Domenick Satterberg’s cinematography from a recent XFL game
- Sports cinematographer Domenick Satterberg dives into the philosophy of shooting NFL games with cinema-style cameras including lens selection.
- Whether you are a budding cinematographer or a sports enthusiast, this video will provide valuable insights and behind-the-scenes look into the world of sports cinematography.
- Netflix series Quarterback featuring Patrick Mahomes and video game Madden are discussed in relation to using cinematic techniques.
It seems remarkable, looking back, that NFL games were once recorded on 16mm film. Even more remarkable that every match since 1962 has been filmed by a specialist cinematography camera crew by NFL Films, the production unit of the league. The techniques they pioneered have recently been co-opted into the live broadcast and have gone mainstream with the rise of the behind-the-scenes sports documentary.
In this video presentation (viewable below via NAB Amplify’s Video Learning Lab), veteran sports cinematographer Domenick Satterberg charts the history of NFL Films and discusses the camera techniques and technologies he’s used.
Until 2013, NFL Films was still shooting 16mm footage of every NFL game for production of cinema-style game highlights that still form a key part of the league’s marketing.
One of NFL Films’ founders, Ernie Ernst, explains in an archive clip: “When we started NFL films, there was something that I thought was missing in all sports cinematography.
“I wanted to get the storytelling shots of the way that the sun came through the stadium, the cleat marks in the mud, the bloody hands of a player. We had other cameramen who are great action photographers. But to me, I wanted to get those little details that, added to the action, would flesh out the story.”
In 2012-13, the NFL Films crew — usually just a two-camera operation per game — “were the oddballs with light meters on the sidelines shooting film. I want to say the NFL was spending $50,000 a week just on film.” That included processing the footage in a lab before digitizing for distribution.
Since that season, digital cine cameras have been used, and the workhorse then and now, for Satterberg at least, is the ARRI Amira.
“The Amira is built for documentary shooting,” explains Satterberg. “It’s shoulder mounted and has the same sensor as an Arri Alexa. We’re still shooting the Amira because everything we shoot is still 1080p. No need for 4K. We shoot 8 terabytes every Sunday with footage transferred via fiber from every NFL stadium back to New Jersey for postproduction.”
Teams shoot at multiple frame rates across the game, including 24 but also 30 frames, 48 frames, 60 frames up to 120. The unit has eight in-house staff cinematographers and around 60 freelance shooters across the country.
Getting the Shots
Of course, it is extremely hard to follow football, a point that Satterberg repeatedly makes. Only with experience and experimentation can you really get the shots you need. Bearing in mind that there are just a couple of cinematographers working the game. Shot selection is essential, as are the lenses required to capture those cinematic close ups and slow motion shots from the touch line.
“The Amira truly is the best sports camera because of its eyepiece. I give credit to anybody who could pull focus on a football, or any kind of flying object, on a monitor or an LCD screen.”
According to Satterberg, the best lens pairing with the Amira for shooting a Super Bowl is the Fujinon 25-300mm cinema lens. He also uses an adapter that expands the image to Super 35. “It’s a great adapter if not ideal, but it’s what we use at every NFL game.”
The long zoom range allows him to shoot medium-wide to long- shots without changing lenses. It is, nonetheless, a heavy set up, which Satterberg operates with no focus puller. However, he has customized a focusing setup that helps him to achieve perfect focus.
“The pure size and weight of this lens has its drawbacks, but I can easily overlook those flaws because of the sharpness and quality this lens produces.”
Nevertheless, it’s very difficult shooting ENG-style with it, and hence, this setup can be mainly utilized for static shooting, but you have to know what you’re doing.
“With the ENG zoom, [I just use] minimal taps on the zoom on the focus. To get you where you need to be, so you can see that ball flying through the air. It’s so minimal. It’s muscle memory at this point. I’ve got a pistol grip underneath the zoom rocker. So, I’ve really dialed in that Amira, now that I own it, to just fit perfectly on my shoulder. It’s all about balance.”
Satterberg won’t be changing up to shooting full frame anytime soon. “I know the Alexa LF is a great camera for the motion picture industry, but we need lenses that get out very, very far. And the lenses that fill those full frame sensors need to be extremely large,” making them too heavy and unwieldy for shoulder mounted work over 90+ game minutes]
Capturing the Details (and the Emotion)
We also hear from Hannah Epstein, who works with NFL Films shooting a variety of work on shows, games, events, and specials. Her style is to capture the game with a lot of attention to non-game highlights.
“It’s less specific plays or moments,” Epstein says. “I like to focus on really tight elements and just get facial expressions or hands or sweat; the emotion after the play, or before the play, eyeballs looking over the line of scrimmage. I like to play with negative space and use the crowd in my shots. I just love capturing the details of the game that puts you inside the game in a different way than anyone’s able to see on regular broadcast or from the stands.”
Some of Satterberg and Epstein’s work may feature in forthcoming Netflix eight-episode docuseries Quarterback. It follows three of the biggest quarterbacks in the game throughout the 2022 season, giving an unprecedented look at what it takes for the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Minnesota Vikings’ Kirk Cousins and the Atlanta Falcons’ Marcus Mariota to succeed when all eyes are on them.
Satterberg says they shot with Amiras in HD and speculates that Netflix has upscaled the footage to 4K for its platform.
Video game developers EA Sports also hired an NFL DP to teach them about cinematography when making Madden NFL, the hit American football video game series.
Satterberg explains they wanted to learn about shallow depth of field and how to control cameras shots racking between focus and out of focus.
“They literally handpicked an NFL film cinematographer and put them on staff and said, ‘We want it to look pretty.’ And so that then evolved to Fox, CBS and NBC going with their full frame shallow depth of field cameras on the field of play as part of the live broadcast. They do us a lot of autofocus, because…it’s there, use it. They’re handing it to guys who are traditional shoulder-mounted shooters.
“For the first couple years, it was kind of clunky. But I think they’re really getting the hang of it now, and they’re replacing full Steadicam rigs with Gimbals and full frame mirrorless cameras. It’s pretty amazing.”