During the summer of 2016, the beautiful athletic facilities of the University of California, Irvine were transformed into a state-of-the-art training camp for the recently relocated Los Angeles Rams, a fabled Southern California football franchise that had spent the past decade in St. Louis. UCI installed 250,000 square feet of new Bermuda turf on Microsemi Field (formerly known as Crawford Field); the dining staff ordered massive amounts of food; and for a month, a student housing community was home to 200 team and staff members.
The Rams camp also became the training ground for 10 students and alumni from UCI’s Department of Film & Media Studies. When NFL Films and HBO approached the department looking for some extra help, four undergraduates and six recent graduates applied and were accepted as production assistants on HBO’s reality television show “Hard Knocks,” which followed the progress of the Rams while they were on campus.
Such a job is a good first step on the path toward a career in the film or television industry. “Hard Knocks” has won 14 Emmys, and the set-up at UCI included five camera crews and 12 robotic cameras. This was also the first time the show documented a football franchise move and featured a No. 1 overall pick (quarterback Jared Goff), according to the Los Angeles Times.
Catherine Liu, professor and interim chair of film & media studies at UCI, is a sports fan and an admirer of the “Hard Knocks” series, and she was thrilled about the opportunity for students to gain some real-life experience.
“They got to work with the best people in the industry. They got to test themselves in intense production situations and timelines. NFL Films has always been at the cutting edge of sports documentaries; its artful choreography of voice-overs and action has shaped the way generations of fans see football,” Liu says.
“‘Hard Knocks’ is not just beautiful action scenes; it’s raw and uncensored. You get a real sense of who the players and coaches are. Not all the storylines end happily. In fact, most of them don’t. It’s reality TV and documentary at their best.”
For Kaly Ngo, a third-year film & media studies major, day-to-day tasks included assisting video and audio technicians in a classroom converted into a robotics room where footage was cataloged. “There were several security cameras placed throughout rooms where the Rams met for meetings, and I was working in the room that oversees the action,” Ngo says. “I helped technicians select and log top clips for postproduction. It was like I was on a stakeout, because catching action for reality TV is always unsuspected.”
The five-episode season included glimpses of UCI familiar to many: Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin catching Pokemon Go critters on campus and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and defensive end Eugene Sims playing a late-night game of ping-pong with students in Campus Village, for example.
“It’s definitely the best job I’ve ever had. I got to do what I love and learned from some of the best people on the crew. On top of that, we got behind-the-scenes access to the L.A. Rams and the perks that came with it,” says Marri Caballero, a film & media studies alumna still employed by NFL Films.
Ngo adds: “Everyone was so welcoming and sincerely genuine in helping us UCI students through the process and showing us the ropes of it all. I was always in awe being among the crew – to think I was working closely with Emmy Award winners! – and I learned something new every day, from small things like how to properly label CompactFlash memory cards to bigger concepts like how a real-world crew efficiently runs a fast-paced production.”
UCI’s Department of Film & Media Studies routinely pairs its students with internship opportunities so that they can augment their humanities backgrounds with hands-on experience in the production of film, television and other media.
“A career in TV has been a dream of mine,” says film & media studies alumnus Alan Chung. “I’ve worked on many student feature films and graduate thesis films, but they don’t compare to what I did working on ‘Hard Knocks.’ It definitely gave me insight into the differences between TV and film production. The crew [taught] me a lot about being a cinematographer and sound [engineer]. I loved every aspect of it because I was actually out there doing it instead of reading about it in textbooks.”