Tier Zero On Their "Monstars"-Inspired 2022-23 Raptors Media Day Photoshoot

Tier Zero is the group behind the Raptors Media Day photoshoot, snapping the stylish and meme-worthy images of every member of the 2022-23 Toronto Raptors.

Toronto Raptors media day collage

Toronto Raptors media day collage

Toronto Raptors media day collage

Tier Zero was founded by a group of friends from Toronto in 2017. Charlie Lindsay, Due Pinlac, and Jamal Burger were each navigating through the Toronto creative industry as freelance photographers and videographers, getting jobs individually and working on projects with bigtime brands but ultimately feeling like they wanted something more: to prioritize their own ideas and do things in their own way, together. So they built a creative agency to legitimize themselves.

Since then, Tier Zero has created photo campaigns and video projects with a variety of clients, from non-profits to Fortune 500s, including Nike, OVO, Cannon, Spotify, the NBA, and most recently, the Toronto Raptors. Tier Zero is the creative group behind the new Raptors Media Day photoshoot, snapping the stylish and meme-worthy images of every member of the 2022-23 Toronto Raptors. They took inspiration from everything from Space Jam and Dragon Ball Z to Step Brothers.

Complex Canada sat down with the three members of Tier Zero behind the project, photographers Anthony Nusca and Charlie Lindsay, and creative consultant Due Pinlac. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

So first of all, tell me about your relationship with the Raptors. When did you first start working with them and how did this project come to be? 

Charlie Lindsay: In the early days of being a photographer I started interning for a show called “The Hangout,” which Akil Augustine hosted on NBA TV Canada. And that was essentially the gateway for me to be in the Raptors space. As the years went on, and as I started to chip away at things, the opportunities started to open up a bit more for myself as a photographer. Then it started to get to the point where the Raptors saw what we were doing at Tier Zero and they would progressively open doors of collaboration. 

We had been doing Media Day unofficially for maybe four years, with a couple of us shooting it. But just last year they opened up the floodgates for Tier Zero being able to properly pitch something to them for Media Day. And that’s where we came up with the concept we did last year, which was a “back to school” shoot after the Raptors returned home from being displaced during the pandemic. All three of us worked on that. And then based on the success of last year, they asked us to do it again, so that’s how we got here.

Let’s get into this year’s photoshoot and the themes behind it. I heard you talking in the promo video you dropped about the Raptors being a “position-less” team and the jokes that Masai Ujiri “only drafts dudes that are 6-foot-6 at up” with crazy wingspans and freak athleticism, and that you wanted to accentuate those features. Tell me more about that.

Anthony Nusca: When we think of the Raptors and when we think about different teams in the NBA, they all have kind of these very unique identities that fan bases associate with them: The Warriors are always known for three-point shooting, the Grizzlies are known for being very hard-nosed and a grind-it-out team, and with the Raptors over the past few years, the key identity is just this very athletic team that relies on a lot of long, 6-foot-9 dudes with 7-foot wingspans, and they all kind of look the same from a player mockup or build standpoint. 

Knowing that and being the Raptors fans that we are, we want to come to the table with an idea that helps capture the identity of the team by accentuating some of those features, while leaving the door open to simultaneously showcase each players’ individual identity too.

In terms of the backdrop and aesthetic, we’re all big basketball fans and ‘90s kids, so “Space Jam” has a very big place in our hearts. So as we kind of developed the idea of this position-less basketball and these freakishly long players, the nostalgia of the Monstars from Space Jam kind of crept its way into the theme. So the entire backdrop, this 10x10 foot box, which was created by Liam Wilkings, was created to mimic the stormy, sun-set looking background in “Space Jam” when the Monstars transform into these huge versions of themselves. 

What are some of the techniques that you used to make this theme work? Because you are working with players who range in size from 6-foot in the case of Fred VanVleet and Malachi Flynn all the way up to 7-foot-2 with Christian Koloko, yet they all look similarly large in these photos. How did you create that look? 

Linsday: It goes back to the perspectives. Just looking at what we’re trying to tell and the larger than life persona or experience, we knew that there’d be a lot of looking down, looking up. We knew there would be a lot of interaction with the lens because as you get your features closer to the lens, they just look bigger. So it was a lot of just playing around with the perspectives. 

But ya, we can’t have Chris Boucher and Pascal Siakam looking like Monstars and then Fred and looking tiny, right? So we had to make sure we keep that same energy for everyone. And to show how they’re all big in their own right.

Nusca: Yeah. Plus the freak athlete persona kinda applies to them all because even though VanVleet is not 6-foot-9, by typical standards he still is a freak athlete. So it’s kind of: how do you keep that same energy with him as well and kind of portray him as somebody who is in a lot of ways larger than life? Because he might be 6-foot, but he’s still one in a million.

Fred Vanvleet chin stroke pose

Some of you guys have worked with the Raptors social media team, Pascal Siakam, and Ujiri’s non-profit, Giants of Africa, before. How do those existing relationships inform a shoot like this? 

Pinlac: I think it’s an X factor that we built some type of rapport with some of the players from past shoots. Like we obviously know going into the shoot that VanVleet is gonna want to do one of these: *gestures to pose with his hand on his chin*. It’s guaranteed. So how can we accentuate that? Alright cool, let’s have his shoulder in the foreground and make him look like a giant from the torso up. And if you take in the shots, If you look at Flynn and VanVleet’s shoots, what they’re lacking in height, we put them towards action. So they’re the only ones dribbling the ball. 

When there is already an existing relationship, the energy is just different so that it’s easier for them to relax, which makes them much more open to experimentation.

Lindsay: For sure. They would see some of the references that I had on my mood boards and then come up with their own ideas, too. That’s how we end up with Siakam doing the Kamehameha pose from “Dragon Ball Z.” I didn’t even tell him to do that. He was like, ‘Yeah, I think I want to do this.’ It’s really sick when they understand what you’re trying to go for and they buy into it. And if you look across the board most of, if not all of the guys, they really bought into the shoot. And it’s a two-way street to where you can’t have the result that we had without the players having a huge part in just accepting the creative story that you’re trying to tell and wanting to do it and having fun with it.

Pascal Siakam Dragon Ball Z pose

Aside from having preexisting relationships, how do you create a comfortable space for players to feel that they can express themselves? Because Scottie Barnes told me that he felt the shoot was “a good way to express ourselves” and a lot of players seemed comfortable doing poses that you might not see them doing elsewhere. How do you create that environment? 

Nusca: It always kind of comes down to the approach we have just within Tier Zero: obviously you have to have an idea of what you want to do, you have to know what you are doing, and you have to be ready to go, or else players will check out. Plus, you’re working with such limited time that you don’t really have any time on the day of to make decisions from a creative standpoint or a technical standpoint. But once you have these mood boards prepared, you have this idea to present them, you want to kind of get them in on the dialogue right out the gate so they have a stake in it, they have some ownership of it, and then it becomes a very collaborative space. 

As much as prep things and as much as we have an idea coming into it, we’re not telling them how to pose. We’re more sort of laying it out, like: ‘yo, here are the ideas we have. What do you mess with? Do you want to go in this direction or this direction?’ Within the mood boards and within the creative we made sure to build in a wide variety of poses. I think we had 10 to 15 different mood boards pages, each of them with five images on them. So you’re not trying to overwhelm the players, but you also want to show them a pretty wide variety of directions that they could go in. Then they have the space to see that, interpret it themselves, and go in whatever way that feels most akin to them and feels like they can be the most themselves within. So it’s kind of like guiding them to trust themselves within that space rather than imposing an idea about how we think they should be portrayed. 

I have to know the story of O.G. Anunoby and Ujiri posing together in the ‘Step Brothers’ pose. That has already become a meme on Twitter. How did that photo come to be?

Nusca: Ya, it’s pretty jokes. It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t scripted, it wasn’t even in the cards. I think Anunoby had already been at our station and had moved on when Ujiri came in to check on us. He has a really great relationship with Lindsay and Burger due to the work they’ve done with Giants of Africa. So he was kinda just hanging out, watching us work, and that led to Lindsay asking him if he wanted to hop in some pics. 

So we took some pics of Ujiri and, being the ultra competitive person he is, Ujiri spotted Anunoby walking by the concourse and of course he starts talking shit immediately like, ‘O.G. You see my pics? I know my pics are better than yours!’ Just talking all this kinda crazy stuff. And Anunoby is like, ‘Bro, are you serious? It’s like 10 a.m. right now. What are you on right now?’ But that kind of led to us just being like, ‘yo, you guys want to get a pic together?’ So it just came about in a very fun and organic way.

Masai Ujiri Step Brothers pose

That’s the best story I’ve ever heard. Before I let you guys go, do you have any closing thoughts about this project and getting to work with the Raptors as Raptors’ fans yourselves? What are you going to take away from this experience? 

Lindsay: We definitely look at these projects as timestamps throughout the years and we’re hoping that with each variation of media day that we can continue to do something new and unique and fun and different, where hopefully we can look back at it years later and just have a wide variety of creative projects. So yeah, we’re really happy with this one, but we’re already looking towards next year to see what we can do for that. 

Nusca: It’s amazing to be in these rooms and to have the chance to do the work that we do. At the end of the day, we are fans first and foremost. And a few years ago, I was just a fan who was checking on media day stuff and getting super hyped to kind of see who was on team, how they’re presented and whatnot. So to be a part of that now and to see peoples’ positive reactions to the shoot in the comments and on Twitter and stuff like that, it’s really special. I think for all of us, it holds a pretty close place in our hearts just being that we come from a place of being fans first.

Pinlac: At the end of a day, for me at least, it’s like sure, the fire emojis, the heart emojis, ya that’s great and all but I think it’s a matter of kicking down doors and then making sure that people like us, people of color, sometimes you feel like we’re not supposed to be in these spaces, but we are! We’re really talented individuals who made it and who have our talents to share. But on that type of a stage, there comes a responsibility of holding that door open for the next generation and making sure that people know how we did it so that they believe that they can do it too. As cheesy as that sounds, that’s pretty much our emphasis within Tier Zero, which was founded by three people of color from Toronto, and we just did media day with the Raptors. So for a kid who is going to high school or even college that doesn’t know what they want to do, here’s a point of reference that maybe can sway you into doing something that you actually believe in.

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