For NFL Films, 'football the way Hollywood creates movies'

The Mount Laurel production company has a small army in Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII. We took a look behind the scenes.

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MOUNT LAUREL - When fans imagine a repository for some of football's greatest moments, they think of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

They might recall iconic landscapes like the famed "frozen tundra of Lambeau Field," or even old college venues like Franklin Field in Philadelphia or Notre Dame Stadium.

What they probably don't picture is an office park off Route 38 in Mount Laurel.

But NFL Films, housed in what looks on the outside like just another corporate headquarters, holds the visual record of a century of football. 

It also holds an astonishing amount of gridiron memorabilia, original artworks, archival material and institutional knowledge.

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And this weekend, its small army will take up positions all around Minneapolis' U.S. Bank Stadium to capture another piece of NFL history: Super Bowl LII between the hometown Philadelphia Eagles and the defending champion New England Patriots.

"We'll have 175 people there," said Ross Ketover, senior vice president of NFL Films. "We'll have 31 cameras (in addition to the 50 cameras for NBC Universal for its network broadcast)."

Three truckloads of sound, lighting and camera equipment made the journey to Minnesota as well; NFL Films producers work with NBC to set each camera operator's respective positions and placement of all the other equipment to ensure seamless coverage for both the network offering the live telecast and the filmmakers capturing it for posterity.

"The network gets priority," Ketover explained. "They have a hundred million people watching (its live broadcast). We know how to keep out of each others' way."

NFL Films camera operators will shoot 140 hours of footage from every conceivable angle of the game, following the same storylines as every other fan in America — but also on the lookout for the surprising, the unusual, the quirky, the funny, the poignant.

They are "their own directors," he said, not equipped with headsets or given a lot of pre-game instruction. "That way they have a lot of freedom to do what they want and tell great stories."

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The video is fed immediately back to Mount Laurel, and work begins at 6 a.m. Monday to have productions broadcast-ready by Tuesday.

Last year's Super Bowl LI was probably the most dramatic in history, Ketover recalled, as the Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit in the second half to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime.

"It was incredible," he said. "We've told 15 different versions of that story. We've told it from the perspective of the winners, of the losers, of the fans, of different players."

NFL Films' founders "wanted to cover football the way Hollywood creates movies," Ketover said. That legacy, from its founder, Ed Sabol, who died in 2015, and his son, Steve Sabol, the creative force behind NFL Films, who died in 2012, continues today.

The younger Sabol was an art major in college, explained Hugh Colan as he gave the Courier-Post a tour of NFL Films' sprawling Mount Laurel facility. But even then, Sabol was a raconteur with a salesman's sensibilities: While playing football in Colorado, he wrote a story about a player he dubbed "Sudden Death" Sabol — and sold it to Sports Illustrated.

He brought that flair for storytelling to the company his father, a former overcoat salesman, started in 1961 after bidding $3,000 to then-commissioner Pete Rozelle for the right to film NFL games.

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The Mount Laurel production company has a small army in Minneapolis to cover Super Bowl LII. Chris LaChall/Staff Photographer

"Steve loved the big screen; he added the theatrical music and slow-motion filming" to football highlight reels, Colan explained as he stood in NFL Films' in-house theater.

"He created something in sports that no one else had ever created."

It wasn't just about sports, Colan added, even if football was the star of the show.

"He wanted people to be entertained. He created a structure here that is imbued with his soul, and we still carry that out every day."

One hundred and twenty-five Emmys and countless other awards since its founding, the company continues to refine and redefine sports programming.

NFL Films has its own composer, David Robidoux, to create the music that animates all those cinematic moments it captures. There's a recording studio that accommodates a 72-piece orchestra on-site that Colan said was acoustically modeled after Abbey Road, the Beatles' famed recording studio.

Its massive film vault, kept constantly at a chilly 55 degrees and 20 percent humidity, holds more than 19,000 miles of film dating back to footage taken by a Jersey guy named Thomas Edison, at a Princeton-Rutgers game in 1896.

Scattered reels that still await digitizing include Phillies reels from the 1970s and '80s, high school reels from Pitman and Pottstown, Pennsylvania, myriad college reels and even film from Atlantic City Racecourse and Philadelphia City All-Stars high school highlights.

"It's all grist for our mill," said Colan. 

For each regular-season game, NFL Films will send two to four camera operators, increasing the number as the playoffs progress, Ketover said. They aren't there as journalists; their thoughts are on cinematography, on the motion and emotion of each game they film.

"We're there to mythologize and dramatize football," he noted.

Mythologizing a sport that's seen its share of controversies — from players taking a knee during the national anthem to the ongoing revelations about long-term physical and brain damage players suffer — has required the company to adapt its approaches, Ketover admitted.

"We've had to change with times the same way society has," he said. "So we're not going to glamorize those big hits the way we used to. But we still think there's plenty of drama in those three hours."

Football still has tremendous power to enthrall audiences, he believes. 

"Between the strategy, the beauty, the artistry of the game, football still has more stories to tell than any other sport."

With its base in South Jersey, NFL Films has its share of Eagles fans on staff, but their job is to present a wide variety of perspectives on all their productions, from the HBO series "Hard Knocks" to a host of NFL Network shows, from full-length features to its "Season in Six," which condenses an entire year of football to six action-packed minutes.

"It helps to be a football fan, but you don't have to know all about X's and O's to tell a great story," Ketover said. He sheepishly admitted that, as a Miami native, he's more of a Dolphins fan than an Eagles fan.

"Really, I'm a fan of whatever is good for the show we're producing," he conceded.

Still, he wouldn't mind an Eagles victory.

"I would expect we'd have several cameras at the parade, if it happens," he predicted. 

"A city that has that much passion for its team gives us a great opportunity to tell incredible stories."

Phaedra Trethan: @CP_Phaedra; 856-486-2417; ptrethan@gannettnj.com

Also in South Jersey

 

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