'A Mole, a Tree, and a Weasel:' RIP Steve Sabol of NFL Films
Steve Sabol, the scion of the founder of NFL Films, passed away yesterday at 69 of a brain tumor, an age that's far too young to die these days. I grew up about 20 minutes from the NFL Films offices in Mt. Laurel, NJ* and in 2003, took a tour of their ultra high-tech facilities -- which make the Bridge of the Starship Enterprise seem laughably antediluvian in comparison -- as part of the research that wound-up doing double-duty at the start of the following year for articles in Videomaker magazine and Tech Central Station. The other half of my prep work for those two articles involved interviewing Sabol on the phone. As he told me at the start of our conversation:
Steve Sabol: There’s an old Indian proverb that I’ve always believed in, and that’s ‘tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. Tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever’.
And that’s been one of our mottos, is telling a story. And the story telling is basically done through the editing. It’s the cameraman’s job to come back with as much material—story telling shots, action shots—as he possibly can. Then it’s up to the editor to tame and to shape the raw vision of the cameraman.
I started out as an editor, and then became a cameraman. But that’s really job of the editor. It’s so critical, and it’s one of the most overlooked artforms or disciplines in filmmaking. Most people don’t understand about editing; they understand writing, they understand music, they understand cinematography. But when it comes to editing and the selection and order of the shots, that’s the key to storytelling.
Driscoll: Did being an editor first influence you when you became a cameraman?
Sabol: When I started out as an editor, and tried to tell stories, I realized that there were certain gaps; that you couldn’t tell a story with just action shots. You needed shots that showed the passage of time, the sun shining through the portals of the stadium. You needed close-ups to show the reaction of the players to the game. You needed shots of the audience and the fans. You needed locator shots as well call them, that set the scene. What’s the stadium look like? Is it a full stadium? Is it an empty stadium? And you need shots that can move the story along. It might be a pair of bloody hands. It could be cleat marks in the mud. It could be a crushed water bottle on the sidelines. It could be a flag whipping in the wind. These were all things that were in important.
I was an art major in college, and Paul Cézanne, the famous French impressionistic painter, once said that "all art is selected detail." And I felt that that was one thing that was missing in sports films were the details. And when I began as a cameraman, that was all I shot, was the details. I filmed the first 15 Super Bowls, and never saw a play. But I could tell you what kind of hat Tom Landry was wearing, how Vince Lombardi was standing in the fourth quarter, if Bob Lilly had a cut on the bridge of his nose. Those were the things that I remember in the Super Bowl. I don’t remember any of the plays. I was just what we call a weasel.
Driscoll: What is a weasel?
Sabol: Well, we have three types of cameramen: we have a tree, a mole, and a weasel. A tree is the top camera. He’s on a tripod rooted into a position on the 50 yard line, and he doesn’t move. A mole is a handheld, mobile, ground cameraman, with a 12 to 240 lens, and he moves all around the field, and he gives you the eyeball-to-eyeball perspective. A weasel is the cameraman who pops up in unexpected places, to get you the telling storytelling shot—the bench, the crowd, all the details.
So those are the three elements. When you blend them together you get the NFL Films visual signature—when you blend together a mole, a tree and a weasel.
You have infinitely more than that of course – NFL Films revolutionized how sports are covered by film and television, and transformed the National Football League in America’s leading sport. And as Sabol told AP when his father was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, "We see the game as art as much as sport. That helped us nurture not only the game's traditions but to develop its mythology: America's Team, The Catch, The Frozen Tundra:"
When Ed Sabol founded NFL Films, his son was there working beside him as a cinematographer right from the start in 1964. They introduced a series of innovations taken for granted today, from super slow-motion replays to blooper reels to sticking microphones on coaches and players. And they hired the ''Voice of God,'' John Facenda, to read lyrical descriptions in solemn tones.
Until he landed the rights to chronicle the 1962 NFL championship game, Ed Sabol's only experience filming sports was recording the action at Steve's high school football games in Philadelphia.
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He was the perfect fit for the job: an all-Rocky Mountain Conference running back at Colorado College majoring in art history. It was Sabol who later wrote of the Raiders, ''The autumn wind is a pirate, blustering in from sea,'' words immortalized by Facenda.
The Sabols' advances included everything from reverse angle replays to filming pregame locker room speeches to setting highlights to pop music.
''Today of course those techniques are so common it's hard to imagine just how radical they once were,'' Steve told the AP last year. ''Believe me, it wasn't always easy getting people to accept them, but I think it was worth the effort.''
Indeed it was. RIP, Steve Sabol.
* But then, all of South Jersey is 20 minutes away from the rest of South Jersey.