‘Road to the Winter Classic’ series goes behind the scenes
NEW YORK — Early Tuesday afternoon, it is not the Bruins' concern that Episode 2 of "Road to the Winter Classic" is due for delivery to Epix in less than 24 hours. Following a screening of the second episode, the Bruins' bosses (president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney are among the watchers) do not care for a shot of Zdeno Chara sleeping on the plane or several off-camera swears. They need to go.
After he receives the e-mail, producer Ross Greenburg tells his crew to scrub the objectionable scenes. Then Greenburg and writer Aaron Cohen prepare for narrator Bill Camp, who is in Fort Myers, Fla., to read his script, which Cohen started writing the day before. Camp begins his narration at 5 p.m. via an ISDN line.
Meanwhile, producers and editors in four editing rooms at Vidiots, the SoHo production company in charge of the series, are performing final color corrections on each segment. At 9 p.m., all the sound — music, Camp's narration, slaps of the puck during games, and all those glorious curses viewers never get to hear — is synched to the video, a process that does not conclude until 6 a.m. Wednesday.
After a final screening Wednesday morning, Episode 2 will be shipped to Epix by 1 p.m. Nine hours later, it will air on the network and online at www.nhl.com and www.bostonbruins.com. In Boston, Epix is not available on Comcast or DirecTV.
It will take viewers 56 minutes and 30 seconds to consume. The episode distills approximately 200 hours of footage. To comb through the barrage of material and package it requires an around-the-clock process, including some last-minute cramming, to turn each episode into the best presentation of hockey ever associated with the NHL.
"Normal reality shows shoot all their material, then they go into the room for six months and put together 13 episodes," Greenburg said. "Our clock is totally different. Our clock is all this stuff comes in, and within seven days, it's on the air. There are people in reality programming that look at what we do and say, 'How do you do that?' They literally don't know how we do it."
Panning for gold
Greenburg's mandate is to bring viewers, both hardcore and casual fans, inside the game. The first three episodes chronicle how the Bruins and Canadiens progress through three weeks approaching the Winter Classic. Episode 4 will be dedicated to the Jan. 1 outdoor game at Gillette Stadium.
A 12-person crew is embedded with each team. Each crew has two cameras. During each game, they place three GoPro cameras on the Bruins' and Canadiens' benches and one inside the penalty box. They wire coaches Claude Julien and Michel Therrien, two players, and one referee for sound for each game.
With their gear in hand, they follow the Bruins and Canadiens just about everywhere — in the trainers' room, the equipment trucks, and the dressing room. These are usually no-access zones. It's up to the crews to blend into the background and make their subjects feel like the camera is no longer there.
"Imagine if we were going to do a 24-7 on you," said producer Peter Rogaris, a Weston native. "We show up at your home. You're getting out of the shower and there's a camera there. It's a little awkward. But you start building a trust."
On Dec. 9, during first intermission at the Bell Centre, director of photography Peter Franchella set up in the middle of the stamp-sized visitors' room. Franchella prepared his $75,000 Sony F55 camera for Julien's speech. As soon as Julien started to speak, Franchella knew he could get something great.
Julien recognized the camera was there. But it wasn't his concern. He was worried about his team's sleepy play. So he carved into his players, naming David Krejci and Loui Eriksson in particular.
"I've got to go in there and do my job the same way I would normally do," Julien said, explaining his speech.
"I haven't changed. That's just me. Hopefully it shows a good picture to people versus an ugly one. But that's just me being me in between periods."
Meanwhile, Franchella went tight on Julien's face to capture the coach's fire.
"When there's something going on," Rogaris said of his colleague, "he knows when that emotion is there and when he needs to be in there."
Claude Julien locker room speech
An in-game speech by Bruins coach Claude Julien is part of Epix’s Road to the Winter Classic. (Video courtesy of Epix)
Per standard operating procedure, Rogaris and his on-site team transmitted what Franchella captured back to SoHo, where all the video and audio is ingested. The reaction at Vidiots was the same as in the field.
"They'd come upon that," Greenburg said of the producers, "and go, 'Holy [expletive]. Look at Julien here.' "
It wasn't just the content and the tight shot that made the scene arresting. Producers added dark, dramatic music that quickened and became louder the longer Julien spoke. They cut in clips of players' faces reacting to Julien's speech. They also made sure to blank out the words and diagrams on the whiteboard behind Julien.
"If he was standing there," Greenburg said, pointing to the middle of a room in the Vidiots office, "and you had a shot of this entire room, that's fine to set it up. But there better be another camera on him tight. There better be another camera shooting the faces of the Bruins gathered around him just focusing on him. And you've got to have the editors put all those shots together. It's like what a good director does in a film. I did that in 'Miracle.' I did that exact scene with Herb Brooks doing his speech. We could set up all the shots. That was the difference. Here, you're doing it live on the fly."
The Bruins trailed, 1-0, at the time of Julien's speech. They rallied for three straight goals to take a 3-1 win. By the end, Julien's words carried even more weight.
Advancing the series
For Episode 1, Greenburg wanted to establish the relevance of the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry. The episode started with the Bruins-Canadiens game Dec. 19. Greenburg hit the rivalry hard and often.
Episode 2, Cohen explains, is more about the season and its peaks and valleys. It shows the Bruins' surge and the Canadiens' slide.
It also goes more off the ice. The cameras follow Jimmy Hayes to Dorchester. They capture ex-Penguin Max Talbot's return to Pittsburgh. They track Brad Marchand at Symphony Hall reading " 'Twas The Night Before Christmas." The segments balance the hockey that has taken place.
"This episode is exactly where we want the series to be," Greenburg said. "Obviously we're following the Canadiens slipping and having their issues. Boston is playing great hockey. We're capturing that. But we're also diving deep into both teams."
Greenburg and Cohen can plan for certain things. They have asked for and been granted access to produce segments such as Chara's walk through the North End, P.K. Subban's visit to his tailor, and Patrice and Stephanie Bergeron spending time with newborn son Zach in Episode 1. They know such segments will be featured.
But they cannot plan for the spontaneity of the on-ice results, be they the Canadiens' tumble or Frank Vatrano's hat trick against Pittsburgh on Friday. They consume the content as Rogaris and his colleagues send them from the field. Cohen will write the script around what has happened.
In the words of the late Steve Sabol, one of Greenburg's HBO collaborators on "Hard Knocks,'' creating sports reality programming is like building an airplane in mid-flight.
"That's part of the fun of it," Cohen said. "It's, 'Hey, what's going to happen? We'll be talking on Thursday and be concerned about the format. But we don't know how this episode's going to end. You're reacting and trying to figure out how to make sense of it all. And it will continue."
Greenburg and his team weren't sure how Episode 2 was going to end. Producer/editor Tim Mullen and producer Jackie Decker, who usually work together on creating the opening and closing segments, were going through footage and audio.
The Canadiens were coming off a 6-2 hammering against Dallas on Saturday, their seventh loss in their last eight games. Meanwhile, the Bruins had swept the Penguins in a home-and-home series.
Montreal's losing streak felt like forever. The Bruins seemed to have been happy for a long time. Cohen wrote the script to address the ups and downs of a never-ending season. Visually, Mullen and Decker tried to capture its length. Their original ending didn't mesh with Cohen's writing.
They had footage of both teams going through off-ice workouts. They originally planned to use the gym footage earlier in the ending.
One player performing a particular workout caught Mullen's attention. He wondered how the action would look as the closing sequence in concert with the narration. So at 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning, Mullen edited the workout and made it the last shot.
"We kind of realized what he meant by that," Mullen said of Cohen's script. "He didn't even know we had that shot. When we put it in there, we were happy with it. Then we wanted to run it by him. He said, 'You guys got it.' "