THE AESTHETICS OF FOOTBALL

December 1, 2009

Behind-The-Camera-With-Mark-Stacy

A few weeks backI examined the directorial decisions that went into Fox’s World Series broadcast. Every play in baseball contains an inherent drama easy for a camera to pick out – the duel between pitcher and catcher. This offers an easy, lucid way for the production team to escalate tension, and the natural rhythm between pitches dictates the pace. Football, with its spread out action and endless commercial breaks, presents a more difficult challenge in creating and maintaining a rhythm and a narrative. There are almost too many shots for a director to choose from. There are 22 players on the field at all times, and any one of them can become the focal point.

Drew Esocoff is the director for NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast, with Fred Gaudelli as the executive producer. Esocoff describes himself as the quarterback to Gaudelli’s head coach, executing the game plan as tightly as possible and improvising when necessary. I took a closer look at this past Sunday night’s game to see how their relationship might play out. It was the Baltimore Ravens at home facing the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, both teams on the outskirts of the wild-card race and in desperate need of a win.

The biggest story of the game, and one Gaudelli obsessively focused on, was the status of the Steelers starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Still suffering the effects from a concussion the previous week (he felt exercise-induced headaches), he was held out of this critical game as a precaution. His backup Charlie Batch was dinged up with a wrist injury, so Pittsburgh was left with Dennis Dixon, a second year man out of Oregon with one pass attempt to his name. The NFL has been hit with a series of negative reports on their handling of concussions, which has led to a more conservative approach to treating the injury. Roethlisberger’s benching was just the latest iteration of this ongoing saga. With Dixon’s underdog story and the wider impact of the concussion issue, Gaudelli has a lot to work with here, although it leaves the Ravens out of the spotlight. This continues in the announcer’s open, which lays the groundwork for the entire contest. Al Michaels leads with the Roethlisberger/Dixon story, while Collinsworth adds a minor note about the Ravens’ possible heavy use of the blitz. Again, the game is treated as secondary to the Steeler QB situation.

The opening kickoff sequence sets the stage for how Esocoff will handle the game. He opens with the equivalent of pitcher-catcher, with two 10 second shots of the kicker and return man. Then he opts for a quick cutaway to Ray Lewis on the sidelines- probably hoping for some of his legendary pre-game intensity that never arises. He quickly shifts to what will become the main theme of the game, a 1 second close-up of Dixon followed by a 5 second shot of Roethlisberger applauding by his bench. Then he returns to Dixon in a frontal close-up – an extended 10 seconds of tension building before he returns to a brief shot of the back of Lewis. Then he locks in the default action camera, the slightly high-angle sideline view that is the default for all broadcasts of the sport.

This opening bit of montage exhibits the sheer profusion of elements that the director has to balance in a football game. Esocoff attempts to set-up the opening play, the arc surrounding the Steeler QB situation, as well as establishing the competition between the two teams. But the latter gets lost in the shuffle, the few rote shots of Lewis seemingly out of place, jammed in between the Dixon-Roethlisberger drama out of obligation more than anything else. He is also shot from the back and rather immobile, a faceless on-looker to the drama on the other sideline. At least this is what the opening sequence conveys.

This continues on into the main action of the game. In the 2nd Quarter, with Baltimore up 7-0, the Steelers have the ball at the Ravens’ 35 yard line. It’s first down. Dixon fakes the handoff, rolls right, and slings it to Santonio Holmes streaking across the middle of the field for a touchdown. This is the first emotional peak for the narrative that Gaudelli has set up, and Esocoff nails it down. He cuts from the sideline cam to a medium shot of Dixon pointing to the sky, and then a rapid montage of Roethlisberger beaming, Dixon’s Dad screaming in the stands, and another medium-shot of Dixon getting smacked by his ebullient teammates. This is a well-balanced bit of editing, emphasizing Dixon’s shockingly effective drive rather than Roethlisberger’s sideline antics, but incorporating it enough to massage the ongoing storyline.

It’s also worth considering the more banal plays, how a director handles the endless number of 1 yard runs and incomplete passes that constitute half  of the action. In a Ravens drive midway through the 3rd quarter, they are holding onto a 14-10 lead and just received a punt deep in their own territory. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco runs onto the field in a close-up before a zoom-out reveals the offensive line that recently led to a tweaked ankle. Esocoff opts for a slo-mo replay of his twisting leg in a super-zoom the network annoyingly calls its NBCEE IT camera. Then he cuts to a live, low-angle close-up shot of Flacco’s heavily bandaged right angle, following him right up to the center before cutting to a wide shot of the play, a short wide-receiver screen to Derrick Mason.

This is television sports at its lucid best. Chris Collinsworth remarks upon the nicks Flacco had been dealing with all year as the slo-mo replay flashes on-screen. With Esocoff’s cameraman getting a clean shot of Flacco’s ankle, it sets up a mini-arc that can be teased out the rest of the game, one which can finally be used as a counterpoint to the Steeler QB narrative which had dominated up until this point. It’s Esocoff improvising with finesse, and an example of how much more difficult it is to craft a clean story in the NFL than in MLB, which is more appealingly geometric and partitioned for the cameras.

So while I prefer the calm build-up of Bill Webb’s Word Series coverage, one can’t help but be impressed with the high-wire act Esocoff has to perform every Sunday night – a game with herky-jerky pacing that occasionally takes flight into moves of balletic beauty in the midst of 22 helmeted behemoths. He doesn’t even have the benefit of the human face, obscured by enameled hardened plastics. It’s a marvel he gets anything resembling continuity within this jumble of action, but he does in selected spurts, all of which seems moot next to the individual glories of a Drew Brees touchdown pass or Chris Johnson’s burst through the line. But Esocoff and Gaudelli set-up the edifice that contains these athletic glories, and they should be honored like the solid craftsmen they are.

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