Hawks Studios Recaps Atlanta’s Dramatic 2021 Playoff Run With New Digital Series
The three-episode series on YouTube debuted in late October
The Atlanta Hawks dazzled the National Basketball Association with a trip to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals after upset victories over the No. 4 New York Knicks and top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. During this five-week span, players cemented themselves as citywide legends, and Hawks Studios, the franchise’s award-winning in-house creative team, were busy producing the eventual Hawks All-Access Playoffs 2021 three-episode digital series that chronicled the team’s surprising postseason run.
“When we went into the playoffs,” says Matt Bunting, SVP/executive director, Hawks Studios, Atlanta Hawks, “we never knew where this series was going to go. If you’re a fan of the Hawks, you’re going to want to see a little more about what’s happening behind the scenes with the team, and we were lucky enough to work with guys with great personalities.”
Planning Stages: Team’s Resurgence Prompts Ideas for Content
At the 2021 NBA All-Star break in early March, the Atlanta Hawks were in an undesirable spot in the standings. The club sat in 11th place with a sub-.500 record at 16-20, a full three places off the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and had dismissed then-head coach Lloyd Pierce three days before the midseason exhibition game. They were at a crossroads: continue on their path as a younger team on the way to maturity or make the leap to becoming a squad that could fight for a postseason berth. The organization decided to promote then-assistant coach Nate McMillan to head coach before the start of the season’s second half, and at that moment, the Hawks found a new identity.
“We went on an eight-game winning streak,” says Kara Spierto, producer/editor, Hawks Studios, Atlanta Hawks. “You could see a change in the team. The word Believe became a part of the team, and, as a content team, we tried to build off that.”
The rejuvenated team had some sparkling moments down the stretch, including a 42-point performance on 60% shooting by Trae Young in a 120-108 home win over the Chicago Bulls and winning seven of the last eight games of the regular season. The Hawks seemingly became an entirely new team in the second half: going 25-11 and surging up to fifth seed for the franchise’s 47th playoff appearance, the fourth-most in league history. Hawks fans saw a lot of what was occurring on the floor, but not many knew the chemistry and camaraderie of the team off it. That’s when Spierto found the inspiration and general concept of the series.
“I knew I wanted to shoot as much as I could at every practice because they have so much fun,” she says. “That’s what made the story of this team. [The Hawks] weren’t in talks like one of the top teams, and they always played with the mentality of having to prove something every time. We wanted to tell that story of who these guys are off the court.”
Postseason Mode: Series Takes Shape as Schedule Shifts to Playoffs
During the playoffs, the Hawks faced the challenge of defeating the New York Knicks, a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013. From a production perspective, the crew had an idea of what they wanted to capture behind closed doors but weren’t sure what to expect of the on-court performance in the first round.
“You never know when history is going to happen,” adds Bunting. “You record everything and hope that the excitement continues to build upon itself. The first series became more important when there was a second series, the second became more important when there was a third, and so on. The most exciting part was what started as ‘Get something [for the series]’ turned into ‘Wow, there’s a real story brewing here.’”
The excitement was heightened when the Hawks went into the hostile environment of Madison Square Garden — the Knicks announced that they would have the largest capacity of the playoffs at the time, with 15,000 fans — and won Game 1 with a last-second, game-winning floater by their talisman. After dropping Game 2 in New York, the Hawks rattled off three straight victories, including a series-clinching 14-point road win in Game 5. This series was recapped in the 40-minute-long Episode 1.
The journey took the Hawks to another formidable place to play: Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center. With notable names like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Tobias Harris, there were lofty expectations for the 76ers to make a deep run towards a possible appearance in the NBA Finals. The Hawks ultimately spoiled the party for the City of Brotherly Love in seven games, but the team demonstrated its toughness at a critical moment in Game 5 on the road.
“We were down 22 points [near the end of the third quarter],” Spierto explains, “but I’d go to our huddle, and the guys were fine. We never felt like we were out of a game, and that personified this team.”
Episode 2 showcases the Hawks’ efforts against Philadelphia. The Eastern Conference Finals against the 2021 NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks was the focus of Episode 3, but the Hawks’ magical season came to an end at home in Game 6.
Overcoming Obstacles: Staff Sidesteps COVID, Travel Restrictions to Gather Content
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic was in a better place at the beginning of the playoffs in late May than at the beginning of the regular season in late December 2020, the creative team still needed to abide by certain health and safety precautions. The guidelines made finding and retrieving content a bit of a challenge. The three rounds were played in a handful of cities, and protocols changed with each.
In addition, Spierto needed to follow the rules established by the NBA, including wearing masks at all times and testing every day at home as well as after travel. In addition, Spierto was the only Hawks Studios crew member allowed to travel with the team, which meant that she needed to cover everything on her own for each road game.
“There was a tier system,” she says, “and since I was the only person that was fully vaccinated, I was allowed to travel. Luckily, at home, there were more people allowed on the court.”
Helping out on home games were Bunting; Director, Content, Natalie Hendricks; and former Senior Producer/Editor Zach Fletcher.
In terms of content, the main camera angles of this show were provided by Spierto, Fletcher, and a part-time camera operator during the playoffs.
The equipment list changed with the venue. At home, the crew used Sony PMW-F55 cameras and the slow-motion Phantom camera provided by the NBA; on the road, Sony PXW-FS7’s were used. For miked elements with coach McMillan or players in each episode, Hawks Studios relied on its partnership with Turner Sports.
As the project evolved into the editing stages, Spierto would hit the edit bay and provide drafts to Bunting and Hendricks. She would take their feedback, apply changes, and tinker with the video until it achieved the intended direction.
Fans for the Future: A Goal of the Series Is To Expand the Fanbase
The purpose of creating the digital series was three-fold: reminisce on a historic season, tell the tale of a team that was counted out at every turn but rose to every occasion, and possibly add new people to the fanbase, from either the Atlanta area or other parts of the country. The last part of the trio is the most interesting because connections with fans begin with a franchise-wide commitment to high-quality video production.
“I want to make someone fall in love with a specific player and follow them for the rest of their lives because they watched Game 7 in this series,” says Spierto. “I’m super grateful to work at an organization that not only understands the process of the storytelling but puts an emphasis behind it as well.”