Hard Knocks Preview: Q&A with Producers

Behind the Scenes, Hard Knocks, Miami Dolphins, Tiffany Orbin

On Tuesday, August 7th at 10pm/ET, Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Miami Dolphins premieres on HBO.  The series first episode will air almost two full weeks after Dolphins camp opens, but more than two months after Director Rob Gehring and Producer Ken Rodgers began working on this year’s HK.

Gehring leads the NFL Films team on location while Rodgers oversees the show’s production process back here at 1 NFL.  With T-minus 13 days until the 2012 Hard Knocks season begins, here’s a Q&A with Rob and Ken – who take you behind the scenes to explain why this year’s Hard Knocks will be the best yet.

  • What have you been doing the last few weeks to prepare for Hard Knocks? 

Rob:  Content-wise we’ve been focused on shooting the show’s Open and researching potential characters and storylines.  We’ve also fully scouted the team facility, with a specific eye for interview locations and robotics camera placement.  Production-wise we’ve been focused on the massive effort it takes to embed 25+ NFL Films employees in the Miami Dolphins training facility.  Things like, where to put trailers, where to build a robotics control room, and where will we feed our crews.

Ken:  Pre-production is all about building the infrastructure of the creative process.  Once footage starts flowing into NFL Films, there’s no time to figure out the logistics.  It has to all be set up beforehand.  The footage goes through dozens of people’s hands before it goes to air, so spring and early summer are spent putting all those dominoes in place so when camp starts, they all fall in the right direction.

  • What will be different from this year’s show as opposed to previous Hard Knocks shows?

Ken:  For the first time, no footage will be shot on tape.  Mark it down – in 2012, Hard Knocks went completely digital.  In the past, we would ship videotapes back to NFL Films via private planes twice a day.  Now we are downloading digital files and sending them to NFL Films via what we’re nicknaming “the big pipe” – a dedicated digital feed between the Dolphins facility and NFL Films.

From a storyline standpoint, this is the first year we are featuring a first-time Head Coach.  Like everyone else, we’re excited to learn what Coach Philbin is all about.  Add to that the fact that NFL training camps have evolved away from contact drills and more towards the conditioning side of things.  So the resulting show should be a fast-paced exploration of a team starting the re-building process from scratch.

  • Are you planning on doing anything differently when you direct this Hard Knocks series as opposed to other HK shows you directed?

Rob:  We have several new cameras we’re excited to try out.  We have a new strategy for mic’ing up guys when they’re just wearing jerseys, instead of pads, that I think will give us some of the best sound we’ve ever gotten.  And we have the new digital delivery system Ken mentioned that will allow us to ship footage back to NFL Films HQ in NJ significantly faster than we have in the past.  With the ultra-fast time constraints our producers and editors are working under, this will give them an advantage they’ve never had before.

  • How do you decide what storylines to follow?

Rob:  As Steve Sabol always says, “This show is like building an airplane while in flight”.  A lot of the characters and storylines happen right in front of you and you just grab on to them before they get away.  The most important thing on this show is to be flexible, so preparation is more important than planning.  Be prepared to capture that great character emerging, instead of planning for a specific guy to do it.  We really do capture things as they’re happening.  So you have to be ready to get it.

  • What are you most excited to see/do/capture while you’re down in Florida? 

Rob:  I’m always excited about unearthing the unknown characters.  Boomer Grigsby, Todd Lowber, Bobby Sippio, guys like that who just love the game and will do anything to keep playing it.  This season, I’m pretty excited about telling Chad Johnson’s story.  His football story.  Yes, he’s a goof ball.  But underneath that he’s a guy trying to reclaim his place among the game’s best.

  • How many camera crews will be down in Miami?  How many total people work on the show on the field?

Rob:  5 camera crews shooting at all times, plus 8 robotic cameras.  The total crew is usually between 25-30 people at any given time.  But because of the intense turnaround of this show, it takes even more support people to produce this show than it does camera crews to capture it.

  • How many total people work on the show in-house?

Ken:  Every week I oversee 18 Segment Producers who edit the various storylines.  Those storylines are then given to the team of Keith Cossrow, the show’s “Editor in Chief”, and Dave Stiles, the Offline Editor who plays the editing machine like Mozart played a piano.  They edit and re-arrange 2-3 hours of segments into the final 52 to 58 minute show.  Then we have another 85 people that do everything from IT support to the final sound design and mix.  Combine that with the staff in the field and there are over 125 people who make each episode of this show happen.

  • How many hours of footage will be shot weekly?

Ken:  Because of the new technological innovations, we’ll be close to 300 hours per week.  That’s really the challenge to this program.  Unlike most unscripted shows that edit for weeks or even months, we have to get our footage back to NFL Films and edited down to a coherent and entertaining 1-hour program in almost real time.  We shoot up to Monday for every Tuesday night premiere, which means fans are seeing the absolute most up-to-date storylines.  That’s a real challenge from a storytelling perspective: when the show airs Tuesday nights, I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen in the next episode.  Because nothing that will be in the next show has happened yet!

  • Any final thoughts about the Series, less than two weeks before the August 7th premiere?   

Rob:  What I’m most excited about with this year’s HK is collaborating with Ken and Keith again.  After directing the Cowboys and Chiefs series, then working back at Films on the Bengals and Jets editions, I have a much better perspective on how what we do in the field translates to the screen.  I also think, more than ever, I’ve been able to prepare our crews ahead of time because we as a company now have 6 Hard Knocks series worth of experience.  Each one is a little different, but they all offer something to help the creative process evolve and improve.  We’ve been able to take the best ideas, shots, angles, sound capture, etc. from those past 6 shows and mix them in to this year’s approach.

Ken:  As we stand here, a few days away from camp opening, it is actually relatively calm for me.  And I don’t like it.  I have butterflies like I’m ready to take the field.  I just want that first footage to get back so I can start telling stories.  I really think people are going to be surprised by the Dolphins.  Many people think that high-profile teams like the Patriots or Giants would be the best teams to feature on the show.  But if you think about it, those teams are simply trying to stay the course and improve marginally.  There isn’t a ton of roster turnover and the goal is essentially the same as the previous year – get back to the Super Bowl.  With a team like the Dolphins, it’s a brand new storyline – one that doesn’t start until the first practice whistle blows.  No one knows which direction this team will head – but hopefully after 5 weeks, we’ll have a clear picture of what these 21 coaches and 53 players are all about.

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