ESPN cameras capture Elfreth's Alley in advance of Monday Night Football in Philadelphia

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Within minutes of meeting Barry Butcher and Joel McKee last Saturday night, South Philly resident Barbara Oldrati invited them into her bedroom.

It wasn’t their charm or good looks that scored them entry, although 38-year-old Butcher does have a way with jokes, and 59-year-old McKee strikes a dapper profile. No, it was all about their cameras — and their ability to get Oldrati’s neighborhood on national TV during an Eagles game.

Butcher and McKee are ESPN’s advance video ground team for Monday Night Football. In 20 different cities each year, the two men use their combined talents in camera and people skills to capture all those background shots that set the scene and introduce millions of viewers to the home team’s home turf during an NFL showdown — those shots of the local watering hole full of cheering fans, or the new ice skating rink filled with families having fun. Sometimes they also capture more complex sets of vignettes that get turned into mini, 24-second documentaries — especially when they’re in an exotic location, like last week when the Raiders and Texans played a special international game in Mexico City. For those people viewing at home, this view of the host city could be their only exposure to the city in question, barring a conference or a vacation.

But in advance of tonight’s Eagles-Packers showdown at the Linc, they were shooting in Philly. Specifically, on Saturday evening, they were shooting the 2700-block of South Smedley Street.

A small portion of the 2016 Smedley Street Christmas Light Spectacular
A small portion of the 2016 Smedley Street Christmas Light Spectacular Credit: Danya Henninger

An ESPN producer had heard of the Girard Estate enclave’s “Christmas Light Spectacular,” and pre-scouted the block so Butcher (from Indianapolis) and McKee (a North Carolina native) knew exactly where to go. Around 6 p.m., after an early dinner at Chickie’s and Pete’s, the videographers drove their rental van down Oregon Avenue, found a parking spot in the middle of the street — “What is that about, anyway? You can’t do that in any other city” — grabbed one of their Sony FS7 high-def camcorders and moseyed into the crowd to see what they could find.

They didn’t announce their presence, just quietly set up a tripod next to a reindeer and starting shooting.

It turned out to be opening night for the holiday display, and the entire neighborhood had turned out. Hundreds of people wandered in and out of the glowing rowhomes along the block, stopping to eat and drink at buffets set up on card tables out front. Kids ducked in between real trees wrapped in twinkling lights and fake candy canes that marked out lanes across the shared center lawn.

Joel McKee, getting the shot
Joel McKee, getting the shot Credit: Danya Henninger

When Smedley Street residents did notice the camera, they didn’t give it too much thought. Other TV crews had been there earlier, and the light show is already locally famous. It wasn’t until Butcher and McKee got up on the roof that the partiers really perked up and took notice — thanks to Barbara Oldrati and her willingness to let strange men into her bedroom.

It was after around 30 minutes on the ground that Butcher and McKee decided they needed to get up high to best capture the scene. Oldrati to the rescue.

“Oh, for the Eagles game? Sure. Give me a second to clean it up, it’s a mess!” she pleaded, returning five minutes later to announce that it was in an acceptable state. “Good as it’s gonna get. You’ll see my Eagles Swoop pillow. I sleep with it every night.”

The ESPN crew marched through the house, nodding politely at the family assembled in the living room, and clambered out the second-floor bedroom window onto the roof. Someone down below got the idea to start an Eagles chant, so as McKee panned his lens around the spectacle, the familiar letters rang out.

“E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!” repeated dozens of kids and adults, necks craned toward the camera. “Merry Christmas, Philadelphia!”

Butcher didn’t seem overly impressed by the spontaneous fandom — seen one set of rabid NFL devotees, seen them all? — but he did acknowledge Philadelphia fans’ rep. “Philly has good fans,” he said. “They’re known for being rowdy.”

Day two of the Philly b-roll shoot featured no rowdiness whatsoever.

It started at the NovaCare Complex, where coach Doug Pederson was leading his team in a very disciplined, low-key practice. “Pederson is such a happy guy,” Butcher noted, explaining that he’d shot an interview with the rookie coach earlier on Saturday . “He’s just just on Cloud Nine. He loves doing this.”

The crew wasn’t there to shoot the Eagles as they ran through plays on the indoor astroturf, though — zero photography was allowed during practice, lest team strategy be inadvertently leaked. Butcher and McKee were sent to capture shots of a special visit: The South Philadelphia High School football team had been invited to come and meet the players. This is now part of the b-roll shoot in almost every city, Butcher explained — part of a sponsored initiative by Dick’s Sporting Goods to support youth teams across the US.

When you get to meet one of your idols
When you get to meet one of your idols Credit: Danya Henninger

McKee has been shooting NFL teams for ESPN for more than 15 years (“Since it was on Sunday night”), and Butcher has nearly five years on the job, but as well-seasoned as they are, even the videographers couldn’t help crack a smile when practice broke and the high schoolers finally met the pros.

Hoisting a MOVI five-axis stabilizer outfitted with another 4K Sony camcorder above his head, Butcher used the $35,000 system to record the back-slapping, hand-clapping, grin-infused meet and greet.

Barry Butcher and his $35k MOVI camera system
Barry Butcher and his $35k MOVI camera system Credit: Danya Henninger

Then Butcher turned his camera toward the field. Dressed in special red practice jerseys, Carson Wentz and the rest of the QBs were still out there tossing balls. “Three points!” Wentz shouted, as one of his soft passes floated into the net between the goal posts. (“They’re just big kids,” Butcher observed quietly.)

Wentz then turned toward the actual kids and lofted one in their direction. “Catch!” Happily, one of the high schoolers did, and everyone laughed as they walked over to meet the quarterbacks, ESPN crew following close behind. They lined up for a photo, but before they could snap it, Butcher moved in to get his shot, first holding his camera inches from Wentz’s face, then pulling back to reveal the whole group.

Time for lunch: “I noticed there was an Italian deli across from Chickie’s and Pete’s, maybe we’ll eat there instead,” said Butcher, acknowledging that crab fries weren’t necessarily the best representation of Philly food. (They ended up at the Philadium Tavern.)

And then, the last outdoor shot of the trip: Elfreth’s Alley.

By the time Butcher and McKee decided just to risk a ticket and park their van in the private lot next to the country’s first residential street, a once-sunny sky was threatening to get swallowed up by gray. The shooters set up their equipment quickly, but without rushing, carefully assessing the best spot on the alley — “Let’s get the Betsy Ross-looking flag on this door,” said McKee — and then laying down a large metal camera slider across the cobblestones.

Careful and measured is the name of the game when it comes to shooting b-roll. Sudden movements and juddery zooms are out. Slow pans are in — ideally with motion in the background, like the tourists that wandered in and out of the alley as Butcher was guiding the camera across the slide with his fingertips.

As the last bit of sun slipped behind a cloud, McKee shot a close-up on the flag, then called it a day.

He and Butcher would head back to the dozen or so trailers that house the ESPN Monday Night Football’s traveling studio and load their digital footage into the computer system. Some of it, like the Elfreth’s Alley scene, would be made into pre-produced story sequences to air during longer breaks. Most of it would be used as bumper material, to lead in and out of commercial or during short pauses that didn’t merit a full cut to ads.

“We usually shoot more scenes,” McKee noted, “but I guess they have a lot of Philly stuff on file. I’ve shot here before — like in the Italian Market.”

“That’s where Rocky’s from, right?” Butcher asked. “With all those fires blazing? Cool place. Maybe we’ll get to shoot that next time.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...