Shooting Sports: The NFL Films Model

The editors at NFL Films are masters of the art of film editing and have changed the way that TV, film and video crews cover sports. To understand the significance of NFL Films and its 40-year history, it helps to view a football highlight film from before the company’s inception. Inevitably, you’ll see black and white photography, endless long shots, few close-ups, run-on Walter Winchell-style narration, college band “rah-rah” music and plays presented from start to finish, instead of just their focal points. These highlight films typically revealed little or none of the personalities of the colorful and idiosyncratic men who played in the NFL. NFL Films changed all that with advanced film editing techniques and innovative approaches to telling the story behind the scoreboard.

If the sports documentaries, team yearbook videos, highlight reels or even the home movies of the annual family touch football game that you produce are more like the old model, a close study of the details of the NFL Films editing technique may pay very large dividends.

Film Editing in the Early Days

In 1962, Ed Sabol, a 45-year-old clothing salesman and budding filmmaker, won a bid to shoot the highlight film of the league’s championship game. Pete Rozelle, the NFL’s commissioner, so loved the finished product, that he eventually appointed Sabol as the NFL’s official documentarian.

Ed, his son Steve and their editor-in-chief Bob Ryan (among others) introduced numerous techniques to the art of sports documentary filmmaking. This includes the use of very long and very wide lenses; the use of wireless microphones on coaches and players; cutting to the apex of each play and super slow motion. Indeed their style of film editing uses slow motion of a sort is used on virtually every play, since NFL Films shoots all non-synched sound coverage at 32 frames per second.

The icing on the cake was their distinctive use of narration, beginning with “the voice of God,” John Facenda, a Philadelphia television news anchorman who was the mythic voice of the NFL until his death in 1984. Early on, the NFL Films’ producers and film editors made a conscious choice to use less narration, which made Facenda’s style even more important and dramatic. Steve Sabol, now the president of NFL Films, says, “I felt that in order to make our films memorable and different, the script was going to be decreased, which meant that the voice that was used to read the script would be even more important.”

As highlighted in their Inside The Vault series on ESPN, it took a while for NFL Films to put all these techniques together. Eventually, in 1965, they all meshed in a documentary titled They Call It Pro Football. Pete Rozelle screened the film, and then pulled out a piece of paper with the Neilson television ratings, which indicated that baseball was number one, college football was number two and the NFL was number three. “And Pete said, ‘for the NFL to prosper, it has to succeed on television. And in order for the NFL to succeed on television, it needs a mystique. It needs a certain style. It needs an image. And the film that I just saw will help us create that image'”, Sabol recollects. “And that was also as close to a mission statement as we ever got.”

The Mole, The Weasel and The Tree

Generally, NFL Films only uses three cameras on a regular season game, which Sabol describes as the tree, the mole and the weasel. “A tree is the top camera,” he explains. “He’s on a tripod rooted into a position on the 50 yard line in the press box and he doesn’t move. A mole is a handheld, mobile, ground cameraman, with a 12 to 240mm lens and he moves all around the field and gives you the eyeball-to-eyeball perspective. A weasel is the cameraman who pops up in unexpected places, to get you the telling storytelling shot the bench, the crowd, all the details.”

And it’s those details that were among the first standout elements of NFL Films. “I was an art major in college, and Paul Czanne once said that ‘All art is selected detail’. And I felt that the one thing missing in sports films were the details.” So, when Sabol began shooting for NFL Films, he was the weasel. “I filmed the first fifteen Super Bowls and never saw a play. But I could tell you what kind of hat Tom Landry was wearing, how Vince Lombardi was standing in the fourth quarter, if Bob Lilly had a cut on the bridge of his nose. Those were the things that I remember in the Super Bowl.”

And it’s those little things that everyone remembers about each Super Bowl, largely thanks to NFL Films, whose highlight films are rerun endlessly on ESPN during playoff season.

Editing to Tell Me a Story

Not surprisingly, Sabol believes that NFL Films is all about storytelling. “Storytelling is basically done through the editing. It’s the cameraman’s job to come back with as much material storytelling shots, action shots as he possibly can.” At that point, editing becomes “so critical, and it’s one of the most overlooked art forms or disciplines in filmmaking. Most people don’t understand editing; they understand writing, they understand music, they understand cinematography. But when it comes to editing film and the selection and order of the shots, that’s the key to storytelling.”

Adding Excitement to a Blowout

How do you take a Super Bowl blowout, and turn it into a great highlight film? A classic example was Super Bowl XX, where the Chicago Bears crushed the New England Patriots, 46 to 10. The game itself was decided before halftime heck, probably before the pregame show. But NFL Films pulled out all the stops to turn that rout into a great half-hour documentary: coaches and quarterbacks wired for sound; narration, multiple camera angles and animation diagramming key plays; super slow motion; post-game interviews and larger-than-life music.

Those Super Bowl films illustrate that as long as people play sports, there will always be great stories to be told even if it takes a little extra effort to dig for them. The trick of course, is finding new and unique ways to present those stories. While technology continues to advance, Bob Ryan says, “The basic ideas of good stories, and a good storyteller, will never change.”

Cataloging The Vault

The Inside NFL Films headquarters is located in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey and has a climate-controlled vault containing football footage from 1897 to the present day, including of course, every inch of film shot by NFL Films.

Obviously, cataloging all those miles of footage is quite a challenge. In the past, the producers at NFL Films relied on the memories of long-time employees jokingly called “vault savants.” Concurrent with their move to a new building, however, they’ve begun to catalog each shot in a computerized database. When footage is processed after each NFL game, it’s cataloged with about 150 search parameters, including everything from the styles of uniforms worn to the weather, down to which advertisers’ products or ads were visible in the background of a shot. Steve Andrich, NFL Films’ vice president of cinematography, says the database allows producers to put in criteria that will bring up a selection of shots, and then narrow down the criteria. “You can say, ‘give me Walter Payton’s 100 touchdowns’ if you put that in as a criterion, it will give you 100 touchdowns. Then ‘give them to me at night’, ‘give them to me ten yards or longer’.”

Knowing what shots you have at your disposal is the first step to good film editing and story-telling. Although few videographers have the vault and cataloging capabilities of NFL Films, you can organize your library in a similar way with programs such as Video-Wiz (