MLB Productions’ David Check Offers a Look Inside The Franchise
Capping a day of panel discussions that continually emphasized the merits of storytelling, character development, and being in the right place at the right time, MLB Productions’ Executive Producer David Check demonstrated how his team successfully combined all three elements to create The Franchise.
SVG’s Sports Entertainment Production Summit this week closed with a case study, delivered by Check and titled Inside MLB Productions’ The Franchise on Showtime. Attendees were treated to both an inside look into the making of the production, which documented the San Francisco Giants’ 2011 season, as well as a seven-minute sizzle reel containing the docuseries’ best moments.
For MLB Productions, selecting the San Francisco Giants was easy. Persuading the team to participate for an entire season required more effort.
“They were the defending world champs, and so that was a natural, very intuitive thought on our part: we have to go after the world champs. They were our first choice,” said Check. “How we convinced them was that we were truly going to be a fly on the wall, we weren’t going to be intrusive, and we were going to document their lives during the regular flow of activity.”
MLB Productions amassed 146 crew days over eight months and shot more than 1,200 hours of footage. The crew relied primarily on Panasonic VariCams to tell the story, shifting to Canon EOS 5D and 7D cameras when trying to be more discreet. High-speed Phantom cameras were used on occasion to provide unique shots.
MLB Productions produced nine episodes of The Franchise, including a preview episode that aired on April 14. For Check, the preview was the key to the series’ success.
“We started shooting in early February, and the players were starting to [ask] when [they were] going to see stuff on-air. There was a mystery surrounding what the content was going to look like,” Check recalled. “Once they saw the preview show, a light bulb went off, and [they] definitely ratcheted up the access.”
After gaining the team’s trust with the preview episode, MLB Productions embarked on a season with the San Francisco Giants, airing a one-hour premiere episode on July 15 followed by seven weekly 30-minute episodes on Showtime.
At the heart of The Franchise are the San Francisco Giants. Check described several “characters” whose storylines provided the backbone for the docuseries. And any conversation about the characters on the San Francisco Giants would start with closer Brian Wilson.
“We went into the season thinking that this is a Rick Vaughn [Charlie Sheen’s character in Major League], he’s the eccentric closer,” said Check, “but he fooled us all. We found him to be nothing short of a genius. His comedic timing, his commanding screen presence, and his depth really just blew us away. One of our greatest challenges was not to turn The Franchise into the Brian Wilson show.”
On the flipside is starter Tim Lincecum, whom Check termed “the reticent superstar.” To address the fascination with the very private pitcher, Check presented Lincecum’s narrative through the eyes of his teammates, relying on others to describe the pitching phenom as opposed to the player himself.
“Tim Lincecum likes to throw baseballs,” said fellow starter Barry Zito. “But don’t hold it against him.”
In addition to the characters on the San Francisco Giants, Check’s team also had certain storylines in mind. One was the rise and fall of Pablo Sandoval.
“In 2009, Pablo Sandoval was the best player on the Giants. In 2010, when they won the World Series, he was grossly overweight, lost his position, and the front office said, ‘You better get your act together because you do not have a guaranteed job here in 2011,’” said Check. “So he lost 40 lbs. in the offseason. We documented that [because] that was a narrative that we knew [and could] anticipate throughout the production. We were going to follow that the whole way through, and, lo and behold, he became an All-Star in 2011.”
Conversely, some narratives cannot be predicted.
“No docuseries would be complete without the improbable story,” said Check. “We found it in Ryan Vogelsong. He hadn’t pitched in the majors since the 2006 season; he was a fringe player, did not have a guaranteed contract with the Giants. [Vogelsong] really came out of nowhere to shock everybody.”
With the San Francisco Giants located 3,000 miles away from MLB Productions, Check relied heavily on field producers to shoot in tapeless formats and quickly turn around footage to keep The Franchise timely and relevant. Over the course of eight months, field producers logged more than 100,000 miles of travel to 21 locations, including the White House and Puerto Rico.
“Overall, the experience with the Giants and Showtime was nothing short of fantastic,” said Check, “and we are so thankful to both [for] making it such a relatively seamless experience for all.”