Championship CGI image

Championship CGI Tampa Bay Lightning’s Darlene Sanchez on keeping hockey fans pumped with electrifying graphics.

Going from being swept in the first round to winning back-to-back Stanley Cups would be a big deal for any one of the American and Canadian hockey teams in the NHL. But for the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose home base is Florida, it was something of a coup. This summer, the relatively young team from the Sunshine State—in the 104-year-old league—beat the legendary Montreal Canadiens, one of the sport's oldest and most decorated, who have won Lord Stanley a record 24 times.

Darlene Sanchez, the Lightning’s motion graphics coordinator at Vinik Sports Group believes the excitement of being back-to-back champs goes hand-in-hand with the thrill fans routinely bring to the rink inside Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay. It’s a feedback loop that starts with a heart-pumping presentation of music and syncopated 3D graphics created with Cinema 4D, Redshift and After Effects.

“We put a lot of heart into our shows,” says Sanchez. “It’s our job to create an electric environment because the more entertained our fans are, the more excited are and the players fee off that energy.”

The Lightning’s entire support team, from graphics and marketing to social and sponsorship, falls under the VSG Live division of the newly rebranded Vinik Sports Group, under the leadership of team owner Jeff Vinik.

Since purchasing the hockey team in 2010, Vinik and Strategic Property Partners have been transforming downtown Tampa. The development includes Amalie Arena, Sparkman Wharf and the University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute. But the focus remains on Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning pregame show calls for an extra 15 minutes of pure content for the playoffs, which includes collaborations with voice talent and performers, like rapper and Sarasota, Florida native Vo Williams, who wrote the team’s pregame anthem.

Sanchez creates the stadium shows’ 3D ice projections and broadcast graphics, which extend to electronic signage throughout the arena. Her colleague, Stephen Nash, takes care of Flash, videography and 2D motion design while Felicia Sablan focuses on live production, stats and motion graphics work. All of them work on dual monitors with AMD Ryzen Threadrippers and recently updated 3090 GPUs.

“I especially love using Cinema 4D with Redshift,” Sanchez says, explaining that they recently shifted to Redshift after years of relying on the Physical renderer and outdated graphics cards. “That upgrade significantly sped up our render times and it’s been huge for me in terms of productivity.”

Sanchez relies heavily on Cinema 4D’s morph cameras and compositing tags. The team builds graphics in templates about 95 percent of the time so they can update them easily from game to game. “And we’re the Lightning, after all, so I’m always using compositing tags and object passes to composite in electricity.”

Although she has been working with the team for nearly five years, Sanchez says she never expected a career in sports entertainment. “When I came here as an intern, I didn’t know anything about hockey, but I stuck around because it’s a really fun and dynamic environment. It can be stressful at times, but it’s so exciting.”

The shows and branding Sanchez and her colleagues completed with a skeleton staff during the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Final two years running have been among the most rewarding, she says. “The most challenging part of the playoffs is you’re unsure of who you will face in the next round or even if you’ll make it to the next round, so you can only work so far ahead.”

And there are definitely a lot of quick turnarounds. This year’s playoff was especially busy, she recalls. “Between the third and the final round of the playoffs, we didn’t work ahead because we realized the Lightning could be eliminated. But we were able to pull out a victory in a 1 – 0 game, and we were thrilled. Then, we found out we had only two days to prep for the Stanley Cup Final, which was set to start off at Amalie. That’s why efficiency and productivity are so important.

Sanchez worked nonstop the entire weekend, logging about 26 hours. “I was so stressed,” she recalls. “It was almost a death by 1,000 cuts because our checklist included a lot of little things that add up when you factor in render times. Just changing our Stanley Cup look to Stanley Cup Final throughout the entire building’s 15 ancillary displays was a major project.”

“It really hit me then that this is the real power of what we do, visual storytelling.”
– Darlene Sanchez

Due to the time crunch they tapped periodic collaborator Triglass Productions, a video production and motion design studio in Minnesota, who pitched in with “some phenomenal content for the ice projection in Cinema 4D and video,” Sanchez adds.

Even for an artist in the back room, the hard work has paid off in unexpected ways. Sanchez says she’ll never forget the feeling during an earlier unsuccessful playoff run when the crowd erupted the moment her graphics flashed on the ice before the players skated out.

“The goal was for our players to come out to a loud arena before getting to work on the ice and all 20,000 fans started going wild,” she recalls. “It really hit me then that this is the real power of what we do, visual storytelling. It’s so much more than just 3D text on the screen. In that moment, I felt like a rock star.”

Sanchez was similarly stunned when her Stanley Cup Final graphics went live throughout Amalie arena and people were lining up to take pictures in front of the largest video wall on the concourse.

“That made all the hard work worth it,” she recalls. “When you’re only thinking about your checklist and what you need to finish, you forget that this is what it’s all about. That could have been a kid’s very first hockey game, and now he has this photo that he will cherish for the rest of his life. My boss summed it up well when he said, ‘We’re in the business of making memories.’ We won the whole thing three days later.”

With a new season underway and the Lightning aiming for a Stanley Cup 3-peat, Sanchez is ready once again to play her part. “Years ago, my boss told me something that’s never left me: ‘Make it look expensive.’ Cinema 4D and the Red Giant suite helps me make it look expensive every single time.”


Beth MarchantWriter/Editor – Croton-on-Hudson, New York