Production News

November 1, 2000


Macho, macho man…

Even though Canadian media giant Alliance Atlantis has taken over Great North Communications (and launched AAC Fact), Great North’s production units haven’t missed a stride.

At Great North Pacific (in Vancouver), two of the many docs in the works are Alpha Male and Beyond Human Limits. Testosterone is the main thrust of Alpha Male. Over the course of one hour, the one-off will examine the science behind the stereotypes of modern male behavior. In Beyond Human Limits, the focus is survival against the odds and the mysteries of human potential. Using real life stories, the one-hour special considers whether science or a sixth sense can explain how some people have eluded death. Each program has an approximate budget of US$295,000, and is set to wrap in spring 2001.

Alpha Male is a copro between Great North and California-based distributor GRB Entertainment for Discovery Canada and TLC. Beyond Human Limits is also a GRB/Great North copro, but for Discovery Canada and Discovery International.

At the Edmonton office, Great North has teamed with Interspot Films of Austria to produce Doves and Pigeons, a one-hour special about the history and nature of these ‘rats of the sky.’ With no shortage of characters from which to choose – an estimated 500 million doves and pigeons exist worldwide – the producers have opted for a bird’s eye view. They are filming everything from the birds’ natural environment to their encounters with people, in an attempt to uncover the myths and cultural stigmas attached to the creatures. Set to wrap by February 2001, the $490,000 program has been picked up by ORF in Austria, Canal D in Quebec, and the Discovery Channels in both the U.S. and Canada. AAC is distributing Doves and Pigeons.

In the center ring, Great North Edmonton has Circus, a 13 x 30-minute series about Canada’s largest and most successful big-top specialist, the Garden Brothers Circus. Filmed in a docusoap style, the program follows the caravan of performers as they move from city to city every other night. Over the course of three months, the doc crew records the excitement of the performances, as well as the behind-the-scenes interaction among the cast of eccentric personalities. The $806,000 series will wrap in March 2001, and is set to air on Alliance’s Life Network. AAC is distributing. SR

Whatever doesn’t kill you…

Dunedin’s Natural History New Zealand wants to play doctor. Kill or Cure: The Bizarre and Curious History of Medicine is a 6 x 1-hour coproduction with Discovery Health which should wrap by April 2001. Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox International Television, the series looks at the sometimes amazing paths modern medicine takes in its development. Not just the domain of stodgy, white-coated lab technicians, medicine is sometimes aided by blind luck (the chance exposure of one of Alexander Fleming’s plates of penicillin mould), or even pop stars (the important role the Beatles played in the invention of the CT scanner). Each episode runs to about US$300,000.

On a more serious note, In Search of a Miracle is a 4 x 1-hour copro with Discovery Health that reflects on milestones reached in the search for cures to hereditary diseases and illnesses, such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and heart disease. Ready for late 2001/early 2002, the project carries a budget of about $300,000 and is also being distributed by Twentieth Century. The one-hour Extreme Medicine is early in development and will wrap by late 2002. It mixes adventure, medical science and technology to demonstrate the lengths scientists will go to find solutions and develop cures. Although the special is in early days, the budget is estimated to be around $325,000.

Is that a gun in your pocket…

Conventional scientific topics aren’t the only ones

worthy of study – or programming. In fact, BBC Wildvision (the production arm of the Beeb’s NHU Library) has found inspiration for two new science programs in the tools of love and war.

The Science of Seduction, a one-hour one-off, considers what works and what doesn’t when trying to attract a potential paramour, based on studies of the effectiveness of various techniques. The program also looks at the impact of factors such as high-stress living on a would-be seducer’s ability to perform.

In Boomerangs to Ballistics, also a one-hour one-off, the science of projectiles is the main issue. Highlighting the human obsession to fling things further and faster (rocks, arrows, younger siblings…), the program takes a fun and informative approach to the evolution of projectiles. The production company plans to incorporate a technique called ‘time slicing,’ which freezes motion, to enable following the trajectory of an arrow in order to reveal how its orientation changes as it flies.

The Science of Seduction and Boomerangs to Ballistics have both been commissioned for TLC and have a budget in the US$350,000 per hour ballpark. Both are slated to wrap by January 2001. London-based distributor Indigo Factual is handling worldwide rights outside of the U.K. and North America. SR

Natural History

Tails from Toronto

Here’s hoping the animals have learned to write, because sometime early next year viewers will be wanting to see some Zoo Diaries. The 13 x 30-minute series is being produced by Microtainment Plus International and Infinite Monkeys Productions (both of Toronto). The project, which has a budget in excess of US$1 million, is a behind-the-scenes look at the Toronto Zoo.

The series will profile the dangerous and endangered animals and the vets (also sometimes endangered) whose lives revolve around the zoo. Each episode will follow three story arcs, and will also stand alone. Some examples of what you’ll see: meet a silver-backed gorilla that has to undergo a risky surgical procedure; ogle as scientists try to breed a pair of Siberian tigers; or witness as a young zookeeper tries to work with a domineering African elephant.

The program will air in January on the Life Network in Canada (as part of its Real Life Stories strand). It is being distributed by Chestnut Park Entertainment.


Over the counter culture

If you listen carefully, you can probably hear Jack Kerouac spinning in his grave. The concept of counterculture – an idea that came into its own in the ’50s – has been repeatedly packaged and sold over the years since he hit the road. Now our entire culture is based on countercultures.

On the Road Again is a 90-minute (102-minute theatrical) film in pre-production at Frankfurt’s Neuzeitfilm. The project has the coproduction support of German broadcaster ZDF/ARTE, and is being produced in association with SONY Publishing, bibo TV (both of Berlin) and Herold & Besserd of Frankfurt. The film has a budget of about US$1.5 million (a figure which will depend on the budget required for music and other miscellaneous rights).

The film attempts to travel back through the last five decades to key moments in the development of American counterculture. Beginning with Kerouac and moving forward to the modern DJ scene, the film uses a plot device that centers around a trip into the past to find the relics of counterculture (Charlie Parker’s favorite saxophone, a painting in the New York subway tunnels supposedly sprayed by Basquiat…). On the Road Again is a film about modern myths and the sub-culture’s conquest of the modern mainstream, from the Jazz culture of the ’40s to the Revival culture of the ’90s.

Home sweet home

SCIP-Media, a producer/distributor in Moscow, Russia, is actively seeking partners to help it finish a 26-minute film called At The Rivers of Babylon. The film is budgeted at about US$100,000, but post is being held up due to a lack of funding.

At The Rivers of Babylon looks at the stereotypes surrounding Jewish life in Russia, especially in the cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vladimir. Though Jewish Russians have been historical targets of both official and unofficial anti-Semitism, the current generation is one of the first that has not been forced to emigrate to specific centers. Unlike their predecessors, contemporary Jewish Russians can dare to put down roots and lead an active cultural life. The producers hope the film will be one of several profiling the people who comprise modern Russian culture.

The producers also recently wrapped a 5 x 26-minute series called Mitki, Icarus Flight. Mitki is the name given to a group of famous St. Petersburg artists, founded in the middle 1980s. The film follows the creation of the writer/artist/musician’s group, up to contemporary performances which celebrate their work. The $70,000 per episode series has been picked up by Kultura in Moscow.SCIP-Media also picked up the 75-minute film Belgrade, Belgrade for distribution. Produced by Deboshir-film in St. Petersburg, the project is shot verité style, with all the action taking place within a single 24-hour period. The film examines how playwright Vladislava, her husband, child and friends try to live a normal life while a war rages around them. Belgrade has a budget of about US$42,000.

Green Umbrella Hatches Pyramid Scheme

Green Umbrella, a London-based company that makes science and natural history programs, is currently producing Ultimate Guide: Pyramids, a one-hour special for Discovery. Budgeted above US$200,000, the special will be in production until early 2001, and will air later that year.

‘We cover a number of pyramid building cultures,’ says associate producer Heather Holve, who is visiting pyramids in Mexico, Egypt and other locations. ‘The Central American civilizations are one of the program’s main areas of exploration.

We are covering the Egyptians because they are the most famous pyramid building culture, but the pyramids of Central America are new territory when it comes to academia and research – which is quite exciting.’

According to Holve, the special explores peoples such as the Mayans and Aztecs. ‘The Mayan civilization, their societies and their cities are examined because the jungles shelter a number of their pyramids – they were a prolific pyramid building culture. The Aztecs were a nomadic and conquering nation who came in and set up house on what is now Mexico City. Unlike the triangular shaped Egyptian pyramids, the pinnacles of the Aztec pyramids feature a flat surface, which ultimately became the sight of ritual temples.’

In addition, Ultimate Guide: Pyramids explores the many human sacrifices that took place within pyramid walls. The Aztec civilization, says Holve, sacrificed exceptionally large numbers of citizens to their gods. ‘According to Spanish onlookers, 20,000 people were killed in each session. We don’t know whether these figures are exaggerated, but blood was definitely a large part of the Aztec culture. There were gods of death and rage, who had spilled their own blood to give life to the Aztecs, so many people willingly shed their blood to return their life to the gods. That was considered to be an honorable death.’

Pyramids is part of Discovery’s ongoing Ultimate Guide series. The series – which began in April 1996 – has previously explored topics such as extreme weather, mummies, submarines, spiders, snakes, big cats, sharks, dogs, elephants, great apes, house cats and ants. Simon Bacal

Don’t Mind Me…

According to Psychic Spies (a one-hour special being produced by California’s Indigo Films), during the dark days of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to use ESP to gather crucial intelligence and military information about one another. Budgeted above US$100,000, the special is part of The History Channel’s History Undercover, a series that reveals little known facts about historical events. The special remains in production until early next year.

‘For more than 20 years, the government funded a covert operation and trained people to gather intelligence via paranormal means,’ says producer Gary Moskowitz. ‘When Korean war veterans came home, the government feared released POWs had been brainwashed to commit espionage or assassination once they returned to the U.S. As a result, the CIA developed MK Ultra, a special program which initially experimented with mind control and hypnosis.’

In 1970, reports leaked out of the USSR stating that ESP and other psychic talents were prevalent among the Soviet military and intelligence community. Claims were also made that the United States had started its own research into paranormal activity and that the CIA used psychics in dozens of covert missions under cover of special programs code named scanate and stargate.

‘Psychics were used to peruse files, gather information about troop movements and inspect weapons systems,’ says Moskowitz. ‘At Fort Mead, Maryland, the home of the National Security Agency, a very small unit undertook high level psychic intelligence work,’ Moskowitz reveals. ‘Instead of entering a trance, these people went into a quiet room, looked at photographs of the given subject, wrote down their impressions of the subject and apparently were able to view the subject in their mind, remotely. We’re talking about one person sitting in one location and visualizing another location with remarkable accuracy.’

Outside the realm of psychic activity, Indigo is currently shooting City Cops, a one-hour special examining the inner workings of Central Division, the San Francisco police station responsible for the safety of Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and other hot spots. Though an air date has not been finalized, executive producer David M. Frank expects his special (in production until next March) to air on TLC later next year, at a budget of about $200,000.

Besides offering insight into the Central Division’s daily briefings, the jail, holding cells and booking room, the special follows two female cops who patrol the infamous Lombard Street, the world’s most crooked road, from 4:00am to noon. Simon Bacal

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.