Making the Season a Character
Brian Lockhart, NFL Network Coordinating Producer
The idea for The NFL Season: A Biography, Presented by SAP originated from the concept of making the season itself a character. The project was conceived, first and foremost, as a long-form documentary following the league’s stars, issues, and games over the course of 23 weeks. I felt so strongly about this idea that I immediately enlisted two of the best storytellers in sports television, Aaron Cohen (writer/producer) and Kevin Shaw (director/producer), to further develop my initial sketch for The NFL Season.
In addition to the basic conceit, I directed the guys to develop something that isn’t currently being seen on television. I wanted this project to carve out its own narrative point of view and style. All topics would be open for examination, and the cinematography and direction must be special. Enter stillmotion. Over the course of a month, we developed a concise pitch that sparked the imagination of all who read it. But it was all but impossible to find the funds or internal partners to pay for this ambitious endeavor.
As the idea was stalling from a development standpoint, The NFL Season was presented to our NFL Media sales team as something they could take to market. The project lay dormant until July 2010, when I received a call saying that SAP was a potential sponsor if we would consider re-imagining the idea as a series for NFL.com. My answer: “Done.”
With Kevin and Aaron on board and vested in the project, NFL.com had the cornerstones for a top-shelf series from a content standpoint. The great unknown was how these sports production veterans would get something unique from talented yet inexperienced videographers from Canada whose reel consisted primarily of weddings and the occasional corporate video. In theory, it was worth the risk because of stillmotion’s knowledge of DSLR technology and supplemental rigs and because their superior image creation was 6–12 months ahead of anyone else in sports television.
Two Distinct Cultures Collide
The challenge in the beginning of the project was developing the best process to maximize our directors’ and cinematographers’ creativity. Let’s just say there were a lot of phone calls from both sides expressing frustration about how the other side worked. Here’s how some of those calls went:
“We are not being allowed to do what you brought us on board to do.” My answer: “Be patient.”
“These guys need to know their place.” My answer: “They are not a standard crew.”
“You need to let us do one of these segments on our own so we could show you what we could really do.” My answer: “Not even close.”
The cinematographers at stillmotion wanted more input and didn’t want to be seen simply as guys who push “record.” Our directors wanted a crew that respected and followed their creative decisions. I wanted these capable creatives to just figure it out on their own. I respected this creative tension because all parties constantly expressed the same goals.
The desire for constant collaboration we found with stillmotion is both inspiring and at times maddening. “Who are these cocksure video geeks who want to reinvent the wheel every time out?” On the other end, NFL Network producers needed to be challenged to do things differently. We all needed to learn how to trust the others’ expertise. Most of all, we needed to be honest (sometimes brutally) with each other.
At points, I feared the whole thing would collapse under its own weight. Then it clicked, resulting in a run of segments that became the new standard for The NFL Season: A Biography, Presented by SAP (“Favre’s Return to Lambeau,” “LT’s New Chapter,” “[Ray Lewis] and His Son,” and “[Arthur] Blank’s Commitment”).
Shooting from the sidelines in the Arthur Blank episode
The benefits of working with stillmotion are evident in the richness and variety of images that they capture. When given the latitude, they can transform a simple sit-down interview into an intimate exchange that we are fortunate to witness. The ability of the stillmotion crew to be seemingly everywhere without being seen is key to the ethos of The NFL Season. Their ability to capture nuanced on-the-field moments, a glance, a fist-bump, unbridled elation, and abject despair, is beyond compare. Their mastery of DSLR technology has allowed us to document stories in an exceptional way. The more stillmotion becomes engaged in the storylines of the NFL, the better their coverage will become.
Challenges and Benefits of Doing an NFL Show With a Wedding Crew
Kevin Shaw, NFL Network Producer and Director, www.23films.com
The biggest challenge of working on a project like this with a wedding crew was realizing your crew doesn’t have the same knowledge of the National Football League that you do as director. I had to make sure they had a full understanding of how the people in our stories related to one another and to the NFL.
The benefits were that you had a group of individuals with a different storytelling point of view bringing their eyes to a subject that was new and intriguing to them. If you give the crew the freedom to explore and discover, you can come up with creative ways of covering stories that, for a seasoned veteran like me, was totally refreshing.
A Distinctive Approach
When we began work on the NFL Network series The NFL Season: A Biography, Presented by SAP, we knew we needed to produce something distinctive. Because there’s so much NFL-related content on so many different platforms each season, we had to make sure there was a reason for our existence. We wanted to tell stories about the fan, the owner, the veteran player, and the head coach, but with a different perspective. The stories we told weren’t about who won or lost; they dealt with overarching themes: family, comebacks, redemption that carried greater weight and, in the end, gave the viewer stronger appreciation for the people who partake in professional football.
We wanted the viewer to walk in the subject’s shoes as they narrated their story. I think every creative decision, from camera placement to editing, was made with that in mind: capturing the subjective point of view.
We wanted to give the audience a cinematic experience with each story. They’re watching a short film on their favorite NFL team or player, something different from the normal treatment they’d find on local or cable news. By approaching the subject matter with a cinematic point of view, we were able to reach our goal of creating a unique television viewing experience for the audience.
The biggest thing a director can do is recognize people’s talents and provide them a stage where they can best do their work. The strength of stillmotion lies in how they view the world. Once we both had an understanding of the story we were covering, I would tell the crew what kind of shots I was looking for, wide shots, tight shots, emotional reaction, and so on. I would inform them when and where events that we needed to capture during the day were happening. And I helped them anticipate when events that had no preplanning, such as specific football plays occurring on the field, were about to happen, making sure we were in the right place at the right time. And then, I let them do what they do best: capture the event with their creative imagination. In the end, it was a perfect collaboration.
Where the Stories Came From
Mainly, the unfolding NFL season was our biggest resource. We attached ourselves to many of the big storylines immediately: the New Orleans Saints opening the season as Super Bowl Champs, Brett Favre’s last hurrah, Ben Roethlisberger’s return from suspension, Michael Vick’s resurgence.
After we had the general story subject agreed upon, we looked to tell that story through a unique perspective with a theme attached. Our story on New Orleans, focusing on the St Pierre/Taravella family, was pitched by Patrick of stillmotion. Instead of doing something conventional on the Saints, we decided it was more interesting to see the effect the team had on local residents by telling the story of one fan who had suffered a personal loss but carried on strong memories of the Saints; those memories helped her cope with her loss.
This was the setup in Terry Taravella's home when she watched the New Orleans Saints' home opener with her family and friends.
Two of my favorites were stories themed on family: one involving the Baltimore Ravens’ intimidating linebacker Ray Lewis, the other on Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. Ray Lewis graciously allowed us to follow him on a bye week to Florida where he watched one of his teenage sons, who has been hotly recruited by top 25 colleges, play high school football. It was a great look at a father and a son and gave the audience a different view of Ray Lewis who learned tough lessons on what it means to be a parent because he grew up without a father.
In Arthur Blank, we got a chance to learn what makes a multimillionaire successful. Blank started the home improvement store Home Depot before buying the Falcons franchise. Throughout all his efforts, he’s always kept family first and uses family as a motto in his business dealings. It was great to capture with such intimacy Blank’s beliefs, as well as a pivotal contest between Blank’s Falcons and the eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers that the Falcons won on a last-second field goal. We intercut the two stories, truly giving the tale a rich, cinematic presentation that made the feature memorable.
Those stories in a nutshell did best what The NFL Season: A Biography set out to do: give the audience a unique look at NFL individuals through point-of-view, cinematic storytelling, making an impact on the audience and giving them a greater understanding of what makes our subjects who they are.
Approaching The NFL Season as a Wedding Cinematographer
Patrick Moreau, DP of The NFL Season with Justin DeMers and Joyce Tsang of stillmotion
Sometimes, as event filmmakers we don’t realize just how much we can leverage the skill set we have developing in our wedding and event work. To shoot an event in real time without altering or pausing it requires tremendous anticipation, patience, and an understanding of the different elements of cinema (light, lenses, camera movement, and so on). I believe, as does the whole stillmotion team, that to create the most honest and true moments in your film, you need to let them happen in front of you without any sort of assistance or suggestion. That approach to weddings translates perfectly into the sports world, where you no longer have the opportunity to tell an owner or a player what to do or how to act.
As the season was winding down, I had a phone call with our producer from the NFL who was walking us through what he was looking for in our next shoot. As he was explaining the narrative he wanted to get across, he referenced a wedding we had shot as inspiration for how to approach this game. That little comment became a big “light-bulb moment” for us, awakening our understanding of just how similar our process is when we shoot a wedding, produce a golf commercial, or cover a football game.
Using Lenses to Direct the Story
One of my favorite NFL Season episodes we put together as a team was the story of Arthur Blank, the owner of the Falcons. Within that episode, there were several elements we wanted to cover to put together our story; an interview in his office, a lunch meeting with all team employees, and a Falcons game.
When we arrived for the lunch meeting where Blank would be giving a toast, the first thing we did was assess the light. We looked at the different sources, the temperatures, and the relative strengths. When we walk into a bride’s home in the morning, we use the exact same process: looking at the light and using that to determine where we can best shoot and which areas we should avoid. Once we came up with some areas that would best utilize the available light (The NFL Season being a documentary series, we wanted to capture things naturally, so scenes like this were shot without external lighting), the next question was to decide camera positions and lenses.
When we’re shooting a wedding, there are three big things we often look at to help us decide which prime we want to shoot with. The most obvious factor is the practicalities of the situation, and we ask ourselves questions such as the following:
• How close might make the subject camera-aware?
• Do you need to avoid blocking others’ view?
The Canon 400mm DO lens with a small HD monitor for critical focus: At $6,000 for the lens, it's tough to add to your kit. We rented tilt-shifts and long lenses from LensProToGo.com and had them shipped to our hotels.
With weddings, we can often go quite close to a bride and groom without making them camera-aware for most of the day, yet we need to leave a little more space at times such as at the ceremony and during the speeches. The second thing we look at is the story and what we are trying to say with this particular moment or scene. Keep in mind that wide lenses exaggerate, while tighter lenses compress, and then you also have to keep in mind other lens factors such as depth of field, bokeh, and color.
Since wide lenses exaggerate, we can use them when we want to make things larger than life, such as emphasizing energy, or stretching things out for a comedic look and feel. At a wedding, this might be appropriate for groom preps where the guys are really laid back and silly, or a reception with a lot of crazy, fast dancing.
On the other end of the spectrum, long lenses compress and also have a shallower depth of field, so that tends to make things more dramatic, which, at a wedding, would be appropriate for times such as during the vows, speeches, or makeup-applying portions where you were trying to slim down somebody’s figure.
The last factor we look at is the predictability of the event, with tighter lenses excelling in situations that are predictable, and wider lenses being more suitable when there is less certainty in what is going to happen. For this particular scene with Arthur Blank, we wanted a more dramatic feel and also wanted to avoid blocking the view of too many employees there, both of which would suggest a longer lens. Because we were shooting a toast in a pretty stationary spot, we also felt things would be fairly predictable, which again suggests a longer lens. In the end, we decided to shoot with a Canon 135 ƒ2 (at ƒ2.8 to give us a little more latitude for him to move but remain in focus), as well as a Canon 50 ƒ1.2 (at ƒ1.8 to keep it fairly isolated on Arthur). The idea was to use the 135 as our main angle and the 50 as a secondary, more creative angle, which also was wider just in case things became less predictable. This is exactly how we would have approached speeches at a wedding if they had happened in the very same room.
The interview setup outside Terry Taravella's home for her episode of The NFL Season: A Biography, presented by SAP, focusing on her and her late husband, Julian St Pierre
Shooting the Game
When it came to shooting the game, we leveraged every wedding instinct we had to try and stay in front of the story and be ready as it developed. This is also where having our director, Kevin Shaw, on hand was tremendously beneficial. While we were focusing on what was happening in front of us, Kevin was able to step back and take things in on a broader scale and try to see where the story might be headed, and then have us adjust when needed.
The Kansas City Chiefs stadium, where the crew shot an early episode
Shooting the game is probably most similar to shooting preps at a wedding in which there is a huge bridal party, a large house, and a lot of things happening all at once. At a wedding, there are so many paradigms we have from what we have seen others do and what we have shot ourselves that we often spend most of our time trying to find a fresh perspective. At a football game, the event is much more of a novelty. However, unlike a wedding, you have another 200 people also shooting the same event so, again, you need to work to try and find a fresh perspective. At this particular game, that meant finding a way up to the top of the stadium where they adjust the lights and getting some direct overhead shots that were unlike anything else being shot at that game.
Another big part of shooting a wedding is patience, and being able to develop the ability to let things happen in front of your lens without moving too quickly. It can often be so tempting to settle for a shot and then try to move on to something else instead of waiting for something much more telling that could push your story further.
At this particular game, patience was a big factor in getting some of the key moments that really elevated the story. We wanted to get B-roll of fans watching the game as a family, so while we would search out perfect groups, we often had to tuck ourselves away and play the waiting game until the right play that really brought them to life. Near the end of the game, we really wanted to capture Arthur Blank walking out onto the field to watch the last couple minutes of the fourth quarter (something he mentioned that he does in his interview—another wedding-derived lesson on being present).
We didn’t know exactly when or where he might come on the field, but we narrowed it down to a couple locations and assumed it would be sometime near the end of the fourth quarter. At a wedding, this would be very similar to a lot of the preparation shots we like to capture of venues being constructed and prepared. We often have an idea of roughly where and when they might take place, but the rest is a guessing game. For this particular shot, I ended up waiting in the corridor with my Steadicam for a good 10 minutes until Blank came down and walked onto the field right in front of me. Being on the field, hearing the energy of the crowd, and seeing the clock tick down certainly doesn’t make it easy to sit there and wait and just let things happen, but in the end we got the shot as he came out and it definitely added to the story.
Trust Your Skills
When the NFL Network first contacted us about The NFL Season, it sounded like an intriguing series with a diverse set of storylines, so naturally we were very excited to be a part of the show. As the season progressed and we really started to hit our stride in how we shot these episodes, it became very apparent that the more we embraced our background in weddings and applied the same things we had learned there, the stronger our stories would be on the field. So the next time you’re at a wedding, remember that the skill set you’re developing is useful in so many other scenarios and continue to push yourself to develop those skills to their fullest.
Patrick Moreau (patrick at stillmotion.ca) is co-founder of stillmotion, which he describes as "a band of filmmakers and photographers who believe that the process of discovery is as important as what goes on the screen. We tell stories--big, small, and anywhere in between. Check out stillmotionblog.com and check our EDU blog (stillmotionedu.com) for tutorials, BTS features, and info on our upcoming workshops, including a tour across the U.S. with Canon in May/June."