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.”