Behind The Scenes

How Hank readies for some football

ESPN shot the opening video for the upcoming Monday Night Football season with Hank Williams Jr., last week in Winter Park, Fla.

ESPN Vice President of Production Enhancements Bob Toms, who originally hired Williams to be part of MNF in 1989 when he was the producer for ABC Sports’ on-air promotion, discusses the shoot with Front Row and the work that goes into creating the video.

FR: What is the theme for this year’s MNF opening video?

BT: I’m calling it Monday Night Football Sonic Boom. We opened up the music a little bit this year and added an a cappella group called The House Jacks to be part of the backing band for Hank. The House Jacks are musicians in their own right, but they can actually imitate live instruments as vocalists. It’s really pretty amazing to hear them perform, and they will bring a very unique, urban, funky sound to this year’s open. We’re also tweaking the music by overloading the sound to create a concert feel that will match the magnitude of MNF.

FR: What past MNF opening themes are your favorites?

BT: When we go a little bit off track is when we have the most fun. This year reminds me of when we did a duet with Hank and tap dancer Savion Glover. The beat and style we created for that made it a unique and exciting open, certainly one of my favorites. We also did all-star bands in the first two years on ESPN which was special with guys like Clarence Clemons, Stevie Van Zandt and Charlie Daniels.

FR: You’ve done this for 23 years now with Hank. What kind of reaction do you usually get from him?

BT: Anytime you put him in front of a crowd and you give him a good band and a solid track, he’s happy. He has no problem with cheerleaders and dancers around him, and he loves football. He’s part of the MNF tradition and he still loves doing this after all these years.

FR: Talk about the location for this year’s shoot.

BT: It was a fantastic situation. We also drew a big crowd which always makes it fun. The last several years we’ve been to House of Blues in Orlando and Las Vegas, and to the Parthenon in Nashville. This was another great set-up.

FR: Who are the people involved in this project?

BT: Our ESPN Creative Services team works very closely with the MNF Production team and Event Production’s Creative Content Unit from concept creation to delivery of the finished product that fans will see on-air each week. Val Fischler from the Creative Content Unit is the producer and puts together the team that will ultimately shoot and edit the open each week. She has worked on the project for many years. Val works closely with MNF Producer Jay Rothman and Executive Producer Jed Drake right from the outset. Members of our core group this year include David Saphirstein from the ESPN Technology team; freelance director and editor Mika Amoia; Scott Duncan, the director of photography, who also shot the ESPN World Cup video last summer with U2 and the Soweto Gospel Choir; and Greg Jennings, the writer who worked on the initial theme and lyrics. KJB Kiely is our production designer, and we used Steven Levy and his Habana Ave group as our production company for the shoot.

FR: How early does the process start for creating the video each MNF season?

BT: We work on the concept as early as February. Then we meet with Jay and Jed to go over things in March. Once the schedule comes out in April and the theme has been determined, we begin working on the individual team lyrics, which lasts about a month. In June, we recorded the audio tracks with Hank at a studio in Nashville. Now that we’ve shot the video, we’ll start getting it ready for the season.

FR: How much work is left to get it ready for the season?

BT: It’s a lengthy process that has really just begun. Val will now go through the Hank shoot to see what shots we have, and she will pull NFL highlights of the teams in our opening doubleheader. We’re also working with a pair of 3D animation houses — Big Studios in Toronto and Spontaneous in New York — to create some special effects that will marry the Hank shoot to the football clips. Our actual edit starts during the second week in August. By the second preseason game, we’ll have initial cuts and get feedback. By the first week in September we will prepare a cut for the opening game on Sept. 12, as well as a shorter cut for the second game that night. Every week during the season, it’s taking the football clips of the teams and switching out the Hank clips to create a new video, while adding new 3D effects and tweaking the music based on the shots we use of Hank.

The open is the first 60 seconds of our three-hour Monday Night Football telecast each week. Most people don’t realize how much goes into it, but fans love it when Hank says, “Are you ready for some football?” and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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