Leap of Faith: Anatomy of a coproduction (Rio La Venta) Part III of IV

And then there were three: NOVA, by Susan K. Lewis, producer, and Melanie Wallace,...
April 1, 1998

And then there were three: NOVA, by Susan K. Lewis, producer, and Melanie Wallace,

senior producer, coproductions & acquisitions, NOVA

In years past, nova has toted the tagline ‘Adventures in Science,’ and now, perhaps more than ever, we are on the lookout for stories that will keep viewers on the edge of their seats. So, when we were approached over two years ago by the Italian production company, Paneikon, to make a film about spelunkers exploring a remote region of Mexico, there was certainly an appeal – it sounded like an adventurous excursion to a beautiful location.

But still, we declined. In order for nova to be interested in such a film, we said the focus would have to be more archaeological, and include an American scholar who was respected in Mesoamerican archaeology.

The next time we heard about the project, Paneikon had joined up with French production company Gedeon to revise the proposal, and we liked the idea of these two companies joining forces. We had recently completed a successful coproduction with Gedeon, and we were in the middle of a two-year project with Paneikon and British-based Pilot Productions. We knew both Marco Visalberghi from Paneikon and Stephane Millière from Gedeon, and we felt we could work with them as a team.

In addition, Gedeon brought a talented French director to the project, Antoine de Maximy, whose work was known to us, as well as an American writer/producer now living in France, Catherine Rubin. Catherine had worked in French television, but was also familiar with the u.s. tv environment. This helped reassure us that lines of communication would be clear.

The revised proposal laid out a story much more in keeping with nova’s needs, but we still expected to receive a full-length treatment which explicitly laid out the shooting plan for the program. However, before the production team had time to get us such a document, events overtook them and they began shooting in Mexico. Needless to say, we were surprised and disappointed to find the production had already begun without our signing off. We were reluctant to make a financial commitment at that point, but Paneikon addressed our concern by agreeing to let us see the rushes from this first shoot.

The production team made the trek to Boston with their footage a few months later. Happily for all, the material was beautiful, even breathtaking. Clearly, Antoine and his camera crews were as fearless as some of the rock-climbing spelunkers, and many pieces of the story seemed to be falling into place. We agreed to move forward with a contract between nova and Paneikon. Paneikon had already signed a separate contract with Gedeon, and that document was incorporated into our later agreement.

The production plan called for off-line editing to be done in Paris and the post-production work to be done in Rome. The production team hired another American in Paris, Mike Magidson, to edit the program. Antoine, Catherine and Mike spent weeks preparing a rough-cut, which went out to Paneikon and nova.

The rough-cut included even more stunning footage. Shots from the ‘cine-bulle’ wafted gently over a cloud-misted Mexican jungle and others, peering down cliff faces to the caves below, were truly vertigo inducing.

Yet, we had two primary editorial concerns. First, we wondered whether the program had enough context about Mesoamerican culture to make sense of the archaeologists new finds, and secondly, whether some of the archaeologists themselves were developed to their full potential as characters.

We knew that addressing the first issue was tricky – a bit like adding seasoning to suit different tastes. It’s difficult to convey precisely how salty you want the soup from thousands of miles away. Via faxes and phone calls, we may have overemphasized our desire to have more cultural context. While we certainly didn’t want to weigh down the present-day adventure with a didactic lesson, we still wanted a dash more.

The production team in Paris did their best to interpret our comments and make revisions. But, after screening a revised cut and engaging in a few lengthy conference calls across the Atlantic, we decided that the best plan would be to gather together here in Boston for a week or so of editing to finish the nova version.

nova and Gedeon both use avid equipment for off-line editing, and the plan seemed not only technically feasible, but also perhaps a good test case for the future. While we normally shoot and edit in ntsc, we are now also able to handle pal. At nova we pulled together a Media Com-

poser (version 6.5), a PAL Beta deck, PAL BB Generator and pal full-screen monitor, and we were ready to go. It might have been possible for the French editing team to simply bring their digitized material on disk, but for various reasons, they preferred to bring their pal work tapes, as well as the avid data noting the clips from their fine-cut. Re-digitizing this footage, as well as additional footage we believed could be useful, took less than a day.

In advance of its arrival, the French team put together a few tapes of all of the interview material in English, so that we could identify possible ways to both build our characters and have them introduce a bit more context. Adding additional interview pieces would both suit the nova style and help the show cater more to a u.s. audience. The tapes proved extremely useful, and having these interviews on hand was a good lesson for the future in terms of international collaboration.

The Gedeon group consisted of Maximy, Rubin and Magidson; Paneikon sent its producer, Marina Cappabianca. At nova, we had executive producer Paula Apsell, senior producer, coproductions and acquisitions, Melanie Wallace and producer Susan K. Lewis. Working together for an intense week here in Boston, we were able to cut a near-picture-lock version of the show for nova. The narration script for nova had yet to be finalized, but we were confident that the story, as told visually and through interviews, was in place.

Ideally, it would have been preferable to craft the narration with the flexibility of making more picture changes and with a better sense of the music. But under our tight broadcast deadline, we wrote to the pictures we had. A few weeks later, when we received the music, dialogue and effects mix for the nova version from France, we revised our narration, laid in a bit more music and tweaked some of the picture. No major picture changes were needed at that point. If there had been, it would have been important to have additional raw footage, or even cut sequences as additional options.

In the end, we were pleased not only to have a beautiful and engaging program, but also to have deepened our relationships with such a talented group of producers and artists.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.