“Hard Knocks” – A Look Back

Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Hard Knocks, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins

LEWIS BILLICK

“HARD KNOCKS: TRAINING CAMP WITH THE HOUSTON TEXANS”
PREMIERES TUESDAY, AUGUST 11th at 10pmET/9pmC on HBO

By Ted Gioia

Long before Hard Knocks became a fixture of both reality television and sports cinema, late NFL Films President Steve Sabol felt the idea of building a television series from an NFL Training Camp was a long shot. “Steve originally didn’t think it would translate,” NFL Films Senior Producer Bob Angelo said.  Angelo was the director in the field for the first two seasons of Hard Knocks, and though he and Sabol planned to center the inaugural season on a character study of three or four rookies trying to make an NFL roster, the production was quick to adapt once the cameras were rolling.

The debut season of Hard Knocks featured head coach Brian Billick and his defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Billick was supportive of  the show, and the producers loved having access to personalities like Ray Lewis, Shannon Sharpe, Tony Siragusa, and Rod Woodson — players who were such good TV that the producers had to expand their focus beyond just the unsung, first year Ravens.  “When the rookies had to stand up at dinner and perform, Shannon Sharpe fell off his chair in hysterics. That’s when we knew we had a good thing going (with the veterans), too,” Angelo said.

Sharpee

Click above to see a clip from the first ever Rookie Show featured on Hard Knocks.

As with any new idea, however, there were some growing pains. Initially, the Ravens told the NFL Films crew that they would not be able to mic-up players or coaches.  Because of this, audio engineers were running all over the field with boom microphones in an attempt to capture each interaction between players and coaches. “It wasn’t more than ten minutes into the first practice before we started to piss Brian off,” Angelo recalled.  Before long, the crew was wiring shoulder pads regularly to make it easier on themselves and the team.

Since then, it’s been a collection of small changes year by year that has carried the show forward. Ken Rodgers, who has been the show’s Supervising Producer since 2007, knows that better than anyone. “There’s no actual method to how it evolves. We’re never looking to say let’s make the show more like this,” Rodgers said, “It just develops intuitively as we produce each season.”

In some ways, Hard Knocks has moved away from the style it originally employed during the early editions of the series.  Unlike later seasons, the first two years didn’t even feature a narrator.  “If there’s one overall track of evolution that the show has taken, it’s become more of a cinema verite documentary show then an interview driven reality show,” Rodgers said. “As we move year to year, we focus more on putting the audience in a moment and allowing them to witness what’s happening, instead of being told what’s happening by an interview bite.”

DOLPHINS

Hard Knocks has moved in the direction of a cinéma vérité documentary style, using fewer interview bites to tell the story.

In 2007, the expanded use of montage and pop music gave the show more of a contemporary way of moving from segment to segment. Rodgers uses the combination of these two elements to change up the pace of editing and give viewers a break in the action. “Giving the audience a 15-30 second break from listening to dialogue and allowing them to look at some beautiful footage with some interesting music is the equivalent to a commercial break in a non-cable show,” Rodgers said. “We’ve found that the audience can get through an hour of Hard Knocks much easier because of our use of montage.”

MONTAGE

Montage is used to give the viewers a break from the action.

A successful montage may be on screen for less than 20 seconds, but it sometimes takes weeks of planning to produce.  During that time, crews in the field and editors back at NFL Films have countless creative conversations.  That type of  communication is the lifeblood of every Hard Knocks production.  To learn more about the process, check out “Looking Ahead to Houston”, Part II of our Hard Knocks preview coming later this weekend.

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