Frames Per Second: Documentary Film Traces the Roots of Play

June 12, 2014

By Dan Havlik


 A still from the film showing a rubber ulama ball in Sinaloa, Mexico.

The team behind Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play may not have taken the most conventional approach to making a documentary film but it seems to have paid off. David McLain, director of photography for Bounce, and Jerome Thelia, the film’s director, say that rather than sit around and wait for funding for the movie, they decided to shoot first and ask the bigger financial questions later. While that got the ball rolling on Bounce, it also meant a significant investment on their part.

“We put up $200,000 of our own money up front before we knew for sure we had a movie,” Thelia says. “While people advised us not to, it ended up being something we did absolutely right.”

McLain and Thelia, who co-founded the production company Merge in 2003, may not have been sure they had a feature-length movie when they started, but they knew they had a good story. Based on a book by Harvard anthropologist John Fox titled The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game, the movie traces the roots of play through ball- based sports. Like Fox’s book, Bounce hops around the world, from Brazilian favelas to Congolese villages, with McLain’s RED Epic camera quite literally following a bouncing ball from game to game.

First Bounce

As in Fox’s book, the movie begins on the remote Orkney Islands off Scotland’s northern coast, where the ancient game of ba’ is still played. A sort of medieval precursor to modern-day soccer, ba’ is best described as (largely) non-violent “mob football,” where parts of a town fight to bring a ball to their respective sides. After shooting and editing footage of a ba’ game in the town of Kirkwall in Orkney, McLain and Thelia showed their dramatic video to a potential investor who not only loved the clip, but was impressed the pair had put up so much of their own money on the project.

“We showed him that we were in it for the long haul,” Thelia says. “The fact that we were willing to put up our own collateral turned out to be a really good move.”

With the long-term funding from the investor in place, the next step was picking locations, setting a shooting schedule and working on the extensive preproduction required. For McLain, who comes from a still-photography background but has worked in video for many years, the biggest challenge was to stop thinking like a one- man band and start envisioning the bigger picture. “What it’s taught me is that film is so insanely complicated and time consuming. When you watch a movie and there’s 500 people in the credits, it’s for a reason,” he says. “With still photography, it’s just you alone with a camera. With filmmaking, the authorship is shared in a way that’s difficult to get used to. It’s humbling.”

Also joining the project was Thelia’s wife, Anne Carkeet, who is a producer on Bounce and oversees audio recording. One of the first decisions the three made was to hire a skilled video editor, because they knew that bringing the different segments from different locations together would be an important challenge. Also key was culling over 60 hours of footage (and counting) down to a 90-minute film. The man for the task, they decided, was Greg Wright, who had edited several documentaries previously. 

“The single biggest line item in our budget was for the editor because the film is only as good as the editor,” McLain says. “And Greg’s been amazing. He has the perfect disposition for an editor: non- emotional, in a good way. He’s like a judge.”

Geared Up

Another big but unexpected investment was on storage space. With everything shot at 5K on the RED Epic, McLain has captured over 90 TB of data. They had budgeted $9,000 for hard drive space but spent over $20,000. Otherwise, however, gear costs have not been huge for the film. The Merge production company owns the RED Epic camera along with the Zeiss and Canon lenses McLain is using to shoot Bounce. His other main piece of gear is a Steadicam Zephyr camera stabilizer, which has replaced all the jibs and cranes he’s used in the past.

“It’s a super stripped-down kit,” he says. “When cinematographers see it, they say: ‘I’ve never seen an Epic that looks that small.’ We’ve never had more than three checked bags [on the airplane] and that’s usually just personal stuff. We could lose all our luggage and still be able to shoot.”

The relatively small gear load and barebones crew has allowed the Bounce team to cover a lot of ground while shooting. In addition to Orkney, Brazil and the Congo, they have traveled to Sinaloa, Mexico, where the 3,000-year-old sport of ulama helped first introduce the world to rubber via a nine-pound ball that’s hip-checked back and forth on a dusty court. They’ve shot video of dolphins playing with balls in Florida and captured footage of modern English soccer pitches. Oftentimes, a planned shoot will snowball into something else, such as when they filmed bonobo apes spinning soccer balls with their feet at a preserve in the Congo.

“We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know if the bonobos had any interest in playing with a ball or playing with us,” Thelia says about the shoot, which had a challenging months-long permission process. Because of a badly translated request document, the French-speaking staff at the preserve mistakenly thought the Bounce crew wanted to throw balls at the apes. After everything was straightened out, the footage ended up being some of the most compelling in the film, helping to connect the roots of human play to a trait innate in animals.

Following the Narrative  

Rather than shoot a voiceover, which Thelia viewed as too pedantic and too easy, they decided to make the narrative of the film be a variety of experts speaking. That proved challenging and time consuming but they’re happy with the results. McLain estimates he’ll shoot 65 interviews with experts on play, sports, psychology, animal behavior, art history and a variety of other fields. Those interviews will be edited and then interspersed throughout the video segments to create the narrative track.

At the time of this story, Bounce was slated to have a completion date of summer 2014 and both McLain and Thelia seemed confident of meeting that goal. After the film is edited, their next step is to submit the documentary to top-tier film festivals, including Toronto, Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Telluride and Tribeca. If it doesn’t get into those, there’s a second tier of festivals to apply to. “If you get into one of the top festivals, then a big part of your marketing is taken care of,” McLain notes.

He adds that they will also create a 60-minute television version of Bounce with the hope that it might find a home on a TV cable network.

“Creatively, this was a clear next place for me to go,” McLain says about making the transition from being a still photographer to shooting feature-length films. “At the same time, it’s been much more humbling than I expected. I’ve come out of it realizing not how much I know, but how much I don’t know. But that’s a good thing because, these days, you can’t just coast. You really need to be moving forward and evolving and this is such a cool way to do that.”

Bounce – The Kirkwall Ba, Orkney Islands, Scotland from Merge on Vimeo.

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