At 1:00, the Earth moved. The Denver Broncos’ offensive line came running out of a now tiny tunnel onto a freshly painted field. They were big and tough and hard. From the floor of the stadium, almost at eye level, they looked like giants, except for the uniforms. By now, still two hours away from kick off, the warm California sun sat like a burnt orange on the rim of the Rose Bowl. Dan Reeves, the coach of the team that would lose the second half of this crucial game, stepped onto the crew-cut sod, shaded his eyes and squinted badly. “Damn,” he muttered, “I should have brought sunglasses.” He looked into the camera of the man standing next to him. “This sun,” he winced, “is really wicked, isn’t it, Phil?”
Phil Tuckett, who headed up the 60-person field crew for NFL Films, gave Reeves a soft smile. Tuckett knew all about the sun. Not because he’d played a couple of years as a receiver for the San Diego Chargers, but because yesterday, while the rest of the press did research from the long end of a cocktail glass at one of the 800 pre- Super Bowl parties that dotted the city of almost angels, Phil Tuckett was here in Pasadena. Here in an almost empty arena, with a handful of security guards and the guy who would play Mickey Mouse at half time; here to check out the light, to get a fix on the sun; here to ready his camera positions, his filters and his game face.
The next morning, the day of Super Bowl Ex-ExEye, while the Broncos and Giants still slept, Phil Tuckett held a team meeting at his hotel. While the crew members ate meat and potatoes and apple crepes, he told them, “Don’t let anything or anyone get in your way today. I want each one of you to shoot this game like you’re the only camera we have.” It was an inspiring breakfast. Vince Lombardi would have been proud. Except for the apple crepes.
At the stadium, the members of the NFL Films team played one of their best games ever. They shot the faces of the players and the soul of the game. They got the shots you never saw on TV. Lawrence Taylor in street clothes and sunglasses, checking out the manicure of the grass. Phil Simms working on a secret snap with Bart Oates. Phil McConkey psyching himself up.
Once the game started, they stayed as close to the action as George Martin was to John Elway. They didn’t take up permanent positions like the network did. They got down and dirty in the trenches. They ran, they scrambled, they shot, they won. And when it was over, while the Giants still celebrated a few feet away, and while the Broncos, their bags packed, their heads down, slowly walked out to their chartered bus, a couple of couriers from NFL Films quickly packed up some 200 rolls of film for the police escort to the airport. They would hand-carry the footage from LAX to Mt. Laurel, NJ, where it would be processed and edited into what would become the biggest-selling instant video in the history of sport.
The groundwork for all this had started weeks before. By the Monday morning after the conference championship games, it was in full gear. Steve Sabol, who now runs the company his father, Big Ed, started in the ’60s, answered his phone in New Jersey not with hello, just a simple “I don’t have any tickets.” As Sabol, a cinematic and marketing genius who’s led his company to 33 Emmys, sat at his editing table snipping together the great plays and big blunders that would make up the beginning of this tape, he talked about the reality of it all. A former self-promoted football star at tiny Colorado College, this kid from Philadelphia— who until he got married a few years ago, had an electric chair in his living room—doesn’t so much talk as he booms. “The Giants will kill,” Sabol said. “And that’ll be good for the history of the game, for the glory days of the NFL.” Not to mention a golden chance to pluck the giant New York market.
“If it’s a good game,” he said, “we could sell 300,000 cassettes in two months.” Last year, when the Bears won, NFL Films put together the first of these instant videos. In the stores little more than two weeks after the contest, it was a wonderfully done tape that ran just under an hour—a game-by-game recounting of the championship season, sprinkled with key player profiles and topped off with the Super Bowl blowout itself. The tape, at $19.95, sold close to 130,000 copies, most of them in football-rabid Chicago, where many video stores couldn’t keep it in stock
This year, tapes would be made for both the winning and losing teams. “We can only hope,” Sabol grinned, ”that the losing team suffers defeat with honor. They get blown out, we get screwed.”
The names for this year’s tapes had been figured out before the conference finals. The Giants tape was originally slugged One Giant Step. Sabol, a serious student of the old days of Hollywood, didn’t think that had enough drama, so he changed it to Giants Among Men. (The Denver tape would be called Mile High Champions. Had the Redskins made it, the tape was Warpath. Had the Browns gotten in, the title was Return to Glory.)
These tapes wouldn’t have the fleeting glitz of The Super Bowl Shuffle, last year’s music video of the Bears done by another company. “We’re not in the music video business,” Sabol says. “We want this to be a collector’s item. Fathers will want to save this to show their sons. That’s why we go back to the old style —a championship built game by game, brick by brick. We’ll add in flashbacks on the Giants of the ’50s. We’ll even go back to 1934, back to the glory days of Bronko Nagurski. This will be an historical document.”
Even with the history, the track record and the nationally consuming interest in the Super Bowl, Sabol and NFL Films Video chief David Grossman have had to work hard to get certain stores to stock up. “Video stores still don’t understand sports tapes,” Sabol says. ” ‘Oh, why would that sell, it’s already been on TV.’ Jerks. But if I came in with a tape of two albino hairdressers and a Tijuana donkey, they’d order a thousand on the spot. It might be a losing battle, but we’ve got to fight it.”
To help win, he brought in some big guns, including Pat Summerall, the most trusted play-by-play man in America, to do the voice over. Video could be the future of his business and Sabol knows it. That’s why he’s building a whole warehouse for it, along with a $10 million video/audio postproduction facility for everything from TV commercials to, yes, rock videos. The company has come a long way.
It all started when Ed Sabol, then head of a Philadelphia clothes company, bought himself a Bell and Howell movie camera to chronicle the early career of his high-school hotshot son. Steve Sabol was then a star running back at Haverford Prep on the Main Line. Big Ed used to stand on the sidelines and shoot him. When the cheerleaders kept getting in front of him, Big Ed, who always seems to get his way, talked the school into building a press box and camera position at the top of the stands. There, he could get a better angle and pursue his hobby in peace. The hobby would eventually turn into a multimillion-dollar business.
Big Ed got pretty polished with the camera. He also got to know the NFL big shots. In 1962, with young Steve off to college, he made them a proposition. He bid $5,000 for the rights to shoot the NFL championship game. That was twice as much as they paid the year before, but Big Ed always did things in a big way. Instead of the standard one view from the press box, he hired a half- dozen free-lancers to get the game from every angle. The result was a critical, if not financial, success. He continued the deal the next year and, by 1964, talked the league into buying his little film company to shoot the championship game as well as individual team highlights. That’s when Steve Sabol was in one of his several senior years at Colorado College. He gave up the grandeur that was anonymity to join his father in what was now the family business. Today, NFL Films, a wholly owned subsidiary of the league, has a few hundred employees, an annual operation budget of $15 million and makes big bucks.
A major reason for the success is the approach. It’s in-your-face journalism. The cameramen work their butts and knees off—whatever it takes to get the right angle. A lot of the film is shot in slow-motion and super-slow-motion, not so much for sport but for cinematic texture. Each film is edited and scored like a major Hollywood production. Cameramen edit, editors shoot, everybody gets dirty. It’s a tough job, but NFL Films does it like no one else.
In Mt. Laurel, Dave Plaut, the award-winning director of last year’s Super tape, sits for hours and days in a darkened room going over dozens of
cassettes, carefully piecing together the Giants’ season. Plaut runs each play over and over, making sure the engineer has perfectly synced the music with the footage, making sure the last thud of the drum hits exactly when Lawrence Taylor sacks the quarterback.
Across the hall, Bob Smith, another former footballer, is performing the same surgery with the Denver season. He’ll take time out from editing only to fly to Pasadena to be one of the 12 cameramen on the crew. He’ll work the sidelines near Phil Tuckett.
The teams have finished warming up now. Most of the 102,000 fans are in their seats and NFL Films is ready to roll. “We don’t do a lot of game planning,” Phil Tuckett says as Neil Diamond gets ready for the national anthem. “Most of this is unspoken, we’ve done it so often. Every member of the crew is so well-versed. Each has shot every angle and done every job. We’re like a repertory company doing Shakespeare. One night you’re King Lear, the next night you’re the ghost.”
Tuckett is talking louder now as the Beach Boys begin to play. “We’re not
like the TV guys,” he yells. “There’s no director in our ear telling us what to do. For us, that just gets in the way of spontaneity. We get the great shots because we’re always thinking like the coach has to think. What will they throw at us next? What could go wrong on a play? You learn to anticipate anything. As a player, I always felt like the game was in slow-motion. That’s why we shoot it that way. We wanted to find a way to re-create the feeling of the field—the romance, the adventure. And that’s why we shoot film instead of tape. Tape has immediacy. Film has texture. It gives us the perspective of history. It makes everything look more heroic and larger than life. We think that’s special.”
Three-and-a-half hours later, the last whistle blown, the last Gatorade poured, Phil Simms, the most valuable player of this game, is running off the field at the highest moment of his life so far. In the chaos, he spots an NFL Films camera and stops—stops dead to do a special little segment that only NFL Films will capture.
“How the hell did you do that?” one of the network guys asks Phil Tuckett later on. Tuckett gives him one of his soft smiles. “You know us,” he says. “If we didn’t get it, it didn’t happen.”
Copyright 2012 Maury Z. Levy. All rights reserved.