Almost 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith took a clunky recording apparatus—the motion picture camera—and turned it into a sophisticated storytelling tool.
Fifty years later, the same thing happened to football. The guy who did it is now getting his due.
In the mid-1960s, the NFL found its auteur in Ed Sabol. Working with his son, Steve, he used—and in some cases invented—innovative techniques such as slow-motion reply, the Steadicam, music montages, voice-overs, and confessional interviews to turn football into cinema. His company, NFL Films, is credited with changing the way Americans watch sports.
This weekend, in Canton, Ohio, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will induct Sabol into its ranks.
Sabol learned storytelling from watching Hollywood films, and now Hollywood films are influenced by Sabol’s innovations.
“They found the story in the game,” said Juliet Goodfriend, president of Bryn Mawr Film Institute, which honored NFL Films in 2008. “The story is enhanced by technical use of cameras, camera movement, a Steadicam that runs across the field, montages, background music. The whole notion of a game being interesting long after it’s played—long after everybody knows who won that game—it’s really quite remarkable.”
Now 94 years old, Sabol lives in Arizona. NFL Films’ state-of-the-art facility in Mount Laurel, N.J., overseen by his son, has birthed many Hollywood careers.
We picked our 10 favorite productions from NFL Films. What are yours?