Non-fiction to go: Production news

April 1, 1998


I want my mummy

It’s amazing what 5,000 years’ worth of sleep will do for one’s complexion. When scientists uncovered five-millenium-old mummified remains (affectionately dubbed ‘Otzi’) in Austria’s Otzaler Alps in 1991, they were incredibly well-preserved. The Living World of Otzi, The Iceman recreates the world of the unearthed caveman, giving viewers a glimpse into what life would have been like before television, or anything else.

Produced by Germany’s zdf, with orf and Discovery U.S., this us$800,000 documentary will apply some feature-film tricks, including morphs, keys and an ‘Arrow Cam’ which can give the p.o.v. of a projectile in flight. The viewer will get a taste of life during Otzi’s time, with re-enactments of combat and village life. Ready for the summer of 1999, the broadcast version of Otzi will run 52 minutes, with a theatrical version at twice that length.

Stay out of the deep end

Paris-based Docstar and Toronto’s CineNova Productions are working on a show for deep-water Cold War buffs. Nuclear Sharks: Cold War Submarine Adventures covers the mysterious disappearance of the USS Scorpion, a cia plot to recover a sunken Soviet sub and the collision of the Soviets’ K219 with the US Augsuta in a game of cat-and-mouse off Bermuda.

The 3 x 1 hour series is being distributed by London’s Explore International, and will be ready to air on Discovery U.S. and Canal+ by the end of September.

Nuclear Sharks is part of a production partnership (which totals cdn$10 million, according to the agreement signed late 1997), and includes several new series, as well as some that had already started production, and two imax films.

Among those already in the works which will be appearing later this year are: Coming Disasters, 3 x 1 hours headed for Discovery and Canal+; and Escape from Earth, a two-hour doc about the likelihood of human travel outside of this galaxy, airing on tlc and Canal+.


Family Matters

Last year, London-based British Pathe and Flashback found success with The Queen Mother: A Woman of Her Century and The Golden Years, which sold into dozens of territories (including cbc and TVOntario in Canada, Germany’s NDR, La Cinquième in France, Portugal’s RTP, TV12 in Singapore, Australia’s Channel 9, The History Channel in the u.s. and u.k., and TV Poland). The coproducers are following up with The Firm, a 2 x 1 hour look at the Royal Family. The two hours are scheduled to be completed by June. Since Pathe owns all the footage, the price is right. The only production costs are in post.

A Lonely Planet

with a Short History

London’s Pilot Productions, whose Lonely Planet series has been seen by 30 million viewers in 40 countries, has started work on a 13 x 1 hour historical series. The pilot for Short History of the World will be ready for mip-tv, with the others to follow at the end of 1999. Discovery is involved as co-funder on the series, and The Travel Channel in the u.s. is the dci broadcast destination. With a budget of us$250,000, the pilot is entitled A Short History of Convict Australia.

Natural History

I’ll hold the camera,

you tag the whales…

With an eye towards conservation, the first episode of Arctic Watch bears witness to a team of scientists tagging Beluga whales for satellite tracking in Cunningham Bay. The 52-minute episode is the first of what New York coproducers Hyperfocal Films and 13 Creative hope will be a six-part series. It’s all a question of funding.

While 13 Creative is a division of wnet, the broadcaster is not involved in the project, and the producers are still trolling for coproduction dollars. Other episodes will include a search for the wreck of Sir John Franklin’s ship; a look at polar bears; and an exploration of how technology has affected Inuit culture. The pilot is now available, with others to follow, each with an approximate us$300,000 budget.

In search of Barney’s parents

Hunting the Dinosaur from New York-based producer/distributor Tapestry International looks for a connection between dinosaurs and ‘the lost world’ of East Africa. Largely unexcavated for remains of the prehistoric beasts, Ethiopia could provide the critical missing link to understanding the full story of these extinct creatures. The one-hour special, to be ready for June of 1998, is tied to The Learning Channel in the u.s., with a budget of slightly more than us$300,000.


Fried, or over easy?

Once again proving that truth is far stranger than fiction, London’s RDF Television is producing a doc about the world’s first electric-chair execution, but not exactly. The Chair is about the battle that took place between two New York power companies, Edison and Westinghouse, over who would get to supply the juice for the big event. Made for Channel 4′s Secret History strand, The Chair will be ready spring of this year. The one-hour has a budget of roughly £170,000.

Motivations for War and Peace

Holland’s EMS Productions has a slate of shows ready for delivery this summer. Leading the way is Warrior-Peacemaker: Yitzhak Rabin. Available in either a 1 x 90 minute or 2 x 1 hour format, the doc examines the life and untimely death of this farmer, general and statesman. Produced with the co-operation of Rabin’s widow, Leah, the film is being directed by Emmy award-winning director Willy Lindwer. No broadcasters are aboard yet, and the first offering for this roughly us$700,000 doc will be at mip-tv.

Siege, Castles at War is an hour-long special for Discovery U.S. This us$300,000 one-off looks at the brutality of warfare in the middle ages, and the role the great stone monoliths played in it all. ems was responsible for the acclaimed Great Castles of Europe series for tlc, so they should know the territory well – just a little less finery and a little more carnage this time around.

From the motivations-for-war department comes Treasures of the Earth, 3 x 1 hours on gold, diamonds, amber and pearls – treasures which have spawned conflicts, built religions and destroyed empires. This series is also destined for Discovery in the U.S. and is budgeted at approximately us$400,000 per hour.


Working at Eden

The image of a tweed-capped man or aproned woman, back bent and hard at work in a pristine garden, is, for some, the quintessential English stereotype. Gardens, from London’s RDF Television is an examination of the relationship between British gardeners and their gardens.

Produced for bbc2′s Modern Times strand, this 50-minute return to nature comes in at an approximate budget of £130,000, and should be airing in the spring of 1998 (just in time to begin all that yard work).

Also for Modern Times from rdf is Madame Tussaud’s, a look behind the scenes at the u.k.’s top tourist trap. This journey into the wild world of sculpted wax will be ready for delivery in 1999, with a budget around £120,000.

Millennium Watch: America’s Checkered Past

Beginning in the spring of 1999, The History Channel will begin broadcasting a fifteen-and-a-half-hour journey through the 20th century as the cornerstone of its millennium programming. The Century: America’s Time is a multi-million-dollar (thc would not be more specific) coproduction from thc and ABC News, and will be hosted by abc news anchor, Peter Jennings.

Assembled over five years, with footage culled from more than 3,000 hours of stock, the programming will cover the history of America, starting from the Great War, moving through McCarthyism up to Ronald Reagan’s 80s. Video collections for home and school will be available, along with companion books and a website.

Natural history, MTV-style

Jeffrey Hayes has been a mainstay in the world of network fiction for 20 years. His work with Aaron Spelling in the mid-70s generated series like Vegas and T.J. Hooker. As executive vp, creative affairs, at Paramount in the 80s, he oversaw the development of syndication super-hits like Star Trek -The Next Generation and Cheers. Hayes, now president of l.a.-based production company, Village Roadshow Pictures, has set his sights on the non-fiction market.

vrp’s Planet Ocean goes into pre-production this month, and the plan is to deliver 26 x 1 hours by November. Aimed at a non-traditional natural-history market, this adventure series will have a fast cut, mtv feel, which immediately appealed to Hayes. ‘I responded to the whole concept of something very high-paced and energetic, and youthful – exploring the ocean in a different fashion than I’d seen when I watched the Jacques Cousteau documentaries in the 60s. It feels fresh.’

Filming will be done by three crews, working on roughly five-week shoots. The segments are cut to enable the incorporation of six or less per one-hour episode. The hosts (highly trained aquanauts like former U.S. Marine Force Reconnaissance member Charles Ingram) will be very present in the mix, ensuring an interactive feel. ‘The idea is to create personalities, as well as show them as experts in their field,’ says Hayes. ‘What we’re trying to do is entertain, as well as educate, and create tv personalities people are going to want to invite back into their homes week after week.’

No broadcasters had been confirmed at press time, but talks are underway with international cablecasters. Hayes plans to use this series as a litmus test for his foray into the world of non-fiction, with more seasons and different factual series a consideration. The budget is still in the works, and will depend on broadcasters and production costs.

Also see:

Non-fiction to go – Discovery’s Canuck Cousin: Exploration’s upcoming slate

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.