NFL Films’ Sound FX Delivers Never-Before-Heard Insight Straight from the Source

When Baltimore Ravens’ outside linebacker Terrell Suggs records a sack, he doesn’t just celebrate on the field.  He offers up a prayer on the sidelines.  Defensive line coach Clarence Brooks hurries over to congratulate Suggs on executing a great play. Injured inside linebacker Ray Lewis stops by to get his teammate fired up to hit the field again.

Fans tuning into NFL Network on Saturday night were treated to rarely heard moments like these, thanks to NFL Films’ Sound FX: Thursday Night Football Special Edition.  The one-hour program featured an “all-sound” edited version of the San Francisco 49ers vs. Baltimore Ravens game played Thanksgiving night on NFL Network.

Telling the Story with Every Voice
Throughout the season, NFL Films dispatches sound crews to three or four games, wires an additional three to five players with wireless microphones, and compiles that sound into a weekly half-hour program.

The Thursday Night Football Special Edition of Sound FX, on the other hand, dedicates all resources to one game and expands coverage to a full hour.  While the NFL Films crew has been experimenting with the one-game show for years, the last two years have seen the highest production value, with more cameras and wirings than ever before.

Saturday night’s production featured eleven wirings: Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, an assistant coach from either team, three players from each team, and referee John Parry wore RF microphones throughout the game. A sound crew patrolled each sideline, recording the unwired players.

NFL Films deployed 17 all-access cameras for the game: ten Panasonic AJ-HPX3100 P2 HD shoulder-mount camcorders, an ARRI Alexa camera, four film cameras, and a POV camera in each of the coaches booths.

In addition, NFL Network dedicated a truck camera to shooting promo material that could be shown during halftime.  An NFL Films on-site crew compiled a sound highlights package in on of the truck’s EVS replay systems, which was then fed to the game producer.

Lots of Footage, Little Sleep
With less than 48 hours from when the cameras stopped rolling in Baltimore until Sound FX was scheduled to air on NFL Network, Senior Producer Rob Gehring explains how NFL Films was able to successfully accomplish the quick turnaround.

“A lot of people,” he says. “It was pretty much all hands on deck around here.”

After every quarter of the game, production assistants were assigned to make the two-hour drive from M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore to NFL Films’ headquarters in Mount Laurel, NJ, with a shipment of P2 cards. The P2 cards were loaded into NFL Films’ Avid Unity systems – one dedicated to each HD camera — with low-res files posted offline for producers to view.

From 3 a.m. Friday morning (when the last shipment of P2 cards was arriving from Baltimore) until around 9 a.m., ten to twelve producers working in shifts pored through footage from the various cameras.

“We call it the special rolling,” explains Gehring. “Their job is to go through and pare [the footage] down to the good stuff, and make special notations of the really good stuff that deserves to at least have some eyes on it, or go in the show.”

Between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., the six editors of the show’s six blocks began sifting through the pared-down footage before a meeting with Gehring, who served as senior producer of the production, at 9 a.m.

“We met to go over the story of the game and what we thought were the important moments,” says Gehring. “I talked to almost every special roller to get a feel from them what they liked, what they thought was good, what they thought the editors should look at. Then, [the editors] just start cutting.”

At 10 p.m., NFL Films President Steve Sabol arrived to watch the show, and revisions based on his comments were made late Friday night and early Saturday morning.  By 4 a.m. Saturday morning, the show was online, ready for color correction, mixing, and title pass.  Working all day Saturday, Gehring’s team fed the show to NFL Network at 6 p.m. for an 8 p.m. airing… and then went home to sleep.

Sound FX Reveals Humor and Heart
While not a high-scoring game, the Thanksgiving night showdown between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens was hardly devoid of entertainment.

Meeting at midfield before the game, Jim Harbaugh quipped to his brother, “Little more at stake in this one than chasing beer cans in the basement.”  John Harbaugh, when asking his players where they’d rather be, an injured Lewis responded “on the field.”  And Terrell Suggs, arguably the star of the show, offered plenty of insight into the impenetrable Ravens defense.

“You can do everything you want to try to be as creative as possible,” concludes Gerhing. “You can shoot it in cool new ways, you can try to record it in cool new ways, you can do all this stuff technically and creatively to produce a great show, but in the end, what really matters is the wires and the guys. When you get a real glimpse at what makes these guys tick, that’s what matters.”