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The Monuments Men: Inside the Mad Scramble to Bring You Your Annual NFL Championship DVD

Hanging with the crew of filmmakers and historians at NFL Films as they fight incredible deadline pressure to produce their annual Super Bowl DVD.

The way the shot is framed, you can only see Bill Belichick’s eyes. It’s the night of the Super Bowl and he is surrounded by the Patriots defense. The man who is publicly so reticent is yelling so loudly that he’s hoarse. “All right, fellas,” he shouts. “It’s the same thing we talked about in the Baltimore game. We just need everybody to do their job, all right?” He outlines a few of those jobs — containing the quarterback, challenging the line of scrimmage, wrapping up Marshawn Lynch, playing good man-to-man. “There’s no mystery here, fellas!” he concludes. “It’s trust in each other, and everybody doing their job.” 

Sitting in his office at NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, a quiet suburb just across the border from Philadelphia, senior producer Todd Schmidt watches the clip and shakes his head in respect. “That’s Bill Belichick,” he says. Everyone at NFL Films loves Belichick, because Belichick loves NFL Films: In 2009, he agreed to be miked up and followed by cameras for a whole season, the result of which was an insightful and illuminating two-part documentary on the NFL Network. Just about five years later, on the night of Super Bowl XLIX, Belichick was again wired for sound.

On the screen in Schmidt’s office, the footage shifts from the eyes-up shot inside the huddle to a montage of crisp game film. Orchestral music swells. A narrator notes that the Patriots held the Seahawks to just one first down on the next three Seattle possessions. There is nothing specifically out of the ordinary about this sequence, but it stands out for its quiet efficiency: In just a few seconds, with just a few splices, it has told a whole Patriots story. When I mention this, Schmidt nods his head. “It’s meant to be watched when you’re depressed,” he says, pointing at me. “When your team’s out.”

He says this because I have already told him about my personal relationship to his company’s work. On a near annual basis, when my beloved New York Giants are knocked out of the playoffs or miss the postseason altogether, I comfort myself with an umpteenth viewing of one of the team’s Super Bowl films, both of which I preordered the day of the parades. When I find myself in times of trouble / Brother Eli comes to me / Throwing slo-mo spirals / DVD, DVD. The gorgeously saturated game shots; the music with bass that sounds like a heartbeat; the Voice of God voice-overs — all of these things are my Xanax, my therapy couch, my best friend. They remind me not just of those victorious seasons, but also of being a kid in the den, enthralled for hours by the annual highlights packages that NFL Films produces for all 32 teams. If those programs can make even the most humdrum 5-11 season feel like a Super Bowl, you can imagine how the actual championship retrospective goes.

And what’s most amazing is how quickly it all comes together. By the Friday after the Super Bowl, less than five days after all the confetti has been vacuumed up, the full 75-minute video — which begins in preseason and traces a team’s long road to glory — has been signed, sealed, and delivered to Cinedigm, the DVD’s distributor. This year’s Patriots film will be released tomorrow, and even small New England supermarkets have signed deals to carry the Blu-ray and DVD. The speed with which NFL Films is able to turn this around is a testament to the organization, which in many ways is successful for the same reasons that a football team is.

“The week after the Super Bowl is just a lot of bleary eyes,” Schmidt says. “Everyone has to go through the footage. And one of the things you’ll see is, everyone does their job.” Here he begins to sound like Belichick riling up his players. “I can’t do my job if telecine doesn’t make the picture right. They can’t do their job if the cameramen don’t do their job right. So everyone has to do their jobs. And it’s just a long week.”

 

EMMY-STEVE-ED-SABOLNFL Films

From the outside, the white-and-gray NFL Films building looks like any number of corporate offices scattered throughout the surrounding town; the only true distinguishing factors are a grouping of enormous satellite dishes and a fleet of trucks and vans in the parking lot. Step inside, however, and you witness a monument not just to football history, but to the power of cinema.

The entrance to a 150-seat theater is flanked by dozens upon dozens of Emmy awards. “The rule used to be that you get to keep your first three Emmys,” Schmidt says, “and the rest go to the house.” A chilly vault holds film reels dating back to the days of Thomas Edison, who in 1894 shot footage of what is considered to be the first filmed football game ever — a tilt between Rutgers and Princeton. Downstairs, in the camera room, antique film equipment lines a shelf; under a few of the pieces are signs noting which all-time classic moments — The Holy Roller, The Catch, The Immaculate Reception — each old camera recorded. (The men and women who operate the equipment are rarely referred to as cameramen at NFL Films: They are cinematographers.) Behind big glass windows you can see enormous film labs and editing rooms; Steve Sabol, one of the original driving forces behind NFL Films, wanted the building to have the feel of one of those brew pubs that have all the beer-making equipment on display.

NFL-Films-4Katie Baker

And sure enough, several people I spoke with took pains to note that this business is a film company that so happens to be about football, and not the other way around. Still, the place is a fan’s mecca. Just about every square inch of every hallway is plastered with vintage images or memorabilia. There are near-life-size photographs of game action, framed old-timey football programs, and a huge hooked rug in the shape of a center’s bent-over behind as he gets set to snap. Turn a corner and you’ll be confronted with a display of every New Yorker cover to ever feature a pigskin. At the end of one hallway is a large grinning image of “Sweetness,” a.k.a. Walter Payton. “Steve was a little bit into feng shui,” Schmidt says. “Our back door is right over there. So when people leave at the end of the day, they want someone smiling at you.”

“Steve” is the son of NFL Films founder Ed (“Mr. Sabol”) and the visionary behind just about everything that the company does. Listening to employees talk about him — and they all do, unprompted, within the first minute of chatting — is like hearing Apple diehards sing of Steve Jobs.

The elder Sabol, who died last month at 98 years old, was the one who convinced then–NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to buy his small film company, Blair Productions, in 1964 and rename it NFL Films. But it was Steve who is most responsible for NFL Films’s trademark soul, from the music to the slow-motion images of spiraling footballs to the recognizable narrative cadence. He was inspired by war movies; he quoted Cézanne on the regular; he would go to the composer and hum tunes that he wanted to turn into an orchestral arrangement. He died in 2012 from a brain tumor, and his office has been unchanged ever since. Newspaper clippings and scraps of paper containing his various thoughts and inspirations are still pinned to a cork board, much of it written in his neat, all-caps hand, like tiny Jenny Holzer installations: 

PEOPLE NEVER USE THE WORD ‘TECHNICALLY’ UNLESS THEY WANT TO BACK UP A REALLY WEAK POINT

EVERY PROBLEM WAS ONCE A SOLUTION TO A PREVIOUS PROBLEM

SENTIMENTAL INEXACTITUDE

DON’T WORRY ABOUT BITING OFF MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW. YOUR MOUTH IS PROBABLY A WHOLE LOT BIGGER THAN YOU THINK

And, front and center on his desk, where a nameplate might normally be: DID YOU MAKE SOMEONE LAUGH TODAY?

“There’s no way to replace Steve Sabol,” Schmidt says quietly, looking around. “We all have to find ways to be our own Steve Sabol.”

NFL-FIlms-3Katie Baker

Even more so than at most companies, everyone’s office at NFL Films is a little window into their lives. Boston sports memorabilia is all over producer Rob Gill’s workspace, right up to and including the iconic photo of airborne Bruins legend Bobby Orr. Gill is from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, so there were two reasons he hoped New England would win the Super Bowl: he’s a huge fan, and he’d just spent two weeks of his life neck-deep in Patriots footage. “You could say it’s a labor of love,” he says.

In order to execute such a quick turnaround on the Super Bowl championship DVD, the staff at NFL Films prepares around three quarters’ worth of the movie for each team before kickoff. (It’s not unlike how the T-shirt and hat manufacturers make two sets of winning merchandise.) The initial research and outlining begins during the conference championship weekend, when four teams remain, and is winnowed down as soon as the Super Bowl matchup has been set.

Teams of three employees work to cut and fit an entire season’s (and postseason’s) worth of games into a 57-minute slot; the Super Bowl will take up another 17 minutes or so. Gill was the lead producer on the Patriots side, heading a team that also included Kevin Bushman and Daniel Barrack, while Schmidt worked on Seattle. With the clock ticking down and the Seahawks on the goal line after an absurd reception by Jermaine Kearse, it seemed as though Schmidt would be the one with the busy week ahead.

“I actually grew up a Patriots fan,” says Gill. “So I was doubly invested. It was gut-wrenching — and honestly, like everybody else at that point, I felt like they were doomed.”

“Rob lives down the street from me,” Schmidt adds, “and I could hear him shouting.”

“If I was agnostic about the outcome, then I would have been thinking more in terms of, oh, there go two weeks of workdays down the drain,” says Gill. “But, really, I’ll be honest, at that moment I was just kind of thinking about it as a fan.”

When Pete Carroll made the boneheaded decision to throw the ball rather than hand it to Lynch, the workload quickly reversed. Now Gill was the one in charge of sifting through mountains of footage, while Schmidt’s weeks of effort were no longer needed. The losing team’s movie is mostly abandoned, although NFL Films did release one in 2008 when the Arizona Cardinals lost, figuring their fans were just happy to be there. This doesn’t mean vacation for Schmidt — he’s still enormously busy helping pick up the slack so Gill and his team can focus completely on their editing — but with that one play call, his week ahead suddenly looked very different.

At the Super Bowl, NFL Films had 38 cameras and eight mikes, more than ever before. (For comparison, they usually send two or maybe three cameras to a regular-season game.) “We have guys just shooting hands and toes and breath,” Schmidt says. When he diagrams for me on a sheet of paper where the various cameras would be positioned, the jumble of X’s and O’s looks like some sort of advanced on-field formation.

Randy Moss #84Brian Bahr/Allsport

Hank McElwee is the director of cinematography at NFL Films and has been with the company for more than 40 years. He worked in the lab at first, then helped repair equipment, then spent several years as Steve Sabol’s assistant. “For the Super Bowl we shot over four days’ worth of film,” he says, standing in the camera room, a big “NO WHINING” sign behind him. This year, for the first time, 100 percent of the film was shot digitally; assistants swap out the memory cards as they fill up and begin uploading the footage immediately, a far cry from the days of lugging film reels into offices.

The cameras are manufactured by ARRI, a company that got its start nearly a century ago making equipment for Hollywood. McElwee worked closely with them to provide feedback on the design and capabilities of their most recent cameras, the Amira. Recently, NFL Films bought another 30 of them, at around $55,000 a pop. “It’s so easy to use it’s pathetic,” McElwee says.

The cinematographers shoot at various speeds, and have mandates for what they’re supposed to be focusing on — the operator of the “weasel cam,” for example, is supposed to pick up unusual non-action shots of things like zany fans or fluttering confetti. Other than that, though, they operate without direction and are trusted to make their own decisions on how and what they shoot during the game. “We had a meeting before the game,” McElwee says, “and I used that Bill Belichick line: Just do your job. If everybody just does their job, what they’re supposed to do, the images are amazing. No one shoots alike.”1


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He adds that some of the finest shots of the game were filmed by Hannah Epstein, a 2012 Middlebury graduate and his former intern. “I gave her an opportunity and she went far and above.”

Walking around the building, you start to appreciate how everyone’s defined roles interact and intersect in much the same way as football players’ do on the field. Across the hall from the cameras are the location sound people — those guys you see on the sidelines running around with enormous microphones held aloft. (They all have massive shoulders and biceps.) Scott Carter, the director of the group, holds up a small transmitter about the size of a first-generation iPod and explains how he wires players for sound.

The idea, he says, is for them to not have to think about it; he works with the equipment managers hours before the game to affix the equipment to the players’ shoulder pads, and the cameras used to track the miked-up players are long-lens and so far away that players don’t even remember they’re being tracked. (Wiring the coaches requires a little more finesse, Carter says, especially when you have to remove the equipment after a loss. “The person you send in there has to be half politician, half tech.”)

A mic attached to Champ Bailey in one game kept capturing him chatting with teammates and telling them that he guessed NFL Films had forgotten to wire him. LaMarr Woodley once asked producers how they’d gotten a microphone into a huddle, not remembering that it was on his own person. One year, Ronde Barber approached Carter and Schmidt before a game to say he was sorry, but he didn’t want to put on a wire: He needed the extra speed and didn’t want to add any bulk. Carter looked at him and laughed. “Dude,” he said, “you’re wearing it right now.”

Steve-Ed-SobalNFL Films

Schmidt sits in his office, in front of two big computer screens and underneath a whole lot of Oakland Raiders décor, and shows how he edits a film together. Someone in the room asks if he can find a particular play from a September game between the Patriots and Vikings in which New England’s Chandler Jones blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown.

He scrolls through the neatly organized database of games, plays, and calls and selects the camera feed shot from the top of the stadium. It’s a dud, though: The cinematographer didn’t notice the block, so the shot traces a phantom ball on its nonexistent arc through the air. He chooses the field-level angle, and this one is perfect: You can see Jones stuff the attempt and start running the other way. Schmidt clicks on the radio play-by-play call and drags it into his editing software to match up with the action on the screen, Jones hitting the yardage lines at the same time the announcer counts them down. Then he picks out some music: The clip he chooses is a jaunty tune by NFL Films in-house composer Dave Robidoux titled “Unitas We Stand.”

Downstairs, near a studio that can hold the 60-piece orchestra that is routinely brought in to record Robidoux’s work, the composer is chatting with Steve Moseley, the sound mixer. Moseley stitches together all the sounds you hear, from the music to the boom of the jet flyover at the start of the game. His favorite sound effect was one that went along with slow-motion footage of muskets firing; “We don’t get a lot of gunshots,” he says.

Once the Super Bowl ends, Moseley’s job is just about as hectic as that of the producers: He is given the existing 57-minute cut to sound mix on Monday morning, and the remaining Super Bowl segment midweek. On Thursday, the narrator is brought in to record his script; many famous voices, from John Facenda to Harry Kalas, have been immortalized on NFL Films. On Friday at 4:30, the full movie is in its final form and is screened in its entirety; the producers then do one last fact check. By 7 p.m., the finished product is sent to Cinedigm. Most DVDs take about 10 weeks for the distributor to release. For the Super Bowl DVD, the timeline is condensed to four.

SBXLIX_3D_BD_Patriots_FINNFL FIlms

A place for everything, and everything in its place. The amount of coordination and collaboration that goes into the championship would not be successfully managed without everyone focusing on getting their own jobs done and done well. It helps that just about everyone who works at NFL Films has worked there seemingly forever; it’s not a place with a whole lot of turnover. Everyone, from the producers to the cinematographers to the interns browsing through footage, views his or her work like a historian — Schmidt uses the word “tome” to describe a typical highlights film — and acknowledges the impact they’ve had on the way we consume sports.

Each and every clip tells a story: of a person, of a fan base, of a decision, of a game. The goal is not only to show what went down, it is to evoke it, to bring the viewer along and inside. We hear Tom Brady’s voice crack with passion inside one of his huddles; we see a defensive lineman barreling toward him from the same angle he does. We feel the utter humanity of each moment and the drama behind every snap.

It’s why I start and finish the NFL season by reliving the David Tyree catch again and again. It’s why shell-shocked Seahawks fans undoubtedly tried to console themselves after the wrenching loss by grabbing last season’s DVD off the shelf. And it’s why I can chat with a person many decades my senior and share the same memories about NFL Films that they’ve had since they were a kid: that music, those voices, these chills.