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NFL Films Puts HD in Playbook

NFL Films still shoots 99% of its game material on 16mm film, but gains being made by high-definition TV in the company's new Mt. Laurel, N.J., headquarters, make clear that HD will eventually come off the bench and receive significant playing time.

NFL Films began work on its new facility about five years ago, when it found itself out of space. The number of video and audio facilities had grown with the NFL's popularity, and, with the FCC-mandated DTV transition, NFL Films found itself in the same position as every broadcaster and production facility: having to build a future-proof facility.

200,000 feet of film

Five years and $45 million later, the facility boasts one of the East Coast's more impressive HD production and post-production operations., NFL Films Senior Vice President and COO Barry Wolper says that, each week, during the NFL season more than 200,000 feet of 16mm film is transferred via six telecine systems (four Thomson Datacines and two Alta telecines) into Avid editing systems, where more than 60 producers cut the material. That work is still for standard-definition broadcasts, but it lays the backbone for future HD work, because film is a natural for the better picture-quality characteristics of HD.

"We have more than 100 million feet of film in our vault so we're well-positioned to provide content for HDTV broadcasts," says Wolper.

Also helping is a new 60x80 HD production studio, outfitted with Sony HDC900 and HDC950 HDCAM switchable studio cameras.

"We aren't looking for an instantaneous return on the facility," says Wolper, "but we want to establish the technology and gain market share. There will be a payday somewhere down the line."

NFL Films has begun doing some 24p projects over the past 12 months, and Wolper says it's an interesting time to be in the production business as everyone grapples with the costs and benefits of digital video equipment.

"At this point, we're cautiously optimistic that 24p is going to have a role in our future," says Wolper. "It will certainly have one on the football side of the business, and in applications where sound speed is appropriate—like when we mike coaches on the sideline."

HD for slow motion

But there is some work to be done on the HDTV video side. Wolper says the problems with the video concern high-speed applications for slow motion, for which he says the company still believes that film is far superior.

"Another problem is that video still has problems regarding the quality of the image when it comes to covering an NFL game with all its color, movement and action," he adds.

Over the past 16 years, NFL Films has been involved in more than 3,000 outside projects.

The new facility, with improved graphics capabilities, editing suites, DVD authoring capabilities and the ability to handle 5.1 surround-sound audio post-production, is a step forward that could do for NFL Films what a strong offensive line can do for a great running back: Keep it moving.