Documentary: <I>Unbanned</I>
Alex Trudeau Viriato
Issue: June 1, 2018

Documentary: Unbanned

Unbanned is a new feature documentary that premiered at The Tribeca Film Festival in April. It’s the untold story of Michael Jordan and his first pair of shoes, which were banned by the NBA in 1984. The documentary explores the ramifications, myths, social context and inspiration that arose from the event, and includes interviews with Michael Jordan, Chuck D, Lena Waithe, Mark Wahlberg, Spike Lee, David Stern, and many others. 

I became the editor of this project in June 2016. From the beginning, director Dexton Deboree and I discussed how we didn’t want this to be purely a sneaker doc, nor did we want it to be a sports doc. We wanted this to be an intriguing, multi-layered story about people. We knew pieces of the story and the overall arch that we wanted to achieve. What we didn’t know was how we would get there stylistically, and how all the personal stories would connect; with the main plot being that this shoe (largely what it stood for) changed people’s lives. 

The interviews were shot on three Sony FS7s at 4K (4,096 x 2,160). All the footage was transferred to a centralized 50TB server, and transcoded to DNxHD 1080p LB eight-bit. That codec was used because the project was originally going to be edited in Avid. 

Prior to starting this project I was using Adobe Premiere on short form and commercial projects. I wanted to continue that path and see how it could handle a significantly-bigger project. The assistant editor, Charles Farrell, moved the footage to Adobe Premiere Team Project, where he synced, created multi-camera sequences, select sequences, and we were off. I dove into the edit when there were approximately 10 interviews. The plan was to continue filming, but at this moment I started editing the structure of the acts and piecing together the common threads, creating a skeleton of the story, knowing that it would get stronger and dive deeper with future interviews. 

There needed to be a balance of what we thought happened in 1984, what the interviewees told us had happened, and the physical facts that I could gather. The goal wasn’t to force some narrative that proved my own personal objective or call out someone’s inaccurate memory, but rather to embrace how these people were affected by the moments, regardless if they recalled slightly different than the next interviewee. 

The Internet is limited with it’s information on what Michael Jordan did in 1984. At that moment he’s a young rookie, picked third in the draft, just starting his professional career. There are only so many archives and YouTube videos that point at him or specifically, his shoes. This was the start of our journalistic approach to the documentary, hearing new interviews and finding rare videos. We were uncovering new facts and opinions that were changing the narrative of the film, increasing the layers of the story, and its impact on society. 

Very often we didn't get the answers we were expecting, changing the approach and placement of an interview. Figuring out how to intertwine most of the eventual 57 interviews proved to be the most time consuming and difficult. Multiple people say the same line, but who says it best? Whose comment can bridge into this next thought, next topic, next act? 

This is the dance of editing a documentary that has new interviews coming in weekly. Connecting all the interviews to tell an engaging story while not over using any particular interviewee and also not chopping it up so much that it seems false or manipulated and out of context. I want the audience to trust that I’m taking them along on a story that isn't simply supporting my personal agenda but rather the ideas and thoughts of these individuals. Changing the placement of a single line can alter the dynamic and meaning of an entire scene. A separate but also challenging aspect was to avoid defaulting to an amazing Michael Jordan story. 

He had countless iconic moves and unforgettable moments in sports history, it was hard not to default to an edit about MJ. The objective was to tell a story about the shoe and the people affected by it, not just the man wearing the shoe. 

Once the interviews start lining up, the world of archival opened. By the end, my Premiere Project had over 21,000 files. Charles and I were going rogue on the Internet, pulling whatever we could from YouTube and random Websites, fully knowing that these would need to get replaced by proper archival. But at the time, it didn't matter. We needed to mold the narrative and figure out what else the audience would be looking at. I couldn't do that without archival footage, even if it was temp. 

Dex and I wanted to find the voice of this documentary. Was it fast paced, lots of cuts, or cinematic and slow? What new elements would I bring to be different than the other 10,000 documentaries streaming right now? Usually, when I’m editing, my goal is to be seamless and invisible to the audience, but I was tasked to edit with some flash and bring attention to certain scenes. I explored different ideas and played with new techniques. 

Something that inspired me was what Skip MacDonald did in Fargo Season 2. The use of split screens was brilliant, cinematic and visually pleasing without being a gimmick. It didn't follow any template or repetitiveness. I wanted to find my own way of exploring split screens and make it enhance this particular film. 

After that, I started this style of flutters. It was a technique I tried in the middle of the film, but it worked so well that we incorporated it throughout. The flutters were used as a subliminal hit of examples and subtext, also as a form of recap or further explanation of a thought. These techniques ultimately set the pace and rhythm of the entire film. It was energetic and moved quickly, rarely letting up, which was ironic coming from an edit suite that was calm and relaxed, working to the sounds of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Michael Danna and Carter Burwell. 

Charles was key in keeping me focused on what was important to a viewer, who’s unfamiliar with this topic. He reminded me to ask myself, “Are the edits and techniques adding to the story?” 

This was my first time using Team Project and I must say it was incredible having multiple people bring in footage, SFX, graphics and music, then simply sync and we’re all working with identical projects. It did have a learning curve, which was mostly about communication: Who’s working in what sequence and who’s sharing out their changes? 

Charles and I needed to be in sync and organized with all of the footage or we’d quickly lose track of everything, with no way of backtracking. At first we started transcoding all the archival footage to ProRes, but it quickly became apparent that Adobe could handle multiple codecs (.mp4, .mov, .mfx) in a single sequence. By the end, our line producer Chad Cork and archival team Matt Follet and Jason Decker were tracking roughly 1,500 video/image assets. With all of our interviews done, archival found, and temp music replaced, we felt we had something as unique as the shoe itself.