RICHMOND — By 8 o’clock Saturday night, Ken Rodgers had yet to see it — the footage that had already been tweeted about, analyzed in stories and covered on the 6 p.m. local news.
At the time the supervising producer for NFL Films squeezed in a moment to talk during what would ultimately be a 16- to 18-hour work day (which is normal, Rodgers assures), the film was still on its way to the production company’s offices in Mount Laurel, N.J.
Around 11:30 a.m. that day, a joint practice between the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans yielded a vicious plot twist after a fight broke out between the two teams and their 180 players.
An ESPN cameraman stationed in a raised, hydraulic cherry picker on the far sideline of the adjacent practice fields captured the action, which was broadcast by the network live.
Amid the brawl was another cameraman, accompanied by his trusty boom operator, who’s responsible for picking up sound with the microphone attached to the long “fishpole” he always carries. The two men, however, don’t work for ESPN.
Each of them donned white shirts with “Crew” printed on their backs in big block letters, under the words “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Houston Texans.”
They were under the watchful eye of nearby Matt Dissinger, the first-year director of the 12-time Emmy Award-winning HBO show now in its 10th season of documenting the behind-the-scenes action of NFL training camp.
The show is known for being uncensored, though the term “unscripted” means more to Dissinger.
“It’s a day-to-day, second-to- second adjustment,” Dissinger said a day before the fight. “If something happens, immediately you have to adjust. All of the best-laid plans go awry. That’s just the way it is. It’s a very stressful job.”
There’s no way Dissinger’s crew could’ve planned for Saturday morning’s brawl. And only later into the night after the drama unfolded would the editing process commence in New Jersey.
“We’re usually two to eight hours behind what’s happening in the field as far as working with the footage, logging it and seeing what’s there of value,” said Rodgers, who’s also the head of the show.
On Tuesday night, the “Hard Knocks” season premiere will air on HBO.
Don’t expect any sneak previews.
“No, it’s not done yet,” Rodgers said Saturday. “My guess is we will finish the first episode at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“With this show, you never finish. You just run out of time.”
Early Thursday morning, before the first of three joint practices between the Texans and Redskins in Richmond, Dissinger stood in the corner of Houston’s practice field and muttered into a microphone that connects him to his production manager and anyone else he needs.
Dissinger started working with “Hard Knocks” in 2006 as a robotic camera operator. He was a part of the show’s crew during the third season with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2007.
Last year, as HBO tracked the Atlanta Falcons, he served as the assistant director to Rob Gehring.
Now, he’s in charge.
“You ever have those days where you feel like there’s just a cloud in your brain that won’t go away?” Dissinger said before asking for coffee with cream and sugar and noting, “It’s a beautiful day.”
Dissinger looked exhausted — an appearance he’s gotten accustomed to since “Hard Knocks” began filming Texans training camp in Houston on July 24.
But on this day, he and his 32-person crew had to work with about 1,330 miles of travel under their baggy eyes.
The show always goes on the road with the team it covers for joint practices and preseason games.
It throws a bit of a monkey wrench in the production process, though the burden hopefully goes unnoticed on screen.
“The challenge is just moving an operation away from where you’re pretty much settled in — your base where you know where everything is,” Dissinger said. “We have robotic cameras set up there. You have control rooms, production offices. Even the littlest thing to having our laundry done. We have to come over here and find someone else to do our laundry.”
Over the course of three days in Richmond, Dissinger’s crew added to the 350 hours of footage it films each week that must be cut down into a 55-minute episode. During each five-episode season, Rodgers estimates there being 1,900 hours of footage.
Not long into Friday’s joint practice, production assistant Andy Brown pulled out a sharpie and marked a memory card, which he then secured in a plastic case and placed in a pouch strapped to his tool belt. Every few moments, he patted his side to make sure the pouch and its precious cargo was still there.
The contents of that memory card had to eventually be fed to the NFL Films offices through a digital pipeline equipped in each of the NFL’s 32 stadiums. While in Houston, this is an easy task because the team’s training camp facility is just two-tenths of a mile from NRG Stadium. FedEx Field, however, is 116 miles from the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center in Richmond, meaning that a member of the “Hard Knocks” crew had to drive two hours to get to the pipeline each day.
Once it gets to New Jersey, the footage is digitized and placed on the NFL Films servers before a large group of editors watches every shot and logs the footage based on players, coaches, position groups and story lines.
The last cog of the show’s machine is Paul Camarata. The senior producer takes the final three hours of edited material and turns it into what’s fed to HBO over satellite to air. In total, there are about 135 people who work to put “Hard Knocks” together each week.
“One of the hardest shows to produce on television,” said Rodgers, who was chosen by NFL Films president and co-founder Steve Sabol in 2007 to run the show.
Sabol, who died in 2012 after an 18-month battle with brain cancer, used one analogy to describe producing the show he helped create.
“Steve Sabol called producing the show like building an airplane in flight,” Rodgers said. “You can only start working on it once you’ve already taken off.”
Texans players and coaches give essentially the same answer when asked what the experience of being followed by cameras all day, every day is like.
“I haven’t even noticed them,” said Texans quarterback Ryan Mallett, who’s competing with Brian Hoyer for the team’s starting job. The battle means more air time, but no player gets more of that than J.J. Watt, Houston’s three-time all-pro defensive end and the 2014 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
At the beginning of Houston’s first practice in Richmond, a car rolled by on West Leigh Street and the driver yelled an expletive at Watt. The moment seemed staged — though it surely wasn’t — as the defensive ends were the position group closest to the road.
A cameraman and boom operator quickly made their way over to Watt following the four-letter exclamation. And for the next two practices, a camera started the morning on Watt.
“Lately, I feel like the camera is following me around 24/7 as is,” Watt said, “so I don’t even notice really what’s going on.”
When the Texans and “Hard Knocks” cameramen came to town, Redskins Coach Jay Gruden made one unofficial request. In 2013, he appeared on the show as the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Hopefully we won’t be mic’d,” Gruden said, though that turned out to be the least of his problems.
“It’s always through the lens of the Texans,” Dissinger said. “Anything Redskins-related is going to be something that happened with a Texans player or coach.”
So the fight was fair game, and the few Houston players who were brave enough to talk about it afterward speculated about the probability they’ll get a chance to relive the punches.
“Probably 100 percent,” wide receiver Cecil Shorts III said.
But not until 7 p.m. Tuesday, just three hours before airtime, will NFL Films decide the Houston Texans’ fate for the first episode of “Hard Knocks.”
Because as you read this sentence, they’re probably still working on it.