Searching the Stars

Project: Space Millennium
October 1, 2001

Project: Space Millennium

Description: Presented as two 4 x 1-hour series, the project explores the mystery of life within the context of the universe.

Exec producer: Kenichiro Takiguchi, NHK (Japan)

Coproducers: Tele Images International (France), ZDF Enterprises (Germany)

Budget: US$1million per episode

The human fascination with space is rooted in the inherent desire to understand where we come from. Are we the product of a precise combination of elements, brought about by ‘the big bang’? It’s an idea that Kenichiro Takiguchi, executive producer with NHK’s programming department (special programs), could not let go, and it led him to pursue Space Millennium.

‘The history of life, so far, has often been considered as 4,600 million years,’ he says. ‘However, this program attempts to solve the mystery of life within a history of the 100,000 light-year-old galaxy. If all life forms originated by the 30 elements born by a collision of stars, and if mankind was a result of evolution based on coincidental miracles, how is it possible to say that Earth is the only planet with life? If we humans are really made of stardust, we are indeed a part of the universe. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick, 2001 seemed like the best time to wrap up how far we have come and to foresee what lies ahead.’

Of course, for all of the philosophical rationale, we’re still talking about television. Having just recently launched a high definition channel, Hi-Vision, NHK is on the prowl for projects with stunning visuals, rendered graphically or otherwise. Fortunately, as subjects go, the universe is well suited to coproduction.

One small step for NHK, one giant step for CGI.

June 1999: After many discussions about life, the idea for Space Millennium emerges at NHK. Says Takiguchi, ‘The goal of this program is to re-examine what life is all about. Is Earth the only planet with life, or is the universe full of life? How did the universe contribute to the birth of life? Our challenge is to verify what answers the latest science has to offer to these questions, and ‘show’ what the most recent universe looks like.’ Takiguchi envisions the program as an 8 x 1-hour high definition series for the ‘NHK Special’ primetime slot. He assembles the same team that produced NHK’s science series Planet of Ocean.

October 1999: NHK seeks coproduction partners for Space Millennium at MIPCOM, approaching producers, broadcasters and distributors with whom it has worked in the past. Paris-based distributor Tele Images International is one such company that expresses interest, though it hesitates to commit.

Says Marie-France Han, general director of Tele Images, ‘We have had a longstanding relationship with NHK and have been involved in previous series they originated, such as Planet of Life, Planet of Ocean and The Human Genome. We are familiar with the ambition and quality of their productions, and know they can deliver. When Mr. Tajima pitched Space Millennium to us, it seemed even more ambitious and a real challenge, since the topic sounded quite abstract. Also, at a time when ‘reality’ programming seems to be the only word in town, it seemed it might be a challenge to find interest from broadcasters by the time the series would be finished.’

January 2000: Having completed the treatments for the first four episodes, the coproduction staff head to NATPE in the U.S. to pitch the program to broadcasters. Response is underwhelming.

Sayumi Horie, of nhk’s international coproductions department, recalls, ‘There seems to have already been a ‘space’ program in progress at the time, so despite our efforts we didn’t receive as strong a response as we were hoping for.’

Work on the Space Millennium project forges ahead anyway, and sketches for computer graphics start.

March 2000: Shooting begins. About 40% of Space Millennium is destined to be CGI. Takiguchi explains: ‘We chose to do so, because appearing as real as possible was the bottom line in conveying the ultimate message of this project: that we humans, along with all other life forms, are in fact a part of this ‘living’ universe.’

To ensure accuracy, NHK arranges with NASA for supervision on CGI scenes, as well as for the use of real photographic images. Takiguchi says constant contact with NASA was crucial. ‘We started making cg images based on nasa’s sketches and blueprints of the spaceships, provided in the fall of 1999, but by the time our sample was ready in the spring of 2000, they had improved the design. Thanks to email, being in touch with NASA was not difficult, because we could send the sketches and samples as attached files and they would immediately respond with the corrections.

‘For instance, we would mail them the rough continuity of a scene inside the space ship, and they would respond by circling the irrelevant parts. If our continuity board said, ‘Food Supplies are getting low,’ they would write back, ‘No, you would have enough food to return to Earth.’ They also corrected our sketches by writing ‘No chairs. Could have seats but no seat backs. Add foot loops,’ and so forth.’

CGI production accounts for about one third of the project’s expenses.

April 2000: In preparation for MIPTV, NHK makes a demo tape, which includes CG images. At this market, the plan is to further encourage companies who had previously shown an interest in the project, and also to seek out other public broadcasters as partners. NHK approaches Germany’s ZDF, giving them a sample tape and treatment.

Says Horie: ‘I think we were able to send ZDF a strong message. They showed high interest at this time. But, since the program was ‘a big challenge’ with all the CGs, they asked many questions about how we were actually going to collaborate the cg images and the actual images, without interrupting the natural flow of the story. I remember coming back to Japan feeling that the issue was going to be the quality of the CG images and how effectively we would be able to present the CGs in the whole storyline.’

June 2000: Based on reactions to the program pitch at MIPTV, NHK decides it is essential to show contacts, in visual form, the CGs and the part they will play in the storyline. Takiguchi takes no chances and makes the full-color storyboard himself.

The Space Millennium production team, including Takiguchi, attends Sunny Side of the Doc in Marseilles, then travels to Germany and France to present the storyboard to ZDF and Tele Images respectively. Says Horie, ‘It was good that we were able to speak with the programming and production staff of each company, and were able to give them our idea directly. The storyboard stimulated their curiosity to actually see the real CG images .’ Both ZDF and Tele Images ask to see a demo tape at the next MIPCOM.

September 2000: ZDF has a change of heart about waiting to see the demo tape, and contacts NHK with a detailed offer to sign on as a coproduction partner.

October 2000: NHK attends MIPCOM and introduces the demo tape for Space Millennium. ZDF finalizes the agreement with NHK; Tele Images says they would prefer to wait until the first episode is done to propose any amount of money.

December 31, 2000: The first episode of the completed version is screened – it’s the first time NHK’s staff see the whole program including all of the CGIs, which constitute at least 20 minutes of each 50-minute episode.

Work on the high definition graphic images continues until just before the broadcast. Takiguchi explains: ‘CG production in HD, in theory, needs six times as much work as standard definition. In reality, it turned out that we needed to work 10 times as much. For instance, in standard definition, if there were two seconds of a cut we wanted to re-finish, we would be able to varnish the change by replacing those two seconds. But in HD, the definition is so fine that we would end up re-doing the whole sequence to make sure the continuation was not interrupted.’

January 2, 2001: The first episode airs on Hi-Vision, NHK’s HD channel. Tele Images receives a copy of the program for review.

March 2001: NHK meets with Tele Images in Tokyo for TV France International’s ‘Tokyo Showcase’. At this meeting, the distributor confirms its participation and negotiates on the price.

Says Tele Image’s Han, ‘We signed on after in-depth discussions with Mr. Tajima and the producer of the program about the content and its visualisation. Of course, the quality of the computer graphics from NHK was a guarantee and we made sure that the content would not be just hard science, but a real space epic. We knew from our previous experiences that we could trust nhk. We also, in a sense, trusted the market. Even though it is difficult for ‘serious’ documentaries, we are strong believers that captivating, ambitious, evergreen, popular science will win in the long run, and we want it to keep enriching our catalog.’

Final agreements are made via email after Tele Images returns to France. The territories Tele Images takes are Europe (excluding German-speaking areas and the U.K.), the Middle East and French-speaking Africa.

April 2001: The first episode is broadcast on nhk’s terrestrial channel, General TV.

June 2001: NHKcompletes the promotion tape for the first series of Space Millennium.

October 2001: Coproduction partners NHK, ZDF and Tele Images present Space Millennium at MIPCOM, with a launch ceremony and reception.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.