By Craig Ellenport
One thing viewers learned from watching The Last Dance — ESPN’s 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls — is that Jordan might be the most competitive person on the planet. Even the slightest challenge led him to raise his game to new heights.
Jordan’s competitive nature may have rubbed off on Sim NY, the post facility that worked on the docuseries. Since they were only able to post the first three of the 10 episodes at Sim before the COVID-19 shutdown, the post house had to manage a work-from-home plan in addition to dealing with an accelerated timeline that pushed up the deadline a full two months.
The Last Dance, which chronicles Jordan’s rise to superstardom and the Bulls’ six NBA title runs in the 1990s, was originally set to air on ESPN after this year’s NBA Finals ended in June. With the sports world starved for content during the pandemic, ESPN made the decision to begin the show on April 19 — airing two episodes a night on five consecutive Sunday nights.
Sim’s New York facility offers edit rooms, edit systems and finishing services. Projects that rent these rooms will then rely on Sim’s artists for color correction and sound editing, ADR and mixing. Sim was involved with The Last Dance for two years, with ESPN’s editors working on Avid Media Composer systems at Sim.
When it became known that the 1997-98 season was going to be Jordan’s last, the NBA gave a film crew unprecedented access to the team. They compiled 500 hours of 16mm film from the ‘97-’98 season, which was scanned at 2K for mastering. The Last Dance used a combination of the rescanned 16mm footage, other archival footage and interviews shot with Red and Sony cameras.
“The primary challenge posed in working with different video formats is conforming the older standard definition picture to the high definition 16:9 frame,” says editor Chad Beck. “The mixing of formats required us to resize and reposition the older footage so that it fit the frame in the ideal composition.”
One of the issues with positioning the archival game footage was making sure that viewers could focus when shifting their attention between the ball and the score graphics.
“While cutting the scenes, we would carefully play through each piece of standard definition game action to find the ideal frame composition. We would find the best position to crop broadcast game graphics, recreate our own game graphics in creative ways, and occasionally create motion effects within the frame to make sure the audience was catching all the details and flow of the play,” says Beck. “We discovered that tracking the position of the backboard and keeping it as consistent as possible became important to ensuring the audience was able to quickly orient themselves with all the fast-moving game footage.”
From a color standpoint, the trick was taking all that footage, which was shot over a span of decades, and creating a cohesive look.
“One of main goals was to create a filmic, dramatic natural look that would blend well with all the various sources,” says Sim colorist Rob Sciarratta, who worked with Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve 15. “We went with a rich, slightly warm feeling. One of the more challenging events in color correction was blending the archival work into the interview and film scans. The older video footage tended to have various quality resolutions and would often have very little black detail existing from all the transcoding throughout the years. We would add a filmic texture and soften the blacks so it would blend into the 16mm film scans and interviews seamlessly. … We wanted everything to feel cohesive and flow so the viewer could immerse themselves in the story and characters.”
On the sound side, senior re-recording mixer/supervising sound editor Keith Hodne used Avid Pro Tools. “The challenge was to create a seamless woven sonic landscape from 100-plus interviews and locations, 500 hours of unseen raw behind-the-scenes footage, classic hip-hop tracks, beautifully scored instrumentation and crowd effects, along with the prerecorded live broadcasts,” he says. “Director Jason Hehir and I wanted to create a cinematic blanket of a basketball game wrapped around those broadcasts. What it sounds like to be at the basketball game, feel the game, feel the crowd — the suspense. To feel the weight of the action — not just what it sounds like to watch the game on TV. We tried to capture nostalgia.”
When ESPN made the call to air the first two episodes on April 19, Sim’s crew still had the final seven episodes to finish while dealing with a work-from-home environment. Expectations were only heightened after the first two episodes of The Last Dance averaged more than 6 million viewers. Sim was now charged with finishing what would become the most watched sports documentary in ESPN’s history — and they had to do this during a pandemic.
When the shutdown began in mid-March, Sim’s staff needed to figure out the best way to finish the project remotely.
“I feel like we started the discussions of possible work from home before we knew it was pushed up,” says Stacy Chaet, Sim’s supervising workflow producer. “That’s when our engineering team and I started testing different hardware and software and figuring out what we thought would be the best for the colorist, what’s the best for the online team, what’s the best for the audio team.”
Sim ended up using Teradici to get Sciarratta connected to a machine at the facility. “Teradici has become a widely used solution for remote at home work,” says Chaet. “We were easily able to acquire and install it.”
A Sony X300 monitor was hand-delivered to Sciarratta’s apartment in lower Manhattan, which was also connected to Sciarratta’s machine at Sim through an Evercast stream. Sim shipped him other computer monitors, a Mac mini and Resolve panels. Sciarratta’s living room became a makeshift color bay.
“It was during work on the promos that Jason and Rob started working together, and they locked in pretty quickly,” says David Feldman, Sim’s senior VP, film and television, East Coast. “Jason knows what he wants, and Rob was able to quickly show him a few color looks to give him options.
“So when Sim transitioned to a remote workflow, Sciarratta was already in sync with what the director, Jason Hehir, was looking for. Rob graded each of the remaining seven episodes from his apartment on his X300 unsupervised. Sim then created watermarked QTs with final color and audio. Rob reviewed each QT to make sure his grade translated perfectly when reviewed on Jason’s retina display MacBook. At that point, Sim provided the director and editorial team access for final review.”
The biggest remote challenge, according to producer Matt Maxson, was that the rest of the team couldn’t see Sciarratta’s work on the X300 monitor.
“You moved from a facility with incredible 4K grading monitors and scopes to the more casual consumer-style monitors we all worked with at home,” says Maxson. “In a way, it provided a benefit because you were watching it the way millions of people were going to experience it. The challenge was matching everyone’s experience — Jason’s, Rob’s and our editors’ — to make sure they were all seeing the same thing.”
For his part, Hodne had enough gear in his house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Using Pro Tools with Mac Pro computers at Sim, he had to work with a pared-down version of that in his home studio. It was a challenge, but he got the job done.
Hodne says he actually had more back-and-forth with Hehir on the final episode than any of the previous nine. They wanted to capture Jordan’s moments of reflection.
“This episode contains wildly loud, intense crowd and music moments, but we counterbalance those with haunting quiet,” says Hodne. “We were trying to achieve what it feels like to be a global superstar with all eyes on Jordan, all expectations on Jordan. Just moments on the clock to write history. The buildup of that final play. What does that feel and sound like? Throughout the episode, we stress that one of his main strengths is the ability to be present. Jason and I made a conscious decision to strip all sound out to create the feeling of being present and in the moment. As someone whose main job it is to add sound, sometimes there is more power in having the restraint to pull back on sound.”
Even when they were working remotely, the creatives were able to communicate in real time via phone, text or Zoom sessions. Still, as Chaet points out, “you’re not getting the body language from that newly official feedback.”
From a remote post production technology standpoint, Chaet and Feldman both say one of the biggest challenges the industry faces is sufficient and consistent Internet bandwidth. Residential ISPs often do not guarantee speeds needed for flawless functionality. “We were able to get ahead of the situation and put systems in place that made things just as smooth as they could be,” says Chaet. “Some things may have taken a bit longer due to the remote situation, but it all got done.”
One thing they didn’t have to worry about was their team’s dedication to the project.
“Whatever challenges we faced after the shutdown, we benefitted from having lived together at the facility for so long,” says Feldman. “There was this trust that, somehow, we were going to figure out a way to get it done.”
Craig Ellenport is a veteran sports writer who also covers the world of post production.