In mid-April, ESPN stunned everyone by airing the first episode of a 10-part documentary that wasn't even supposed to be completed yet. The coronavirus pandemic, however, changed the game when all professional and college sports were canceled. To fill the void, a team of editors shifted into overdrive to finish The Last Dance, the highly anticipated examination of the Chicago Bulls dynasty leading up to their sixth NBA title with Michael Jordan.
Director of Photography Thomas McCallum knew the series would be a long-haul project. RED WEAPONs accompanied him on the 96 interviews that he and his partner at The Seventh Movement, Vincent Guglielmina, filmed over two years. McCallum’s been a RED user his entire career, starting out on a SCARLET, upgrading to the EPIC, then the DRAGON, and now to the WEAPON.
“There is a reason why there are so many RED operators—it is a trusted piece of equipment,” he says. “Vincent and I always wanted to be cinematographers. The greatest thing RED offers us is the ability to upgrade, and for everything from the color science to the modules, they listen and evolve.”
It's not just the upgrade path, though, that led him to reach for the RED WEAPON. “It's the range – over 13+ stops of latitude,” he says. “It's not like we are shooting a feature film or television production with multiple takes. We are doc guys—we get one shot. And, again, the reliability is key – RED has never let us down.”
McCallum recalls that first Michael Jordan interview in Florida was the most difficult because it called for additional specialty elements such as portraiture work. Director Jason Hehir had them set up for the interview, but when Jordan agreed to the portraits, they quickly shifted. “I set a light on either side and put the camera on a Movi,” McCallum says. “We then quickly reset the entire interview setup and had him in a chair starting at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and ending at nine o'clock. We watched the sunset out the window and shot well into the night.”
Form factor was another key factor for McCallum. With small camera builds, he and the team were able to travel on planes with three ready-to-shoot RED camera packages. He paired the WEAPON bodies with Zeiss Otus lenses, which were originally designed for still photography but have found their way onto large-sensor digital cinema cameras because of their resolving power when wide open.
“We wanted the look to be consistent, so we based it off glass that we could get anywhere,” he explains. “A lot of work we do for ESPN is at night, and we needed lenses that can go really wide open and still give us a great look that isn't crushed. We were also going for a more intimate look because we hadn't seen these guys close up in quite a while. Our tight shot framing was 2 inches above the eyebrow and 2 inches below the chin. Those lenses gave such a beautiful look with natural falloff when paired with the REDs. It was the perfect setup for us.”
Additionally, the tightly framed aesthetic of the new footage juxtaposed nicely with the 500 hours of footage from the 1997-98 basketball season. “I have to give a shout out to the two DPs from that season – Andy Thompson, Gregg Winik, and Max Winik,” says McCallum. “They really set the stage with all the access they were granted. It humanized those players. It's not like that now. I don't think that kind of access will ever be given again.”
McCallum and Guglielmina had to be prepared for every situation. “We walked into these sets and locations—it could be hotel rooms or restaurants or Airbnbs—and that was the first we saw them,” he recalls. “We did a six-hour interview with Phil Jackson in the middle of the day outside his home in Montana. We had to deliver a consistent look with the same lenses, the same cameras and same quality of light that we would deliver for a sit down with Jordan for eight hours at an Airbnb. We were in Hamburg, Arkansas, to interview Scottie Pippen's older brother, and we had to stay just as consistent with the same quality of light and same composition as everybody else.”
He adds, “We used Joker2 400 and 800 lights with dimmers and the same large softbox with grid and negative fill opposite the key to give the light some shape when it came in. In the rare event that we did stray from that setup out of necessity, we kept the same glass, camera, and framing to maintain the quality.”
The material was shot in 6K with 5:1 compression and McCallum had 20TB of storage on hand because it was so media intensive with three cameras. SIM New York handled the editing and the color. Because of the pandemic lockdown, McCallum wasn't able to attend any color sessions, but did pass along reference stills and notes to colorist Rob Sciarratta.
“It's incredible to see it,” McCallum says of The Last Dance. “To get an entire series done during lockdown, that was unexpected. Because Michael's story is so good and so rich, this documentary was like a savior to fans with the lack of live sports.”
ESPN’s The Last Dance is now streaming globally on multiple platforms.