SportsPost:NY: HBO Offers Behind-the-Scenes Look at 24/7
HBO’s 24/7 production team took to the stage at SVG’s SportsPost:NY to discuss what, in recent years, has become one of the most consistently lauded sports TV series when it comes to Sports Emmys and respect across the industry. The event, hosted by HBO, drew more than 100 technology executives from across sports postproduction.
The premise of 24/7 is well-known. Each season covers athletes and coaches as they prepare for a major sports event. NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson was the focus of a series that led up to the Daytona 500, and six NHL teams have been covered during the run-up to three NHL Winter Classic games. And then there is boxing, a sport that has been the subject of 18 24/7 series.
“We’re a small group, and it’s really a boutique type of production,” said Ken Clausen, 24/7 production manager, HBO Sports. “It’s also been the same group, so we have a way of communicating without saying anything. That helps on a show like this because, sometimes, you don’t have time to say everything you want to say.”
According to Coordinating Producer Bentley Weiner, each series is broadly planned with the goal of capturing what is really happening. She pointed out that the process is a little more predictable for the boxing series, which captures the boxers’ reporting to training camp and then their training sessions and family visits.
“Hockey is a little less predictable,” she said. “The first Winter Classic, we had the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were on a 10-game winning streak, and the Washington Capitals, who had lost seven or eight games. It was one of my favorites because you had these two stories playing out that were riveting and then the Caps ended up winning the Winter Classic.”
Hockey and boxing also present different challenges. Hockey, for example, has a lot of players, takes place in the middle of the season, and also has the added element of winter weather. The challenge in boxing is that a fighter like Pacquiao has been on 24/7 six times.
“You have to keep finding new storylines and interesting ways of doing things,” said Weiner.
The production process itself can often require a great deal of flexibility, beginning with the use of different formats and cameras in the field (the Arriflex D-21 camera is a current favorite). And simply getting content from the field and back to HBO’s facilities in New York for editing represents a challenge.
Most of the time, Clausen said, drives are shipped back to New York, but, sometimes, offline lo-res proxy clips are sent, or data centers can be used to allow transfer of a terabyte of high-resolution material in approximately five hours.
Once the footage is in New York, it goes into an Avid ISIS Interplay server, where between four and seven editors work on the program itself and an eighth works on promos.
“We have media managers that are working day and night to transcode material and sync it,” said editor Christian Winters. “When we get into producing the game segment, we have six cameras with 22 separate mics all being recorded concurrently throughout the game. We need to be able to take all that material and make sense of it.”
Responsibility for that falls on the shoulders of two media managers, who get the material organized so that the editors and production team can more easily tell the story in a dramatic way.
As for the editing process itself, Winters said the editors have freedom to take the stories in the direction they think works best.
“They have more responsibility for storytelling, and everyone wears a bigger hat than normal,” he explained. “We have great people and a great system that has been honed and re-honed over the years.”
That honed workflow came in handy during the most recent boxing 24/7 when a fight broke out between the coaches of the boxers, Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Roach. The field producer told the team in New York that the fight had broken out, and lo-res proxies were sent to New York so that the production and editing team could get a handle on how the content would be used within the program. Weiner and the team had to cut more than 90 seconds out of the program to allow the story to play out properly.
“We had the system in place and communication as a team so we could quickly deal with the situation,” she said.
Voiceover is often one of the simpler steps in a production, but that’s not always the case for 24/7. Liev Schrieber, who narrates the program, is often on location shooting a film or TV program. That requires the use of ISDN lines and IP-based recording and the booking of studios in locations as far-flung as India, Indonesia, and Australia.
“The connections aren’t always great,” said Winters. “It can sometimes be harrowing.”
At the end of the day, the goal is not only to tell the story properly but also to tell it in a way that is consistent with the HBO brand.
“We don’t take half measures,” said Winters. “In color correction or the audio mix, everything is done with the same attention to detail as if we were doing Game of Thrones. But they have months and we have days, so it means everyone is working far more hours than anybody would stand, but we’re amped up and excited, so everyone does it.”