Inside HBO's Hard Knocks

After a week of River Falls duty, I was exhausted from a heavy workload. Between the website, magazine, podcasts, interviews, writing, daily radio guest spots, weekly television appearances and networking, at the end of the day I was generally worn out.

But after going behind the scenes with the crew of HBO's Hard Knocks, I came to realize they might be the hardest working media group in sports.

Imagine for a minute that you work 18-hour days, shoot miles and miles of footage, and at the end of the day for every hour of film shot, only 30 seconds will be used.

Those precious seconds are ‘money shots' according to Rob Gehring, senior producer for HBO/NFL Films. You'll see them this Wednesday night on HBO when Hard Knocks with the Kansas City Chiefs debuts at 9 PM central time.

Gehring breathes life into a crew that barely sleeps, lives in a dorm, has no social escape whatsoever and whose singular purpose is to get as many of those ‘money shots' as they can into what we'll see on HBO the next five weeks.

But that doesn't even scratch the surface of how difficult this entire operation is for Gehring and the crew he's in charge of in River Falls, Wisconsin and Kansas City. And let's not forget the road trips to Cleveland and St. Louis.

"We've been working every single day on this project since April," said Gehring, "when we found out that the Kansas City Chiefs would be our focus."

When I entered Gehring's makeshift office at the University of River Falls, at first glance all I beheld was a sea of laptops stretched over long card tables, with enough wires, cords and monitors to make the generous-sized production center seem cramped. In the back room was the equipment that transforms the high-definition footage into what is shipped off to the editing crew and turned into the final product.

But here's what struck me most about the NFL Films crew that milled around working on multiple projects simultaneously: every member of the crew seemed to be in heaven. It's hard work, but everyone seems to love their respective job.

Steve Sabol has entrusted Gehring to produce a high-quality show that keeps the great tradition of NFL films intact. The studio's journey started when Ed Sabol won the bidding war for the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and Chicago Bears.

At that time the cost to obtain those rights was a mere $3,000. Today, that wouldn't even cover the cost of feeding Gehring's crew for a week in River Falls.

Chiefs fans will never forget the recordings of legendary head coach Hank Stram shot during Super Bowl IV. That singular footage changed the face of NFL Films forever, so the decision to choose the Chiefs in this modern era was an easy one for Sabol.

"There are so many reasons why we picked the Chiefs," said Sabol last June. "Number one, they're a good team. They were in the playoffs last year and they're going to be contenders this year. Number two, they have a very interesting mix of players. They've got future Hall of Famers, old pros, new players – a very diverse group of interesting background."

"The coaching staff is very vibrant - great communicators with a charismatic head coach who has worked with us since he's been a player. The general manager has been at his post longer than anyone else in professional sports. You've got a storied franchise owned by one of the most respected families in the NFL."

That's high praise indeed, and that's why Gehring was chosen as the point man for this enormous project. He agrees with Sabol that the Chiefs were the perfect choice for this series, primarily because the story is ultimately told by the players.

"Training camp hypothetically is all about position battles," said Gehring. "You look at a guy like cornerback Ty Law, he goes into every camp thinking that his job isn't safe. And if you look at this roster from top to bottom, that was something that we thought would make a great story."

Most Chiefs fans are more knowledgeable about those players and their team in general, but Gehring wanted to tell a compelling story for every NFL fan.

"I think that the most important thing is honoring this league," he said. "The thing I am most proud of is the fact I work for NFL Films and they are producing this show. The same shield that those guys wear on their uniforms is the same one that's on my paycheck."

"We're not here to be a propaganda machine for the team. What we have to do is celebrate what these guys go through every day. It's one of the most difficult jobs you can have."

The NFL Films crew was something I discussed with the entire media at River Falls this past week. At first, some were jealous of the access Gehring's crew received from the organization.

In order to give a true taste of everything that happens within the organization from the front office down, the players had to make the ultimate compromise.

Cameras are positioned everywhere. In the huddle, on the practice field, at all angles - from ground level, to high above the field. The NFL Films crew has access to all the players, they are in the meetings and they are truly a part of the scene and the development of individual player stories.

In order to take advantage of all that, a dedicated crew with enormous talent is required.

At the center of it is Gehring, who understands that NFL Films has evolved over the last 45 years from a guy with a single camera to a studio of historians. Gehring is a filmmaker who documents, with incredible detail, every facet of the NFL. He is very candid and proud of his place in the NFL Films legacy.

"I've been here 10 years," he said. "It's the only job I've ever had. I love it more and more every day. This is what Ed Sabol did in the beginning. He hung out with Hank Stram and Vince Lombardi. It just wasn't on HBO. It wasn't quite the production it is now. For me, it makes me happy that I get to carry on the tradition."

Clearly Gehring respects the tradition of his predecessors. The same rings true for his crew, who eat, sleep and breathe the job at hand. Deanna, a three-year veteran of NFL Films, said she is more than happy to make those sacrifices.

"We go to work at 6 AM and stop at midnight," she said. "Seven days a week. There is no off time. But I love it. I started as an intern and took this job right out of college."

The rest of the crew appears to share that sentiment. If you look at everyone involved, for the most part, they are a new breed of filmmakers. They are young, and if they like the work, they can stay for as long as they want.

Still, Gehring has to keep them all content. It's not an easy task, because everyone has good days and bad days. It's a juggling act at the highest level.

The biggest task at hand is sifting through the hours and hours of high-definition tape to find the gems that eventually appear on HBO.

"We'll end up shooting, in the end, about 120 hours of footage a week," said Gehring. "We have 23 people working 16 hours a day. There's a whole other army at NFL Films producing the show. I have a counterpart, Kenny Rogers, a supervising producer on the other end. They are sifting through every second of footage that we get. We capture it and they make it into a story."

How is it done? Gehring's only answer is the talents of the people around him.

"We have some of the best sports cinematographers, the best sound men in the business," he said. "Steve (Sabol) has been committed to finding the very best. I mean we have four crews up here, and I'm only able to be with one crew at a time. So there are three other crews working completely independent of anything else I'm doing. Each crew does the best they can do to find stories, tell those stories and get the great shots. You have to lean on them all the time."

"We do this in two and three week shifts. There are a bunch of cameramen and sound guys who are scheduled to go home so we can keep everyone fresh. But guys don't want to leave. They're loving this."

When NFL Films began in the 60's, Sabol's brilliance was delivering a different view of the game. Over the last four and half decades the hallmark of NFL films has been the camera angles. It's no different in River Falls.

Gehring's crew uses cameras positioned an inch off the field turf, mounted on boards that look so archaic they appear to be something made in shop class. They are also hoisted above the fields on cranes, and no matter what might happen on any of the four practice fields, they always get the shot.

Thus, the camera angles are key in telling the Hard Knocks story. It's one thing to sit down and do an interview, but NFL fans always want to see more.

"I wish we had more toys," said Gehring. "I think a lot of that is collaboration. We have lifts that we can get a top angle, high hats on tripods for lower angles and shoulder cameras. We have to give the camera crews the creative freedom to not be afraid to be great."

With that said, this entire process and the five-week series would not be possible if Gehring and his staff didn't have great subject material.

In other words the players, coaches and front office personnel are the actors in these films. If HBO and NFL Films didn't think they'd find that with the Chiefs, none of this would be possible.

There are players that Gehring always knows he can get that money shot from - like fullback Boomer Grigsby and defensive end Jared Allen, who are more fun-loving than others.

But what he really appreciates are veterans like Law and tight end Tony Gonzalez, who have each been through the rigors of an NFL training camp many times.

"They understand what we're trying to do," said Gehring. "We're not here to cast them in a negative light, but instead to celebrate what they've been doing over decades."

At the same time, Gehring and his crew also love the underdogs, those who are fighting for jobs in their first NFL training camp. The ‘Little Engine That Could' philosophy is something that has always appealed to NFL Films.

Early on in the shoot, two of those engines have caught Gehring's eye – punt returner Ean Randolph and cornerback Tyron Brackenridge.

"I think Ean has a fantastic opportunity, but also some pretty big shoes to fill," said Gehring. "In talking to the kid, he wants it. The best part about that is that there are a lot of guys like Samie Parker and Justin Phinisee who aren't going to make it easy for the young guy who wasn't drafted to take their job. And that's one reason to do this show."

"I was talking to secondary coach Alex Gibbs and nobody could understand why (Brackenridge) wasn't drafted. He's an outstanding football player."

But naturally, the NFL Films cameras end up gravitating toward the star rookies at times. Gehring said his crews have focused in particular on KC's rookie defensive linemen – Tank Tyler and Turk McBride.

"It's a fun journey to try and craft that story with guys who were drafted high and to see them succeed," he said. "Then you have the guys who come out of nowhere who just want to make the team. They are the same age and are only separated by draft slots."

There are other interesting side notes to River Falls, like the Dwayne Bowe and Larry Johnson contract situations, but the core of this project centers around the type of team that Herm Edwards and his coaches are trying build.

It's a daunting task, but despite the long hours and sacrifices everyone associated with this project will make between now and September, they each understand why they strive to make the finest product they can.

"Hard Knocks is above all else a show for the fans," said Gehring. "If anyone respected and cherished the fans the most, it was the late Founder of the Kansas City Chiefs, Lamar Hunt. And that's important to us as the historians and the keepers of the flame of the NFL."

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