They still call it NFL Films.
And on Sunday, 31 cameras and crew members will be where they always are — on the sidelines, preserving yet another classic football showdown in all of its bone-crunching glory. Only Super Bowl LII, with the Eagles facing the Patriots, hits a little closer to home, even though it’s being played in Minnesota.
The Burlington County, New Jersey, company may be a long way from its humble beginnings as a small production outfit creating its first full-length feature and highly acclaimed film, “They Call It Pro Football” — as well as a lot larger and a lot more sophisticated — but its expertise in capturing the titans of the gridiron, every second, at every angle, is just as strong today.
And that expertise has been awarded more than 100 Emmys, including a Lifetime Achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2003 for the Sabols, for revolutionizing the way fans view football.
“Luckily for us, the country’s appetite for football has only gotten bigger and bigger over the years,” said Ross Ketover, senior vice president at NFL Films.
Founded by Ed Sabol, a frustrated overcoat salesmen who honed his camera skills filming high school football games, the Blair Motion Picture Co. turned into NFL Films and became arguably the most influential producer of how the NFL is viewed.
And it all started with a $5,000 bid to film the 1962 NFL championship game.
Sabol’s “Pro Football’s Longest Day,” of the 1962 matchup between the Giants and Packers at Yankee Stadium, persuaded the National Football League that it needed a motion picture company to promote the game and its history.
Two years later, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle managed to convince the 14 owners of the league at the time to acquire the Philadelphia-based company and make it a subsidiary, with Sabol at the helm.
Each team agreed to pay Sabol $20,000 in seed money to film all of the games and produce a highlight reel for all of the franchises.
The highlights have been plentiful in the ensuing decades.
Sabol’s son, Steve, joined the family business in the mid-1960s.
“His dad called him and said, ‘I have something for you over here, (because) all you’re doing is watching movies and playing football anyway,'” Hugh Colan, a longtime film lab engineer for the company, recalled of the founder’s discussion with his son.
“Steve brought with him his love of art, his love of the movies and the big screen,” Colan said. “So when you think of NFL Films, you think of huge faces and a camera right in your face. Steve brought that. He was the first one in sports that had slow motion. He created stop action and had something he called a ‘high hat,’ where you can actually look up into the faces of the players. As Steve famously said, ‘You can see the sweat dripping and the snot flying.'”
Over the years, Steve Sabol did everything, from being a cameraman to editing to writing scripts. Eventually, he became an on-air personality in the 1980s with ESPN. He died at age 69 in 2012, 18 months after he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. His father died in 2015 at age 98.
After more than a decade in Philadelphia, the Sabol family moved its operation to Mount Laurel, New Jersey, in 1980.
The company now has 231 employees, with an additional 100 working during football season, as well as many freelance photographers from across the country.
“We have two camera guys at every game, minimum,” Colan said.
NFL Films also has its own composer who composes the music they use. Colan said the composer brings instrumentalists from surrounding states to NFL Films’ sound studio, which is large enough for a 60-piece orchestra, a couple times each year.
“(Once) we get the images, we manipulate them. We add the music, and a guy sweetens everything and sends it out,” Colan said. “It’s a one-stop shop — the only place in the country that does sports like that. So we’re pretty good, and it’s a pretty neat product, too.”
The full-time staff work in two multistory buildings that house the sound studio, sets, a 125-seat theater and a massive film archive that holds more than a million feet of film, including a 1894 Princeton-Rutgers football game shot by Thomas Edison.
“When I started, we had two or three shows we worked on weekly and some end-of-the-year highlight videos. And now we have dozens of weekly shows,” said Ketover, who was hired as a production assistant in 1995 and rose through the ranks over the years. “There’s the NFL Network year-round that we have to produce content for, and we’re in the thousands of hours of programming we put out every year now.”
A couple years ago, NFL Films teamed with Amazon to create “All or Nothing,” a behind-the-scenes look at an NFL franchise from the beginning to the end of a season.
The company now works with HBO to produce “Hard Knocks,” a reality-based documentary that follows players, coaches and staff.
In December, it helped to introduce a 4-D movie theater for the NFL Experience and Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group. NFL Experience Times Square spans 40,000 square feet and four floors and is described as a “first-of-its-kind interactive and immersive attraction located in the heart of New York City that brings fans closer than ever to the National Football League and their favorite teams.”
“We also will have our newest, ESPN’s ’30 for 30,’ airing next week, which we’re excited about. And we do a bunch of documentaries for the NFL Network, like ‘A Football Life,’ which has been pretty high-profile for us, too,” Ketover said.
At Sunday’s Super Bowl, the company will put into action a number of new tools of the trade, including shooting in virtual reality.
“We’re certainly always looking to push the envelope and find new ways to cover things,” Ketover said.
Despite the incredible growth and new technology, NFL Films remains true to its founder and son’s artistic style.
“What hasn’t changed is that we’re trying to tell football stories and things that are interesting to our fans,” Ketover said. “We’re not doing much live TV here. We’re making movies and storytelling.”