Turn sports stats into captivating cinema
Near the end of “The History of the Atlanta Falcons” (2021), a nearly seven-hour seven-part documentary, writer-director Jon Bois describes a surprise 82-yard interception return by the cornerback of the Falcons’ Robert Alford, performed with just minutes remaining in the first half of Super Bowl LI, in 2017, as “one of the most impactful individual plays in NFL history.”
Almost any other filmmaker would have left it at that. But Bois shows his work. On the sports statistics website pro-football-reference.com, explains Bois, there is a metric called expected points which “estimates the number of points an offense is expected to score on a drive before a particular play and after that play.” . Subtract one from the other and you will determine the overall impact of the coin. Alford’s interception return resulted in seven negative points for the New England Patriots on a drive that should have netted them three, for a 10.7 differential. Bois charts the differential “for 8,982 individual games in Super Bowl history.” Alford’s touchdown, we can clearly see, ranks third all-time.
This was not exaggeration for rhetorical effect. When Bois says a piece is “one of the most impactful,” he means it.
Bois is the poet laureate of sports statistics. His documentaries, including the famous “The History of the Seattle Mariners” (2020) and the recent Charlotte Bobcats theme “The People You’re Paying to Be in Shorts” (both broadcast on his YouTube channel, Secret Base) are full of tables, graphs and diagrams scrupulously tracing victories, defeats, points, home runs and field goals with a rigor that borders on science.
“I was one of the weird kids who really liked algebra in high school,” Bois said recently in a video interview. “And growing up, I loved the statistical side of sports. The ability to condense sports into a bar graph, a pie chart or a scatter plot – sort of, you can watch a thousand games in 10 seconds. C is like a little time warp.
A longtime sports writer and editor at SB Nation, the respected sports industry blog owned by Vox Media, Bois, 40, has become a singular voice in documentary film — in part, he explained, because of the style he “fell” into as a result of his “limited technical abilities”. A self-taught video editor with no background in motion graphics, Bois does most of his video work in the Google Earth satellite imagery application, importing images directly into Google’s 3D environments and using the satellite maps as a sort of virtual map. Sandbox. It looks a bit like a PowerPoint presentation laid out on a street map, with huge blocks of text floating above pixelated renderings of roads and baseball stadiums.
The style is undeniable. The camera seems to float in mid-air above the charts and tables, and, as Bois or one of his collaborators recounts, we are treated to old photographs, quotes from newspaper clippings, and occasionally grainy excerpts from archival game footage. And it’s all made up of soft, synth-laden yacht rock and soft jazz. It’s as if Ken Burns adapted “Moneyball” with a soundtrack by Steely Dan.
“In an age of impersonal, interchangeable Internet content, Bois has his own signature,” said Jordan Cronk, film critic and founder of the Acropolis Cinema, a series of screenings in Los Angeles. “Unlike other journalists who have dabbled in filmmaking, Bois has found a cutting-edge form for pop-encyclopedic explorations of sports history, combining a YouTuber’s flair for storytelling with a tradition of filmmaking. hyper-analytical essay.
Bois acknowledged that “for better or worse, it’s unlike or unlike anything else out there.” And for him, it is the most important “not to be better than anyone, but to be different from everyone”.
No less unique are the types of stories that Bois and his regular co-writer and producer Alex Rubenstein choose to tell. The teams, players, and seasons they focus on aren’t usually well known, without the obvious drama of underdog success or rags-to-riches glory. The Mariners, Falcons and Bobcats aren’t perennial favorites or inspirational fodder. Their lore is esoteric and quirky.
“We realized that no one in a thousand years would make a movie about the history of the Mariners or the history of the Falcons,” Bois said. “These stories would not be addressed as they deserve.”
Wood’s level of precision can be overwhelming and, over generous runtimes, sometimes exhausting. But his work is not for stats nerds who want to learn about the numbers. In fact, his approach has the opposite effect: the depth of the films makes them more accessible. You don’t need to know anything about the Mariners to enjoy his nearly four-hour documentary about them. You don’t even have to know anything about baseball.
“He manages to use statistics not as a backdrop for dramatic entertainment, but as the most prominent and visually stimulating element of his stories,” said Jake Cole, film critic for Slant Magazine.
As Bois said, he and Rubenstein “make sports documentaries for people who don’t watch sports.”
“I find it not only a great honor but also a lot of fun to be able to bring this cool, weird and often silly world of sport to someone who wouldn’t have been invited otherwise,” Bois said.
The gist of this experience is getting swept up in the vicarious thrill of an unfamiliar team and its mundane drama. Bois and Rubenstein manage to compress decades of often tumultuous history into a few hours of dense nonfiction, charting the dramatic tale of the rise and fall (or fall and fall) of an obscure team to a major scale. After watching any of their films, you inevitably feel an intimate connection to the subject matter: you know every heartbreaking loss of the Bobcats and every hard-won victory of the Mariners. It’s a rewarding entry into a world usually reserved for local fans.
Bois doesn’t necessarily come to these stories as a fan himself. His latest, “The People You’re Paying to Be in Shorts,” is about the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, a short-lived team that was somewhat infamous among basketball fans for its record-breaking horror and record breaking of the NBA for losing streaks before reverting to its former name, the Hornets, in 2014. (The team had been the Charlotte Hornets from 1988 to 2002.)
But Bois was quick to admit he was no NBA expert. Observe, reading “everything they wrote about the Bobcats” during this time. “I realized I didn’t have to be a basketball expert,” Bois said. “But I can randomly be the greatest pundit in the world in this season of a team,” he added, using an expletive for the Abyssal Bobcats.
The result is a documentary that makes you root for this wonderful assortment of eccentrics despite acknowledging how incredibly terrible they are. He gets into the nitty-gritty of contract negotiations, career field goal percentages and NBA draft lottery odds in a way that makes the numbers utterly captivating, and he finds the beauty cosmic in the contrast between the worst team in league history and their primary owner. , Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all time. It’s not just that you end up knowing more about an obscure team. You find yourself moved by them.
“I operate on the general theory that there is always a story,” Bois said. “I could throw a dart at any season of any team – the 2005 Timberwolves, the 1987 Astros, anyone, and I could come up with something. There is always something there, no matter what.
He stopped for a moment. “Although,” he reconsidered, “the weirder and more gruesome the team, the better.”
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