Behind the Scenes of NFL Films

Using a mix of high-speed, 16mm and HD cameras, NFL Films has managed to make even the most boring games seem like gripping tales of desperation. How is this Pixar-like track record of excellence maintained? Let’s take a look behind the scenes of NFL Films to find out…

Super Bowl Sunday is an unofficial American holiday and while many will be eating bean dip with chips and settling in to watch the big game — perhaps even in 3D or on an iPad — a crew of filmmakers will take their place on the sideline to capture all the action. Working to dramatize an already passionate  game, NFL Films has come to embody a style that is unrivaled in sports documentary. Using a mix of high-speed, 16mm and HD cameras, NFL Films has managed to make even the most boring games seem like gripping tales of desperation. How is this Pixar-like track record of excellence maintained? Let’s take a look behind the scenes of NFL Films to find out…

It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun

That line is the first that Steve Sabol ever wrote for famed NFL Films narrator John Facenda when the company first started out. At the time, Steve Sabol was operating under the tut-ledge of his father, Ed Sabol, a man who was, just yesterday, unanimously voted into the 2011 class of the NFL Hall of Fame. That recognition is bore out of the years of hard work — and the risks — that Ed Sabol took in establishing a filmmaking arm of the most powerful league in the United States. He is still alive today and still gives advice to the company he helped create many years ago.

Originally an overcoat salesman after returning from World War II, Ed Sabol found himself miserable at work, “like going to the dentist every morning.” As a hobby, Sabol would shoot 16mm motion pictures of family and friends. He eventually decided to turn one of his passions, filmmaking, towards another, sports. At Steve Sabol’s sports games, dad would show up to film the action on his beloved film camera. In fact, Ed Sabol become so adept at filming son Steve’s football games that he began to attract an audience:

“After the games were played, dad would get the film processed. And then the coaches would come back to our house. And I was in fourth grade, and they’d sit around and my mom would serve pretzels and apple cider and beer. And they would watch the films of this fourth-grade football team playing games.”

Pretty soon, the budding hobby turned into a burgeoning business on the brink of something big. And in the early 60′s, Ed took the risk of a lifetime: The famed story is that he approached then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle about filming and producing a reel of the 1962 NFL Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. The deal was sweetened with a cool $3,000 dollars of Ed’s money, “I wanted it badly. I had to have it, and wasn’t gonna let $1,000 or $2,000 stand in the way.” Rozelle accepted and after a successful run at the championship game, Rozelle hired Sabol to create a half-hour film for each team in the league with their highlights.

The rest, as they say, is history. Years later, Ed Sabol now watches his son, Steve, operate the company he helped create. NFL Films is a household name, has received staggering amounts of artistic recognition and contains a vault with an absurd amount of 16mm film footage.

Let the film run like water

Steve Sabol says that “the only thing with more 16mm film dedicated to it than the NFL is WWII” and that’s no exaggeration. According to Steve, the archives of NFL Films contains about 100 million feet of film. To put that in perspective, the film contained in the vault could loop the Earth at the equator a little over 4,000 times. It could go the distance of a round trip to the Moon about 200 times. And it would stretch the length of 1.4 billion football fields before getting to the end of the line. If the struggle to conceptualize the total amount of film in the vault is hard, try wrapping your head around what a typical NFL weekend will generate. As of 2007, NFL Films was going through 12,000 feet of film per game per week.

While the numbers are staggering, the philosophy that generates them is simple: “Dad always said, ‘Let the film run like water. Let the film run like water,” said Steve Sabol. At one game, NFL Films will typically have only 3 or so cameramen dispatched. Some stay in the stands, some corner up in the end zone and some are positioned along the sidelines, but the crew remains relatively small. On the field is a loader to unload and reload new magazines into the cameras, trying to keep up with the pace of the game and the cameras themselves.

“We move a lot. That’s the thing we try […] to make two cameras look like 10,” says cameraman Steve Andrich who will spend the game trying to “let the film run like water.”

That thinking mostly derives from the urge to have at least one high-speed camera on each game devoted entirely to slow-motion. It’s a choice that costs the company financially due to increased use of film, but that doesn’t bother Ed who believes “quality always comes first.”

The sacrifice of finances in the name of quality is really what has divided NFL Films from a typical Sportscenter highlight reel. Where sports are shot live in HD, NFL Films chooses to shoot on 16mm film stock. A lot of that choice is one of identity and also helps to separate their products from the live-broadcasts that feature the same subject matter. It has become a defining trait of the company and one that isn’t soon to be forgotten with Steve Sabol in charge:

“We’re historians, we’re storytellers, we’re mythmakers. We’ll always stay on film.”

To stay on film, however, requires some serious logistics and NFL Films has no shortage of that. With a state-of-the-art film processing lab at it’s headquarters in New Jersey, the company is able to digest and deliver its footage to post-production personnel on very short notice — “hours instead of days,” says their website. That kind of facility is increasingly rare in the 2011 world of high-definition and digital cinema filmmaking.

The last stop before heading to the vault is a Telecine where the footage is turned into a digital format to be edited by producers. Once delivered, their job is to turn the raw power of the filmed game into the short segments of balletic grace that play in homes across the country.

The shape of a football field is the shape of a movie screen

Jokingly referred to as “tight on the spiral” — a reference to the classic slow motion close up of the thrown football — NFL Films has etched into its core and its audience a strong stylistic identity. It’s shot on film, uses heavy slow motion and combines those factors with a narrative voice that sounds heavenly and a soundtrack that beats drums and pumps horns. All of this is in the name of transforming a 60 minute game into a struggle, or a success, but always a story. And that is where NFL Films separates itself from what is traditionally seen in sports. Where ESPN or network live-broadcasts might serve the game as raw meat, untouched but pure, NFL Films is willing to throw it on the grill and turn it into a meal with all the intricacies of a world-class chef. And man is it delicious.

Where things really get interesting is in the behind the scenes footage of the sports documentary monolith at work. The first video comes from USA Today and takes place at NFL Films’ Headquarters. The video covers the production house from a more generic angle, focusing on the abstract concepts that define the NFL Films approach to filmmaking and the sports figures and analysts who have been inspired by the archival footage. It also gives a peek into how closely packed in all of these analyst get for their respective TV shows.

The second video, I believe, is the more interesting one. Coming from Showtime’s Inside the NFL, it takes a look at the technical aspects of shooting an NFL Films piece. They show brief clips of camera operators, changing 16mm mags in a changing tent, and touch base with NFL Films’ post-production facilities. The premise of the video is that it follows the making of the film from gameday to broadcast and I found it fascinating and revealing.

(Unfortunately since the time this article was posted, the video with the Showtime piece has been removed.)

USA Today video:

Sources: NFL Films, CBS 60 Minutes, USA Today, Pelseal.com/American Cinematographer, Digitalcontentproducer.com

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  • michael p.

    I say bravo to NFL Films for sticking to their roots, and at the same time moving forward. Film has an ethereal quality to it that is hard to pin down. You know it when you see it, it’s larger than life. Not surprisingly, a large portion of research & development toward improving digital cameras is geared toward mimicking the characteristics of motion picture film stock. Go figure. Yes, shooting on film makes for more work, and the cameras are not light (ruling out limp-armed wussies), but why settle for a low-rent, digital knock-off when you can have the real thing?

  • http://www.diyfilmschool.net/ DIYFilmSchool.net

    When I was horribly discouraged working in television production, I looked into working for NFL films because of how iconic they are as a brand and for the quality of their productions. That would be a cool “honorary” gig still; I’d love to do that.