NFL Films: Makers of memories

They’re all here now, all in New Orleans, preparing for NFL Films’ biggest moment of the year. The IT guys started to arrive last week, laying groundwork for the cameramen and producers and logistics people to document Super Bowl XLVII as only NFL Films can do.

The final few crew members trickled in Thursday.

Two semi trucks have arrived from company headquarters in Mount Laurel, N.J., loaded down with all the equipment that makes the magic possible. The time is near.

Sunday afternoon, when the cameramen get into position inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, their assignment will be simple, yet pressurized: They must capture the same types of images that made NFL Films an institution, and, in the process, helped grow pro football into America’s favorite sport.

But Friday night, amid the run-up to the big game, there will be no final meeting to discuss and fine-tune every possible detail.

No meeting Saturday, either. Or Sunday.

That’s the way it was when Steve Sabol was still alive, and they’re sure as hell not going to change things now that he’s gone.

Sunday’s game marks the first time NFL Films will document a Super Bowl without Sabol, its legendary creative force, who died Sept. 18 at 69 from brain cancer.

“It’s definitely a sad thing,” said Ross Ketover, senior coordinating producer at NFL Films. “But luckily, he put us in a position to succeed, which, of course, is what any good coach would do.

“Even in the Super Bowl meetings we would have, he’d sit there and say, ‘You guys have been shooting all year. You know what to do. You’re all talented filmmakers. You’re all talented cameramen. Go out and execute it.’ ”

Execute it they have, for more than 50 years now.

A unique view

Although live telecasts of the Super Bowl usually produce the highest TV ratings of the year, the NFL Films accounts prove to be more durable — or, as Ketover put it, “the shows of record” for football fans.

Look at it this way: If you’re old enough to remember Super Bowl XI, between the Raiders and Vikings in 1977, do you really remember the ABC telecast? Or do you remember NFL Films’ slow-motion shot of Raiders cornerback Willie Brown, chugging down the sideline, ball in hand, with his game-sealing interception return?

Those images are very different from live TV. That is, and always has been, by design.

“The story of the game is different a couple of days after than it was 30 seconds after,” said Kennie Smith, executive in charge of project management.

“That’s what NFL Films does, is tell the historical story of the game. We have that perspective of time.”

That shot of Brown is among so many unique, lasting images created by NFL Films, and they’re indicative of the groundbreaking style Sabol developed after the little venture started in 1962.

Sabol’s father, Ed, won a bid to film the ’62 NFL championship game, and within three years, Blair Motion Pictures — named after his daughter and Steve’s sister — had morphed into NFL Films.

To help develop the product, Ed called on his son, Steve, who at the time was uniquely qualified for the job: He was a fullback at Colorado College who majored in art history, and who was nearly obsessive in his consumption of pop culture.

Steve Sabol also had a flair for the dramatic. While in college, he made up a nickname, “Sudden Death Sabol,” and a fake hometown, Possum Trot, Miss.

Though Ed, now 96, was the team leader, an idea man and sharp businessman — he served as company president until 1985 and was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 — even he conceded his son gave NFL Films its signature style.

“We see the game as art as much as sport,” Steve Sabol said in 2011.

It showed.

Changing the game

Sabol applied film techniques to football, often focusing on the emotion and drama of a game, rather than the technical side.

He loved tight shots of players — wide eyes, shuffling feet, falling sweat droplets — and usually put them in super-slow motion.

NFL Films also used real sounds from the sidelines and games, often persuading players and coaches to wear wireless microphones.

Sabol grouped the pictures and sounds with arresting music — horns, strings, crashing cymbals and the like — that became so popular, NFL Films later packaged some of its greatest hits into an album.

The films were guided by a narrator, John Facenda, a former Philadelphia television anchor who voiced scripts that were heavy on rhymes and alliteration (later films were narrated by Harry Kalas; the company now uses several narrators and produces new music in-house).

The results were revolutionary.

Sports Illustrated once called NFL Films “the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America.” Although NFL Films often glosses over things like player arrests and drug use, the company has received far more praise than criticism. NFL Films has collected more than 100 Emmys, and Sabol himself won more than 30 — including a lifetime achievement award.

Pursuit of perfection

Their success was a testament to Sabol’s eyes, ears and relentless perfectionism.

Smith, the logistics executive, started at NFL Films as his assistant, handling day-to-day matters, typing his sripts and memos.

They usually returned to her, covered with red circles.

“He and Mr. Sabol, Ed, used to say, ‘Finish like pros,’ ” Smith said. “Every single thing I do — even now, I mean, if it’s mopping the kitchen floor, I say to myself, ‘OK, finish like a pro.’ I tell you, I’m not exaggerating. Every time I finish something, I make sure it’s the best I can possibly do. That’s what Steve gave me.”

In 2011, Sabol was at an awards dinner in Kansas City when he blacked out. Within a week, he was back in suburban Philadelphia, where doctors told Sabol he had an irremovable brain tumor.

He continued to work, though his pace obviously slowed. Sabol struggled as the tumor Swiss-cheesed his mind, sometimes restraining him to only five words at a time.

Last spring, in a profile of Sabol, Sports Business Journal painted one especially heartbreaking scene. As Sabol spoke with a colleague, he picked up a pair of scissors.

“I know what these are,” he said. “And I know what they do. But I don’t know what the (expletive) to call them!”

Sabol died in September, but the memory of him is still vivid within the walls of NFL Films headquarters.

A sign still rests on his desk, reading: “Have you made someone laugh today?”

“He wrote that, maybe, three weeks before he passed,” Smith said. “So it’s still there, and every time you walk by his office, you say, ‘Yeah, that was what Steve was about.’ He wanted you to work hard and have fun. That’s what we’re doing.”

The road ahead

Just as the game has evolved over the decades, so too has NFL Films.

When the company formed a hand-in-hand partnership with NFL Network, which launched in 2003, a whole lot of changes came with it.

Deadlines and budgets tightened; NFL Films went through a few rounds of layoffs and buyouts; and the sheer volume of programming increased.

Not everyone is happy. In a 2011 story that appeared on Philly.com, a few former employees slammed NFL Films’ new direction, accusing new executives of essentially sacrificing quality for quantity.

The signature 30-minute Super Bowl highlight films (often referred to as “Super Bowl Memories”) aren’t met with the same kind of reverence as they were in the ’60s and ’70s, when Facenda manned the microphone.

That’s OK, Ketover said.

These days, Ketover said, NFL Films produces shows for 11 networks. Its list of projects has grown and diversified, as well. Think about modern series like “A Football Life,” “Hard Knocks” and “America’s Game,” and it becomes clear: Much of the magic remains.

The game awaits

Sunday afternoon, CBS’ pregame coverage will begin with “Road to the Super Bowl,” a one-hour season-in-review special that NFL Films has churned out for 43 years.

As Smith put it, it’s a collection of the best “Oh, God” shots caught by NFL Films. It is, in short, a sparkling reminder of what the company does best, and until this year, Sabol’s fingerprints were all over it.

Once the Super Bowl begins, NFL Films will have about 25 cameramen in place, each with a general assignment (one focused on a single player, another on the Ravens’ sideline, another in the far corner of the end zone, just begging for the home run play to come to him).

Together, Ketover said, they will shoot more than 200 rolls of film, not counting the digital footage, which NFL Films is slowly inching toward.

After the game ends, all the footage boards an overnight plane to New Jersey, where producers will work on three highlight shows — “Inside the NFL,” the long-running series now on Showtime; “Turning Point,” an X-and-O-themed show for NBC Sports Network; and “Sound FX,” an NFL Network show that relies heavily on wireless microphones.

Each producer will take a camera, dig through the raw footage, cut out all the fat and find the memorable NFL Films-style images — “the stuff that lives on forever,” as Ketover terms it.

They will spend Monday and Tuesday editing segments, using as much wireless sound as they can. They will add a script, working almost through the night Tuesday.

The narrator, Scott Graham, lends his voice to “Inside the NFL” the next morning, and by Wednesday night, it’s all finished.

All the while, Sabol’s voice lives on in their heads.

Steve didn’t like the electric guitar; I’d better dump that out.

That slow-motion shot of Adrian Peterson? Don’t cut it. Let it play out. Steve liked it that way.

“If you love football and you love telling stories,” Ketover said, “it’s the perfect place to work.”

NFL Films will enter new territory this week, documenting the Super Bowl without its iconic leader.

Steve Sabol isn’t there anymore.

The work is tougher and longer. The loose deadlines and budgets are gone.

But Sunday night, the crew will pack up and leave New Orleans with more lasting images in hand.

And they will, in all likelihood, finish like pros.