Let the Film Run Like Water

Behind the Scenes, Hard Knocks, Heidi Bahnck, Ken Rodgers, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants

EDITOR’S NOTE:  One week from today, Episode 1 of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Miami Dolphins will be in Films video editor Heidi Bahnck’s final edit suite, where as the series online editor, she’ll finish the show en route to its season premiere that night on HBO.  As producer Ken Rodgers told us last week, this is a landmark season in the series’ production evolution, the first year HK will be completely digital.  What does this sign of the technological times mean for film, and Films?  As Heidi suggests, quite possibly a chance to tell stories better than ever before.

As I was editing a piece for the Pro Football Hall of Fame recently, I stumbled upon some of the most beautiful football film I have ever seen — footage from the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the NY Giants, popularly known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

My grandmother used to hand tint old black and white photographs, and this film reminded me of her pictures.  The soft focus in the foreground gently falls off into a hazy background, and the colorized black and white is muted and earthy.  It’s absolutely beautiful, and it’s how I picture the game in my mind when I think of pre-Super Bowl era professional football.  It made me nostalgic for a time I never personally experienced, and that’s extraordinary.

Watching old NFL Films pieces, you can literally see the film stock change over the years, giving different eras of football their distinctive looks and embedding them this way in our collective memory.  No doubt we can tell powerful stories with modern HD video, but there’s something uniquely evocative and visceral about film.

Is it the notion that digital is disposable while film is forever?  Or that film is tactile and romantic, while digital files are cold and impersonal?  Perhaps that’s why we download smartphone apps to make our crisp digital pictures look like old-timey photos or reddish faded Polaroids.  While we expect the instant gratification of digital imaging, we crave the feeling of film.

Just in the past year, film equipment manufacturer Arri quietly rolled the last new film camera off the line.  And in January, 131-year old film pioneer Kodak declared bankruptcy, putting the future of the physical medium of film in question.

Part of me mourns at the thought of losing such a powerful and elegant medium.  NFL Films founder Ed Sabol famously said, “Let the film run like water!” referring to shooting football action in slow motion, NFL Films’ signature look.  “Let the memory cards run like water!” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

But just as black and white photography exists alongside color, I believe shooting film will persist as a filmmaking niche.  And perhaps the mainstream shift away from film is actually more of an opportunity than a loss, a chance to capture football as we’ve never seen it before and shape it in our future collective memory using new, powerful tools.  It’s not so much the medium itself that will create indelible memories, but how we wield it.

Technology intertwines, sometimes imperfectly, with nostalgia.  As Will Rogers said, “Things ain’t what they used to be and probably never was.”  So maybe we should let the memory cards run like water after all.

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