Keeping It 'Reel'

Basketball Drama Hill Gets Game Scenes Right With A Little Help From ReelSports Trainers

08 September 2003 Wilmington Star News by Allison Ballard

The blonde guy on the basketball court streaked past the competition, got the ball back and made the shot to win the game.

Only, this time, after the shot, the players didn't go home. Instead, they went back to starting positions and ran the play again. And again, and again - as often as necessary to get it right for the cameras.

The sequence will appear in an upcoming episode of One Tree Hill, the locally produced television series set to premiere on The WB on Sept. 23.

The show stars Chad Michael Murray and James Lafferty as two half-brothers who have an antagonistic relationship and end up playing basketball together on their high school team. That means a significant part of the action takes place on the court.

Basketball, football, baseball and other sports are popular themes for film. But it can also be difficult to portray. For every winning throw made by the quarterback at the end of the movie, there's an audience member who watches extra closely to see if the receiver really could have caught that pass.

"Sports is really tough," said David Martino, who is a basketball double on the series. "A lot of people are sports fans, and they'll be the first to say, 'Oh, that looks fake.'"

To make that look as authentic as possible, Tollin/Robbins, the production company behind One Tree Hill, called in a group called ReelSports Solutions - which helps recruit player-actors, trains them and designs and implements the sports choreography for features and television.

"Being sticklers for sports, we want to have the quality and the look and feel of the action," said Mike Tollin, producer. "You don't want to loose that sports credibility.

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Tollin/Robbins has worked with ReelSports on six projects, including Varsity Blues, Ready to Rumble and the upcoming Radio, starring Cuba Gooding Jr.

"

They work with the actors, they host training camps," Mr. Tollin said. "It makes them feel more in character, and it's great for morale, to know there's that attention to detail, that there's no detail too small.

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And Mr. Tollin can tell a difference when that aspect of filmmaking is overlooked in other productions.

"For actors, we look for the absolute best," he said. "We want the action to look as good.

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For One Tree Hill, ReelSports held an open casting call for basketball players (not people with acting experience). Recruiters found a lot, but not enough to get them through the 12-week shooting schedule. Another round of tryouts begins today to find the rest.

The coaches are looking for the same things they'd look for in someone playing on a real sports team - good skills and work ethic - but also incorporate cinematic practicalities.

A handful of the players with the "right look" play the Ravens, the hero team.

At the practices, usually held twice a week, they're the ones in the cobalt blue sleeveless jerseys and baggy shorts. The others on the court make up an opposition team.

One thing that's usually a problem is there's never enough time to work with the stars of the show. Doubles for Mr. Murray and Mr. Lafferty come to every practice. But because the actors themselves are in so many scenes, helping them practice their skills often means working with a portable hoop on the set.



"We try to work with them two times a week," said a ReelSports representative.



Each basketball practice is also videotaped. After the players have run through each play, they finish the practice by doing them in sequence for a camera operator. That way, the director, producers and the actors can watch what they missed.



A new script comes in each week. ReelSports Coach Brendan Kirsch, who'll be staying in Wilmington for the filming, reads it, looks for plays in the practices and games, and writes the sequence to be filmed into a play book - breaking down each part of the scene into passes, dribbles and lay-ups.



"It's such a delicate process," he said. "Like chopping down a tree.

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Some weeks, there are a lot of plays. In one of the first episodes, Mr. Murray's character, Lucas, a new member on the high school team, has a difficult time during his game. Then he rebounds, figuratively, in the next episode.



For that show, there were five plays that took place in game scenarios and then a couple of more during the on-screen team practice. Coach Kirsch writes out storyboards for each one.



They are tweaked, though, as he and his ReelSports bosses discuss what the plays will look like from various camera angles when they're filming at a local high school.



Then they run through the plays until it's almost perfect.

"We run through it 'til everybody gets it right, 'til the sports coordinator is happy," said Thaddeus Hill, a local coach who has been helping out with the production.



The plays have to be right when the cameras start rolling.



"We get 300 or so extras, load them on this side of the court for the filming," ReelSports said. The extras play cheering fans, and the players do their best to make it seem that their choreographed moves are natural ones for high school players.



Robert Miller, the managing director of ReelSports, has experience making it look real. He was an athlete who played football at Guilford College before becoming a coach.



It was when The Program came to South Carolina to film that he was first exposed to the movie business. However, Mr. Miller was busy coaching and then coordinating sports for the staging of three Olympic Games, in 1996, 2000 and 2002.



"It was kind of amazing," Mr. Miller said. "Our careers evolved. Eventually we formed a company.

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You might not have heard of the group, but you've probably seen its work on such films as The Replacements, Jerry Maguire and The Rookie. It's also been in this area before, working on Summer Catch, which filmed in Southport.



And you'll see its work in upcoming projects including Mr. 3000, which stars Bernie Mac as a retired baseball player ("He was great to be around," Mr. Miller said.), and Miracle, based on the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team.



For that film, ReelSports held an extensive search to find both a principal cast and background actors who could play and skate.



"We helped cast all the actors," Mr. Miller said. "We went to six cities in North America doing tryouts for the players.

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So far this year, ReelSports has coordinated four different sports for film and television projects, continuing to prove what a good cinematic device sports can be.



"You're keeping score. You know who the winners and losers are," Mr. Tollin said. "Sports as a backdrop helps enrich the storytelling.

"

For One Tree Hill, if the characters play for five minutes, "that's a lot," he said. "But it defines who these characters are. It helps provide structure to the show. You know how the team is doing and what's going on with them."

This article was first published in Wilmington Star News (08 September 2003).
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