ESPN Turns the Greatest Game Into a Great HD Production

By Carolyn Braff

There is little debate that the 1958 NFL Championship Game is, indeed, the greatest game ever played, and, with the 50th anniversary circled on his calendar, ESPN Executive Producer John Dahl knew that he wanted to commemorate the occasion with a production worthy of the game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants.

“I’ve known for at least a couple years I wanted to do something big for this anniversary,” says Dahl, who oversees documentary production for ESPN. “Six months into when we knew we wanted to do something, I TiVo’d this special,

Jim Nantz Remembers the 1960 Masters, which was a colorization of the 1960 Masters. When I watched it, I thought, that looks fabulous.”

Dahl produced

Arnold Palmer’s Sports Century, so he had seen original footage from the 1960 Masters and could appreciate the work that Legend Films, a San Diego-based production company, put into restoring and colorizing the film. Dahl got in touch with Barry Sandrew, founder and president of Legend Films, and

The Greatest Game Ever Played went into production.

“Of all the films we’ve produced, nothing has compared with

The Greatest Game in difficulty and complexity,” explains Sandrew, whose company has colorized more than 120 feature films in the past five years. “We had to digitally restore, enhance, and colorize more than 80% of the game. The condition of much the original element was poor in quality. Almost every frame of the footage had to be restored, de-grained, and enhanced.”

A Historical Hodgepodge

The original broadcast of the game no longer exists, so the game footage Sandrew used was a conglomeration from film archives, including never-before-seen coaches’ film borrowed from Colts Coach Weeb Eubank’s basement.

“I had done an interview with Weeb Eubank in his home in the spring of 1998, and, in his basement, I saw these film canisters,” Dahl explains. “I asked coach, can we borrow that? And it turns out, it was film of the 1958 championship game that was given to him by the shooter of the game. In our film, there is over six minutes of footage from those canisters that has never been seen.”

Splicing together that footage with archives from NFL Films — which are of different quality — was a tough task for Legend Films, which also upconverted the film to high-definition.

A Legendary Restoration

The restoration process, in which most of the footage was transferred from film to HD, creating genuine HD wide screen material, was done on high-definition digital frames. Legend Films’ proprietary process does not use filtering.

“Recursive filtering tends to cause artifacts,” Sandrew explains. “It introduces imperfections where there is fast action.”

Sandrew’s process uses pattern recognition to detect dirt, dust, and scratches that should not be present, and the company wrote new software to address the warping and distortion in the film. To remove film grain without losing detail, Sandrew’s teams of more than 250 colorization staffers, restoration specialists, and artists in San Diego and Patna, India, went shot by shot and, sometimes, frame by frame to reduce the grain.

“Unlike a feature film, where there are established sets and camera movement, the Colts vs. Giants footage was somewhat chaotic,” Sandrew explains. “The camera movement was often fast and jumpy as it followed the action.”

Because of the fast-motion footage, some of the more sophisticated technology that Sandrew’s teams use for film work could not be used, so some of the colorization was done by hand, painting colors onto the original film.

Color Commentary

Adding historically correct color to a black-and-white broadcast required more research than imagination.

Sport magazine had taken color photos of the game, played in Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958, so Legend Films relied on those still photos for reference, alongside other contemporary photos of Yankee Stadium.

“We learned from the literature and interviews that there was barely a stitch of grass on the field,” Sandrew explains. “In fact, the day before the game, manure was spread on the field to keep it warm, giving it an overall brown texture and appearance.”

To keep that dirt color just right, when players were kicking up dust and mud throughout the game, Legend Films used a color transparency tool that adjusts the color of the dust while maintaining the color of the field and uniforms in and behind it.

“The game started in the early afternoon in a low winter sun that was bright in part of the stadium, and there were cast shadows in other parts of the stadium where the ground was frozen,” Sandrew explains. “We had to take all this into account for color design. As the sun went down behind the Yankee Stadium wall, before the stadium lights were turned on, you could see the change in temperature, along with an accompanying shift in color. When the stadium lights came on, a whole new color palette was required.”

Legend Films used a different palette for each camera angle at different parts of the day and assigned separate production teams to colorize the Colts and Giants players, appointing player specialists within those production teams. Maintaining color consistency on the red stripe of the Giants’ pants and helmets proved particularly complicated, not to mention the thousands of spectators that had to be colorized.

“The fans were particularly challenging,” Sandrew says. “For those shots, we broke up the crowds into small groups of people, and each group had to be followed during the extent of the shot for continuity and accuracy.”

The Toughest Game Ever Produced

The entire process took nearly three months to complete.

“It was significantly more difficult and more costly to color and produce than any feature film we’ve ever done,” Sandrew says. “I believe it’s the intricacy and fine detail of both the colorization design and production that makes this a unique visual experience.”

As a bonus, Legend Films took the game’s iconic shot — Alan Ameche’s game-winning touchdown in overtime — and converted the colorized film to 3D.

“The conversion of 2D footage to 3D uses the same technology, process, and production pipeline as colorization,” Sandrew says. “We have colorization down to a formula for feature films and can do a conversion in about the same time as it takes to colorize.”

ESPN has not yet seen the 3D footage, but Nantz has, so a 3D-converted “Greatest Moments in Sports” could be among his next Legend Films projects.

The Greatest Game Ever Played airs at 9 p.m. this Saturday, Dec. 13, on ESPN.

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