Global Production

Science and Technology...
April 1, 2001

Science and Technology

The truth is out there

The quest to learn about the origins of man usually takes us back in time to the days of Earth’s development. But a serious discussion on evolution requires stretching back even further along space’s 15-billion-year growth process.

Space Millennium, an international copro headed by Japanese pubcaster NHK, tackles the weighty (…or weightless?) subject of the history of space in two 4 x 1-hour series. Having wrapped the first series, issues still to be addressed include the circulation of elements – did you know that the same substances found in newborn stars are found in baby humans? – the structure of galaxies and the possibility of life in other solar systems.

Germany’s ZDF and French distrib Tele Images have partnered with NHK to produce the project, which is being filmed in HD and has a budget of US$1 million per episode. The second series should wrap in December.

NHK recently completed another HD series called Daring Divine Peaks, a one-hour one-off on photographer Yoshikazu Shirakawa, who endeavored to capture the moment when sunlight reaches the tip of two of the world’s greatest mountains, Mount Everest and K2.

Getting by with a little help from friends Canada’s Pixcom Group and France’s VM Productions are going behind the scenes of some of the world’s busiest cities in Technopolis, a 10 x 60-minute coproduction that looks at how the services city dwellers depend on are coordinated and delivered. Every day, millions of people work to maintain the line between order and chaos, and with urban populations on the rise – like that of Hong Kong’s, which has grown to over seven million – they rely on increasingly sophisticated systems to do so. Distributed by Marathon International in France, the project carries a budget of about US$130,000 per episode and is scheduled to wrap in October 2001.

Pixcom is also in pre-production on Performance, a 13 x 60-minute doc investigating the science that supports today’s athletes. From running shoes and tennis rackets to golf clubs and energy diets, this approximately $130,000 per episode series will go into the labs and onto training fields to investigate what helps sports stars go faster, higher, and longer. Delivery is expected for fall 2002.

Déjà Vu

Ever felt like you’ve seen it all before? That life is one big ‘been there, done that’? According to the research of Dr. Ian Stevenson, a professor at the University of Virginia, there’s a good chance it might be so.

Over the past 40 years, Dr. Stevenson has investigated close to 3,000 cases of children who remember former lives. In Past Lives: The Search for Scientific Evidence of Reincarnation, a 52-minute doc from Washington, D.C.’s Story House Productions, Stevenson travels to Europe, Lebanon, and India to visit people from his earlier studies and look into new cases. In so doing, he reviews his lifetime quest to find life after death.

Budgeted for about USs$400,000, the program will be ready for delivery in early 2002. Partial financing from Germany’s Spiegel TV is already in place, with U.S. rights still available.

Story House and Spiegel are also at work on a 52-minute one-off titled The Negotiator. Clint Van Zandt, former chief negotiator for the FBI, revisits the darker side of the human race by reviewing some of his on-the-job experiences, including prison riots, hostage takings and the Waco stand-off. Ready for fall 2001, the film carries a budget of about $300,000.


Soggy Viminale, anyone?

When a group of scuba divers stumbled on a shipwreck off the coast of Calabria, they unwittingly discovered the Viminale, an Italian ship sunk by an American torpedo on July 25, 1943. Resting about 100 meters below sea level, the Viminale – named after one of the seven hills of Rome – is almost completely intact.

GA&A Productions in Rome is developing a one-hour one-off called Viminale: The Return of the Ghost Ship about the shipwreck and its history. Budgeted for around US$500,000, the doc will be shot on either digi beta or HD and will feature several re-enactments. Delivery is expected for next spring. GA&A is looking for copro partners and is considering a two-hour version.

Tragedy on the Black Sea

In 1941, 800 Jews left Constanza, Romania, for Palestine aboard the Struma. Conditions on the ship were horrible – overcrowded bunks, a leaky hull, and an engine prone to failure. The vessel made it as far as Istanbul Harbour, where passengers sought sanctuary. Turkey deliberated for 71 days while the refugees remained on board, but ultimately refused entry. The Struma was towed back out to sea. Twelve hours later, a Russian submarine fired a torpedo at the ship, killing all but one passenger.

Sixty years after the tragic event, the grandson of two Struma passengers is researching the ill-fated journey with the help of the ship’s sole survivor. In Struma, a 90-minute YAP (Yorkshire and Associated Producers) production, Toronto-based director Simcha Jacobovici follows the grandson on an expedition to find his grandparents’ final resting place and recover the ship’s remains.

Budgeted around US$650,000, Struma is scheduled for delivery by the end of June. The project is being produced in association with HBO, Canada’s History Television, and Channel 4 in the U.K. Toronto-based AAC Fact has worldwide distribution rights (excluding some regions).

In other AAC Fact news, the company recently acquired the rights to Secret Voyage, which will challenge a well-entrenched chapter of British history. Based on an upcoming book by Canadian historian Samuel Bawlf, Secret Voyage will argue that English explorer Sir Francis Drake discovered Canada’s Vancouver Island in the late 1500s, almost 200 years before the credited discoverer, Captain Cooke. AAC Fact is reportedly in pursuit of international partners to make two one-hour programs.

My kind of town

The city of Chicago boasts a history of firsts. The first skyscraper was erected in 1885, forever changing urban landscapes, and the first controlled atomic reaction was performed at the University of Chicago in 1942. Chicago was also the stomping ground of gangster Al Capone.

It has inspired both a rock group and a hit Broadway musical and now it’s the title of a 3 x 60-minute series coproduced by WGBH in Boston and WTTW in Chicago (in association with the Chicago Historical Society).

Having burned to the ground in the great fire of 1871, the rise of the windy city is the quintessential American story, so it’s only fitting that the series is slated to air in the ‘American Experience’ strand on PBS. Chicago is budgeted at about US$1.5 million and is expected to broadcast in December 2001. WGBH International will distribute.


For Love or Money

For actors anxious to hit it big on TV, L.A. is the place to be. Most of the time, however, the reality of landing a gig in the City of Angels causes budding thespians to reconsider their career choice. But for a small portion of the calendar year – pilot season – a hopeful glint is seen in the eyes of most.

Montreal-based Cineflix Productions duly noted the programming potential in following the ascent (or descent…) of these dramatic ingenues and is now producing the aptly titled reality series Pilot Season. Six aspiring actors will open their lives up to the cameras while they maneuver to land a part during those frenzied months. Over the course of 13 half-hour episodes, the world of pushy agents and personal trainers will be exposed through their eyes, along with the highs and lows of endless auditions.

Budgeted at US$975,000, Pilot Season is scheduled to start shooting in winter 2002. Pre-sales are pending in the U.K. and Canada.

Cineflix will also follow risk-takers of another sort with e-love, a 13 x 30-minute series about the quest to find a soul mate via the internet. Each episode picks up the story at the point when a couple has decided to move from their keyboard correspondence to a face-to-face meeting. Viewers will meet each character prior to the big event, then witness the ensuing delight or disillusionment.

Cineflix has already signed Canadian cablecaster WTN for e-love, and is actively pursuing networks in the U.K. and the U.S. The budget for the series is in the US$845,000 ballpark. Production begins in May and is expected to wrap by late fall.

Cineflix recently wrapped The Mission – a US$230,000 one-off about Red Cross field surgeon Chris Giannou – for Canada’s TVO, and is about to begin production on another 26 episodes of Birth Stories for Canada’s Life Network and Discovery Health in the U.S.

Men in Black

Aside from an austere suit, dark shades and no-nonsense manner, what else does it takes to become an agent for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations? Tom Cochrun, president and CEO of Indianapolis, U.S.-based prodco Nineteenth Star, is determined to find out in The Making of a Fed, a one-hour program for the Discovery Channel.

The program will go behind the scenes at the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia, to track a group of recruits. The camera will follow the would-be feds as they endure the rigors of legal, physical, academic, investigative, procedural and firearms training during the four months required to prove they have the right stuff.

The budget for The Making of a Fed is around US$308,000. Delivery is set for October. Virginia-based Adler Media is distributing the one-off internationally.

Nineteenth Star is also currently in pre-production on four programs for the Travel Channel: Volcano Cowboys, The World’s Greatest Race Track, Inside the Houdini Museum and Inside the UFO Museum. Each project has a budget in the $150,000 to $200,000 range.

In development is a program about the past, present and future of the Kinsey Institute for Sexual Research at Indiana University. Nineteenth Star is seeking domestic and international partners for the $200,000 project.

Current Affairs

First lady of shoes

Years after her fall from grace, former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos remains fascinating. Her obsession with fancy footwear is but one innocuous example of her abuse of power; more serious accusations run to human rights violations. Despite her behavior, Imelda has always known how to command the stage and inspire popular support. Even now, Filipinos tend to adore or despise her with a passion usually reserved for once-close friends. At present, Imelda is back in the Philippines facing a range of charges as a consequence of her actions.

In Imelda: Steel Butterfly, a one-hour one-off, Texas-based director/producer Ramona Diaz employs news footage, home movies, propaganda films and interviews – including some with Imelda herself – to investigate how the former first lady managed to amass and sustain power for nearly four decades.

The US$565,000 project, which is scheduled to wrap in September, is being produced in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS) in the U.S. Other contributors to Imelda: Steel Butterfly include the Soros Documentary Fund and the National Asian American Telecommunications Association. American Public Television is distributing.

Some of the other projects on the ITVS slate are Amasong: Beauty and Justice? (Jay Rosenstein), a $100,000 30-minute program about the founding of a lesbian-feminist choir in small-town Illinois; Beyond the Border (Eren McGinnis and Ari Palos), a $150,000 60-minute documentary about four brothers’ migration from Mexico to Kentucky; and The Harry Hay Documentary (Eric Slade), a $300,000 one-hour one-off about gay rights activist Harry Hay and the establishment of the Mattachine Society. Each of these projects is currently in production, with a June wrap date.


Eastern Eden

Author James Hilton coined the phrase ‘Shangri-La’ in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. The word is derived from the mythical Tibetan utopia known as Shamba-la. La means mountain pass in Tibetan and although Hilton never visited this Eastern culture, he chose Tibet’s mountains as the setting for his novel. Today, the word is synonymous with anything Eden-like.

Ever since the book’s publication, people have searched for this earthly heaven. The latest coproduction effort by Thomas Horton Associates in Ojai, U.S. and L.A.’s End of the World Entertainment continues this tradition by exploring the possibility that the place where people ‘never die or grow old’ actually exists. Return to Shangri-La is budgeted for about US$350,000 and follows two American explorers, a former state department official of Chinese culture and history, and a Tibetan mountain guide to a valley in China that bears an eerie resemblance to Hilton’s descriptions. Archival research will also be used as evidence that this valley is indeed the fabled Shangri-La.

The producers hope to capture the trek in HD, and plan to deliver in late 2001. The film will be either a one-hour single or a 2 x 60-minute series, depending on where the project ultimately broadcasts.


Going Dutch

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is at work on Vermeer – Painter of Light, the second effort of an ongoing series that explores and investigates art pieces housed in the Gallery’s collection. Using x-ray analysis, infrared reflectography and computer wizardry, this 60-minute film performs a virtual dive beneath the paint of each work of art to reveal the evolution of its creation. Using modern technology, Vermeer hopes to gain insight into the techniques employed by Johannes Vermeer, a 17th century Dutch painter, and establish the essence of his work in terms of lighting and composition. The film has a budget of about US$425,000 and will wrap at the end of May, with distribution being handled by Home Vision/PMI Television in Chicago. The first film of the series examined Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Ginevra de’ Benci’. At least four more films are planned.

Friends, Romans, Sperm donors

Architecture, democracy and aqueducts aside, what was everyday life like for the average citizen of ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire? Is life better now than it was back then? Did the people of these cultures have dentists? Seventh Art Productions in the U.K. answers these and other key questions in its 2 x 60-minute series The Hidden History of the Roman Empire, and The Hidden History of Egypt, both hosted by Terry Jones.

For those interested in knowing what went on behind closed doors, there is also The Hidden History of Sex and Love with Terry Jones. This two-hour doc looks at the historic equivalents of perfume, oysters and equity by addressing such questions as how did individuals attract mates? How, when and why did people get married? And, how were women and children in these societies treated?

The Hidden History series has a combined budget of about US$1.2 million and is both commissioned and distributed by The Discovery Channel. Set to wrap in September 2001, it will also air on the BBC.

The Beeb and Discovery previously teamed up with ITEL (now part of Granada International) to coproduce Seventh Art’s recently completed project Nero’s Golden House – a $320,000 doc that reconstructs the emperor’s palace using 3D graphics. Running 50 minutes in length, the film deconstructs commonly understood myths about Nero and his time as emperor of Rome. Granada International is on board as distributor.

Nero is thought to have started the first great art museum in his Golden House, the benefits of which have been reaped by artists ever since. Seventh Art takes a look at the lives and works of some of these benefactors in The Great Artists, directed by Phil Grabsky and Ali Ray. Visiting galleries around the world, art historian Tim Marlow offers insight into what makes a work or artist great, and examines how their techniques and innovations have driven art into the 21st century. Painters such as Rembrandt, Raphael, Titan and Van Gogh are explored in this 14 x 23-minute series, each segment of which looks at a different master. The film,

commissioned by Channel 5 in the U.K., will wrap in autumn 2001 and is budgeted for about $880,000. Channel 5 International and Ambrose Video in New York are distributors.

On a different note, Sperm Donor Dads (w/t) takes a critical look at the regulations that presently guarantee anonymity to the U.K.’s many sperm donors. The 30-minute one-off is centered around the stories of individuals created by donor insemination, but it also brings forth the concerns of donors and sperm banks, should the guarantee of anonymity be lost. Presently, the British government is considering changes to the law that might eventually allow donor insemination offspring to track down their genetic fathers. Commissioned for C5, the documentary will wrap in the spring of this year and has a budget of approximately $60,000. At press time, Seventh Art was looking for a distributor.

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