Jerome Thelia

Traveling the World to Tell the Story of the Ball: How Animals Play, How It Brings People Together, and What It Says About Us

A documentary based on an anthropologist's PhD dissertation might sound like a daunting prospect — but don't underestimate the amount of fun you can have with a scholarly endeavor. Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play uses the ancient history of ball games as a springboard for an engaging, educational and consistently surprising documentary that looks at how humans and animals play with one another. Working with a small but highly knowledgeable and tightly knit crew, director Jerome Thelia traveled the world to shoot a man hand-crafting a soccer ball in Central Africa, to witness the frenzied ritual of the Kirkwall Ba' in the Orkney Islands of Scotland, and to find out what happens when you give a ball to a big bunch of apes. The film has bounced around the festival circuit this year, with prestigious engagements at SXSW, Raindance, IFF Boston, and DOC NYC. StudioDaily asked Thelia, a visual-effects artist, colorist, director and co-founder of Merge Group in New York, about the various concepts explored in the film, the production and post-production processes (including a 4K finish), and the important role of research and writing in documentary filmmaking.

Watch the trailer, below, then scroll down to read our conversation with Thelia.

StudioDaily: Did this project develop in scope over time, as you worked on different pieces of it? Or did you intend to make a feature from the beginning?

Jerome Thelia: It was a feature documentary from the start. The idea came from a book written by my friend Dr. John Fox, an anthropologist I worked with in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We traveled the world together, working for a company that was creating distance-learning curricula for kids in classrooms all over the world. We would put together expeditions and go all over the world trying to answer a big question. We spent two months in China to answer the question: did Marco Polo go to China? We asked, where did Christopher Columbus make landfall in the Americas? And where did the Anasazi disappear in the southwest? 

At that time, John told me about his PhD dissertation on the ancient ball game of ulama. So that idea was in my head. I had never seen pictures of it or seen it played. It's such a visual thing and impossible to describe — so I thought, wouldn't it be fun to go down there and film a game? Very few people are still playing this game, but it was very important in all of Mesoamerica, from Arizona down to the southern parts of Central America. It was played by everybody from kings to peasants, and it has basically disappeared. And then four or five years ago, John decided to write a book called Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play. His publisher changed that to The Ball. But he sent me the first chapter, which is about an ancient ball game played in Scotland that's an ancestor to football. I thought, how come everybody doesn't know where football comes from? And how is it that there are these different ball games all over the world? So I was hooked and fascinated. We raised some money — at first just our own, but then we got an investor — and went to Scotland and filmed that neolithic ball game. We were off and running.

Who all was involved in the project at that point?

It was me and my business partner in Merge, David McLain. He is a National Geographic photographer turned cinematographer. We actually met, along with John Fox, on the same distance-learning project in 1999, and we've been working together ever since. His background in editorial photography was a huge asset, and we were on the same page when it came to how we wanted to shoot these games.

How did you organize all of the different threads you wanted to explore in the film?

I sat down with John's book, picking and choosing what made sense to cover in the film. The film turned out being quite different than the book. The Scottish Ba' game is a big part of the book, and we used that as one thread so that we talk about ancient ball games and how soccer, rugby and American football all came about. Like the book, it's sort of an essay in that we get at different assets in different ways. We went to the Democratic Republic of Congo because we wanted to film Bonobos, which are close relatives of humans and chimpanzees. I met with some researchers there studying play in Bonobos who were willing to let us give Bonobos a bunch of balls to see what they would do with them. How does this urge to play ball start? And the bonobos took to the ball like they had been ball players all their lives. And we used that thread as a way to talk about the evolution of play in animals. How do you get from a reptile — even fish are known to play — to the Super Bowl or the World Cup? The film tries to take that on. Another thread was handmade balls. Everywhere in the world you go where people can't buy balls, they make balls by hand. When we were in Central Africa, we filmed people handmaking balls. The question for me at each and every turn was — whether we were shooting a game of cricket in India, handmade balls in Africa, or those bonobos — what was the right visual style to approach? I spent a lot of time with David McLain and also our two other DPs, Daniel Katz and Trevor Tweeten, to find a different approach at every opportunity.

That seems to be a common theme in the reactions to the film — people really remark on how visually striking it is. Did you feel that it was important to emphasize those qualities during production to make sure the film really engaged audiences?

It's always been really important to me. There's not really a meaningful separation between content and form, between the tool and the message. I think they have to be one and the same, or at least they have to be approached that way. For instance, we shot ball-makers in Central Africa with the Red Epic on a Steadicam Zephyr with an old set of Zeiss standard-speed lenses that Trevor has owned forever. They're really beautiful, heavily vignetted, and scratched up in really gorgeous ways. We were shooting long, fluid takes of this guy making a ball out of trash, and that was the approach that felt right for that story. But we also shot this juggler named Michael Moschen. He's featured in two segments and he's considered by many people to be the greatest living juggler. It took a year for him to agree, but once we got him we did a really elaborate production here in New York City. We rented out a gorgeous warehouse space and a Technocrane, a Red Epic, Cooke Lenses, and an elaborate lighting set-up. We had a crew of 20 people working a highly produced, very expensive shoot, and that's what worked for that part of the film. Another part of the film is hand-drawn animation.


Who did the animation? And what inspired you to include an animated segment?

Rodrigo de la Parra, who is a compositor with a lot of experience in animation, put the Tusker animation together with the help of an amazing illustrator named Victoria de Sica. When I first heard the Tusker story, it struck me as both really strange and familiar. As it turns out, it's probably related to the Green Knight story in the Arthurian legends — which also includes a decapitation scene in which people play with a head as a ball.  We heard that story really early on in the filming and Rodrigo and I got really excited about bringing it to life. It was an opportunity to bring yet another style of filmmaking to the table. We wanted to use a different style for each segment but be visually cohesive and reflective of the incredible diversity you find in ball games.

Keeping that goal in mind, how did you approach the interview footage?

The interviews were where we cut ourselves the most slack. Some of them look gorgeous and some of them, honestly, don't look very good. We did everything from in-context interview to some stuff indoors that we lit with crappy LEDs that we had with us. The interviews became the glue in the edit. Our editor, Greg Wright, was an experienced documentary editor, and he's audio- and text-focused. He has a real ear for cutting interviews. We did more than 50 interviews, and just a fraction of that number ended up in the film. It was a huge challenge to make all that stuff fit together.


Lapham's Quarterly editor Lewis Lapham in one of the film's interview segments.

I assume you were the interviewer. That must have required a different skill set from you as director.

Doing the interviews allowed me to take my eye off of the monitor. I work really closely with the DPs, but during interviews I would focus on the subject and our conversation. We had some really brilliant people in the film who were so much fun to talk to about this stuff, and it was a special treat for me to engage with them on that level. It was a totally different part of my brain from filming a pick-up game of soccer in rural Brazil, which is Filmmaking-with-a-capital-F in my mind.

Did the shoot completely precede the edit, or was there some overlap?

We were in the edit for about a year, and we were shooting pretty much throughout that year. We were shooting as close as a couple of weeks before the edit [was finished], and we were working on the animation up until the end. We had a huge advantage in that we stuck pretty close to the outline that I wrote for the film in the edit. Having a strong outline and structure put together on paper with our editor was really useful.


There has been some discussion about the role of writing in documentary filmmaking — about whether the behind-the-scenes work on the structure of a documentary film is worthy of a writing credit, independent of any voiceover narration — because that kind of organization and planning is so important.

There's a huge amount of research. Even stuff that we pulled from the book — you can't just go and talk to an evolutionary psychologist who studies dolphins and not understand something about evolution and psychology and dolphins or you'll miss all this great material. It was a huge amount of research and a huge amount of writing. John did a lot of writing for the film that he didn't do for the book as well. I understand the nature of the question but until we come up with a better word than writer … ? Maybe it's more concept or research that encapsulates all that.

Where did you do the post-production work?

I've had the luxury of working in my home studio, which I sort of ramped up for this project, for the past few years. We made it very comfortable because I knew we would be spending a huge amount of time here. And that made post a lot easier. When I'm not directing stuff for Merge, I work as a colorist, and a lot of that happens at home as well, so post comes pretty naturally to me. I was able to set up an ideal post pipeline.

Was there a lot of footage to work through?

I haven't even counted, but there had to be over 200 hours. Much of it was 5K Red Epic footage, and we finished the film in 4K. There's a range of different kinds of footage, including archival footage. We also focused a lot on sound. I got one of the best sound designers and mixers in the business, Gene Park. All of these people were brought in a year or a year and a half before we finished. We had worked with them before on other projects. We were going to take our time doing this and we didn't have a lot of money, so already havig a working relationship with them made what could have been a difficult project a lot easier. Basically, everyone was coming here, but Gene has his own sound studio and we did some mixing on a stage in Williamsburg.


You mentioned the Red Epic. What else did you shoot during the production?

We used GoPros in a few places, mainly in making a "ball cam," where we stuck a GoPro inside of a ball, pointing out, and got an amazing shot of a Great Dane biting the camera. We also mounted GoPros on dogs. And the second time we went to Brazil, we used the Sony a7s, which had just come out. In fact, we had a pre-production model. It was amazingly fun to use. We shot a bunch of night stuff with that, including a soccer game at night in a muddy field It had just rained and there were muddy potholes everywhere, and these kids went crazy playing with a soccer ball. The scene was lit by streetlamps and we shot with a couple of a7s cameras and Zeiss lenses wide open. That was only possible with that camera and those lenses. 

How did you cut and color-grade?

We cut in Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro 7. I transcoded everything to ProRes LT. We finished in Assimilate Scratch, which really is an incredibly versatile and powerful tool. We used Scratch for all of our Red dailies, to transcode different kinds of archival footage, and to grade and finish the film in 4K It was always there and always on.

What kind of hardware were you running on?

We had one Mac workstation and one Windows workstation with Scratch on both and editing on both. One machine has an AJA Kona card and one has an Nvidia Quadro 6000 with SDI output, both connected to a large production monitor and a large client plasma. We did most of the post work there. When it got very intense, I brought in a couple of extra compositors and various other people to help with that. We had a number of laptops that exceeded the space available in the main studio, spilling out into the kitchen and living room, for just about a week's worth of work.

How was the 4K finishing process?

4K was pretty painless. I had just finished a couple of other projects in 4K, so I've gotten used to it.

How many chances have you had to see the film projected in 4K?

So far? None. But mastering in 4K has benefits that I can see in a 2K master. I get about as excited about 4K as I do about shooting with a higher bit rate on a camera. It's not something that makes a strong emotional difference. It makes the image sharper — but not always. I think there is a lot of unnecessary hype around it, but it does help for some of the images. And mastering in 4K means that when you do see it on a big 2K screen there is a level of sharpness that is appreciable and very cool. It's also a good thing to have just in terms of future-proofing the film, especially if you look at the new markets opening up in Europe and Asia.


Have you had any especially memorable screenings to date?

We showed the film in Scotland. We went to the island where we shot the Ba' game to show the film in their community center, which has a beautiful 2K DCP theater. It's just the community center! One of the things that's amazing about showing films in Europe is that they really care about presentation. Even some of the smallest film festivals there have beautiful theaters with great projection and sound. I wish some of the smaller American festivals paid as much attention to sound.

How has the audience response been?

It's most gratifying when people get an almost visceral sense of how fundamental and important play is, not only to human beings but to most animals. The roots of empathy, of morality, and of everythign that we think of as culture, probably, come out of play. We don't say that directly in the film, but people get that. They get that a dog and a cat playing together says as much about a shared sense of empathy as different people from different parts of the world playing together. It unifies us in a positive way. The film spends time with kids and animals and shows how those kinds of games are threatened by more organized, structured, commercial ball games. But we didn't want to make a social justice documentary. I have some strong political viewpoints and strong opinions about ball games, but I didn't want it to be an "issue film" per se. I wanted it to ask more questions than it gives answers or even opinions about how we should be living our lives. And people see a message in it that is more shown rather than told.