Brave new world

Commissioning editors around the globe make room for big science docs and warm to the idea of adding a touch of fiction to the facts. SUSAN ZELLER reports
November 1, 2003

Commissioning editors around the globe make room for big science docs and warm to the idea of adding a touch of fiction to the facts. SUSAN ZELLER reports

Big science docs have an unmistakable cool factor. Like science-fiction movies, they allow viewers to glimpse never-before-seen worlds, using a careful balance of visual effects and dramatic storytelling techniques. The added bonus of these factual films is that they’re grounded in carefully researched theories and findings, so it’s plausible that the worlds they explore either did, do or could exist. But as big science stories tackle increasingly abstract or grandiose ideas – incorporating elaborate cgi and re-creations along the way, as well as a more narrative approach and, consequently, bigger budgets – the boundary between factual and fiction films is blurring.

Producer Fred Fougea of Paris-based Boréales says he wouldn’t call Sapiens Odyssey – his upcoming project for French pubcaster France 3 – a documentary, although it is a commission of the channel’s non-fiction department. (The US$4.1 million successor to this year’s ratings hit Species Odyssey is a copro with Montreal-based prodco Pixcom.) ‘It’s really a blend of the art of documentary and the art of fiction,’ he asserts. ‘It has to combine both into a very subtle equilibrium, so it has to be called docu-fiction for me.’

France 3 head of documentaries Patricia Boutinard-Rouelle disagrees, however. She notes that while films such as Species Odyssey and Sapiens Odyssey employ fiction techniques such as re-creation and scripting to tell the story, the content has solid scientific backing and detailed research behind it, which keeps them firmly in the non-fiction camp.

Boutinard-Rouelle concedes that she has encountered some resistance, both within France and internationally, to the idea of blending documentary with elements of fiction filmmaking. ‘The mix was considered dangerous,’ she says. But, the approach has gradually gained greater acceptance and is spurring an international trend – no doubt supported by the impressive ratings this style of science show tends to generate.

France 3′s airing of Species Odyssey last January drew an audience of almost nine million, which included French president Jacques Chirac. In April, German broadcaster ZDF attracted 3.2 million, including 12% of viewers 14 to 49 years old, with its broadcast of The Future is Wild. And looking back at the doc that arguably started it all – the BBC/Discovery blockbuster Walking With Dinosaurs – a staggering 36 million tuned in for its U.S. premiere in 2000. Notes Wolfgang Buck, science editor for German public broadcaster ARD/NDR, ‘As soon as you put one of these big documentaries on, you get a good rating. There’s no doubt about it; we see it every time.’

Bigger is better, so bring on the CGI

Given these successes, broadcasters are creating more space in their schedules for ‘event’ science shows. Boutinard-Rouelle says France 3 began two years ago to focus on ‘fewer, but better produced and bigger impact’ non-fiction programs. And, as a direct result of Species Odyssey, the channel has set aside one primetime slot per month (on Mondays) for documentaries.

At Channel 4 in the U.K., Simon Andreae, commissioning editor for science and education, confirms that he’s looking for both low-budget docs and long-format, high-budget (around £600,000/$1 million per hour) science movies. He acknowledges that a focus on big projects is a way to stand out in a competitive environment, adding that C4 has eight to 10 science spectacles currently in the works.

In Germany, ZDF is also directing more resources towards bigger projects. Kristina Hollstein, director of international coproduction & development for ZDF Enterprises, notes the channel has 10 hours of ‘what if’ docs in development, including a second installment of The Future is Wild. The original 13 x 30-minute series, produced by Stroud, U.K.-based John Adams Television, was about animals that might exist in 200 million years. Its budget was roughly $6 million.

‘It’s quite a new trend that you see in Germany at the moment,’ she says. ‘A couple of years ago, we had things like The Third World War – ‘what if’ stories of things that could have happened in the past but didn’t. Now we are looking at topics that can happen, that are closer to our regular life.’ For example, one of the projects in the works is The Storm (w/t), which looks at the possibility of a hurricane starting in the U.S. and traveling across the north Atlantic to northern Europe.

Over at ARD/NDR, Buck isn’t convinced that audiences will respond to ‘what if’ stories. He recalls the negative reaction when ARD/NDR aired an episode of the BBC/TLC series Space. ‘There was a doomsday vision in the third part of the series that looked at the likelihood of asteroids crashing into the Earth. I got letters and phone calls saying, ‘That’s crazy, keep your feet on the ground. If we want to watch a science program, please keep it less emotional.’ That was unexpected.’

Buck is interested in documentaries that explore the future, however. ‘Look[ing] at the world as it is today and trying to figure out what it will be like in 10 years or 50 years – this is the hardest work, the hardest challenge,’ he says, adding, ‘I would also like to have more ideas of where technology or genetic science will lead us.’

Unlike ZDF, ARD/NDR has a weekly slot (Tuesday, 10:15 p.m. to 11 p.m.) dedicated to science, so Buck is keen to find good, moderately budgeted shows as well as the high-end blockbusters. But, the two pursuits don’t always work well together – he observes that the ratings of the lower-end shows tend to drop following the broadcast of a big science doc. ‘They are not as accepted by the audience as they were three years ago,’ Buck says. ‘I have a weekly slot here at NDR, and that’s really becoming a problem for our programming.’

At The Science Channel in the U.S. (one of Discovery’s digi offerings), senior VP and GM Steve Burns would ideally like to program a big film every quarter but, like ARD/NDR, the primary focus remains on ‘good, solid, everyday science productions’ (see sidebar). In his experience, there hasn’t been any audience backlash to the channel’s bread-and-butter fare in the wake of an event show. ‘Audiences bring with them expectations when there’s a highly marketed, big budget non-fiction special,’ he observes. ‘But, in their everyday viewing they can enjoy anything.’

Burns shares Hollstein and Buck’s interest in big productions that consider the future, but he’s also open to a broad swath of proposals. ‘[CGI] expands the topics you can do in science,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of clever producers out there, some of whom someday will figure out a way to make a voyage through the body or a journey through a cell as fantastic as Walking With Dinosaurs.’

With so much interest in the future, has broadcasters’ penchant for dino docs finally begun to wane? Ann Julienne, head of acquisitions and copros at France 5 and a steering committee member for the World Congress of Science Producers in Paris (December 3 to 6), says that is sure to be discussed at the upcoming event. ‘Our schedulers always seem to be quite happy to put on another dinosaur story and they always seem to work. But, I’m beginning to question if we’ve seen the high mark of the chart and are going to start seeing a drop in interest,’ she says.

The future is expensive…

The hallmark of big science docs is CGI and, to a lesser extent, re-creations. Both are expensive, particularly CGI, but most program execs agree that it’s worth the extra investment. Observes Buck, ‘Five years ago, it was enough to join an archaeologist on an expedition…and [have him] tell us a story about what was going on there 2,000 years ago. Now you can’t do these kinds of productions; you need the CGI, the re-enactments, to get the audience high.’

France 3′s Boutinard-Rouelle states simply that broadcasters have to be prepared to come up with more money if they want this kind of production, and they often have to commit to working with international partners. For Sapiens Odyssey, producer Fougea says he is negotiating with 10 to 12 broadcasters that have expressed an interest in signing on (at press time, only France 3 and France 5 were confirmed). He estimates that about 30% of the $4.1 million production budget will be put towards special effects and an additional 10% to CGI.

Nigel Ashcroft, MD of Bristol, U.K.-based Green Umbrella, likewise allocated a hefty sum to graphics for the recently completed 2 x 1-hour Discovery Channel U.S./Discovery Networks International special Journey to the Centre of the Earth: about one-third of the £1.1 million ($1.9 million) budget went to 10 minutes of CGI (by Montreal-based Meteor Studios). ‘It is by far the most expensive filmmaking [method] per minute,’ he says. ‘It’s even cheaper to travel to the other side of the world with a big film crew.’

That isn’t to say that producers have no way of keeping costs under control.’Having glossy, expensive graphics is not a prerequisite for making a good science documentary,’ states Ian Duncan, a director with London-based Windfall Films. ‘Quite often very simple 2-D graphics can be more effective than these big- production, 3-D jobs.’

For Bombing the Nazi Dams, a history/science hybrid, Duncan acted on his words. To illustrate how the bombs bounced across a reservoir and then spun downwards along the wall of the dam before exploding, he started with architects’ drawings of the dams. He filmed the drawings mounted on a board and then added a computer-generated graphic of the bouncing bomb, made to look like a line drawing, which was the only moving element.

Says Duncan, ‘That device was used throughout the program, so it became a kind of motif. The line drawing on the drawing board would come alive at various stages. It saved a lot of money, and it was also a more elegant solution than going for the obvious luxury graphic.’ The production budget of Dams, which was a copro of Five in the U.K., Thirteen/WNET in the U.S. and National Geographic Channels International, was about £250,000 ($423,000). Duncan said the cost of graphics was ‘at the cheap end of what you would expect to pay.’

Still, some big science docs are destined to be costly by the sheer nature of the subject matter. The recent three-part PBS series The Elegant Universe, produced by ‘Nova’, is a perfect example. The production team was charged with bringing alive the abstract concept of string theory. Says ‘Nova’ senior exec producer Paula Apsell, ‘There’s no way we could have made these abstract ideas concrete, taken completely invisible things and made them visible, created a world that shows all the implications of string theory, with parallel universes and multi-dimensions, if we didn’t have fantastic CGI.’

The estimated budget for The Elegant Universe rang in at $3.5 million – no small sum, even for ‘Nova’. Notes Apsell, ‘We were lucky. We got a big National Science Foundation grant, and grants from the Department of Energy and the Sloan Foundation. Without these friends, we would not have been able to do it.’

Now, the question that remains to be answered is how far will broadcasters go, in terms of spending? Producer Fougea is matter-of-fact in his thinking: ‘You have to tell a story, and the constraint is to tell the story in a big mode; you can’t tell the story in a penny mode. You have to compete with features in terms of images and rhythm and style. You’re competing with the big movies, [so] you have to be at this scale.’


Update on The Science Channel

Five years after Discovery debuted The Science Channel, the digi-station is freshening up its approach and reorganizing its theme nights. Here’s what senior VP and GM Steve Burns says the channel is looking for:

Monday: Prehistoric Planet – dinosaurs, evolution, archaeology

‘I’m always looking for new prehistoric programming, whether it’s a unique one-hour that has a lot of innovative techniques in showing things that people have not been able to show before, or two or three-hour mini-series. When I invest in a two or three-hour mini-series, my hope would be the topic would have legs, so as the network gets bigger I can expand it into an ongoing series.’

Tuesday: Cosmic Dimension – space exploration, planetary science

‘What I’m looking for is not only the recording of the latest from space and planetary science, but two special things. One is…how we can rekindle that fascination for space that was so much a part of the 1960s and 1970s – how we can make space relevant to our lives today. I’m also interested in added-value programming or shorts to go with classic docs [i.e., interviews with key scientists]… We’re looking for the occasional series about space – we’re looking to coproduce on the high-dollar series – but more often than not it’s the fascinating, insightful one-hour on a new area of planetary science.’

Wednesday: Tech Circuit – technology, inventions

‘I’m wondering if there’s not a way to do a very entertaining mini-series that does technology in a new way… [I'm looking for] two or three-hour mini-series that have some shelf life.’

‘Big engineering series are something we will have in the schedule. So, as the fortunes of the network get greater, a follow-on series to Building the Ultimate is something I would be looking for.’

Friday: Showcase – The Science Channel originals, premieres

‘The big one for us here is Discoveries This Week [a science magazine format]. What I’m looking for in this copro with Discovery Canada is solid field reporting from all disciplines. But, there’s an intersection between science that has big, iconic value and timeliness, and yet still has shelf life – geology, things like that. Discoveries This Week is a series, but otherwise I’m looking for one-offs.’

Saturday: Living World – earth science, underwater exploration

‘In the ‘science of the deep’ genre, the underwater science, there’s high tech, shipwrecks, science of bioluminescence – we’re after any new current science of oceanography, one-offs particularly.’

Sunday: Mystery Files – general science, medical science
‘I think there’s room for a few one-offs where medical science investigations take the lead…showing how research unlocks the medical science that makes a difference to the lives of people… In the classic mold of Miracle of Life and Secrets of Life – mini-series of five and six parts where all new science and imaging techniques are available to reveal something new – I’m after that as well.’

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.