Producing NFL Films’ Hard Knocks Takes Long, Hard Days

HBO Sports’ Hard Knocks is now in its sixth season of covering NFL training camps, but that doesn’t make things any easier for the NFL Films crew and director Steve Trout. Describing the average Hard Knocks shooting day at New York Jets training camp, which usually runs from roughly 5 a.m. to after midnight, Trout can’t help sprinkling in words like chaotic, crazy, and insane.

“The whole show is like building an airplane in flight,” he says. “I have five crews on the ground in constant walkie-talkie communication, and I’m basically a traffic cop getting them in the right place to shoot the right things.”

Now in his second year directing and fourth year as part of the Hard Knocks production team, Trout has more than a dozen cameras and approximately 25 crew members at his disposal. Among the many tools in NFL Films’ battalion of cameras are four Sony HDWF900 HDCAMs, one Sony SRW9000 HDCAM, one Panasonic AG-HVX200, and six QBall robotic camera systems. In addition, Trout has two GoPro helmet cams, a Nikon D300 SLR camera for time-lapse photography, and, new this year, a mini helicopter camera system outfitted with a Canon EOS 5D SLR camera.

“This is, hands down, the biggest, most expensive, and most watched thing NFL Films does,” says Trout. “It’s our Super Bowl. That’s pretty amazing when you think about the volume and library of shows and pieces NFL Films does.”

A Day in the Hard Knocks Life
After arriving for their early-morning call (even before the coaches arrive on some days), the crew begins setting up. The staples of each day are the two team practices at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., as well as breakout meetings throughout the day. However, Trout and company are constantly on the lookout for shots that will catch the eye and capture the emotion of camp.

“We’re looking for anything and everything,” says Trout. “Let’s say a coach is out alone walking the track at 5 a.m. and it’s a beautiful sunrise shot; we need to get that shot. Part of it is basically keeping your eyes open and your head on a swivel, then communicating to the crew that is most adept to go get that shot. It’s also anticipating things, keeping up on the team and what’s going on. If you can’t be a step ahead, you need to at least make sure you’re never a step behind.”

A Footage Chauffeur
After the day’s shooting is complete, the heap of video and film is driven by courier to NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, NJ. Transporting the content from the training camps can be a hassle, but, with Mt. Laurel a four-hour drive from Cortland, NY, where the most of the Jets’ camp practices take place, that isn’t an issue this year.

“Because of the geographic advantage we have this year, we don’t need to fly [the content] back,” says Trout. “It’s funny that, in this day and age with all our technology, we are doing things old-fashioned: getting in a car and driving it back.”

Back on the Postproduction Farm
Once transported to NFL Films’ home base, the film is converted via six telecine bays and ingested with the video onto the facility’s Avid Unity server (with 7 TB of storage) and is ready for editing on Avid workstations. More than 40 staffers edit and compile the footage into a single hour-long episode.

“The postproduction [workflow] has been great. All those people are standing by down in Mt. Laurel, ready to get to work. [The video] is ingested into our Unity system so they can access it and start editing it into one-hour packages.”

By late Wednesday morning, the episode is ready for narrator Liev Schreiber to record his voiceover for the episode’s premiere that evening on HBO.

Addressing the Elephant in the Room
Much of the talk surrounding Jets camp this summer has revolved around the absence of All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who is holding out in a widely publicized contract dispute. Hard Knocks hasn’t avoided the subject, addressing it extensively during last week’s premiere. Touchy topics like Revis’s holdout are always fair game on Hard Knocks, according to Trout.

“We don’t go out and mickey-mouse Jets training camp,” he says. “We will cover every single part of it, and that includes [the Revis situation]. There’s a mutual respect between [the Jets] and us, and that trust factor goes both ways. They trust us even though it may not be a bubble-gum storyline. If it’s a serious storyline, we’re going to cover it professionally and fairly.”

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