With the big game right around the corner, we thought it would be fitting to catch up with Ferdinand LeGrange to discuss what drove him into the business, as well as the Cinematographer’s work on NFL film’s The Grind. The weekly show is hosted by Rich Eisen and features game highlights, provides access, and shares in-depth field reports from former NFL football players.
Like many NFL players, you have a pretty incredible story. Describe your journey in becoming a DP and Steadicam operator. What made you want to get into this industry?
I was born and raised in Bloemfontein and Cape Town, South Africa respectively. My dad was a director, producer, and news camera operator for the SABC for many years, so I grew up in the industry. He traveled extensively throughout Africa, and I would occasionally follow along carrying tripods and pulling cables. When I turned 17, I became an on-stage camera operator for his AV company, where we would supply video to the big screens during live music events. After high school, I studied engineering at Stellenbosch University. In 2003 left before graduating to travel to the US and work at Mt. Snow, Vermont. I was inspired by a few friends who had gone abroad the previous year, and also by a kiosk in my local mall with signage that read “Work, Play, USA!” I never returned permanently to South Africa after that. After many years of back and forth travels on H2B visas, I eventually landed in Vail, Colorado, in 2004. In 2006 I traveled to my girlfriend’s (now wife) hometown on the East Coast and signed up for a Steadicam workshop with Garret Brown and Jerry Holway in Chester Springs, PA. This workshop was life-changing for me, and it was the first time I had truly considered cinematography as a career.
Have you been working with sports-related content for a while? And when did you begin working with NFL Films?
From 2006-2009 I was committed to pursuing cinematography as a career. I temporarily moved back to South Africa and signed up for every job possible. I was traveling throughout Africa and Europe and began filming rugby, cricket, tennis, and field hockey events. I traveled to the Netherlands to film the South African national wheelchair basketball team), worked on live outside broadcasts with 20-30 cameras (Cape Town Jazz Festival) to small ENG jobs. Many of the most prolific assignments were for the IRB Junior Rugby Board. I traveled with them on their World Cup tours to England, Scotland and Wales and filmed with a sports reporter, editing the spots each day and sending them back to Johannesburg for the sports news round-up that night. After getting married in the US in 2009, my mother-in-law introduced me to someone from NFL Films. He offered to give me a tour of the facility in Mt. Laurel, NJ. I mentioned that I had camera operating experience, and he put me in contact with the head of the camera department, Hank McElwee. I asked Hank if I could come around the department and shadow a few people. He gave me some short ends to shoot with, and I started practicing regularly at my father-in-law’s local high school football games. I was a self-proclaimed unpaid intern who never left. I started freelancing for them at the start of the 2009-10 NFL season as a Steadicam operator and cinematographer and was hired full time as a DP in 2015.
Are you a football fan? If so, does that make the job easier to work on NFL Films projects?
Growing up in South Africa, we had almost no access to the NFL whatsoever. I do remember watching the occasional Super Bowl when I was a dishwasher at a bar and restaurant in Vermont. With that said, I am not much of a football fan. I think it does make my job easier. I can focus solely on the cinematic experience for the viewer and capturing the impactful shots. Steve Sabol, son of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, always considered himself a maker of football movies, and I am committed to upholding that legacy.
How would you describe the look of The Grind?
Coming up with the look of The Grind took weeks of gathering references, planning, collaborating, and test shoots with other creatives at NFL Films: fellow cinematographers, producers, colorists, and directors. The premise for The Grind is that it is a weekly show broadcasted on Wednesday nights. Each week we shoot an in-studio piece and also have two on-location shoots. Those would then be edited on Monday and Tuesday and color-corrected early on Wednesday morning. I wanted to make sure the studio did not have that prototypical studio look and that our host, Rich Eisen, arrived after hours. It was important for the look to be darker and convey the idea that Rich was looking at football footage all hours of the night. The colorists and I were intentional that the studio look was consistent week-to-week. On the contrary, each of the weekly on-location pieces had an individual treatment that we would work out the week before so the show had a fresh and exciting look to balance the studio consistency.
It seems like The Grind is a good mix of studio & location work. Do these backdrops affect some of your lighting choices?
As previously stated, it was a very good mix and balance of studio and location work. When in the studio we had a very specific look to achieve week to week and were consistent with our lighting. On location, we went more for a verite style of shooting.
What are some ways you’ve utilized LiteGear products on The Grind?
For the in-studio components of The Grind, we used LiteRibbon, LiteMat 2 Plus kits, and LiteMat 2L Plus kits. The studio setup was in a working control room, so using lights that were light-weight, easily maneuverable, and that we could hide was key to getting multiple looks in the limited time we had with the host. With us working at a quick pace on-location– having lights that ran off battery helped immensely with the speed of shooting. We could hide lights in cars, hide them in hotel rooms, and always have a LiteMat 1 on standby if we needed to adjust our look for sudden unforeseen reasons.
You can catch Ferdinand’s stellar work on Season 2 of The Grind– now available to watch and stream on EPIX. Keep up with Ferdinand on his instagram @ferdinandlegrange.