CINCINNATI — In the middle of a chaotic production office on the ground floor of Paul Brown Stadium, past a fleet of Panasonic HPX-3100 cameras, lavalier microphones and sound mixing equipment, you can’t miss the Big Board. It’s a rolling easel with cork on both sides, and it contains the name, jersey number and a photograph of every player on the training camp roster of the Cincinnati Bengals. Players are broken down by position and by where they stand on the depth chart. There’s even a section for the football staff and key off-field personnel. The Big Board is intended to mimic what the coaches have in much plusher offices one floor above, though it is unlikely that head coach Marvin Lewis is keeping tabs on Garey Faulkner, a Bengals fan who competes in facial hair competitions across the country and had his picture taken at practice last month with starting quarterback Andy Dalton.
But Lewis isn’t making a television show, and this group is. Overlooking the production office is a framed photo of the late Steve Sabol, the beloved leader of NFL Films who died last September at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with brain cancer. As Sabol once famously said, “Hard Knocks is like building an airplane in flight,” and the construction of the show begins in this room.
It is the morning of August 1, just past 9:30, and the Hard Knocks production office is buzzing with its usual vigor, an army of more than two dozen men and women wearing white T-shirts with NFL FILMS on the front and HARD KNOCKS CREW on the back. Already this morning the crew has interviewed defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, tight end Tyler Eifert and running backs coach Hue Jackson. Next up is a 10:00 a.m. walkthrough practice during which Zimmer, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, linebackers coach Paul Guenther and defensive line coach Jay Hayes will all be wired for sound. Later in the day the Bengals will embark on practice No. 14 of training camp, the first live contact in camp during a session open to the public.
About 30 Hard Knocks staffers work onsite during the filming, and a half-dozen in the crew, including director Rob Gehring will spend seven weeks in total with the Bengals. Staffers work 12-to-14-hour days, and often clock 100 hours per week. The crew typically shoots 300 hours of film for each 55-minute program. (The debut episode of Hard Knocks last week ran exactly 56:18.) There will be 60 players wired for sound during the course of filming.
Gehring said a small group of staffers arrived in town on July 15—10 days before the start of training camp—to scout the stadium; set up office space; determine where to install robotic cameras; and to set up pre-camp features for shooting. For instance, rookie running back Giovani Bernard had an NFL Films camera crew meet him at the airport on July 20 as he arrived in Cincinnati. The crew also learned of a running backs-only dinner on July 23, where Jackson made an impassioned speech that described the struggles and strife of training camp. That speech appeared in the opening scene of the first episode.
This is the eighth season for Hard Knocks, which launched with the Baltimore Ravens in 2001 and followed with the Dallas Cowboys in ’02. The show took a hiatus between 2003 and 2006 and resumed in 2007 with the Chiefs and then the Cowboys (2008), Bengals (2009), Jets (2010), and Dolphins (2012). There was no season in 2011, due to the condensed training camp resulting from the league’s work stoppage. Last summer marked the first time the series, jointly produced by NFL Films and HBO, premiered on Tuesday nights, and the move was a success. HBO said the 2012 edition of the series averaged 4.1 million viewers per episode, the second most-watched Hard Knocks in a decade.
The first couple of days of training camp, everyone admits, are always the hardest for teams, as players adapt to the cameras and the hive of NFL Films people around them. “You always had to watch what you were saying and what you were doing because you don’t know whether the camera is around,” says NFL Network analyst LaDainian Tomlinson, who appeared on the show in 2010 as a member of the Jets. “There is a bit of hesitation at times to say or do certain things. It was a bit weird. At that point in training camp you are trying to do build camaraderie and the chemistry of your team, so it was weird to have cameras around to capture such moments.”
The advantage for this shoot is the familiarity many of the participants have with the Hard Knocks experience. Zimmer is making his third appearance on the show—in addition to the ’09 Bengals-centric season, he was featured on the 2002 edition as a member of the Dallas staff—and has become a favorite of the crew for his unfiltered (and sometimes expletive-filled) passion. “I am miked for every meeting and every practice,” says Zimmer. “I try to be myself, and hopefully it will be portrayed the correct way. In 2002 I felt like I was portrayed as a little more of a raving lunatic than I was in 2009.”
The coaches live with the cameras more than the players do, including two robotic cameras and four pressure zone microphones (PZMs) in Zimmer’s office. “Sometimes if I want to talk to another coach about something and I want to make sure it does not get on the air, I will go out to the hallway or we will find a place to go,” Zimmer says. “I don’t want to say it is disruptive, because they do a great, great job, but you do notice it.”
The mantra among NFL Films staffers is to avoid being intrusive at all costs, and it helps immensely that the Bengals’ coaches, led by Lewis, have bought into the documentary experience. It’s also a franchise that wants to continue reshaping its image from its wild-child days of the mid-2000s. “I don’t think it is disruptive at all as far as practice goes,” says Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who has played for Cincinnati since 2006 and was a Pro Bowler last season. “They do listen to everything, though, and if you are in a meeting discussing game plans, and specifically for us something like how we are blocking rushers, you just ask them to step out of the room. But for the most part they do a great job of disappearing. You even often catch yourself going, ‘Dang it, I forget they were here.’ “
“It doesn’t disrupt you at all unless you allow it to,” says Lewis. “My only thing with our guys was I told them your time off is your time off. You don’t need to include any others in whatever you are doing. If it’s resting, if it’s spending time with your family or wife, if you don’t want them involved, don’t have them involved.”
NFL Films sound mixer Mark Ricci has worked on every edition of Hard Knocks, and as a sound mixer, he wires up coaches and players for every practice. (For coaches, the lavalier mics are affixed inside the collar and a transmitter is attached to the belt; players have mics affixed to their shoulder pads.) Gehring assigns camera crews (a camera person, sound mixer and a production assistant) to film groups of players or certain coaches wearing a mic. That same crew also monitors a different group of coaches or players via audio. That gives the Hard Knocks crews flexibility if something happens quickly. (Crews are often assigned to the same position group or coaches to foster relationships.) “You know a sound bite when you hear it,” says Ricci. “You start to know who the characters are on a team and if, say, a coach is screaming at a player or trying to coach that player up, you start to gravitate toward that scene.”
Do coaches use the Hard Knocks cameras for professional advancement? It depends whom you ask. Tomlinson said he found the Jets coaches ramped it up far more in front of the cameras than the players did. “They talked a little louder and enthusiastic, getting on guys a little more,” Tomlinson said, laughing.
“Hard Knocks is not going to use the entire hour to show a whole meeting, and if a guy was a good teacher and coach, it could be a benefit to him if they showed the entire thing,” says Zimmer. “I do think it could help coaches in some ways but, listen, I’m not a TV star. I want to be a football coach.”
Players, on the other hand, can see their marketability rise with a memorable appearance. Agents often reach out to HBO and NFL Films staffers in an attempt to get their players airtime. (For instance, the Hard Knocks crew was contacted by the agent for Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, letting them know they were happy to help out anyway they could.) “You have some players who play up for the cameras and some players who act natural,” says Simkins, who has logged seven years on the show. “I think for the most part coaches are very natural with the cameras, and the players vary. We had Chad Johnson in 2009, and he played up to the cameras. It depends on the player. If someone puts a camera on you, it changes the way you act.”
When Lewis walked out for the morning walkthrough—he wore a black T-shirt with the words SUCCESS on the front and A LOT OF LITTLE THINGS DONE WELL on the back—he was greeted by Alicia Zubikowski, a freelance field producer who worked on the previous Hard Knocks involving the Bengals. Such relationships have made this a smooth experience. The NFL Films crew set up cameras on both sides of the field, with boom microphones ready to catch any on-field conversation. After the walkthrough, a three-person group interviewed Lewis inside his spacious office. Gehring asked Lewis questions, with Simkins filming the shot and sound mixer Steve Guercio holding a boom over Lewis’ head. Lewis answered questions general and specific, including how linebacker James Harrison was adapting to his new team, the rehab of running back Bernard Scott from last year’s season-ending knee injury, and how Eifert was faring at tight end. The coach perked up on queries about the Oklahoma drill, in which two players engage head-to-head as a test of strength, and joked about Dalton’s black rubber wedding ring. The Oklahoma drill was featured prominently in the season’s first episode, highlighting a particular battle between tight end Jermaine Gresham and All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Down the hall from Lewis’ office, Gehring escorted a visitor into what he called the robotics control room. It has an Orwellian feel, as a pair of staffers watched over a bank of video monitors that showed eight cameras across five rooms, including two cameras in Lewis’ and Zimmer’s offices, and a single camera in the offices of Gruden, Guenther, Jackson and defensive backs coach Mark Carrier. Each of the coaches’ offices have PZMs (pressure zone microphones) on their desks and tables to record audio. Gehring said only three cameras can record at once, and robotics mixer Christian Loaiza and robotics camera operator Drew Matyas will only record if they think a conversation of importance is taking place. “It is pretty voyeuristic and sometimes weird,” said Loaiza, who attempts to work the same schedule as the Bengals’ coaches, arriving at Paul Brown Stadium at 7:00 a.m. and leaving at 9:00 p.m. or later. “You get to see those intimate moments, which is kind of cool.”
Among those who have appeared on the show, coaches and players alike agreed the Hard Knocks camera had zero impact on the regular season. What can affect a season is what Hard Knocks captures with heartbreaking precision: injuries. On the day The MMQB was in Cincinnati, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins was hurt diving for a pass from Dalton. A camera crew sprinted to Hawkins to capture him coming off the field, and the footage made it to the show. The most memorable moment of last week’s episode might have been the footage of free-agent defensive tackle Larry Black weeping after a season-ending broken ankle injury.
Hard Knocks cameras capture such moments with pathos, and nothing is harder for the crew than filming someone getting cut from the squad. Teams give the Hard Knocks crew a heads-up on the cuts, though it comes late in the process. “Steve (Sabol) used to say you want to glorify the living and give an honorable death,” says Gehring, who previously directed the series involving the Chiefs, Cowboys and Dolphins. “You want to do right for that moment and the more prepared you are, the more you can honor the effort they gave. The teams kind of understood that we need to know the plan so we get it right.”
Ricci tells the story from the previous Hard Knocks with the Bengals in which he had to follow Jim Lippincott, then the director of football operations, as he knocked on fullback J.D. Runnels’ door at 5:00 a.m. to tell the player, still half-asleep, that he was being released. “We often tell each other this is the only reality show that is real,” Ricci says. “These are real-life guys with their last chance of doing something they have done all their life, and if they make it the prize is enormous. It is the worst part of my job. I remember standing in the parking lot when we did the Ravens in 2001, waiting for Kenny Jackson [a linebacker], and we knew it before he did. I stuck my microphone up to my chest and said to the cameraman, ‘Can you hear that?’ My heart was beating that loud.”
How does all the filmed footage come together for air? The crew in Cincinnati uploads digital files from the production office to NFL Films via what they call “the big pipe,” a dedicated internet connection that feeds digital video from Paul Brown Stadium to NFL Films headquarters in Mt. Laurel, N.J. There are similar mechanisms in place to get footage back from road games against Atlanta and Dallas. The show’s second episode, featuring the preseason opener against the Falcons, debuts Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT and will replay on HBO all week.
At the NFL Films offices, supervising producer Ken Rodgers oversees 22 segment producers who edit more than 300 hours of footage sent from Cincinnati. (The crew from Cincinnati sent 360 hours for the first episode.) The footage is eventually whittled down into a three-hour rough cut featuring 40 or so standalone segments or storylines. At that point, senior producer Keith Cossrow and David Stiles, the show’s lead editor, along with Rodgers, weave the segments into a coherent 55-minute episode. The trio is also thinking about how the narrative can be taken forward beyond the individual show.
When you add up the 85 staffers who work on everything from IT support to the final sound design and mix, along with the people in the field, more than 125 people are involved in the creation of each episode. Rodgers and Gehring speak 10 to 12 times a day, discussing everything from storylines to the team’s travel schedule to whatever ideas Gehring and assistant director Matt Dissinger send to Rodgers throughout the day. On the topic of editorial influence over the final product, Gehring said the teams that participate in Hard Knocks have “next to none. I’d say 95 percent of the time if something gets removed, it gets removed for competitive balance reasons.”
Late Monday afternoon, a core group heads into Cossrow’s office at NFL Films—they call it “the bunker”—for the final edits and decisions on the show. (Post-production happens overnight Monday, and NFL Films can make adjustments on Hard Knocks until a couple hours before it airs on Tuesday night.) At 10 a.m. ET on Tuesday, actor Liev Schreiber records the narration from a script by the show’s writer, Gerry Reimel. Schreiber works over an ISDN line—sometimes he’s in New York, sometimes halfway around the world on a movie set; Cossrow and Reimel provide him any needed direction about the tone or context of a line.
Of the scenes that made Episode 1, Harrison’s offering a one-finger protest about the presence of the cameras was particularly amusing. “We allowed that meta-wink at Hard Knocks in order to show the attitude of James Harrison, because that encapsulated what his attitude in football and in life is,” says Rodgers.
The core group of final decision-makers includes Rodgers, Cossrow, Stiles, Reimel, David Harmon, a senior producer for Hard Knocks and a VP at HBO, and executives producers Ross Ketover and Pat Kelleher. But the group is minus one large figure. “There is an eighth apostle that will always be in that room, even though he is not there for the first time, and that is Steve Sabol,” Rodgers says. “This was the first episode of Hard Knocks where he was not here. Last year Steve still came in even though he was extremely ill, and in fact the last time he was in the building was for Episode 5 [the final episode] of Hard Knocks with the Dolphins.”
HBO executives expect the show to continue for some time—they privately crow that they own the NFL’s best program—and teams have said publicly they believe it can help the business of their franchises. NFL Films recently signed a multiyear contract extension with HBO to continue making the series.
“It would depend on the state of my franchise and where we are,” Tomlinson says of whether participating is a good idea for a team. “It certainly can help you build a fanbase and sell tickets, because people get drawn into it and get interested in the storylines. If I owned a team that needed star power and needed to sell tickets, I would absolutely do it. But a franchise like, say, the New England Patriots? They don’t need Hard Knocks.”
For last week’s opening episode, the Hard Knocks staff held a impromptu watch party inside a ballroom at the Springhill Suites in Buford, Ga., the hotel where they stayed for the preseason opener against the Falcons. The mood was ebullient, though everyone knew there was plenty of work ahead.
“I love the craft of the show, and I think the first episode was top-notch. The cinematography, the sound, the music, the writing—it was as strong as any I have been a part of,” says Gehring. “I’d be lying if I said that there were not certain archetypes that eventually reveal themselves—the long-shot rookie, the veteran trying to hold on—but there will always be stories to tell and fans want to hear those. As long as there are people craving that intimacy with the game they love, I feel like the show is going to be around for some time.”