Breaking Down The Year’s Best Highlight Reel

Nathan Kolakovic's 2016 WJUC Finals highlight reel raised the bar.

Highlight videos are evolving. It’s not just the glut of game footage available or the ultra-high definition cameras popping up on sidelines, it’s what editors are doing with these tools that is heightening the craft.

Gone are the days when highlight reels were just the best plays of a season culled from grainy footage shot a million miles away arranged in no particular order. In years past, highlight videos were more or less a bundle of impressive throws and bids wrapped in a song to help them go down smoother. Those videos were succeeding largely in spite of the product itself. The strength of the plays and verve of a good soundtrack alone made them watchable, but the technological limitations made the highlights ends unto themselves.

In recent years, this has begun to change, and advancements in the quality of footage available has allowed editors to compelling new ways to assemble highlight reels.

There are many great examples from just this past year of editors elevating the highlight video above mere clip show. Jay Clark painted an intimate and visceral portrait of Jesse Shofner in her Callahan video, while Luke Johnson and the Fulcrum Pro team distilled the identity of all sixteen women’s teams at club nationals into a groundbreaking video series (this being my favorite example). But the most notable video this year, the one that provides a new template for what can be achieved artistically within the narrow parameters of a highlight reel, comes from Nathan Kolakovic.

Kolakovic achieved some notoriety a few years ago with his work for the AUDL, but 2016 was his big break out. After kicking off the year with shimmering reels from Lei Out and the NW Challenge, he delivered his masterpiece this fall with a cut of highlights from the WJUC finals.

WJUC Finals Highlights

This baby has it all; great quality footage, low camera angle, perfect song, actual filmmaking, and, of course, the stick that stirs the drink: great highlights. The fact that all of these plays happened in just two games is insane, and Kolakovic caught lightning in a bottle to produce the year’s best reel.

It speaks to Kolakovic’s talent that he was able to create something that seems so immediate and full of dramatic importance from an event that is a second tier event on the ultimate calendar. Four years ago, there probably wouldn’t have been any footage from the tournament and now it is providing the material for the best ultimate video of the year.

To fully appreciate the work, and to understand how Kolakovic is able to capture the imagination with his craft, let’s break down what made this video so great.

***

The video opens on a Canadian flag and a USA jersey, immediately giving us the stakes and setting the tone for the symmetry and juxtaposition that will follow. It seems basic, but so many videos screw this up and don’t open by introducing the thematic elements at play to prime the viewer. Here, the flag and jersey basically act as a diegetic title card that lets us know what we’re in store for.

We then get to see each team preparing to play, establishing the characters and the drawing us into their emotional investment. Kolakovic uses a lot of juxtaposition in the opening, showing the similarities and differences between the two teams. We see team USA run through a tunnel of players and team Canada run through a circle, each team bringing their own flavor, culture, and history to the showdown.

Let’s check in on the team huddles:

jv
I would put my life on the line for Jaclyn Verzuh.
headband-jpg
Dude in the headband looks like he’s ready to put his life on the line for his favorite flavor of teddy grahams, let alone for the game. This is so hype.

The game action starts with pulls from Carla Rawson1 and Joe Freund as the music starts to build towards the drop, framing the rising action of the game. The beat drops with the first goal, and a snarl of emotion from the Canadian goal scorer. The video doesn’t give us the big punch right away, however, as the opening goals all hint at a big emotional outburst – see the pump faked spike on the first goal – but don’t deliver the exclamation point we might have been anticipating. The video is still holding out on us, building anticipation. The action gets faster and the plays get more dynamic until finally…

Collefas Mot Spike

THERE IT IS! As the music reaches crescendo, we see the first big explosion of emotion, and the stakes jump up a notch.

The pace of the highlights continue to build, with the video servicing both the narrative of the games with visual exposition, while offering amazing aesthetic moments. There is only so much a great editor can do without great plays, but they are in no shortage here as Kolokovic really hit the jackpot.

Dillon Gee Huck

This throw, in particular, is completely bananas. Apart from the M. C. Escher flight path that the disc takes, it stands out as a throw that you’ll pretty much only see in this particular game. It takes a super talented kid who is too young to get why this throw should be impossible, with enough adrenaline from the moment to pull it off.

Seriously, look at the path the disc takes and then imagine having the courage/madness to think that trying this throw was a good idea. My dude just rips that thing I/O from the break sideline with the insane belief that not only will the disc hold its line and not fly forty feet out of bounds, but will also sit flat as soon as it comes back into play and perfectly descend to hit a receiver in stride, inches from a bidding defender.

And it worked perfectly. God damn. It’s the product of a virtually unique formula, namely (young hotshot + championship adrenalin) x (prodigious skill) = insane highlight. And our lives are all so much better for having seen it.

But it’s not just the big plays that make this video so great, it’s the little moments Kolakovic captures and elevates that really set it apart.

Just Missed Layout

A great piece of camerawork here, and a meaningful example of the things that highlight videos can expose besides huge bids and mind-bending throws. The camera pushes in on the blonde Team USA player and follows his whole progression as he tries to read the play from inside the cup. The player’s expressive face gives us a window into his thought process and we see what he sees, just a moment too late, leading to a desperate bid that barely misses getting a block on the popper.

It’s a small play that took probably about two seconds in real time and resulted in a three yard gain, but it’s one of the million tiny battles that happen all over the field over the course of a game. It’s a brilliant illustration of a sequence that won’t show up on a stat sheet, but can ultimately make the difference on the scoreboard. These plays can be just as important to the story of the game as a big layout, and most videos don’t or can’t capture them the way Kolakovic does here.

The best shot of the video, and the masterstroke sequence, combines both the athletic dynamism of the big plays and the intricate storytelling that Kolakovic weaves throughout the video.

Collefas Mot Rundown

The throw goes up and we see Verzuh, destroyer of worlds, in the frame. After seeing all of her spectacular plays from earlier in the reel, we’ve been conditioned to expect another towering block. But then something unexpected happens, as Collefas Mot zooms into frame and blows past Verzuh, securing the disc just before she crosses out of the playing field. The judicious use of slow motion kicks in for only a brief moment as Mot passes Verzuh, accentuating the instant Mot takes the upper hand and showing us how momentous this play was.

Verzuh had been an imposing figure throughout the video, and with their champion patrolling the field unchallenged like Achilles, it seemed almost inconceivable that Team USA could lose. But this play showed us that Canada has a player who can match Verzuh’s dominance, which is a crucial element in how Kolakovic builds the story of Canada’s victory. Whatever the importance of this play was to the actual outcome of the game, it is essential in the reel to our understanding of the Verzuh/Mot matchup and presents a clash of stature and speed that ultimately tips the game.

This sequence is a genuinely great piece of filmmaking. It has the surprise value of playing with our expectations, and then uses that surprise to build a narrative. It tells us something about the story of the game, of the terms upon which one of the game’s key matchups was fought, and does so with a subtlety that maintains the pace of the video. Moments like this are hard to manufacture in a highlight reel, but when they hit, they elevate a video from good to great.

Furthermore, putting Mot on a pedestal pays off later in the video with one of its most iconic plays, when she puts the entire world on a poster in a display of dominance that once again points towards the eventual outcome.

Collefas Mot Sky

It’s arguably the most aesthetically exciting moment of the video, and because of the buildup, given significant narrative importance as well.

But mostly…

mot-crop
Yo.

As we reach the end of the game, the highlights are coming fast and furious. Blocks and scores are happening so fast it can be hard to keep track of who is doing what as the games come to a boil.

Joe Freund Layout D

A massive Joe Freund layout block is shown at full speed, a departure from the slo-mo employed on most of the other highlights. It accentuates the brutality of his athleticism, the unstoppable nature of a block that seemingly came out of nowhere and obliterated the offense’s designs.

As the video reaches its climax, each team executes incredible plays in which success is determined by inches one way or another while their opponents are doing the same. The best illustration of this comes from an unsuccessful greatest attempt that features three different breathtaking moments.

Greatest Attempt

Everything is an inch away from success or disaster, and at any of the three main stages of action in the sequence (the catch and throw, the collision and tip, and the last ditch layout attempt) a slight variation could have changed the outcome of the play. Chills.

The final act of the women’s game is somewhat anticlimactic given the lofty stakes (double game point in the gold medal game!) as it’s just a defender inexplicably falling asleep on the force side in the endzone leading to an uncontested cut to the cone. But as undramatic as that play was, oh boy, how about the last play of the men’s game?

Joe Freund Sky

Joe Freund elevates and manages to juuuuuusssstttttt snag the disc away from his defender in the back of the endzone and then takes off sprinting towards his teammates. The camera captures all of the emotion on his face, as he goes from “oh shit, did I really just jump that high?“ to “OH SHIT did I just catch the Worlds winning goal?!?” to, finally, “you’re goddamn right I did! We just won Worlds!!!” and the camera captures it all in one gorgeous tracking shot.

The video ends in cinematic fashion with Freund getting mobbed by his teammates, characters we recognize, as they pop up around him in the victory celebration. Freund, the hero of the final play, is in the center of it all, fist clenched in the air in celebration as the chaos around him ensues. And then, in a fortuitous bit of shot composition, an American flag shows up billowing away and celebrating the victory along with the players.

It’s a climatic celebration that the video has earned in every sense, taking us on a real journey from beginning to end and populating the world with characters, action, drama, and emotional stakes that resonate, regardless of which side of the rivalry you are on. You can’t ask for much more from a highlight video than that, and Kolakovic delivered a reel that will challenge his peers to elevate their product in the year to come. I, for one, can’t wait.


  1. Whose exploits I’m not really familiar with, but based on this video, I’m referring to her as Canadian Claire Chastain from now on. 

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller

    Patrick Stegemoeller is a reporter for Ultiworld and a law student who lives in Washington DC. He captained SUNY-Geneseo Snail and began playing ultimate in high school with AUDA of Albany. He hopes that his degree in History will prove to be valuable at some point. You can find him on twitter at @patstegs.

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