Documentary filmmaking and product management are two separate disciplines, worlds apart, right?

As it turns out, the processes of producing a documentary film and designing products are actually a lot more alike than it might seem. Both require sifting through tons of data to piece together a compelling story. For “The Last Dance,” ESPN Films and Netflix’s documentary miniseries following the career of NBA legend Michael Jordan and his final season with the Chicago Bulls, that data came in the form of thousands upon thousands of hours of footage. 

Nina Krstic, who produced “The Last Dance” as well as 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Film,” and the Academy Award-winning documentary feature “O.J. Made in America,” joined Hillá Watkins, Pendo’s director of content strategy, at Pendomonium Virtual to discuss what goes into creating a 10-part film series—and the challenges posed by a global pandemic erupting at a critical time in the editing process. 

With that much footage, where do you start?

Krstic said she drew on nearly 10,000 hours of footage to paint a picture of Jordan’s career and life, including 500 hours solely from the Bull’s 1998 season. That’s a monstrous amount of material to digest and categorize, but Krstic has found ways to break the task into manageable chunks.

First, she identifies each of the film’s characters. In this case, those included Jordan, of course, as well as teammates Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Steve Kerr. “I sit down and look at every single interview for every one of these characters,” Krstic said.

Then, she removes extraneous and repetitive material to produce a roughly hour-long chronological sequence of that character’s story. “You could sit down and watch Michael all the way from childhood to ’98, which was our present [time],” she said. 

Next, Krstic breaks the footage for each character down into thematic buckets: fame, power, politics, and the history of the NBA. A clip of Jordan walking down a hallway with dozens of people shouting his name, all looking for something from him, would end up in the fame bucket, for instance. “As you’re editing, you can say ‘I want to talk about fame. What do we have for that?'” she said. “It’s just an easy way to organize your thoughts.”

And to really understand the mood that’s being created among viewers by certain pieces of footage, Krstic will occasionally just throw on a pair of headphones, sit back, and immerse herself in the material. Much like a product manager taking in feedback from their customers, this process sometimes brings additional insight and reveals a new path for the story that she hadn’t previously considered.

Painting the big picture

Though “The Last Dance” and “OJ: Made in America” were both about larger-than-life individuals, both films also gravitated around themes far larger than either of the personalities, Krstic noted. At its core, “The Last Dance” was as much about power, fame, and the price of each as it was about Jordan’s life and career. 

Following that north star principle makes it easier for Krstic to remain unattached to certain pieces of footage that, while valuable in their own right, don’t contribute anything meaningful to the story the film is intended to tell. She focuses on the film as a complete piece, rather than a series of individual “golden moments” strung together. That way, only the footage that adds maximum value to the film is included.

“As documentarians, it’s our job to provide context. Every single scene needs to add to that conversation. No story happens in a vacuum,” Krstic said. “If it’s on the cutting room floor, there’s a reason for it. The ultimate goal is to make a film that people will love, that will educate them, that will enrich their thoughts and enrich the world.”

That doesn’t mean she never comes across that one clip that perfectly illustrates a crucial part of the story. In “The Last Dance,” one of those clips—footage of Jordan being interviewed on the court and expressing how difficult it was to live a life of incredible fame—ended up becoming the opening scene to the series’ sixth episode. It was such good footage that Krstic almost used it as the opening scene for the entire series.

“It’s a moment that encapsulates a lot of things about the themes in the film, and it just opens your eyes to the cost of fame,” she said. “It makes you realize he’s a human, and that’s how we tried to present him in the film. Yes, he’s a basketball god, but at the end of the day, he’s just like us.”

Diving beneath the headlines

So how does Krstic pick a topic that warrants exploration in a 10-part docu-series?

Krstic said her topic choice for a film is driven by a desire to set the record straight on stories we think we all know–whether it’s the life of a sports superstar, one of the highest-profile court cases of all time, grassroots social movements, or the origins of the U.S. Constitution. Many of the topics she works with originally played out in the fast-paced news cycle, and taking a step back to add context to those events or stories offers a chance to understand them on a much deeper level, she said. 

“I feel like we’re all obsessed with instant news, short news, 140-character news,” she said. “One of the main reasons I got into documentaries is because I’m completely opposed to this quick instant obsession we have in this country.”

That sentiment—essentially, her work is the exact opposite of that always-on news machine—drew her to documentary filmmaking.

Just seconds on the clock. They shoot … they score!

NBA stars like Jordan know a thing or two about being up against the buzzer, but Krstic and her team ended up in a similar situation after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the deadline for completing the film up two months. The team had to simultaneously pivot to remote work and accelerate their timeline. It’s a similar situation to one most PMs found themselves in when demand for new product offerings more suited to a world of social distancing and remote work surged.

Fortunately, the two years the team had already spent working on the project meant that they were already highly cohesive.

 “We were already a tight, strong team. We already had a language, we trusted each other, we already had methods that were proven,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but it was kind of a seamless transition. We all had the editing software, and we were all technologically savvy.”

The new deadline, however, was a much bigger hurdle to clear. “It was chaotic, we kind of just went off script with all hands on deck. Everyone was doing everything,” she said. The situation made final color and sound checks, in particular, much more difficult than it would have been in a studio.

 “We just went into another gear, because we understood the importance of giving this to people in this horrible time,” she said. “It was a lot of sleepless nights.”

That frantic few months paid off in the end: “The Last Dance” broke viewership records.

About the Author

Tom Relihan is a copywriter at Pendo. Previously, he's been a business writer for the MIT Sloan School of Management's Ideas Made to Matter, a social media manager at NC State University, and a news reporter at a variety of daily newspapers across Massachusetts.