High School Football

Opening Drive, one year later: How we made a football docuseries

Opening Drive trailer: An inside look at the Douglass Broncos’ first year

Opening Drive documents the first season of Frederick Douglass football from summer to the final game at Scott County.
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Opening Drive documents the first season of Frederick Douglass football from summer to the final game at Scott County.

You hear the buzz about productions like Last Chance U, Hard Knocks and Undefeated. We saw our sister paper in Fort Worth create Titletown, TX. So we thought, why not us? Why can’t we follow a team, showing what it’s like for a football program to go from pre-season to final whistle?

Last year, on July 25, 2017, we set out to create Opening Drive, a series chronicling the first year of Frederick Douglass High School’s football program. The team, lead by former University of Kentucky quality control assistant Brian Landis, had its first official practice on July 14, 2017. We began filming the team before they had full use of a weight room, before any starting positions had been declared, before their mascot controversy had subsided, and before anyone knew just how wild of a season we had ahead of us.

On December 1, 2017, coinciding with the KHSAA football state championships returning to Lexington, we hit publish.

In the spirit of reaching one year later, we — the videographers and editors of this series, Caitlyn Stroh and Alex Slitz — are going to answer some questions about how and why we took on this project.

But before we answer anything, if you haven’t watched the series, take an hour out of your day (each episode is less than 10 minutes, so really closer to 45 minutes) and watch Opening Drive.

In our seven-part series, the Herald-Leader followed the first year of Frederick Douglass football from summer workouts to its final game. In this episode, you are introduced to the Broncos and their first game.

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Why Douglass?

C: We thought it would be interesting to follow a school from its very beginning. How often do you get to see how a team forms from its very genesis? The program had an interesting backstory in that the head coach, the principal, the vice principal and the athletic director all played arena league football together (as did one of the assistants). In a town that has a huge appetite for basketball, there’s a lot of interesting football stories, too. We just chose the one that was most unique, as there hadn’t been a new public high school since Dunbar opened in 1990. We got lucky that their story had a lot of interest along the way.

A: I’ve always wanted to document a group of people becoming a team from the ground floor. When we approached coach Brian Landis with this project he seemed very open to the idea, which really helped it come together. Lastly, being able to provide this multi-episode documentary for the students was a driving force. Having an in-depth look at the school’s first season will always be something special for them.

What was the biggest challenge in creating the series?

C: Resources. People may guess that access was a problem, but Douglass was more than accommodating from the beginning. We were able to be anywhere, anytime with no restrictions, which made the series as authentic as possible. Our biggest hurdle was the lack of manpower and scheduling conflicts. Have you ever looked up how many people and how much gear the Last Chance U crew uses at every game? Well, it’s a lot more than we had. Most games, it was just me (as Alex is the full-time staff photographer for UK football and basketball games). During the week, we had some flexibility, but usually we were limited to one or two Douglass visits per week, plus the game. The second biggest challenge? The cold snap during the Douglass-Tates Creek playoff game.

A: For me the biggest challenge was time. I travel to cover UK football and basketball every week. As the season progressed I wasn’t able to spend as much time as I wanted to working on the project. I also found editing to be very difficult. By the end of the season we had hours of footage, narrowing it down into seven minute sections was very challenging. We have so much footage, we could easily cut 7 more episodes. As Caitlyn mentioned, equipment was difficult at times. Changing light and audio levels are always a constant on a football field.

What did you learn in the process?

C: I learned a lot about shooting a documentary in general. I have only been a videographer for about 2 years so this was by far the biggest project I have ever been a part of. I also learned a lot about high school football in Lexington. Douglass ruffled a lot of feathers. They were big and bold and had a beautiful, expensive new facility. Landis told me at one point in the season that they weren’t okay with being average, which is something that other schools suffered from. That stuck with me. I think it takes that mentality to go from brand new to city champions in a year. Their season was far from perfect, but they really wanted to win and that showed in a lot of ways. As someone relatively new to Lexington at the time, this was also my first up-close experience with Kentucky high school football. As controversial as the Douglass-Dunbar game ended up being, I really enjoyed the pre-game where alumni from both the original Dunbar and original Douglass high schools were hanging out and tailgating together. That sense of community is unique to high school football and I really enjoyed watching the Douglass community grow and evolve through the season.

A: I learned that people in Lexington are really looking for a high school football team to get behind. The amount of support from students and parents was very surprising. I learned a lot more about storytelling through this process. Covering a football game for a daily assignment is so much different than telling the story of a season. It was hard sometimes to switch gears. There’s a lot more planning involved when you’re shooting video on the field. I learned how to work much faster.

Was there anything that didn’t make the final cut that you want to share?

C: It makes me cringe how much footage we have sitting on a hard drive that will never see the light of day, but that’s the nature of any sort of editing. We had lots of complaints following the release of the series that we didn’t include enough about Douglass having players ‘transfer’ from other schools, but the nature of a new school is that everyone is a transfer! We asked every football coach in the district if they wanted to comment on what the addition of Douglass meant to their program and no one said yes.

A: As Caitlyn mentioned we have hours and hours of footage that will never get published. We talked about making an outtakes real, and I still think that would be pretty funny. Maybe we will try and re-cut something in the next few months.

Are you going to do another one?

C: Nothing currently in the works but Alex and I toss ideas around constantly. From politics to crime to sports, we are always tossing around our next grand adventure. I’m open to ideas if anyone wants toss one or two our way!

A: At this point we don’t have any plans to do another sports documentary. There are plenty of new stories we have on stored away we want to work on. We learned so much from this project that we will be able to apply to future projects.

Frederick Douglass' Jefferson Harkless (25) carries the ball past Danville's Jaleel Warren (4) in the first quarter of their their game at Danville High School in Danville, Ky., Saturday, Aug 19, 2017. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com