Behind the scenes with the Texans for 'Hard Knocks'

— -- RICHMOND, Va. and HOUSTON -- Inanimate objects have become characters in Texans coach Bill O'Brien's life at work lately. They follow him around. They peer at him in his office. They cling to him, recording his words.

He talks to them sometimes.

"Hey you Hard Knocks guys, don't put that in there," he'll say into the microphone. Sometimes he'll talk to an unmanned camera stationed inside his office in Houston.

"I look up at the camera and I say, 'Are you filming me?'" O'Brien said.

The camera will nod.

"When it says yes, I usually leave the office," O'Brien said.

It's Drew Matyas, the robotic camera operator, who makes the camera answer O'Brien. He works from a windowless room in the annals of NRG Stadium previously used as a media work station before NFL Films settled into the building.

Tonight HBO will premiere the first episode of "Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Houston Texans". The show is produced by NFL Films and many members of its 32-person crew will stay in Houston for the entire grueling six weeks of shooting. The first show comes from months of planning and weeks of constant filming. They'll shoot 350 hours for every one hour that airs.

For the past few seasons the Texans have been exempt from the show -- last year with a new head coach and prior because they were coming off playoff seasons. This morning, O'Brien sat down with director Matt Dissinger to review the show and make sure nothing in it affected their competitive advantage. Even hours before the show airs, scenes can be removed.

Five camera crews, one without sound, shoot most of the time. A sixth crew helps shoot practice. Fourteen robotic cameras are dispersed through O'Brien's office, general manager Rick Smith's office, the staff meeting room and four different position group rooms.

"I think in the beginning you really do notice them," O'Brien said. "They're there and it's hard not to notice them. But as time goes on, they definitely blend in. The director, Matt Dissinger, has been a really good guy to work with. It hasn't been an issue at all. Well, we'll see when the first show comes out. But to this point, it hasn't been an issue at all."

If O'Brien was apprehensive about the descent of Dissinger's crew into his facility, Dissinger says he hasn't seen it.

"The perception of what Hard Knocks is, is always worse than the reality," Dissinger said.

On Monday Aug. 3, eight days before the first episode, not even "Hard Knocks" was spared from the clandestine way the Texans handle injuries.

When star running back Arian Foster left the field during the Texans first fully padded practice, the Hard Knocks crew noticed. But just like everybody else who saw it -- including teammates and coaches with him on the field -- they dismissed it quickly.

"If we follow every tweaked muscle, you can't shoot practice," Dissinger said.

But this wasn't like most of the bumps and bruises players suffer during training camp. This was a severe groin injury that required surgery and decommissioned Foster for what might be months.

Dissinger admitted to being "kind of bummed about" missing some of that footage, but the crew adapted and told the story in other ways.

They shot the meeting when Foster's teammates learned of his injury, a scene that is expected to be in tonight's episode. They made second-year running back Alfred Blue one of the eight to 10 players they wire with a microphone each day. They filmed a Wednesday workout with free agent running backs Pierre Thomas, Joe McKnight and Ben Malena. It would have been the way to introduce one of the players to "Hard Knocks" had they signed.

Hand-held cameras film any scenes in the running backs room. The robotic cameras are only in the receivers room, the quarterbacks room, the defensive line room and the defensive backs room.

The set in the receivers room moved there while the team was in Richmond, Virginia. Initially NFL Films had wired the linebackers room, but there were too many linebackers, so they met in the main defensive meeting room instead. While 29 members of the crew traveled to shoot the Texans' joint training camp practices with Washington, Matyas and two others stayed behind.

In Houston, a room generally used for the Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show has been turned into a production room. Around the corner is a station behind rows of wires and cables that houses a contraption to send back the footage to the NFL Films offices in New Jersey.

The crew will travel in golf carts across Kirby Drive, over a bridge that will feature prominently on the show. They'll travel down a windy sidewalk built into a hill, across a parking lot down a path behind the Texans practice bubble. Three white trailers make up a "Hard Knocks" compound: one for cameras, one for audio and one for production, each of them filled mostly with equipment, but also with food, drinks and sunscreen.

Ideas for storylines, vignettes, big picture themes and visual possibilities adorn a white board inside the production trailer. Many off-the-field scenes have already been shot under the purview of assistant director Shannon Furman. They chose team leaders like J.J. Watt, Vince Wilfork, Foster, Duane Brown, DeAndre Hopkins and Kareem Jackson to follow off the field.

There's a visual quality control station inside the camera trailer. The audio quality control station is location sound supervisor Paul Flinton's charge. It's a cart named Dorothy that spends practice underneath a tent.

NFL Films shot a training camp documentary show in Jacksonville in 2004, a summer filled with storms in Florida. One of then-Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio's daughters named the cart "Dorothy" after a data-gathering device named Dorothy in the movie Twister.

Early Friday morning in Richmond, a long boom mic hovered between cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Jackson as they laughed together before practice. A camera operator, the production assistant and audio mixer, all donning white shirts emblazoned with the "Hard Knocks" logo, stood on the other end of the microphone. The post-practice cameras followed Jackson as he left the field and stopped for interviews.

Later that day, a crew filmed the defensive backs meeting by hand because there was no robotic camera setup in Richmond.

The crew continues working until after 7 p.m. that night, a day that began more than 12 hours earlier, but the frenzy of the day is winding down inside the hotel conference room in Richmond that's been turned into a temporary production room. On Saturday they'll be finished filming everything that will air in the first episode three days later.

One table in the center becomes a workstation for the group. At this hour Dissinger is joined by office production assistant Vinny Barbera, production managers Laura Lehmann and Damon Reynolds, and Austin Porter, an assistant equipment manager.

Dissinger steps out for 20 minutes to attend the Texans' team meeting.

There's a dinner menu from a nearby restaurant, Emergen-C and Airborne, binders, a walkie-talkie, and a tray of black notebooks sitting on the table.

Inside the notebooks, the scrawlings of production assistants detail what each crew shot that day.

Deciphering those notes used to be Barbera's job, and the ease of the job depended on whose handwriting he was reading. In Cincinnati in 2013, he kept a running list of the funniest misunderstandings. Something about batman, one note seemed to say. Another seemed to note that then-Bengals safety Taylor Mays was eating a wig (he was actually eating a scoop of whey protein).

The back of the room is lined with tables stacked on top of each other to create shelves for the black equipment boxes. A boom mic lies on one table.

The work for the show is almost finished, but one of the bigger happenings of training camp erupts the next day. When four brawls broke out during the Saturday joint practice, causing Washington and Houston's players to be separated, there was no time for Dissinger's direction. The crews dove right into the action, affixing their lenses and lowering their fuzzy microphones into the fray.

"It was just a matter of camera and audio guys following their instincts," Dissinger said. "... Our best coverage of the fight will be in (the episode) for sure."

Saturday is typically the last day of shooting for each week's episode, then the show is turned over to senior producer Ken Rodgers and his group at the NFL Films office in Mount Laurel, N.J. All the footage sent to them arrives about a day after it's sent from Houston.

If something significant happens between Saturday and Tuesday, they'll pop back into action to try and include it. It's inevitable later in the preseason. After the third preseason game when cuts happen, the crew will often work through the night, still shooting Monday for a Tuesday show.

Twelve years ago Dissinger began with NFL Films as an intern with a menial task. Eight years ago his first job on Hard Knocks was operating the robotic cameras, with the power to make them nod. In the previous three seasons he was the show's assistant director.

"I don't think 23-year-old me would've believed it," he says as he drives a golf cart across the bridge back to the rodeo room across Kirby Drive.

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