CSMA Master Class: Freelance Alum Turns Lens on North Texas Football
The SVG/NACDA College Sports Media Awards celebrate the best in college sports-video production. As technology and techniques evolve, the ability to create high-quality video on any budget has proliferated significantly. At the SVG College Sports Summit in May, 16 productions from across the country were honored for their excellence and overall contribution to the industry. This summer, SVG is proud to offer an in-depth look at the personalities and programs that have raised the bar in college sports video.
Sometimes the best stories are the most obvious ones.
2013 was a memorable year for the University of North Texas football team. A 9-4 campaign took the program to its first bowl game in nine years and first bowl win in 11 years. There, with the golden opportunity to chronicle it all, was freelance videographer and producer Ashton Campbell.
Hired by his alma mater to shoot and produce an intimate, behind-the-scenes television series titled Beyond the Green, Campbell was tasked with telling the stories of the captivating players and coaches who made up the 2013 Mean Green.
One of the team’s leaders was Brandon McCoy. A unique personality in college sports, McCoy was a 28-year-old Army veteran, whom his teammates affectionately nicknamed “Sarge.”
“You really can’t write that kind of stuff,” says Campbell. “It’s right in front of your face. To not do a story on McCoy would have been stupid. It would have been criminal.”
Campbell did that story, and the final product, “From War Vet to Defensive End,” turned into an inspiring look at a likable man who helped lead the Mean Green to one of its best seasons ever. It also claimed the College Sports Media Award for Outstanding Special Feature in Collegiate Athletics.
Luck of the Freelancer
“I love that show!”
Campbell had unexpectedly struck gold while sitting down for a lunch with a member of the North Texas athletic department. Meeting purely as a season-ticket holder and a regular donor to the department, he happened to mention that he worked in video production and, earlier in his career, had helped produce the Big Ten Network series Big Ten Icons.
Two weeks later, Campbell received a call from the university asking him to come down for a meeting to discuss a potential documentary series on North Texas football. He was thrilled to jump on board.
“I got very lucky on this one,” laughs Campbell, who worked at post houses for about five years after graduating from UNT before going out on his own as a freelance videographer. “Normally, you’re not going to get recruited. You have to go out and get it.”
Over the previous half decade, Campbell had produced behind-the-scenes features for college football programs across the country, including Southern Methodist, Tulsa, Texas Tech, Southern Miss, North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Coastal Carolina, Mississippi State, and Baylor.
Now he would be bringing his talents home to North Texas. He worked collaboratively with members of the athletic department to outline a production schedule and a list of individual stories both sides knew they wanted to tell. Naturally, McCoy was high on the list.
“The school did give me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted,” says Campbell. “They didn’t force any issues on me. I developed an early trust and relationship with them, and, if they trust in what you’re doing, then they are going to tell you what to do and what stories are unique. Nobody knows these players like the coaches and the department. You could be the biggest fan in the world, and you don’t really know who these guys are. You need to have a back and forth with the department to get information like that.”
Less Is More
Beyond The Green was planned for a 12-episode order, and the show would air on television — via agreements with Fox Sportswest, CSN Houston, and TWC Sports Channel — and on the North Texas athletics Website.
To produce a piece like the one on McCoy, Campbell would stage and light sit-down interviews with players and coaches, supplementing them with live in-game shots and other various footage taken by Campbell following the subject in his or her daily life.
The gear list was a modest one. Campbell used different cameras throughout the season but worked primarily with a Canon 5D Mark II for interviews and casual behind-the –scenes shots, switching to the Panasonic HPX170 P2 handheld (which has actually been discontinued, according to Panasonic’s Website) for sideline shots of game action.
Rarely would Campbell place microphones on his subjects. He relied heavily on a boom mic and an Audio-Technica AT8035 shotgun on all run-and-gun game-action shots.
“We were really simple,” says Campbell, who edited the series on Apple Final Cut Pro 7. “My whole theory is, the simpler the better. Keep gear down and just have less crap with you on the sidelines. You really don’t want to have much more than a backpack. We were really toned down on our gear.”
Anyone who works in features will tell you that the most valuable thing any storyteller can have is a strong relationship with the coach. Access begins and ends with how comfortable the head coach feels with a camera filming his or her locker room or practice.
With North Texas football coach Dan McCarney, Campbell was fortunate. In fact, the night he won the College Sports Media Award at the SVG College Sports Summit in May, he received a congratulatory text message from the coach.
“All of the coaches I have worked with have been great. Maybe I’m being a little biased here because it’s my school, but Dan McCarney could not have been better,” says Campbell. “He was so inviting and let me in. Not many coaches who are as old-school and closed-book as Mac is in terms of keeping his program in-house [would do that]. For him to let me in without really knowing me early on was very refreshing. It allowed me to do what I did, and he and the athletic department deserve a lot of the credit for this.”
North Texas’s Beyond the Green series is another case study in athletic departments’ shifting in a new direction when it comes to promoting their teams.
The past few years have seen a significant shift away from traditional interview coach’s shows. Thematic storytelling is winning the day. In the era of BTN’s The Journey and Pac-12 Networks’ The Drive, schools are looking to attract fans and — perhaps most important — recruits by offering inside looks at the cultures of their programs and the lives of their student athletes.
“Frankly, I think it’s more interesting,” says Campbell. “The days of Bear Bryant smoking cigars and going over plays every Monday morning, that’s over. ESPN and Fox is where you get your highlights, they have 50-60 different analysts, and, with social media and blogging, there are so many opinions. It’s gotten to the point where you need to see something different. These guys that we’re talking about. What are they like? Who are these guys? It’s all about what you can’t see when you watch a game. It’s not about X’s and O’s. If I’m going to be paying money for my season tickets, I want to see who these guys are.”
In Campbell’s eyes, covering a unique athlete like Brandon McCoy was pretty simple. He just appreciated the opportunity to be the one to tell his story.
“When you have a good story, it will tell itself,” he advises. “Let stories happen in front of you and step back and let them unfold. Don’t try to manufacture too much when it comes to documentary stories, because that’s where you start forcing issues. Let it happen naturally.”