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A TV director explains how the best college football fan shots happen

This is how camera crews and fans in the stands produce the moments that light up the internet.

Now that every inch of every FBS game is televised, the crowd shot is woven into all of the most memorable moments. The plays that stun you most on your couch are also the ones that stun the people there. And there, a camera always catches it.

So when Chris Davis ran back an Alabama field goal 109 yards, several guys in the Surrender Cobra posture became part of the history almost as quickly as Davis did:

alabama crowd shot iron bowl 2013 auburn

And when Michigan State turned a clock-killing Michigan punt into the most stunning touchdown since the Kick Six, these fans were part of the historical record, too:

These shots aren’t always capturing devastation, though the ones that do are the likeliest to run up thousands of likes on social media.

One of 2017’s most memorable shots was after another Bama-Auburn game, when CBS captured dozens of jubilated Auburn fans trying to leap the hedges at Jordan-Hare Stadium, then swimming in them:

Shots that are joyous and funny tend to travel well, like this NC State fan during an upset of FSU:

Or this LSU dinosaur:

The crowd shot has become an integral part of the college football viewing experience, both on TV and the internet, where the best ones circulate for hours (or days) (or years).

Wondering how they come to be, I asked someone who’d know: Steve Milton, who’s been the lead director for CBS’ college football telecasts since 2003.

It’s hard to imagine a big game broadcast without bunches of crowd shots. But figuring out when to include them at all is a challenge.

“It’s hard for us to leave the field, and instinctively, you don’t wanna leave the field,” Milton says. “You don’t wanna show people at home people in the stands watching the game. My habit is less is more. These fans have to be doing something very special that would be appreciated by the folks at home.”

It wouldn’t be difficult to put an incredibly boring crowd shot on air while more important things are happening inside the confines of the field.

“There’s a balance of overdoing it, and you’ve gotta be tentative and not go there, and put special shots on the air and not just a ton of ‘OK, it’s time to take a fan shot, just give me anybody.’ If it’s appropriate, we do it. If it’s something special, we’ll do it,” Milton says.

“Nowadays, you take a shot of a fan, and I see a fan on a monitor, and they’re looking down at their phone after a big moment ... we’re not gonna throw that stuff on the air.”

The best crowd shots come down to communication and instinct.

This is where it’s helpful to have a crew — as CBS does — that’s stayed mostly intact over the years. Camera operators and producers operate on the same wavelength.

Milton might give out an order: “OK, I wanna sweep: camera 1, 3, and 5, sweep the crowd.”

At the next moment, they’re not all literally on the same frequency.

“They might get on with their own little channel and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna get a happy guy.’ ‘Hey, I’ve got a sad kid,’ and ‘I’ve got 10 or 12 delirious fans,’” Milton explains.

“And they coordinate that themselves. And for me, I’m like a kid in a candy store. I have a finish to a great game, and I have this great crew showing me so many shots, it’s hard for me to get them all on the air. I’m looking at a wall of delirious, happy, sad fans, and players, because we do keep cameras on the field as well.”

Once you have a good crowd shot, it’s critical to stay on it long enough for it to be appreciated, but not so long that it a) distracts from what’s happening on the field or b) starts to feel tasteless.

That sequence of Auburn fans getting stuck in Jordan-Hare’s hedges lasted six seconds, serving as the visual while Allie LaForce interviewed Gus Malzahn. Even that felt long to watch in person, but it worked because it was funny.

“There’s some people that we just stay on that — it was free entertainment,” Milton says. “But it was time to get off it and move on.”

When the moment is sad and not happy, figuring out how long to hang on a shot carries higher stakes. At some point, especially if it’s a kid on screen, it starts to look mean.

“Especially when it pertains to young people, and I mean not students but younger folks, Milton says. “There is a line, and I’ve put a couple of kids on the air that were crying, but I think it can be appropriate.”

The calculation here: as devastating as a loss can be — and everyone acknowledges how devastating it can be — you’re not quite putting people on air at, like, a funeral.

“I don’t think watching a football game and watching your team lose can be a devastating, life-changing moment for them,” Milton says.” I think everybody’s here to have a good time.”

When it works, the crowd shot is a uniquely great part of college football TV.

NFL telecasts have their own identities. They’re not usually supplemented, at least not in such a memorable or regular way, by shots of the crowd. That’s a feature of this level.

“I always comment that NFL is great. It is great,” Milton says. “But the passion out here is tenfold.

“Sure, you have your NFL dynasties and teams that draw great crowds, great scenes, but I don’t think that pans out through the entire NFL. But out here, it’s just a wonderful scene here week to week.”