How These DPs Brought Their Own Magic to 'They Call Me Magic'

DPs break down the cinematography of 'They Call Me Magic'
'They Call Me Magic'Credit: AppleTV+
There are unique challenges that come with lighting professional NBA basketball stars. 

Among the storytelling elements at a filmmaker's disposal, one of the most integral is the cinematography. Documentary cinematographers have been using cameras and dynamic lighting to tell compelling stories from unique people in the world for decades. 

Cinematographers Jay Visit and J. B. Rutagarama came to AppleTV’s They Call Me Magic with a distinct set of challenges—bringing magic into the various interviews across the United States. Visit and Rutagarama were two of the 10 cinematographers to work on the four-part docuseries that showcased the ups and downs of Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s life and career.

In our conversations, Visit and Rutagarama talk about their approach to the project using the Canon EOS C500 with Sumire Prime lenses. As the DPs share below, They Call Me Magic was a special docuseries full of “pinch me” moments. 

Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

No Film School: Can you tell me how you both got started on They Call Me Magic

Jay Visit: I had worked with some of the people at Delirio [Films] before and they contacted me at some point. Yeah, and that's how it happened.

J. B. Rutagarama: I was approached by the folks from Delirio Films. I had worked with them on numerous projects including documentaries, The Short Game on Netflix, and Can You Dig This? There are so many. The Magic project was taking shape and they just asked me if I could come and join them. 

NFS: You have experience working on documentaries. What was different about this one that made it appealing to you?

Rutagarama: Of course, Magic. I've been a basketball fan ever since I could remember and growing up watching Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. When this opportunity came to actually work on his life story, it was amazing. It was like a, "Pinch me," moment type of thing and it was quite exciting.

Visit: Yeah. I've worked on other docs before. This one was different just in the way of—a lot of NBA legends and stuff, and they're super tall and standing up. Usually, you have some sort of stand-in that sits in for you while you light in some of these interviews and they're two feet shorter than a person, but yeah. Sometimes the restrictions were just to get into the location fast and try to do it quickly.

DPs breakdown the cinematography of 'They Call Me Magic'
'They Call Me Magic'Credit: Apple Inc.TV+

NFS: What were the conversations like about creating the visual language for the docuseries?

Visit: A lot of this one was based on almost production design. A lot of the locations are about trying to establish a look for certain types of players and something like that. A lot of it was whether it be a restaurant vibe or the court or something like that. It was just about sitting down with the director when we get to the location and being like, "Well, what's the best angle to get the look to keep everything consistent?" Rather than just like, "Oh, these are just like nice interviews, nice-looking interviews." It's just a lot about what can we say a little bit about the person, too.

Rutagarama: The visual language had been already established because we had a lead DP, but she could not obviously, because of her schedule, she could not do everything. She set the tone, and she and Rick had already established a look, so it was quite easy for me to come in. Delirio and the main producer, it was Rafi. Delirio and Rafi just send me some of the screen grabs. "This is what we want. This is what we did," and then they send me the specs. So actually in that respect, I just was handed almost a dish that was already made and I was just going to cook it without the ingredients already set for me.

NFS: Were there any challenges that you faced or was it pretty smooth sailing for the most part when it came to creating something consistent as a through-line?

Rutagarama: Yes, there were some challenges, obviously locations. I'm a big fan of this slightly contrasty look a little more dramatic as opposed to sort of the beauty commercial look, and so I had room to tweak a few things here. In one instance, we were filming Samuel L. Jackson and I'm a big fan of Pulp Fiction. I was like, "Oh, we have to put him in the center of a diner booth." Then Rick loved it. He came in, and I was, "Hey, this is what I was thinking. Let's just center him on the frame, the wide shot, let's lower a little bit, make him like a giant that he is." Then the head-on camera was on a close-up and it was at eye level. So more traditional, and I just love how they cut back and forth. It was great. 

Visit: Once we set up what we were going for, it was easy. I guess, the only obstacles were when we hit a location and it's like, “Oh, I don't know how we've been doing the other ones,” but we found a way and I would say it’s good.

Dps break down the cinematography of 'They Call Me Magic'
'They Call Me Magic'Credit: AppleTV+

NFS: There are so many great interviews throughout the series and so many dynamic setups. Which one was your favorite one to create besides the Samuel L. Jackson one?

Rutagarama: I think it's the one I was mostly present is, Magic's family. I had the opportunity to go to Lansing in Michigan and then meet his sisters, and his family, including his mom and dad. They were so lovely. I went to his parents’ house and then it was a tiny room. They were against the wall. So it was a little challenging, but just listening to them, I feel like I knew Magic just by listening to his family. Then, following through his childhood neighborhood where he grew up. "Wow, this is unfiltered access we've been giving. This is a rare opportunity." I love that part.

NFS: I read that you both used Canon's EOS C500. What was appealing about using this camera?

Rutagarama: I have been a fan of the Canon C300 series from the beginning. Another project I worked on with Delirio called The Short Game on Netflix, we were given, I believe nine, almost the early release of the C300 and I had never used it before. I had to figure out things very fast and the camera was just easy to navigate. Just get a sense of it. So I had that background with the C300. So jumping on C500 MKII, I felt right at home and the camera is very easy, especially for a documentary style and the running gun portion, but also the image you get out of it. We were lucky enough to also have the Canon Sumire lenses, which are such beautiful lenses. I had never used them before.

It just reminds me of a classic vintage, but the yet sharp lens and the camera, the dynamic range, oh my God—in certain situations, we were against windows.

I was like, "Oh my God, I don't want to pump too many lights on Magic's friends or whoever we were interviewing who are not used to being in front of the camera, because they'll start squinting.” Then, I trusted the camera's dynamic range and I knew if I would expose safely my highlights when I clip them. I didn't need to pump a lot of lights. Then, post-production did an amazing job, too. My gaffer(s), I've worked with several gaffers throughout, but they were great. I think it's Eric Schneider, he was great for the stuff we did. Anyway, the camera it held. I was just impressed, to a point when I'm, "Hmm, should I buy it?" The lenses, the Sumire lenses, they're beautiful lenses.

Visit: The cameras are great. I've used C300 before, and then the C500 I used a little bit, but more so on this particular documentary. They handled the highlights and the shadows pretty well, way better than the previous C300. It was good for those examples of being in a very bright environment with a dark interior or something like that, and it was able to handle those highlights very well.

DPs breakdown the cinematography of 'They Call Me Magic'
'They Call Me Magic'Credit: AppleTV+

NFS: What makes these lenses special compared to other lenses that you've used in the past? 

Rutagarama: I just found that the characteristics just remind me of old Angenieux 17-102. It just has a softness to it. Even the K35, the old vintage, there's just a vintage look to it, but yet they're still sharp. I don't know how to describe it. DPs with lenses, we just go over the top. Then it's those little nuances. I just love how it was a lot warmer. It doesn't lean towards the blue. It felt more natural. It felt like it was a really natural lens. I love how it captured the skin tone, especially for people with dark skin. Some of the lenses are not as flattering. I just love it. I don't know how to explain it. It's just this moment when you see a lens that just is natural. What your eye sees is what the lens sees.

Visit: They kept it sharp, but they have a nice roll-off as things go out of focus and they also helped with keeping the highlights and the shadows intact, they are good.

NFS: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers or cinematographers who are looking to do more documentary work?

Visit: I guess the advice is just with documentary stuff, in particular, to be adaptable. You're always going to roll in, you have this thing, this idea in your head, and just like fiction too. It doesn't always go that way. But in documentaries with locations, you don't have too much time to prep. You have to walk into a location and just roll with the punches a little bit and make the best out of what you got, but do it enough times and you get used to it. 

Rutagarama: This day and age it's quite easy. You can learn a lot of things on YouTube, in film school. You can learn everything. I mean, pretty much you can watch interviews, and learn how people did it. When I was growing up, starting in the industry, was hard. For people to allow to come on set was difficult, but the advice I would say, follow your passion, study your craft, and then just have fun. There's no limit. You have everything at your fingertips with YouTube, for instance, you learn everything you need to learn. You just go out there and shoot really, just shoot.     

You can watch They Call Me Magic on AppleTV+ now.

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