Double vision

Two new specialist science prodcos launched this year, headed up by formidable factual figureheads. Here, realscreen talks to Sonya Pemberton and Walter Köhler about their new endeavors and how they aim to resurrect science programming for the international market.
November 1, 2011

While the science genre is consistently both reporting on and engaging with new technologies and discoveries, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the pool of science production companies isn’t expanding as much as it is in the factual entertainment genre.

Thankfully, new science specialists are entering the picture, two of which emerged this year to bring their unique approaches in science production to the table.


Earlier in 2011, Pemberton Films principal Sonya Pemberton and Sydney-based prodco Cordell Jigsaw teamed up to create a specialist scientific production company, Melbourne-based Genepool Productions, which Pemberton says combines their individual skill sets and talents.

“I’m the science geek with a strong track record in science programming, and they are one of the best production houses in Australia,” she tells realscreen.

The Australian producers chose to team up in order to create a larger number of projects, while maintaining high quality standards. Pemberton’s credits feature numerous award-winning science films, including Immortal, produced in association with December Films, SBS and National Geographic, which recently grabbed the best science and nature award at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

Cordell Jigsaw, founded by Michael Cordell and Nick Murray, works in factual, entertainment and drama, and its credits include the Bondi Rescue ob-doc series and SBS’s three-part doc, Go Back to Where You Came From.

“To use a biological metaphor in keeping with our name, it’s about increasing diversity and evolving,” says Pemberton. “The world is changing, television and audiences are changing, science is changing – diversity and adaptation are vital for success. We are pooling our production talents to create a strong, well adapted and successful new science-based production house.”

Pemberton believes that new science specialists should be prepared to convey the complexities of scientific thought through accessible, entertaining programming – while steering clear of dumbing down the content.

“I think the world needs specialist science translators, now more than ever,” she says. “There are huge issues to grapple with, not least the fact that many people blame science for many of today’s woes and yet expect science to deliver the solutions. It’s vital we understand the process that is science, through the stories of our times.

“Our job, as I see it, is to translate significant but perhaps difficult to understand science and transform it into an easily understood, accessible and entertaining form,” she continues. “And, like a gymnast at the Olympics, we need to make it look effortless.”

She trumpets what she calls “intimate science” – a blend of science facts and “emotion, intuition, beauty and belief” – which has the potential to appeal to broadcasters and audiences alike.

“Science is potent and transformative; it’s a powerful tool in shaping how we think, feel and live,” she says. “And in a world awash with science denial, misinformation and fear, I believe there is an ever-increasing need to better understand science and its implications. So establishing Genepool as a specialist science production company makes perfect sense.”

Both Pemberton Films and Cordell Jigsaw have previously worked with the major broadcasters in Australia, and Pemberton headed up specialist factual at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) from 2004 to 2006. But Genepool has its sights set on worldwide broadcasters, both public and commercial. Pemberton says that the new prodco currently is in discussions with PBS in the U.S. for a major project and that its slate also includes several major doc series, including Jabbed: The Truth about Vaccines, which looks at the growing trend of vaccination suspicion and refusal around the world.

Genepool is also developing various formats and series, “collaborating with a range of filmmakers and scientists interested in pursuing smart and significant science programming for local and global markets,” she adds.


Meanwhile, in Vienna, a new prodco with science, wildlife and history as its pillars and another well-known factual figure as its head set up shop in January 2011. Former ORF-Universum head Walter Köhler, with the wildlife strand since 1987 as filmmaker, producer and series producer, left the Austrian broadcaster at the end of 2010 to launch Terra Mater Factual Studios, in partnership with Red Bull Media House, taking his 13-member Universum team with him.

Köhler says the aim of the new prodco, when it comes to its science work, is to bring well-crafted technique to visually sensational productions.

“What we also wanted to do is to give the audience an easier access [into science,] and go into a broader edu-taintment view,” he adds. “I think this is the specialty which I developed for Universum at ORF and of course what we are doing now with Terra Mater.”

The new shop already has 40 hours in production. Titles include The Neanderthal Puzzle, which focuses on a discovered tomb of bones and the clues they serve up; and Eyes of the Atacama, which centers around the biggest space observatory built by man. In addition, the company is producing a 3D special entitled You, Planet, which will depict the human body as a planet of its own, and will feature the first 3D shots out of an electron microscope. Broadcasters working with Terra Mater include the BBC and NDR, and the prodco also has an output deal with Red Bull Media House’s free-to-air European channel Servus TV.

Köhler says these types of projects should appeal to a large audience, as opposed to being “interesting for 50 people around the world.”

He maintains that Terra Mater’s output aims for a middle ground between the two extremes of late-night, “pure” science programming and fact ent-oriented science that focuses more on the “How do they do it?” angle. According to Köhler, the approach marries blue chip production values to a “narrative thread which has tension, drama, entertainment and is scientifically correct and on the edge.”

He also believes there’s a growing international market for more populist science programming. “At the moment, I would love to see more science which could broadcast in primetime,” he says. “I see a lot of things which are factual entertainment-oriented in series form, with MythBusters and [other] formats.

“There are quite a lot of specials which are very egg-headed so they’re not quite what you would need in a continental European primetime market,” he continues. “I think there should be more visually attractive, good storytelling specials and ideas; there’s a market for that.”

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.