Shooting a behind the scenes story can go one of two ways. Either you get the access needed to tell a story, or you get the runaround and get the story the subject wants you to have. It’s a dance that is played out by willing participants who understand each others role. The subject knows that by granting access it has the power to, in essence, dictate what the photographer documents and, therefore, the direction of the piece . The photographer knows this and has to find a way to convince the subject that unrestricted access will provide the truest perspective. Trouble is, not all subjects want the truest perspective and not all photographers care enough to push the subject for access.
I was assigned by Sports Illustrated to document what it takes to produce a major golf event for television. In this case, full access was provided with such ease that my job was to just start shooting. Anything I asked for was met with a simple “whatever you need” reply. From the top on down, everyone simply opened their doors and invited me in to see what they do.
A year ago NBC Sports and the Golf Channel teamed their resources to televise the World Golf Championships Accenture Match Play tournament in Marana, Arizona. It consists of the world’s top 64 players competing head-to-head for five days in elimination play. It’s considered a big tournament and drew the likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and last years champ, Luke Donald, among many others. Lots of money at stake and five days worth of golf to televise, which means lots of advertising money was in play as well.
But the focus for me had nothing to do with capturing the winning putt or a player looking for his lost ball amid the cactus and scrub brush lining the Dove Mountain course.
No, my job was to make stars of the grunts…….. to make sense of the crew of nearly 200 laying twenty miles of cable, building portable studios, connecting a dizzying labyrinth of wires between production trailers and, generally, erecting a mini city in a mere week complete with a mess hall to feed everyone. (Note: despite the military reference “mess hall,” the food hardly resembled what soldiers endure….we’re talking grilled salmon and baby back ribs that were cooking before sunrise, spinach and feta cheese omelets, fresh brewed coffee and more than a few energy drinks to keep everyone humming).
In other words, picture a circus rolling into town, but instead of a show featuring dancing elephants and high wire acts, you have the world’s best golfers on a grand stage. And it’s all on TV.
Francie Cooper and John Gallagher were loading giant spools of yellow cable on a golf cart when I asked if I could tag along. Once we hit the course, John hopped off the cart and grabbed the end of a spool while Francie stayed in the cart to drive. Francie took off and John held on to the cable as it unspooled. At first, he just stood on one spot and let the cable unravel, but then he began to jog through a host of skin penetrating cactus and shrubs in order to lay the cable out of sight while Francie maneuvered the cart from hole to hole. Between holes, John grabbed some pliers to pull a piece of cactus from his pant leg.
As the warm, late afternoon desert light settled on the course nearly a week before competitors would tee it up, I followed the sound of pounding hammers to find Rick King and Scott Bauer erecting a camera tower on the 12th hole. Towering high above the famed Saguaro cactus, Rick swung a hammer while Scott fed him the materials from below in a choreographed routine that made me think they’d build hundreds of these before. The elevated platform would soon be draped in cloth and secured via heavy cables, all for the high angle shown during broadcast.
Finally making my way in the day’s last light I came across Francisco Gomez wrapping another camera tower with the bunting used to hide the metal scaffolding. An arduous job that entails climbing the tower and securing the fabric from top to bottom with plastic ties.
As the days progressed toward the beginning of the tournament, the crew just kept at it, often times transitioning from one job to another. Showing up before first light was standard, especially for the chef and his crew who dutifully began cooking breakfast and lunch at the same time in the predawn darkness. With cables spliced, cameras sorted and placed, NBC and Golf Channel studios built, transmission equipment attached to a crane and the various audio/video production trailers wired together, it was game time.
Venturing into the main production trailer, a dark, air conditioned mobile unit that does double duty as the Sunday Night Football on NBC production facility, I saw Tommy Roy, the main producer of the telecast, along with a host of other directors, producers and technicians seemingly at home amid a bank of video screens and control panels. Tiger Woods, a one man television ratings rocket, was on the course and battling to stay alive. But he was hardly the only story on the course. In fact, like most televised golf tournaments, the approach is to keep viewers on the edge of their seat by bouncing from one hole to another as players wind their way through eighteen holes. The producers and directors’ job is to direct the live coverage from inside the trailer located nearby in a dusty lot, all while keeping track of promotional obligations, features and interviews that comprise the telecast. So, suffice it to say that the cacophony of directions and shouts of “We’re going to commercial in 9, 8, 7, 6……” can best be described as insanely organized chaos.
So the next time you watch a golf event (the Masters is on the horizon), pay attention to what we all take for granted; the seamless transition from shot to shot, the smooth interviews and easy transitions into and out of commercials. Then remember the crew that travels like a circus for hundreds of days each year from town to town to bring you the game on television.
On a personal note, thank you to all the crew at NBC Sports and the Golf Channel for treating me as one of their own and allowing me to tag along.
Sports Illustrated layout: