Lights ... camera ... action


If you want to know why Bengals president Mike Brown allowed the cameras of Hard Knocks into Paul Brown Stadium for the preseason that starts this week, you have to get behind the cameras.

Practice starts Thursday in a private workout that kicks off three weeks of workouts that are free and open to the public starting at 2 p.m. Friday. But the cameras are going to keep whirring until the final cut on the final cuts the week before the season begins.

And Kevin Simkins waits as one of the late, great Steve Sabol's phalanx of NFL Films sharpshooters that helped make the NFL, well, the NFL.

On a day last week that started when Simkins asked Brown if he could replace a grid of bulbs in the Draft Room, he shed some light on his new title for this show.

Director of Photography.

But he's still one of Sabol's relentlessly ubiquitous yet understated cameramen, the man who brought you the most powerful moment of the Bengals appearance in the 2009 Hard Knocks.

He's sitting in the Bengals locker room sipping a coffee and wearing a T-shirt that says "Life is great. Football is better. —Steve Sabol." On one of the sleeves are Sabol's initials: SDS. Simkins has his heart on the other sleeve.

"It's hard not to miss that man," says Simkins, finding it difficult to believe it has been 10 months since brain cancer took Sabol. "One of the hardest things is that I used to do everything in the hopes of getting Steve's approval. Getting a pat on the back from Steve was the apex. That was awesome. It's still hard to believe Steve passed away because nothing has ever stopped."

Sabol and Brown are both graduates of the School of Hard Knocks, those days before the NFL was the national pasttime and doling out rights fees like so much bird feed. This was back in the '60s when the NFL could only hope to get in the third paragraph behind baseball and Ali and long before the league began shutting down like The Pentagon.

Access, the access fueled by Sabol's infantry of film and audio that miked the sound and fury of giants like Paul Brown and Vince Lombardi, helped barrel pro football into the American conscience. Although hardly any other teams want to touch Hard Knocks, the Bengals seem to be saying they believe what used to be good for the league and its teams is still good.

"What we strive to be is flies on the wall," Simkins says. "Mr. Brown even said to me today that he had us back because of how professional we are and how good we are at our jobs and that we try to blend in. We don't try to be too intrusive."

Of course, it's not the '60s and too much of anything can be a death knell these days because there is already too much of everything. But for guys like Brown, Sabol and Simkins, you can never have too much football.

"To make Hard Knocks successful, you need a cooperative team. Access. If you have access, you'll have a really good show because it's a reality show," Simkins says. "In the end, you can't get a better team to work with than the Bengals. It starts at the top with Mr. Brown and Katie (Blackburn), Marvin (Lewis) all the way through to the equipment guys. They're all very welcoming. It's like, 'You're one of us.' "

That's how Simkins got The Reggie Kelly Shot.

It happened early in that '09 training camp. Reggie Kelly, the club's 11-year tight end, the locker room's spiritual leader and the man Carson Palmer always said was the best teammate he ever had, thought he had at first simply been kicked in the foot.

Because of the Bengals all-access pass, Simkins and his former sound man, Al Feuerbach, were in the training room when trainer Paul Sparling told Kelly his Achilles was torn and his season was over. Simkins caught it all. The shock. The hurt. The glistening tears.  

"I backed off. You don't want to get right on top of them in a moment like that; there's so much emotion," Simkins says. "You want to let him breathe and just use the lens. You can stand back, but zoom in and let the moment play out.

"You're thinking like an editor. You're hearing the music. You're imagining the scene playing out and in my mind, it was like, 'This is such an intense moment.' "

It is a shot that Simkins says most teams wouldn't have allowed. Even the most recent teams that have done Hard Knocks and Simkins has filmed all but two of the series.

"They're hesitant about injuries and going into the training room," Simkins says.

And it is a shot they're still talking about in Mount Laurel, N.J., home of NFL Films. It was mentioned a few weeks back at the first meeting about the Bengals series. It's where they named Simkins director of photography for the shoot and they asked what better match since it was Simkins that had filmed Kelly in the seminal moment of that '09 series that producer Ross Ketover says took Hard Knocks "to a new level."

"It was certainly one of the more dramatic moments," Ketover says. "It was from show one and it really set the tone for how special it was that year."

Despite his title, Simkins is still in the trenches and is going to be one of the five mobile cameramen with a sound crew blanketing practice, as well as off-field sites.

But he'll also be working lens-to-headset with director Rob Gehring on assignments and who to put where. He's also in charge of the lighting for the rooms where they've placed the eight robo cams, those 24-hour silent vampires that run automatically. He's also setting up the lights in the interview room.

Besides those eight robo cameras, five mobile cameras, and a handful of mini cameras, Simkins is deploying "a sniper," a cameraman patrolling the perimeter of the practice field. This is the high-speed, slow-motion specialist only concerned about capturing the speed and the sweat and not the audio, which is being covered by the boom mikes on the five crews.

No, this isn't war. By the third day, the sniper may be holding the most conspicuous camera.   

Here's one reason why Brown and Lewis don't mind working with Hard Knocks:

When Lewis got back from vacation, it was tough for him to tell that a crew had already been in his office sawing and wiring and hammering in order to put in two robos in his office. But they had vacuumed, swept and boarded everything up and it looked just like last July when he came back.

"I'm basically responsible for the look of the show," Simkins says. "We've got more sensitive cameras where you can go into the dimmest of areas and still get a great image … there'll be a lot of orange."

And, Simkins is a hoping, a lot of stories.

"You can make it look as good as you want," he says. "But you need the stories and the people. We're trying to get into their lives. People keep coming back for characters they like."

Counting that intern year at NFL Films while at Temple University in his hometown of Philadelphia, Simkins, 40, has spent virtually half his life looking for Sabol's stories. Growing up a blue-collar son in northeast Philly who watched his father go to work in a factory and tend bar among other jobs didn't hurt. He's got street eyes and seasoned ears to match a common touch.

"He's terrific working with other people," Ketover says. "Part of being the DP of Hard Knocks isn't just having a good eye, but it's working with guys and getting them to be excited every day to do an 18-hour day in the heat. He leads by example. He's one of the hardest-working guys I know. And he's strong as an ox."

He's benching the roster. He's hefting the bios. But they can't write the stories yet.

"Somebody might have a good story," he says, "but he may not be comfortable in front of the camera. With a team like this you flush it out. Is he funny? Is this guy good on camera? You let the stories develop. You're always looking at the quarterbacks. You've got (James) Harrison. He's kind of an enigma. What's he going to give us? Anything?"

Nothing, actually. Harrison has already gone on record about that. If they catch him on the field, that's fine, but ... . And Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has proven to be polite and pleasant, but not verbose.

Simkins already has an idea because he works with pretty much every team during the course of the season. He's the Sync Sound guy during Sundays, which means when he shoots games during the season he's the guy getting those priceless reaction shots.

Celebration. Dejection. When he's at a Bengals game, for instance, he may focus on Lewis as the ball gets snapped. If it's a TD, or big play, he'll zoom in tight on Lewis and then start panning to players coming off the field.

The images blur together, but Simkins has a good feeling about working with the Bengals coaches. It is the third Knocks appearance for both Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. And players such as left tackle Andrew Whitworth and cornerback Adam Jones have become go-to guys on Sundays.

"Even if I hadn't done Hard Knocks the last time, I would have loved working with the Bengals because they're so good during the season," Simkins says. "Some guys shoo you away, but they let you in. Marvin always gives you something on the field. Zim is so emotional, so honest. Dalton doesn't say much. A.J. Green doesn't say much. (Jones) is always good for a sound bite and Whit is good."

But just like the bottom of Lewis's roster or The Reggie Kelly Shot, Hard Knocks 2013 has to play out over the next five weeks. It's the only way Sabol would have wanted it.

"He was like a parent. The work that we did, you were doing it for him," Simkins says. "We'd do those screenings every Thursday and Steve would sit there in the same seat in the theater and if you got a compliment from him, man, that made you feel good."

It just so happens Simkins starts rolling on the field this Thursday.

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