Bruisers Ballet: Five Decades of NFL Films

ManArchy Magazine, Aug. 31, 2013


“It starts with a whistle, and ends with a gun.”

So began the first script Steve Sabol ever handed voiceover legend John Facenda. Sabol’s vision, like his father’s (company founder and Hall of Famer Ed Sabol), was to fuse his passions for cinema and pro football—from the lensmanship to the music, and most importantly, storytelling. For the viewer, it mythologized this sport as high drama perpetrated by gridiron heroes. Interview any pro baller, and they’ll beam with nostalgia about their first childhood exposure to the league’s sights and sounds through NFL Films, thereafter underscoring their own backyard scrimmages with the pageantry of thundering cellos and golden-throated bards in the slo-mo of their fantasies.

We take for granted the innovations Films brought to NFL coverage, but before 1962, cookie-cutter broadcasting was the norm. Five years later, their full-length production, They Call it Pro Football, established all the aesthetics that remain their playbook today. Long lenses capture the human faces streaming with fluids behind those grilles. Players and coaches sport mics that embed us in the huddle and under the dogpile. From the pylon’s perspective, a tight spiral rainbows into the hands of a wide-eyed receiver touching down. And they incorporate montage: sequences that compress time through symbolic, iconic images. Fingers taped and twitching. Breath steaming like a bull. Thighs lunging. A loose ball spinning on the turf. Just like that spaghetti western screening down at the cineplex.

Next to its breathtaking visuals, sync sound is Films’s most-recognizable trademark. It personifies the game, with strategic insights, frustration, and humor, epitomized by my own hometown coach, Hank Stram, who gained national fame after Superbowl IV. While his Chiefs of the allegedly-inferior AFL conference trounced the dominant NFL’s Vikings, he offered such giddy sideline gems as “Just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys!” and “65 Toss Power Trap: it might pop wide open!” to the soundbite canon. Rather than relying on traditional sportscasters, NFL Films has enlisted a who’s-who of Hollywood talent to narrate its programming, including Orson Welles, Gene Hackman, and James Gandolfini.

How many operations can boast of having their own orchestral recording facility? Films employs staff composers, and has commissioned original music since day one. They used to travel the country hiring and recording orchestras, but now it’s all performed in-house and recorded in sections for time and flexibility. Whether it’s a bone-shattering hit, a nimble waltz, a rock band, or a novelty track for one of their beloved “Follies” films, their music always mirrors the fury and grace of the on-field action.

In addition to having documented every major sport while collecting 112 Emmys along the way, they’ve filmed concerts for a diverse list of artists, including Slayer, during which one brave Films shooter donned a helmet-cam in the mosh pit (long before the age of the GoPro, mind you). In their archives is the largest sports-film collection on the planet: 50,000 reels containing over 100 million feet of celluloid. Much of their acquisition has recently gone digital to facilitate today’s shortened production cycles.

Which brings us to Hard Knocks: the culmination of all NFL Films’s expertise in a five-week series for HBO produced yearly since 2001. Training camp players battle for coveted roster spots while a crew of around 40 grinds out 300 hours of raw footage per week edited by another 20 producers to generate one hour of show. Sabol once said it was “like trying to build an airplane while in flight.” They don’t know in advance whose talents will emerge, who’ll get cut, or what injuries will impact their “cast.” So they identify the most potentially-interesting players early on and develop storylines around them. How’s the journeyman quarterback’s wife handling a new city? Which rookie suffered the most humiliating hazing? Why can’t 82 pull his head out of his ass and just catch the goddamn ball, for fuck’s sake? Yes, unlike any other NFL programming, it’s uncensored. And Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”) provides the narration, as with most HBO Sports content.

While they can’t yet replicate the hickory-smoked air of an Arrowhead Stadium tailgate, or the rumbling foundation under your feet as 116 decibels deafens opponents backed up against their own goal line, NFL Films brings fans closer to the game they love, perhaps even sparking that very love. Steve Sabol’s death in 2012 marked 50 years filming football, and the company he left is now poised to tackle another season the same week ManArchy Magazine cleans out its lockers.

Fifty-one years … that’s the pigskin anniversary, right?