Wednesday March 10, 1998. It’s 7:45 A.M., and I’m nervously sipping coffee in one corner of a cavernous television studio belonging to pro football megabroadcaster and Super Bowl-winning coach John Madden. I’ve been up since 5:30, I’m freezing my butt off, and the Ultimatte guy has called to say there’s fog on I-680 and he’s going to be late.
The reason I’m up at this godawful hour — my normal workday runs from about 10 AM to 7 or 8 (or 9 or 10) in the evening — is that I’m the audio/video producer for Electronic Arts’ hit game, Madden NFL Football for the Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64 and PC. I’m the guy who puts Madden into Madden, and today is the first of the only two days a year that we actually get to film the Great Man himself. The reason I’m nervous is that I’m just about to spend around $100,000 in sixteen hours flat. These are the two most expensive days in the production year, and if I screw up – and if the Ultimatte guy doesn’t show, that will qualify – I probably won’t get a second chance. Somebody will eventually do it again, at great cost and inconvenience, but it won’t be me. I’ll be history.
Madden NFL Football is EA’s flagship sports product and its longest-running franchise. The original John Madden Football was first written in back in 1989 for the Apple II, if you can believe that. I wasn’t at EA then. I joined the company in 1992, hired as a software engineer to write their next PC baseball game, the successor to Earl Weaver Baseball. Not long after I got there EA discovered they could make ten times as much money developing Genesis and Super Nintendo titles, and they dropped PC baseball with little ceremony. My producer, the legendary Scott Orr, liked some comments I had written about the design script I was working from, and he asked if I wanted to quit programming and be a lead designer in his new production group. Although sports was not my favorite genre, the opportunity to be a game designer for Electronic Arts – in any capacity – was too good to pass up. In 1993 the company began to support the short-lived 3DO Multiplayer in a big way, and of course Madden had to be on it. It was EA’s first-ever sports game for a CD-ROM platform, and I got to design it.
Five years and five Maddens later, I’m watching as taciturn, muscular young men and women begin to move around the vast sound stage, warming up video gear and lighting. I don’t know their names; I hired a production company, and it supplied them. I’m in charge of this shoot, but most of the time it runs itself. This is a good thing, because I don’t have any formal training to be an A/V producer. The 3DO machine was the first device EA had ever supported that was capable of playing video (after a fashion), so the company insisted that Madden 3DO include a lot of it. As the designer, it fell to me to decide what to create, then script it, shoot it, and edit it. Suddenly, and without meaning to, I became my group’s video guru. Subsequent editions of Madden for the new generation of consoles didn’t really need a full-time designer, but they did need A/V production and I was elected.
Fortunately, the production company works with such quiet professionalism that its people don’t require much direction, and I just let them get on with it. Right now their activity centers on a grotesque sculpture in the middle of the studio, a latex Ronald Reagan mask wearing a cheap white wig, and impaled on a tripod. Below the mask hangs a navy blue blazer on a hanger. This bizarre homunculus is John Madden’s “lighting stand-in.” We can’t afford to have Madden standing around for hours while we get his lighting right, so this thing serves in his place – Madden’s hair is completely white, and the blazer is a duplicate of the one he’ll wear later. The tripod is cranked up to put his “face” at the correct height.
The video people tell me that this is one of the best facilities in the Bay Area. Madden won’t fly and he doesn’t want to travel more than he has to – after all, he travels constantly during the football season – so rather than go somewhere else to film his commercials and other projects, he built a studio in his home town, Pleasanton. He didn’t spare any expense, either: the walls and ceiling are extra-insulated so traffic noise never disturbs the recording, and the air conditioning is specially muffled. The sound stage is huge, the size of a couple of basketball courts, and about three stories high.
Today we’ll be filming, or more accurately, taping, John Madden and his broadcasting partner, Pat Summerall. We’re going to shoot a number of short clips of Pat and John sitting together, apparently in a stadium broadcaster’s booth, discussing the game that the player has chosen to play. These clips aren’t used for most regular season games, but if it’s opening day, or a Thanksgiving Day game, a playoff game, the Super Bowl, or the Pro Bowl, then the player will get to see one of these intros before the game begins. Of course, we have no way of knowing in advance which two teams will be playing in the game. There will be 31 teams in the upcoming NFL season, and they can theoretically play each other in 465 possible combinations. We can’t shoot 465 clips – apart from the time it would take, there isn’t room on the CD to store them all – so the material we’re recording has to be generic. They’ll talk about the weather conditions, Madden’s preference for real grass fields, the significance of the game at this point in the playoffs, and so on.
Tomorrow we’ll finish taping Pat and John and move on to James Brown, our EA Sports Studio host (and actually the anchor of Fox’s broadcasts). J.B. is a warm and extremely funny man, and a positive delight to work with. Harvard-educated, he occasionally does the material we’ve written for him in a homeboy vernacular that has the whole crew howling with laughter. We can’t ever use it; in fact some of the things he says we don’t even dare show to anyone outside the team. But over the years we’ve assembled a hilarious private collection of out-takes.
After five years of doing this it’s familiar now, but I’m still worried about the missing Ultimatte operator. An Ultimatte is an expensive piece of gear that makes a person standing in front of a blue (or green) screen look as if he’s standing somewhere else by superimposing, or “matting”, his image onto a background image – in our case, the stadium broadcaster’s booth. This “booth” is actually a computer graphics image created by our artists. It’s not a single image but an endless loop so that it looks like there’s a little movement in the crowd outside the windows. The crowd is deliberately out of focus so it won’t be too obvious that it’s just a loop.
Matting, or “keying” as it’s called in television terminology, is a standard trick to save money. But an Ultimatte is a fiddly device; it takes forever to set one up and get it tweaked just right. For one thing, the lighting on the subject has to match the lighting in the background image. Otherwise the whole thing looks wrong: you see someone who’s brightly lit in a dark place, or lit by yellowish light while the background is lit by bluish light. We spent all day yesterday getting this figured out, and now everything should be dialed in correctly. But we still need the Ultimatte guy here to do the shoot. I can’t afford to have Madden, Summerall, and a whole video crew standing around waiting for one person.
The teleprompter operator comes over to talk to me. Her gear is ready to go, but she needs the floppy disk that contains the script. The teleprompter is a clever device, a laptop computer connected to a monitor mounted below the camera, facing upwards towards the ceiling and displaying the script – backwards. A one-way mirror in front of the camera lens inverts the words into readable text and reflects them towards the talent. The camera looks through the mirror from behind and doesn’t see the words, but Pat and John can read them while looking straight into the lens. They won’t simply read whatever it says, though, because we’re trying to create the impression of an impromptu conversation between the announcers, the kind of thing that normally precedes a football broadcast. They’ll look at the teleprompter before each take in order to get a sense of what we want, then improvise somewhat on the material I’ve written. We often make changes as we go along. If we find that Pat or John is consistently stumbling over a line, we’ll type in something new. I was up late last night making changes to the script – as usual, at the last minute the marketing department wanted some material of their own added – which is why it wasn’t ready until now.
There’s a legend around EA that the first time somebody wrote an audio script for John Madden, they didn’t put much effort into it: just wrote a lot of generic football commentary. Madden took one look, threw it down, and said, “I’m not going to read this s—.” For several years after that, all the voiceover audio in the game was ad-libbed. Because it consisted only of “Maddenisms” – short interjections like “Boom!” and “Where’d that truck come from?!” – on the Genesis and SNES, this didn’t matter much. But when the time came to do the 3DO edition, we needed a lot more material, and that meant a real script. In order to produce something that he would be willing to read, I became an expert on the Madden persona. I transcribed three entire football broadcasts word-for-word. I studied his vocabulary and grammar, his inflection and pacing. Finally, in great fear and trepidation, I gave him my script. The work paid off. He read it, performed it, and didn’t complain. Madden seldom praises anything. He’s still a football coach at heart; you can tell he’s pleased with you if he’s not tearing your head off. Once I accidentally typed “backtracking” when I meant “backpedaling” – the motion linebackers make when they’re backing up and watching the quarterback at the same time. John stopped short and spent the next two minutes telling me in no uncertain terms that “backtracking” was not a word he ever had, or ever would, use in his life.