‘Making Stuff’ with PBS and Powderhouse

PBS science strand 'NOVA' and Powderhouse Productions are aiming to make the materials science genre TV-friendly with their four-part series Making Stuff: Stronger, Smaller, Smarter, Cleaner. In advance of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers, realscreen talks to the team behind the upcoming series.
November 25, 2010

While it seems like every genre of science has already been explored for a TV special or series, PBS science strand ‘NOVA’ and Somerville, Massachusetts-based Powderhouse Productions are aiming to make the materials science genre TV-friendly with their four-part series Making Stuff: Stronger, Smaller, Smarter, Cleaner. Materials science concerns the make-up and performance of the metals, ceramics, electronic materials and biomaterials that exist all around us.

Chris Schmidt, producer of Making Stuff and VP of special projects for Powderhouse Productions, says that ‘NOVA’ had tried to propose a materials science program years ago, but the idea languished because people didn’t know what to do with it. ‘It’s kind of a tough subject and it tends to be a little bit dry,’ admits Schmidt.

Paula Apsell, senior executive producer of ‘NOVA,’ then approached Powderhouse to see if the prodco would be interested in producing a materials science program. Schmidt proposed a hosted show with a non-scientist host, an unusual route for a ‘NOVA’ program, and offered up the idea of asking David Pogue (pictured) to take on the role. Pogue, a New York Times technology reporter, is less of a science guy and more of a gadget guy, says Schmidt. ‘Having an entertaining non-scientist host was a huge part of making it workable,’ he adds. ‘We let him try to come to understand things and through him we’re able to make it understandable and interesting to the viewer.’

Besides making materials science understandable for the average person, Powderhouse also paid attention to the entertainment factor. ‘We tried as often as possible to get out of the lab and find ways to immerse David in situations that would give him something to react to and would give the viewer the sense that they were getting a backstage pass to something they wouldn’t normally get access to,’ says Schmidt.

This means that viewers will find Pogue on an aircraft carrier, at a demolition derby, hang gliding, swimming with sharks and more. ‘At most of these locations there wasn’t a lot of science going on but they provided set-ups,’ explains Schmidt. ‘Then we’d be able to go to labs and see the more cutting-edge stuff but with the context that made it more compelling.’

Another challenge was for the ‘Smaller’ element of Making Stuff. The producers had to employ CGI and animation, partly done in-house and also with New York-based Edgeworks, in order to present materials that the human eye can’t see. ‘We constantly had to look for metaphors and ways to talk about things that people will get without being able to visualize them and we used a lot of graphics and animation to make things clear,’ he says.

‘One of the things that we’ve found over the years is that there are one or two different variations on science programs,’ says Tom Koch, VP of PBS International, of the series. ‘One is [the] ‘bigger, better, faster’ engineering show, but also thoughtful science programs are also very popular. This is one of those seminal ‘NOVA’ productions that come about every year or so; big multi-hour projects that explain how things work with very high production values and people know what they’re going to get.’

Click here for more about upcoming popular science programming, from the November/December issue of realscreen.

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.