When pitching ideas to the big international broadcasters, the pressure is always on to find ‘something new,’ that elusive, different way of delivering an old subject.
Commissioners are sometimes vague when it comes to defining exactly what they mean by ‘something new.’ After all, no one really knows what it is until you’ve found it. But when you do, you know you’re on to something pretty magical.
Last year I was lucky enough to be involved in Discovery’s 50th anniversary NASA project When We Left Earth [while working with Dangerous Films as a series producer]. On the face of it, telling the story of man’s adventures in space from the beginning until the present doesn’t sound particularly groundbreaking. For decades people had been tapping in to the same resources; namely, the same dusty old transfers stored on the shelves in the NASA archive. We’d all seen the archive before; we’d all heard the stories before. Or so everyone thought.
However, inside NASA’s facilities at Johnson, Kennedy and Lockheed Martin, was a hidden treasure trove just waiting to be discovered. Even NASA didn’t fully realize what they were sitting on. Hours upon hours of original rushes showing the US Space Program in its most intimate detail – Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, shirts off, shades on, leaning casually against an Apollo space capsule post egress-training; Gene ‘Satellite’ Cernan, fighting for his life as he struggled to re-enter a Gemini space craft after a failed spacewalk. Hidden in long-ignored cans of film, we found one remarkable sequence after another.
Getting access wasn’t easy, not because of any unwillingness on NASA’s part but because every time the shuttle goes up NASA goes into lockdown mode. And the shuttle went up a number of times last year.
For the archive producers it meant several intense, hurried weeks hunched over an ancient Steenbeck zooming through rolls of precious film (in color no less), much of which hadn’t been looked at since it was shot almost 50 years ago. What they uncovered was pure gold. Transferred to HD, the story we all thought we knew began to take on a whole new life.
Making a project like this takes time and patience. Relationships have to be built, trust has to be earned, and technical challenges have to be overcome. But in today’s world, time and patience are increasingly precious commodities. As budgets get smaller and schedules become tighter, the need to generate more hours of faster turn-around programming is leaving less time to discover and nurture the big, ambitious, new ideas. And yet it’s these ideas that can lead to truly great programs and make our jobs fun!
Finding the ‘something new’ can also result in the forging of exciting partnerships and interesting alliances. We can transcend traditional conventions, bring different schools of expertise together and perhaps bring the latest technology to bear on an ancient mystery.
Several years ago, I mounted the first scientific expedition to the Valley of the Kings in over 25 years, bringing together Egyptian mummy experts, forensic anthropologists, radiographers, Egyptologists and £250,000 worth of scientific equipment.
The quest to solve an ancient riddle led me to form a team of experts whose paths would normally never meet. If I was an academic it probably would never have crossed my mind to even attempt it. But in television now it’s just part of the job. What else can you bring to a good idea to make it stand out from the crowd?
In this case, we achieved the all-important something new. We got access to a sealed tomb in the Valley of the Kings and revealed the remains of three 3,500-year-old royal mummies. And our team of forensic scientists had the latest equipment on hand to examine them.
We’re lucky enough to work in a world without boundaries. Think outside the box and you can make the seemingly impossible happen, and hopefully it satisfies whatever the commissioners are looking for. Far from being daunted by the scale of this challenge, I suspect it’s the thing many of us relish.
Kate Botting is executive producer at London-based Brook Lapping Productions.