Running with sperm

Making a doc on the life cycle of sperm by scaling them to human size is one gigantic feat. Reversioning the program for two channels, two countries, and two genders was an even bigger one.
May 1, 2009

When Woody Allen attempts to answer the question ‘What happens during ejaculation?’ in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, the sperm-people he depicts are afraid to leave the body and enter unknown territory. Watching human-sized sperm race through a simulated cervical canal in the new factual program The Great Sperm Race, it’s clear that they have a lot to be afraid of.

Sperm Race, a science doc from Blink Films and Cream Productions for C4 and Discovery Channel Canada and distributed through ITV Global Entertainment, is no doubt influenced in part by Allen’s comedy, what with grown men and women dressed in white and running to and fro. But its basic premise is to explain the birds and the bees by depicting on a human scale the life cycle of sperm, essentially simulating the route from the testes to the egg using a water slide, a mountain range and a great big pool. The drama at the root of the story comes straight from the human reproductive system.

The Courtship

The program was conceived in a meeting between Channel 4′s commissioning editor of science, David Glover, and the principles of London-based Blink Films (not to be confused with London-based commercials prodco Blink Productions), a prodco launched in 2007 by two ex-Channel Five controllers, Dan Chambers and Justine Kershaw. Blink had wanted to do a science doc on sperm and the many obstacles it faces on its journey to the egg, and Glover threw in the idea of scaling it up and making the sperm human-sized. When Kershaw and Chambers went away with the idea they soon discovered the project’s delicate nature; any slight moves in the wrong direction could break it.

‘The Woody Allen thing is kind of a double-edged sword,’ says Kershaw about the initial concept. ‘On the one hand it’s something everybody would recognize and it’s funny. On the other hand if it was too silly then it would undermine everything.’

On the too-silly side, early on Blink shot down the idea of adding tails to their sperm-people. The key to keeping the program fun but still making it trustworthy was to get experts to take the metaphor to heart and run with it. It’s a leap of faith for an audience to get involved in a program which depicts the act of conception through people chasing each other through a field, but if the science is right, it works. Once Blink had scientists who saw the validity in presenting sperm’s journey as a battle, it was on.

Kershaw calls Dr. Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, ‘Mister Sperm.’ Pacey and the other experts used in Sperm Race set up, and legitimize, the concept of the large scale reproductive system by drawing comparisons that are illustrated by the actors and the scenery. For instance, Pacey compares the testes to a building 1,000 meters cubed, which the doc presents via a bright white view from the upper floors of an atrium where the sperm-people lay in wait, crammed together on each floor. In the cut of the film created for Discovery Canada, the explanation of the fluid that cleans the urethra before ejaculation is accompanied by a shot of two janitors standing near the mountains that the sperm-people are about to climb over.

‘In a way, the crazier the image the more likely you are to remember the facts behind it,’ says Kershaw. ‘In the end… people actually remember the facts because you can’t get the image of these things running through the gorge out of your head.’

Filming in a gorge in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, using CGI, cranes and helicopters, and hiring 100 extras takes money, so Blink needed more than just the C4 commission to get the program off the ground. They took the project to U.S. broadcasters hoping to lure one in, and though many showed interest, none of them went all the way. ‘Films about sex, especially on factual channels, are very hard to sell in the States,’ says Kershaw. ‘People were worried about how graphic it was going to be.’

Then Blink had a meeting with Ann Harbron, director of commissioning and production at Discovery Canada. When Chambers pitched the project to her, he had a flipbook that showed a scene with little sperm people. ‘So he went brrrrrr,’ says Harbron, imitating the sound of the pages flapping under Chambers’ thumb. ‘And I said, ‘Okay, this is a great pitch.” When Harbron got in bed with the project and agreed to make it a treaty coproduction between the UK and Canada, she suggested Blink contact Toronto-based Cream Productions, which became a partner on the project. Making the project a copro was a necessity in order to meet the budget (rounded out by the Wellcome Trust and equalling just over £800,000), but it also meant making a slightly different version of the doc for each broadcaster.

Setting the mood

Director Julian Jones says visualizing the epic nature of the film was one of his biggest challenges. ‘I felt like we were essentially making the Lord of the Rings meets Saving Private Ryan of science films,’ he says. But getting the tone right for each broadcaster was the hardest part. C4 wanted a conception-primer that would skew slightly female, while Harbron, knowing her predominantly male, medically squeamish audience, wanted a guide to ‘guys understanding their spunk.’ The London-based Jones, who previously directed How William Shatner Changed the World for Discovery Canada, scripted and narrated the Discovery version of Sperm Race, throwing more blatant humor into that version than C4′s. Discovery Canada’s version elbows its audience in the ribs while explaining the epic plight of sperm, and C4′s version takes a more serious look at fertility with some light moments.

For instance, opening the doc with a shot of a baby worked well for C4, but it didn’t work for Discovery Canada’s audience. ‘You open with a shot of a baby and [the male audience] will go, ‘Honey, your show is on,” says Harbron. Cream Production’s co-founder and executive producer, David Brady, says that while Discovery Canada wanted its version to be tongue in cheek, C4 thought that approach would make the doc too light. So while the Canadian cut refers to testicles as ‘meatballs’ and uses lines like ‘dangling away in his pants,’ C4′s version features a midwife explaining the importance of the mucous in the cervix using egg whites to demonstrate.

Giving birth

Despite the fact that Glover helped form the concept of the doc, according to Kershaw, when he saw the first cut of the film he hated it. Jones and the rest of the team were disheartened by the news. ‘Poor Julian, we had to pick him up off the floor and take him to the pub and try to slap him round the face to bring him back around,’ she says.

After drowning their initial panic, the team went back to the editing room and tightened the film by adding more music, and allowing the segments featuring the sperm-people to play out separately from the expert testimonials. Ultimately, they tried to make the audience feel something for the sperm. ‘It’s not like people were [going to be] crying watching them, but you had to feel something,’ says Kershaw. ‘You had to feel like, ‘It must be difficult being a sperm,’ or, ‘Blimey, that’s a big task.’ [There had to be] some sort of emotional connection with it.’

Kershaw says that while setting the tone for each version was hard work, it was otherwise a relatively painless coproduction. ‘It was fine in that there wasn’t a fundamental difference like one of [the broadcasters] wanting [the sperm-people] to wear space suits and the other one wanting them to be dressed like businessmen,’ says Kershaw. ‘I’ve worked on other copros that have been a nightmare doing versions, but this wasn’t one of them.’

Still, Cream’s Brady was able to recall at least one problem he experienced while working on this project. ‘When the subject line of your email is ‘Great Sperm’ you tend to go into a lot of spam files,’ he laughs. ‘We found that out the hard way. We learned quickly to leave the word ‘sperm’ out of communications.’

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