Director Michael Jacobs on Making the Basketball Doc Blackballed for Quibi’s Mobile, Dual Aspect-Ratio Platform
Long regarded as the worst-run franchise in the National Basketball Association, the Los Angeles Clippers have (after brief stints in Buffalo and San Diego) called the “City of Angels” their home since the summer of 1984. Purchased for a cool $12.5 million in 1981 by real estate tycoon Donald Sterling, the Clippers’ relocation to LA was seen as a move that would hopefully rival its “big brother” franchise led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Los Angeles Lakers. That ultimately wasn’t meant to be: the Lakers, long a shining example of the league, continued its successful run atop the Western Conference while the Clippers carved out a spot at the bottom, where they would rest comfortably for several decades.
Mismanaged and stricken with a continuously frugal and controversial owner, the Clippers’ woes appeared to turn in 2009 when they received the number one pick in the NBA Draft—a selection they used on promising would-be superstar Blake Griffin who, in pure Clippers fashion, would go on to sit out his debut season due to injury. A high profile trade for All-Star point guard Chris Paul and the emergence of dominant center DeAndre Jordan helped lead the way for the arrival of championship head coach Doc Rivers in 2013. Could this be the combination of unique talents that ultimately pulled the Clippers out of the doldrums?
It was until it wasn’t. In the midst of a 2014 playoff battle between the Clippers and the Golden State Warriors, TMZ released audio of a phone call between Sterling and V. Stiviano, a female companion fifty years his junior. On the call, Sterling revealed his displeasure with seeing public photos of Stiviano hanging out with black men (including Lakers hall of famer Magic Johnson). Sterling’s long-suspected racism was made public for the world to hear, and days later, NBA commissioner Adam Silver served the owner with a lifetime ban from the NBA and an immediate selling of the team. With all of this playing out via daily media coverage, could the Clippers’ current players tune out the noise and focus on their competitive series with the Warriors? Or was this a moment in time “bigger than basketball,” where the players would have to speak out and condemn Sterling by way of potentially boycotting their own team?
Blackballed, a multi-part documentary series released this week on the new mobile streaming platform Quibi, recounts those dramatic few weeks via sit-down interviews with the players themselves, as well as media personnel and head coach Doc Rivers. One of the first nonfiction Quibi programs, Blackballed provides director Michael Jacobs with the complex task of presenting a visually compelling documentary for both Landscape (horizontal) and Portrait (vertical) orientations of viewing. Do mobile devices make for prime exhibition spaces? Blackballed makes a compelling case, and I spoke with Jacobs about how he navigated the multiple struggles of shooting for the very small screen.
Filmmaker: What was it about the 2014 Donald Sterling scandal that felt ripe for a multi-part series somewhere down the line?
Jacobs: Whenever a story involving professional sports presents a chance to look at issues of pop culture or social justice or, in this particular case, race in America, you see that as an opportunity to hold up a mirror to American society. Blackballed was a textbook example. When the story first broke in 2014, I followed it closely. While most of the story was about Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano (and the sensational elements that came from their relationship), there wasn’t a whole lot being told by the players and coaching staff.
When I was initially introduced to the project’s producers, I was told that they had a relationship with Doc Rivers and that he was willing to share his side of the story (and that they were working on getting Chris Paul to share his). If we could get these players to sit down and share what they had to deal with and confront as a result of the scandal, I knew the project had the potential to be a really powerful documentary.
Filmmaker: So the producers had Doc Rivers attached to the project, then you were hired to come on and direct?
Jacobs: Yeah, before I came aboard, the producers had Doc participate in a sit-down sizzle reel and I was sent that footage. My longtime producing partner, Chris Gary, who I had worked with previously on various 30 For 30 ESPN projects (and a forthcoming documentary for Marvel) knew I would jump at it once I saw Doc’s sizzle.
Filmmaker: Why was that?
Jacobs: Doc’s personality displays a narrative structure and leadership qualities that help navigate through a crisis. I was like, “there’s so much people haven’t heard before and it already has a pre-built-in narrative structure.” The whole scandal happened over the course of five or six days, so there was a built-in pressure cooker element to the story. As the producers started confirming participation of more and more Clippers players, we knew we’d be getting a ton of access and could really begin in earnest. The subjects would sit down for individual interviews, then we’d craft that footage around the pre-built structure. Things moved really quickly from there.
Filmmaker: At this point, were you thinking of the story in terms of serialized chapters? Or did the decision to make the project episodic come about later on?
Jacobs: The plan was always for it to span several episodes. When Quibi greenlit the project, they were adamant about it not just being episodic and split into chapters, but that each of these chapters had to include some “binge-y elements.” What’s going to propel the audience to continue watching episode after episode?
As a result, I had to approach the filmmaking in two ways. On the one hand, I really wanted this to work as a standalone feature documentary, something in the realm of 90 minutes that could be viewed in one sitting. On the other hand, I knew we had to get a certain amount of punchy soundbites that were going to open and close each episode in order to “speak to this new platform,” if you will, and keep viewers coming back. As much as my research was driven by watching feature-length documentaries, I also began listening to true-crime podcasts and the various storytelling devices they implement. These podcast episodes are pretty short and have to have a strong beginning, middle and end. Blackballed needed that as well. Every ten-minute episode had to work individually as well as, holistically, stand together. Our job then became about editorially weaving together that storyline while making sure that at the end of each episode there’s a little bit of a cliffhanger (or at the very least, something that leaves the audience with a pressing question). That’s something that you can’t do in a feature-length doc, as everything has to hold together very tightly.
Filmmaker: The episodes are being released individually on a daily basis. Do you like that release strategy?
Jacobs: I do and I think what Quibi is up to is really interesting. Because we had enough of these really dramatic moments in the story, I felt confident approaching the edit by saying, “I don’t know if there’s 15 really dramatic moments in here, but I think that there’s at least ten and that’s going to drive the audience to feel compelled to come back each day to check in.”
At the same time, I really wanted to make sure that an audience can come to Blackballed at any point in its distribution timeline. Say the entire series has been made available, it’s out there and the viewer wants to dive in and make a day of it. I wanted their viewing experience to also be rewarding as they watch the episodes back-to-back-to-back. Each episode then had to be singularly strong while also strong on the whole, if that makes sense. It was a unique dance in the edit and our incredible team of editors and archival producers and music composers were really helpful in delivering those narrative punctuations. Even if we just needed a delicate punctuation via a music cue, the addition helped motivate the ending of the episode in a way that stems purely from the shortform, episodic language of filmmaking. There were a number of things we experimented with in order to persuade the audience to continue watching day after day.
Filmmaker: Each episode comes with its fair share of historical context. In order to know where we’re headed (the spring 2014 release of the infamous Donald Sterling phone calls), we have to know what shaped the consistently unlucky, moribund nature of the franchise. In many ways, this franchise has been viewed as eternally cursed, and you have to quickly get the viewer up to speed.
Jacobs: Editorially, that was one of the most challenging things we had to do, which is to frequently bounce around the timeline and various moments in history. There are certain rules, like how much exposition and how much history could we squeeze into each episode and how much do you go down those different story threads before you have to quickly pull yourself out and track back to 2014? In the first two or three episodes of the series, we needed to cover all of that contextual storytelling around what America was like in 2014. On the one hand, it was only six years ago! But on the other hand….
Filmmaker: It honestly feels like twenty years ago.
Jacobs: It does. I think people have forgotten some of the conversations that were happening around race during the Obama era and, specifically, around the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement after the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. As filmmakers, we thus had to make sure we were properly contextualizing all of this for the viewer, that this new generation of athletes were starting to pay attention to social issues in ways prior generations may not have. You had Barack Obama as president of the United States; you had this new movement, specifically Black Lives Matter, that brought attention to issues that were affecting the black community; and you had NBA players starting to pay attention to these social issues as well. We had to squeeze all of that into a tight, short episode, and then quickly also talk about who Donald Sterling was and who the Clippers were, as a franchise, for so many decades. These are all really important contextual elements to jam in before we actually get to our story’s present moment in time (April 2014), when the audio tape leaked. My editor, Clayton Worfolk, did a ton of backflips figuring out how to make all of that context concise. It had to be held together while subsequently providing the audience with enough information that they didn’t feel like they were missing what we were driving out from a thesis standpoint.
Filmmaker: That clip of Brent Barry missing his layup while playing in a game against the Utah Jazz might be the Holy Grail of Clippers futility.
Jacobs: We said that over and over again. That clip alone basically exemplifies 30 years of Clippers basketball.
Filmmaker: What was the experience like working with Quibi? What kind of conversations did you have about the platform? You obviously didn’t have anything to compare it to.
Jacobs: My first official day on the project consisted of me sitting down with Quibi and discussing the nuances of what we needed to make sure that this film fit this new platform. I knew that the platform was inherently episodic, binge-y and, of course, mobile.
Filmmaker: “Mobile” meaning?
Jacobs: That it had to be a horizontal and vertical execution. It was an exciting challenge for sure, as it was a new platform and essentially a new language of filmmaking. Right away I was like, “OK, let me sit down with my DP [Joshua Z Weinstein] and map out how we’re going to pull this off, what type of rules we’d need to play by to make sure that we can deliver a really strong image in our interviews and B-roll, and that it can work both vertically and horizontally.”
As you can imagine, none of this is trivial and required a number of camera tests and lens tests. My DP and I decided we wanted to come up with an interview style that would be “wide but close.” What I mean by that is in the horizontal format, we wanted each of the locations (and their small details) to always be visible to the viewer. However, we also wanted the “horizontal viewer” to feel really close to the subject and for the setting to be rather intimate. We needed to “center-frame” our subjects so that when you rotate your phone between vertical and horizontal, there’s a seamlessness in the transition. With Quibi being a brand new platform, we didn’t have much we could compare to for previous reference points. It was a lot of experimentation and a technical challenge.
I then decided that another way we could ensure a direct relationship between the viewer and the subject was to use the Interrotron. Once we had the camera and lens figured out, we employed the Interrotron to give our subjects a direct, one-to-one relationship with the viewer. Shooting the B-roll from there was really just about putting these black bars on the monitors to make sure that the subjects (or whatever the content was we happened to be shooting) stayed within these two aspect ratios.
The archival process was a real challenge, as some archival footage just doesn’t work in vertical. A lot of that archival from the era in which this story takes place is 16X9 archival, so when you go vertical, your attention isn’t necessarily where it should be within each shot. As a result, we had to do a lot of pan-and-scan. As you can imagine, there was also a lot of last-minute image swapping with archival houses and we had to give up some of what you might deem an acceptable resolution (when you punch into a 16X9 archival shot, that’s just what you have to do). Due to the coronavirus, a number of the archival houses weren’t able to get us their highest-res source material. I heard this happened with The Last Dance as well.
We had to live with a lot of the NBA and ESPN’s 1080 source material (or even sometimes 720). In a horizontal viewing experience, that wouldn’t be a huge deal, but when you go vertical, you have to punch into the image in order to place what you want seen in the center of the frame. As a result, you lose some image quality. Ultimately, Quibi was still happy that we didn’t feel we sacrificed the visual experience of the series.
Filmmaker: Is your decision to keep certain archival material in the final cut influenced by it working appropriately for horizontal and vertical? There are different standards for both, and I was wondering if you have to be constantly toggling between how it looks in one as opposed to the other. Does that influence whether something stays or goes?
Jacobs: We were having those conversations up until we ultimately delivered the show. It should also be noted that originally we were scheduled to deliver the finished cut in late May/early June (because Quibi was going to premiere it during the NBA Finals). But, as we all know, there are no NBA Finals happening in June this year, so Quibi moved up our deadline and had us moving even faster. We made a lot of these final decisions based on what was going to serve the story best between vertical and horizontal viewing options. Thank God for Getty Images and AP Images allowing for the ability to quickly search by orientation. In the home stretch, we were able to swap in a lot of very similar vertical-oriented images that just didn’t work for the same image in horizontal. Now, of course, you have to make some concessions and sacrifices for the demands of the platform. I would say nine out of ten viewers aren’t going to notice these things but, of course, most filmmakers will.
One noticeable example illustrated in the doc is all of the archival footage (from the early-to-mid 2000s) centered around the court cases of Donald Sterling’s housing discrimination lawsuits. We received a lot of that archival from NBC, ABC and other news footage houses. Because most of that archival is nothing more than very tall buildings from 20 years ago, it just doesn’t work toggling back and forth between horizontal and vertical orientations.
There’s also the Anderson Cooper interview with Sterling for CNN in 2014 that features all of these bugs and logos on each of the subjects’ faces and it becomes really distracting in one viewing orientation over the other. We had to find someone in Australia to help with the graphics. That was great because he would always literally be one day ahead of us. He would experiment with placing the archival in different mattes, then we would shrink the archival down for both horizontal and vertical orientations in order to fit the footage inside the matte. It was a constant experimentation with what the thresholds were going to be between placing the footage on a matte and making a last-minute swap for a different orientation or having to live with and accept some of the punch-ins. Some of the basketball footage is punched-in more than I would like (especially the game footage) but it’s stuff you have to live with.
As a final addendum to that, the NBA shot with a Phantom camera during the 2014 postseason, and while we didn’t get everything they probably shot (due to our expedited timeline), it was a luxury having really silky, slow-motion footage. Most of that stuff held up pretty well in both horizontal and vertical orientations. Obviously, it looks great in the horizontal, but even when we punch into it for the vertical, it holds up.
Filmmaker: After you’ve finished a cut you’re satisfied with, are you screening it for Quibi executives in both horizontal and vertical formats? Are you having separate feedback sessions and receiving notes for both? What was that process like?
Jacobs: I should give a shoutout to Frame.io, a great software platform for working remotely, especially during a global pandemic. It was a lifesaver. Frame.io actually has a plug-in specifically for Quibi, to review the film in turnstile, both on your phone through the Frame.io app and then also through your computer monitor. So in the last, I don’t know, 20 watchdowns of the film going into final delivery, we were watching both versions side by side. It makes your head kind of explode, because you’re trying to split your attention between the two aspect ratios at the same time to make sure that your cut-points are all on the actual cut-point. It’s very easy to lose a frame or two between the two versions going from the timelines to the editors.
We were making changes constantly (and in real time) across Oakland, Los Angeles and Australia. We had these different timelines for each group and our changes were happening up to the minute. Very easily a frame might be dropped, or a piece of archival ends up being half a second longer and covers up a cut-in in the two versions. Now again, if someone’s choosing to watch it in vertical and then quickly rotates their phone to switch to horizontal, a lot of those small frame-drops aren’t going to be noticed, but as filmmakers, you have to adhere to the exacting process. Our final watchdowns were literally to make sure that when you rotated your phone, the framing adjusted to the cut of each shot and every single piece of archival, except in cases where there was a motivated, creative decision to have the shot remain vertical.
Filmmaker: Like what?
Jacobs: For example, we have a wide shot of Donald Sterling grabbing the Clippers players by the hand. In the horizontal orientation, all you need to do is put a slow camera move on that moment and then you can cut back to your interview subject on camera. In the vertical orientation, you have to make the camera move much longer. The camera move has to be from the subject shaking hands with Donald Sterling and then to Donald Sterling himself, and the time it takes in order for that camera move to work is way longer than it takes in the horizontal orientation. Therefore, we covered more of the return to the subject on camera in this specific case. We were choosing not to cover a cut-point and, therefore, you would get a slightly different version of the film.
There are probably other cases in every single episode that’s similar to that experience, where there’s going to be a slight difference due to the viewer adjusting their phone. In most cases, it’s when you return back to the talking head, but in some cases, it’s not, and it’s driven by the time required in order to have a satisfactory camera move on a piece of archival.
Filmmaker: It’s obviously a very slow time for live sports. Of course, with this project and The Last Dance, many sports fans are taking to debating who the greatest players of all time were to fill a competitive void. You couldn’t have predicted a pandemic wiping out all live sports, but there’s something unique about releasing this series during this particular stoppage in play. Some of my friends who are big Clippers fans felt that this was finally going to be “their year” to win a championship, and now it may never happen. Still, this series provides its own kind of service to fans who need something to take their minds off other things.
Jacobs: It’s been bittersweet. On the one hand, I’m hopeful a sports audience lacking in actual games can discover that Blackballed gives them something to talk about, an experience of watching old highlights and reliving that 2014 playoff series between the Clippers and the Warriors. Many people forget that the Clippers were playing the Warriors in the first round when the whole scandal broke, and that they went on to become the most dominant team in the modern era. Then, of course, you had players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder who ultimately spoiled the Clippers’ season that year.
Hopefully this series will provide a nice throwback to that era, a reminder of the fascinating storylines and personalities those players provided us with. It’s also bittersweet that, as you said, there’s a very good chance the Clippers were going to be competing in the NBA Finals this year. They have one of the best teams (if not the best team) roster wise, in the NBA, and they were really starting to put it all together for this playoff run. Imagine if the Clippers, after all of their woeful decades of existence, were able to finally put the cherry on top and win the championship? After they got rid of an abhorrent, racist owner whose mentality remains stuck in some warped 1950s America? Wouldn’t it be such poetic justice if our series came out at the same time that these guys were potentially winning their first NBA championship? That would’ve been a storybook ending! But at the end of the day, you can’t control these things, and I’m just thrilled to have been able to work on this project and get it out into the world.