E-Project: Monday Night Lights

December 2, 2010

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© ESPN Monday Night Football

Before each broadcast, Joel McKee and Allen Powers photograph familiar locations, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, in the city where the game will be played.

If you’ve watched Monday Night Football on ESPN this season, you’ve probably seen the still photos created for the show. Sponsor logos appear over scenes shot in the city where the night’s game is being played—subway cars in New York City, a Chinatown street in San Francisco, a pier on the beach in Jacksonville. These photos all have the vignetting, over-saturated color and light leaks characteristic of photos taken with low-tech Lomo film cameras. Except that no Lomos are used to make the images. All the still images that appear during the broadcasts are shot on a Nikon D80, and then Photoshopped to give them the look of Lomo photos.

Chip Dean, the director of Monday Night Football and a self-described “photography buff,” says that though TV networks typically use video animations for pre-commercial bumpers and sponsor placements—called billboards—he pushed three years ago to use still photographs instead. “It’s a way to tell a story,” he says. In the last two seasons, the billboards showed postcard-like images of city scenes. Then during this year’s pre-season games, Dean brainstormed ideas for a new approach with Monday Night Football photographer Joel McKee, and editor Jim Dove. Wanting to give the photos a vintage look, they came up with the idea of imitating Lomography, which has a devoted following among amateur photographers who love the unpredictability of shooting with cheaply made cameras and crude optics. “It’s artistic, it’s old style, but it was unique in the 20th century,” Dean says.

“We were after something retro, but not sepia,” says McKee who, with fellow photographer Allen Powers, is responsible for shooting all the stills for the show, as well as videotaping interviews with players and “cut in” sequences with the on-air announcers. “Lomography seemed to hit all the right notes.”

After three seasons of shooting scenic views of football towns, McKee says, the challenge is to find recognizable landmarks in each city that he and Powers haven’t shot before, or to find a new way to photograph a familiar subject.

Every Thursday, McKee, Dove and Dean have a conference call to discuss possible locations, sometimes reviewing sites that McKee has scouted online. McKee and Powers arrive on location on Friday night, then “hit the ground running” on Saturday, McKee says. They shoot all the video they need at the stadium, and also make time to shoot stills in a variety of sites around town by nightfall and then again the next day. He adds, “Sometimes we’re running pretty hard, just to get from one location to the next. If we miss the sunset by 15 minutes, it’s pretty frustrating.”

By the end of the day Sunday, McKee has delivered roughly ten jpegs of each scene to editor Dove. On Monday morning, they meet to edit and tweak the images.

Though he knows Dove will add “grunge” to his photos to give them their Lomo look, McKee says he still prefers to “overshoot,” providing more images than he needs, and shooting at a higher resolution than broadcast requires. “I give him the best images I can,” he says.
To imitate Lomo images, Dove created a Photoshop action made up of several effects available in the software—including adjustments to levels, contrast, grain and color. Varying amounts of distortion, vignetting and other effects are enhanced or scaled back in each image, as Dove checks to see what will read well on screen. This season, Dove has also applied the Lomo treatment to portraits of key players in each game, so the images match the style of the billboards.

Dove also uses Aperture to put together sequences of shots, creating what McKee calls a “flip book” effect. In Chicago, for example, McKee shot the skyline of the city, then continued to shoot images, slowly pulling back to show that the skyline was reflected in a metal sculpture in Griffith Park. Dove put together a sequence of about ten images, starting with the detail in the sculpture, then pulling back to show the whole sculpture. McKee says the effect is similar to “flipping through pages of a book, then stopping on the photo you like.” The entire sequence, including freezing on the last frame where the sponsor’s logo appears, lasts just six seconds. That interval, McKee says, “is an eternity in television.”

McKee notes that creating the Lomo effect in post-production has changed the kind of images he and Powers shoot. “Before, we wanted to come out with a clean, pristine piece of art to hang logos on. We were trying to capture landscapes, or larger chunks of the town. Now we’re more focused on details.” In Jacksonville, for example, McKee was on a pier at sunset, and noticed that he could see the beach through the pier’s slats. He shot a sequence of images, zooming into a bike locked to the pier’s support, capturing an image of sand on the bike tire.

Sometimes before they arrive on location, the photographers will arrange to shoot certain subjects. In Jacksonville, for example, “we had an idea we would do something great in the port.” The port officials arranged for them to shoot a large container ship as it was loading cars. Unfortunately, “We couldn’t get a perspective that it didn’t look like a giant parking garage,” McKee says. Other times, he and Powers will change their plans as they meet and talk to locals on the street. That’s how they found the pizzeria in New York where McKee photographed a pizza maker as he flipped dough into the air. “There’s nothing like local knowledge,” McKee notes. “Because we’re out and about so much, we feel we’re ambassadors for the show. People are almost always very, very helpful.

McKee believes a big advantage of shooting stills on location is that a DSLR is less obtrusive than traditional video cameras. “When you show up with a TV crew,” he observes, “people either start waving, or they just leave. Maybe they’re with their girlfriend where they’re not supposed to be.” He adds, “I don’t know the reason, but we’ve cleared out restaurants that way.”

Scouting for still shots is also fun, McKee says. “So often in television, you see the hotel, the venue, and the airport.” He says getting out of the stadium and getting a taste of local flavor—which he then delivers to fans watching in distant cities—“has been great for me.”