Steve Sabol, the easygoing president of NFL Films and one of football’s great storytellers, has a handwritten sign on his desk that reads, “The buck doesn’t even pause here.”
Like his father, Ed, before him, Sabol wants his company’s filmmakers to spread their creative wings, take risks, find new ways to tell stories.
It’s that creativity that helped build NFL Films into the empire it is today, changed how we watch football, and has left a significant imprint on Hollywood.
“A lot of the stuff that NFL Films did, directors of movies and commercials look at it and tell you, ‘That’s it. That’s the look I want. That kind of shot,’ ” said Mike Fisher, football coordinator in movies such as “The Blind Side” and “Remember the Titans.”
“NFL Films has created so many pretty shots with a long lens, and we’ve tried to copy that.”
Those long lenses allow cameramen to get impossibly close and detailed shots -- every spiral of the football as it rolls off the quarterback’s fingertips -- that audiences have come to expect.
“Because they always seem to be creating a visual style that’s exciting visually, oftentimes stunning, I think the Sabols have really embraced not only the look of football, but the sound of football,” said Steve Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants and the producer of such movie blockbusters as “Forrest Gump” and “Risky Business.”
“They give the viewer the opportunity to be as close as they can to being inside the game.”
Steve Sabol studied art in college and has a side passion creating often irreverent collages that blend pop culture and sports. (He has a showing at a Miami gallery this week, in fact, as a run-up to the Super Bowl.) As a cameraman beginning his career in the early 1960s, he explored all sorts of ways to show the NFL from a different perspective.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Picasso and how he would look at a single image through multiple perspectives and from separate moments in time,” Sabol said. “He would look at a woman’s face and he would see almost a three-dimensional look even though it was a flat canvas. I thought, well why couldn’t we do the same thing with a football play?”
So NFL Films was the first to put a camera on the opposite side of the field from the press box, where games were traditionally shot. They put a camera at ground level, then in both end zones. They also shot film at different speeds from different cameras, so some were at regular speed, and others were slow motion.
“We would get 20 different angles and then cut them all together,” Sabol said. “That’s what I called it at the time -- the ‘cubistic’ treatment of shooting football. It was the same thing Picasso did except we did it with a football play. It’s taking a single image and looking at it from multiple perspectives all around the field in separate moments in time. That became part of our signature style, and it still is.”
That style caught the eye of the late director Sam Peckinpah, and he credited NFL Films for influencing the way he shot the slow-motion and rapid-montage scenes in his 1969 classic “The Wild Bunch.”
“NFL Films is journalism, but it’s also a work of art,” NBC play-by-play man Al Michaels said. “They chronicle games perfectly in a journalistic sense, yet also do it so brilliantly in an artistic sense. It’s a combination that they really created.”
Steve Bornstein, president and chief executive of the NFL Network, said the most important thing NFL Films has done is “lift the kimono” of what happens in football, before, during and after the game.
“They get inside the game and give a perspective that was previously only seen by the players and coaches,” he said. “They have allowed the regular fan to get inside that.”
Often, even people who have spent their entire adult lives around the NFL are amazed at what they see captured on film.
“In major league baseball or the NBA, you can see the guys’ faces and sometimes hear what they’re talking about. But not like this,” said former Cincinnati wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, now an NBC analyst. “You can eavesdrop on the sideline conversations. The coaches are wired. The players are taking you inside the huddle. It’s a really unique perspective. Despite the fact that I lived it, I’m still mesmerized when I see some of the tapes.”
Mark Ellis, who specializes in choreographing realistic-looking sports scenes for major motion pictures, only half-jokingly credits NFL Films for saving his career.
A few years ago, Ellis was orchestrating a football scene for the movie “Invincible,” and star Mark Wahlberg absorbed a tremendous, far-heavier-than-expected hit along the sideline.
“The kid Mark was supposed to collide with keeps speeding up, and I’m thinking, ‘Slow down, slow down!’ And he just drills Mark,” Ellis recalled.
“And I’m thinking, ‘I wonder if I can get a job selling bait somewhere in South Carolina,’ because even if Mark does get up, they’re going to fire me. And sure enough, Mark gets up and his face mask is turned sideways, his jersey is torn, and I can see his eyes are completely cuckoo.
“I yelled, ‘Cut!’ and ran up to Mark and said, ‘Please tell me you’re OK!’ And Mark said, ‘I’m fine. Let’s do it again.’ ”
As impressed as he was by Wahlberg, Ellis was just as impressed by cameraman Steve Andrich, who made the move to Hollywood after nine years at NFL Films. He captured every minute detail of the collision, all on a long lens -- an incredibly tricky challenge.
“Our unbelievable cameraman never lost focus,” Ellis said. “He never lost the shot, and stayed on Wahlberg the whole time.
“So what almost got me fired ended up being the trailer shot in the movie.”
Andrich’s explanation: It’s what he does. “In Hollywood, if you don’t like it, you get a Take 2,” he said. “In the NFL, you only get one shot at it.”