I know his name doesn't mean much to most people, but his work, well that's another story. In fact, if you're a fan of NFL Films, you're a fan of his. It's hard not to be. Nobody films football like Donnie Marx.
You know that super-slow-motion shot where the camera zooms into a tight spiral, which fills the entire screen? That's Donnie. He not only invented that shot, he's the only one who can get it. Oh, lots of guys try, but it's not the same. Donnie gets in tight on the ball -- tight enough to see Roger Goodell's signature -- all the while adjusting focus. Not to get too technical, but that requires two very different motor skills. Zooming in for a close-up while simultaneously focusing on a fast-flying football is like trying to juggle while surfing. Amazing.
If he were only a technical virtuoso he'd be worth the price of admission. But Donnie's got an eye, too. He knows how to get the shot that tells the story: The sly smile of a quarterback who knows he's got a coverage beat, the sweat of a down lineman just before the snap, or the purple tinged twilight of a Colorado sky. Donnie's an artist, and NFL fields are his canvas.
I knew it the first time I saw his work. It was back in the 1970s. His father, Dave, was then our director of cinematography, and one day I saw him watching some footage. It was good stuff, well-framed, nicely composed, arresting images. I didn't recognize it as any of our guys' work, so I asked Dave who'd shot it. When he told me it was his son, Donnie, I told him to hire him. Dave kind of hesitated and said he couldn't. I was little miffed and asked why not. Dave then sheepishly admitted that Donnie was only 14 years old.
He was worth the wait. And I remember the day everyone at NFL Films knew it. Coincidentally, it was while screening another Game of the Week, this one in 1980. Dan Fouts and the Air Coryell Chargers vs. Jim Plunkett and the bomb-happy Raiders. It was a playoff game as well, and that's where Don unveiled that signature shot of his. A couple of days later, when we watched the game and that spiral filled the screen in slow motion, people actually gasped. Then there was stunned silence. We'd never seen anything like it. Nobody had.
Now we're used to it, which I guess makes us spoiled. Because, really, it's still an amazing feat. I was reminded of that last Sunday while watching the Giants and Buccaneers on television. An overthrown pass landed just beyond the end zone, but before it landed, it hit a cameraman square on the head. I knew who it was immediately. Donnie, of course. He was too busy getting the shot to bother getting out of the way. That's my kind of cameraman. Too bad he's also one of a kind.