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Putting Madden in Madden: Memoirs of an EA Sports Video Producer
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Putting Madden in Madden: Memoirs of an EA Sports Video Producer

April 26, 2002 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

The wardrobe and makeup staff arrive. They didn't have any trouble with the fog. I hurry off to select shirts and ties for John and Pat. We decide on light blue for John, but light yellow for Pat because he's rather pale and we're hoping to warm up his complexion a little. And no printed ties. The ties must be solid; I told the lady that, very firmly, on the phone when we made the deal. The first time I did this job, some idiot (me) allowed John to wear a patterned tie. The early video compression algorithms worked by detecting areas of low and high detail in the image, and saving disk space by making the areas of low detail blurry or blocky, under the assumption that people aren't looking at those regions. But the compressor doesn't really know which parts of the image are important and which aren't. The damned algorithm for the 3DO took all the available detail and gave it to Madden's tie instead of his face. John ended up looking like The Thing in a suit.

The Thing, in a suit.

Our audio engineer walks in. In addition to miking up Pat and John for the video shoot, he'll be spending a lot of time in the nearby audio suite. Video recording is only a small part of what we're doing here. For several days after the video shoot is done, we'll have Madden or Summerall in the audio booth, recording play-by-play, color commentary, and voiceover narration for movie clips. I've spent the last several months writing this material. I've researched the current status and future prospects of each team in the NFL, and my assistants did the same for dozens of star players. Then we wrote color material in Madden-ese for him to record about both the teams and the players. ("Warren Sapp is one of those guys that, even when he's double teamed he's still gonna cause you trouble.") For Summerall's play-by-play, we've written and re-written hundreds of pages to try to cover every reasonable eventuality that can occur in a football game. One year I forgot one: turnover on downs. It doesn't happen that often, but when it does, you need to say something. I left it out of the script, and whenever a turnover on downs occurred, Summerall was strangely silent.

You would think we could just re-use all the material every year, but we can't. Players come and go, team names do change sometimes, and besides, we need to write new Maddenisms to keep the game fresh. The problem is, you can't use audio from different recording sessions. People's voices change from year to year, and the recording conditions are never exactly the same. If we mixed material from different years, the customers would notice it immediately, and it would quickly become distracting. We're trying to create the illusion of a live football broadcast, so it needs to be seamless and unintrusive. That's why we want to record all the material during several days in succession, to keep the recording conditions as stable as possible. It's long, grueling work, especially for Pat Summerall. He has to record the names of all the key players in the NFL, hundreds and hundreds of them, three times with three different inflections: one each for the beginning, middle, and end of a sentence.

Here's the Ultimatte guy. It's nine o'clock and John's due on set in half an hour. My stomach unclamps enough to admit a bagel. There's quite a spread here: doughnuts, pastries, bagels, and several flavors of cream cheese along with coffee, tea, and fruit juices. That's one great thing about filming at Madden's: the food is wonderful. Madden is famous for believing in eating well and it's not just a gag. In between the sound stage and the rest of his offices is a first-class kitchen, complete with Wolf range, giant Sub-Zero refrigerator and everything a professional chef could need. And in fact, at this very moment a professional chef is busy in there, cooking and assembling a six-legged turkey.

This is sort of an expensive joke. Madden always broadcasts one of the Thanksgiving Day football games. When a player does particularly well, he says, "Give that guy a turkey leg!" But he often says it more than twice a game. Eventually he got someone to make up a six-legged roast turkey (the extra legs are held on by hidden wooden skewers), and served the legs to the players after the game. One of our pre-game clips is for a Thanksgiving Day game, so I'm having a six-legged turkey made, and after we finish shooting it, we're going to eat it. Everybody - Pat and John and James Brown, along with all the EA people and the video crew - will sit down together on long picnic tables in the studio and have a whopping big lunch.

Madden divides all food into "sinkers" and "floaters." Salad, bread, and vegetables will float, so they're no good for football players or tailgate parties. Things like sausages, barbecued ribs, and potato salad are sinkers, food that keeps you anchored to the ground. In addition to the turkey we'll be having something Madden discovered on one of his journeys in the Madden Cruiser: terducken. A terducken is a boneless turkey stuffed with a boneless duck stuffed with a boneless chicken stuffed with - stuffing. It's very tasty, and definitely a sinker. Tomorrow I think we'll have a barbecue, cooked on a grill so large it can be towed behind a car.

Pat Summerall's limousine pulls up. Pat flew in from his home in Texas yesterday and spent the night in a nearby hotel. Pat's a down-to-earth guy and I think he would have been content with an ordinary taxi, but we want to do everything we can to make him comfortable and happy to be here, since he likes to travel even less than John does. Pat in person is exactly like Pat on TV: a tall, imperturbable man with a dry sense of humor and a wonderful speaking voice. He also has a fund of sports stories that go back decades, including some truly scurrilous ones about Howard Cosell. The only problem with working with Pat is that, without the excitement of a real game going on, his voice doesn't have the same energy that it does when he's broadcasting live.

This isn't an issue with John. When we need for John to be energetic, he's energetic. The loud, boisterous Madden we know from football and TV commercials is a created persona that he switches on and off along with the microphone. It's not phony - it's the real Madden, sui generis - but it is to some extent a performance. If he were like that all the time, he'd be intolerable.
One of the things I realized in the course of working with these guys is that they're broadcasters, not actors. Their job is to describe and discuss a football game in real time. In live television, you do your best at each moment, but if you make a mistake, you shrug your shoulders and go on. They're not used to doing take after take until it's perfect, and they get frustrated if they have to do something more than four or five times. In certain respects it would be easier - and far cheaper - if we could use sound-alike actors for the audio material, but John would never sit still for it and the customers would almost certainly spot it if we tried. There's only one Madden.

Pat disappears into the makeup room for a quick haircut and to change into his broadcasting outfit. Unannounced, Madden comes into the studio from his office in the front of the building. He's even bigger in person than he seems on TV, and everywhere he goes he walks with the same slow, heavy tread. He's wearing a nylon track suit, running shoes, and a baseball cap. He'll keep the running shoes on throughout the shoot, even while he's wearing his blazer and slacks on camera. They won't show and they're more comfortable. "Morning, Coach." I say to him, and he replies "Morning, Ernest" and that's it. We don't normally make small talk with him unless he seems like he's in a mood for it. He's one of the most famous faces in America; he meets a zillion people a year and most of them want a piece of him somehow, so we leave him alone. He looks around a bit at all the activity and then wanders off to say hi to Pat, whom he hasn't seen since the Super Bowl.
Madden always seems slightly bemused to see me. Once glance can tell him I'm not a football guy or a jock of any sort. This year I've allowed my assistant producers, who've written a lot of the audio material, to come along and sit with the audio engineer in the sound booth. They're more John's kind of guys: lively, cheerful, profane young men, all very knowledgeable about football and looking forward to the upcoming NFL draft. I'm hoping John will enjoy meeting them.

I'm not really a central member of the Madden team. The executive producer, the technical director, and all the many associate and assistant producers - to say nothing of the huge development staff - are the truly vital people. They're constantly worried about the code and playbooks and player AI, physics, user interface, athlete ratings, motion capture, animations, textures, and testing, testing, testing. The essence of the game is the gameplay - a carefully-tuned balance between fun and realism, and the guys who make that happen are the heart and soul of the team. The A/V producer is on the fringe. What I make is the façade of the game, its outward image.

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