Photographers, cameramen battle the elements   

Updated: January 17, 2008, 11:54 AM ET

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"The most important thing is to put the weather out of my mind," the guy says. "I don't care how cold or nasty it is, I treat it as I would any other game. It's all mental -- whether you let the elements get to you, or whether you ignore them and do your job to the best of your ability, that's in your mind. That's up to you."

He sounds like Butkus back in the day, like somebody with taped ankles and a snarl on his face. He sounds like someone immortalized in an NFL Films close-up, frostbitten fingers chapped and bleeding as he points across the line of scrimmage at his intended target.

Photographer in snow

David Stluka/Getty Images

Unlike players, photographers and cameramen don't get to enjoy heated benches during frigid weather.

But he's not a player at all. He's the guy on the other side of the camera. Literally. He's the one standing on the sideline looking through a viewfinder, his frostbitten fingers chapped and bleeding as he focuses and zooms. He's Don Marx, 35-year veteran NFL Films cameraman, and when the weather gets tough he bears down.

"You have to be sharper than you've ever been when it's cold and the conditions are bad," he says. "That's how you have to think."

When Marx began filming games in 1972, the equipment was an issue in harsh weather conditions. The lenses would freeze up, and you couldn't make adjustments for focus or light. But technology has come a long way, and today's cameras, other than occasional fog on the glass, are largely unaffected by inclement weather. The challenge now is to be as good as your camera.

That means preparation. On the day before a snow-and-ice game, Marx pounds glass after glass of water to hydrate his system. "Your blood thickens in the real low temperatures, and that makes you colder, slows down your circulation," he explains. "I try to come into the game with a good blood flow." On game day, you line your pockets with heat pouches -- Marx keeps them in his left pocket, for his thinly gloved left hand, the one that handles lens adjustments. And just like your mama says, you have to layer, but it has to be thin stuff, things you can move in. "I can't get done up like Charlie Brown in the poofy coats," Marx says. "I've got to get down on the ground, and I've got to be able to move quickly from spot to spot on the sideline." So actually he begins with less than you'd think, less than is advisable even. He underdresses intentionally: "I wear fewer layers in the first half, just so I have something to add in the second half. I leave something in the bank, some little boost or reward. Does it really make me warmer? I don't really know, but it feels like it does."

Screw the body; everything's a test for the brain. Don't go in the pressroom at halftime because the little shot of warm air will soften you up. Don't get anywhere near the heated benches; they're for the weak. Stand there in the cold and embrace it. Let it know you're not going anywhere. "The only way to get through those games, and do good work, is with attitude," Marx says.

Lucas Gilman, a veteran freelance photographer out of Denver who's worked the snow beat from NFL playoff games to ice climbing and action sports, likens it to battle. "We're in the press area somewhere under the stadium before we hit the field, and we're suiting up, just like the players," he says. "We're gearing up for a fight."

The game in the snow and the cold is elemental, basic. This is part of its appeal on whited-out televisions and in snow-flaked photo spreads. It takes us back. "It's the old game," Gilman says. "It's when you use words like 'gridiron.' It's tough-guy stuff, in-your-face football." Shooting the game, you have to think in throwback terms, too. You try to anticipate the kinds of plays the teams will run, the kinds of plays they can run in the elements. "I'm not way down the sideline looking for deep pass plays, or fancy tricks," Gilman explains. "I'm in tight, keyed on plays near the line of scrimmage, stuff in the scrum, smashmouth stuff."

And the scrum bleeds over to the sidelines, as photogs jockey for position. The lines on the field, the lines that mark the edges between the world of the players and the world of the cameramen, blur, or more to the point, get buried under the frozen muck. "You see it on TV all the time," Gilman says. "They're pretty diligent about clearing the yard lines, but the lines around the field are a mess, and the security guys are constantly moving us back, farther and farther from the field, and we're constantly fighting to get closer, and we can't get good footing, and guys are sliding and pushing and falling all over the place. It's ugly."

When he steps back a little, Gilman sees the beauty of the inclement game. "You go a little wider on things, and the snow, especially when it's falling, can really work to your advantage," he says. "The atmosphere, the soft, light feel of it, it makes the game feel kind of magical."

Marx particularly likes when the cold, snowy playoff games are played in the light of day. "You get those backlit shots, with the sun maybe peeking through, and it enhances everything," he says. "I remember a Green Bay huddle a few years back, where the guys are in tight to one another, and the steam is coming off them, like the whole group is on fire. It was a quiet moment, no action, but it was spectacular."

You can't see that shot if you're worrying about how cold you are, any more than you can make a catch or a tackle on the field if your mind is on the elements.

"At the end of the day, the work is best when you just don't care about any of that," Gilman says. "You're cold. You're wet. So what? You're out there on a football field, like you were when you were a kid. It's where you want to be, no matter what the temperature is."

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. You can reach him here.


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