The name may be NFL Films, but football isn’t the only game

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MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. (AP) – It’s about a week from the Super Bowl, but a video editor at NFL Films isn’t focused on Colts and Bears.

Even as many of his colleagues are working on previews of the Feb. 4 championship game, editor Pete Staman is working on a video that features tigers and elephants for a highlights DVD that the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus will use to promote its tour.

The circus project underscores a little-known fact about the NFL Films – the company not only produces dramatic football highlights, but has a thriving business outside the gridiron.

For 20 years, NFL Films has ventured into other areas, from filming rock videos to producing educational films about math. The company, based in this Philadelphia suburb, even helps police departments analyze surveillance video from convenience store robberies.

The first big non-football assignment came at the behest of NASA at the end of the 1970s and over the next few years the non-football requests kept coming in. When the company moved into new headquarters (which have since been replaced) in 1985 with more space and more staff, management decided to seek out more non-football work.

The outside assignments – there are about 200 a year – help pay the bills for the NFL subsidiary. Chief Financial Officer Barry Wolper said they bring in about 15 percent of the company’s total revenue, but he would not disclose the revenue total for the privately held company.

Aside from the money, there’s another benefit for the company: “Some of the outside projects open the editors, the audio engineers to other creativity, other techniques,” said Rick Angeli, the company’s senior director of sales and marketing.

Company president Steve Sabol said that he hoped it would broaden the horizons similarly for camera operators. But it turned out that the other projects were not nearly as challenging for them as football.

NFL Films was born in 1962, when Philadelphian Ed Sabol, a hobbyist who filmed his son’s high school games, offered the league $3,000 for the rights to film the championship game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers. Two years later, it became NFL Films, an arm of the league.

The company was a pioneer in many of the techniques of sports coverage. It introduced the blooper video and the reverse-angle replay; it relied heavily on footage not only of what happened on the field, but of coaches on the sidelines and fans in the stands. It put microphones on coaches and players. And in a Dallas Cowboys highlight film in 1967, it first described Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, famously, as “a frozen tundra.”

The company is not in the play-by-play business. Instead, its work appears on highlight shows – including many on the NFL Network – and in the documentaries it produces.

Therefore, it’s after the game that NFL Films applies its signatures, including dramatic narration and even more dramatic music.

In the early days, the narration was often by Philadelphia news anchor John Facenda, who was sometimes called “the voice of God.” On the new 40-part series of profiles of every Super Bowl winner, “America’s Game: The Super Bowl Champions,” the celebrity voice-overs include Alec Baldwin and Donald Sutherland.

The company has also two composers on staff. Their offices are down the hall from a recording studio big enough for a 70-member orchestra.

When NFL Films opened its previous building in 1985, there was not enough football filmmaking to last the whole year – a situation, of course, that has changed in the last two decades as the sport has become a year-round obsession for its growing legions of fans. It was then, Angeli said, that the company made a big effort to make more non-football films.

It was not completely foreign territory. By then, the company had made “Greatest Adventure: Man’s Journey to the Moon” in 1979 to document the 10th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. In the early 1980s, the company also produced rock concert films, but it doesn’t do that regularly anymore.

The non-football business has grown since the company moved in 2002 into a new building with about 200,000 square feet (or about 3 football fields’ worth) of production space. Many of the rooms are set up for collaborations with folks from advertising agencies and other customers. The rooms have huge TVs and impressive speakers to show off the company’s work – and posh chairs to make it comfortable.

Though much of the work is for Philadelphia-area television commercials, the non-football projects are varied.

Some are as simple as transferring film to tape for independent filmmakers. Others are as complex as a forthcoming documentary on the Spanish-American War to air the History Channel, which involved filming a re-enactment of the Battle of San Juan Hill.

The studios in the building are soon to be used for a new series of exercise videos. And the company has been trading on its football work, offering companies licenses to use sports footage in corporate presentations – which are often full of football metaphors.

The company also gets away from football for a regular public service job, cleaning up surveillance video for police agencies, Sabol said.

The circus DVD, meanwhile, has become an annual job for video editor Staman.

He showed clips of trapeze artists flying through the air, trained poodles flipping and tigers roaring. Except for the content, the work looks a lot like football games do in the hands of Stamen and his colleagues: the camera angles are dramatic, some moments are slowed down and others are shown in real time.

“It keeps your skill set bigger than a steady diet of football,” Staman said.

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