around on a 360 degree dolly. What we're really talking about here is special-effects magic affecting the real world, where it sometimes, as we saw today, decides the outcome of games. This is amazing stuff, since most special effects tech is wholly useless outside a film set.

How much Hollywood SFX will become part of pro games world will no doubt be subject to the traditionalism of individual sports. American Football has always led the pack in introducing innovations- college football harnessed the power of instant replay in 1963, whereas Major League Baseball didn't introduce it until 2008, and waited to actually use the thing until 2009. The NBA didn't catch on until the 2002-2003 season, and the NHL likewise waited years. In all of these cases, and international sports such as rugby, instant replays are rare occurrences only used to confirm goals or fouls, in fact FIFA is so old-school it doesn't allow IRs at all. Out of all sports, only American football could be said to have developed an instant replay aesthetic, where it has become as much a symbol of the sport as the ball, the uprights, and the helmets.

While this is no doubt because the stop-and-go nature of American Football allows audiences to watch slow motion replays between plays, it does make me wonder what other cutting-edge SFX and cinematography tricks football might co-opt in the future.

I'm crossing my fingers for a Na'vi Football League.

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