Fast Forward

In our annual science focus, we uncover four new popular science series heading to networks in the months ahead, ranging from dino-docs to the hows, whats and whys of the stuff that surrounds us.
November 1, 2010

Making Stuff: Stronger, Smaller, Smarter, Cleaner

Produced by: Powderhouse Productions

Partners: PBS International, ‘NOVA,’ Materials Research Society

Airdate: January 11, 2011

While it seems like every genre of science has already been explored for a TV special or series, PBS science strand ‘NOVA’ and Somerville, Massachusetts-based Powderhouse Productions are aiming to make the materials science genre TV-friendly in their four-part series Making Stuff: Stronger, Smaller, Smarter, Cleaner. Materials science concerns the make-up and performance of the metals, ceramics, electronic materials and biomaterials that exist all around us.

Chris Schmidt, producer of Making Stuff and VP of special projects for Powderhouse Productions, says that ‘NOVA’ had tried to propose a materials science program years ago, but the idea languished because people didn’t know what to do with it. ‘It’s kind of a tough subject and it tends to be a little bit dry,’ admits Schmidt.

Paula Apsell, senior executive producer of ‘NOVA,’ then approached Powderhouse to see if the prodco would be interested in producing a materials science program. Schmidt proposed a hosted show with a non-scientist host, an unusual route for a ‘NOVA’ program, and offered up the idea of asking David Pogue to take on the role. Pogue, a New York Times technology reporter, is less of a science guy and more of a gadget guy, says Schmidt. ‘Having an entertaining non-scientist host was a huge part of making it workable,’ he adds. ‘We let him try to come to understand things and through him we’re able to make it understandable and interesting to the viewer.’

Besides making materials science understandable for the average person, Powderhouse also paid attention to the entertainment factor. ‘We tried as often as possible to get out of the lab and find ways to immerse David in situations that would give him something to react to and would give the viewer the sense that they were getting a backstage pass to something they wouldn’t normally get access to,’ says Schmidt.

This means that viewers will find Pogue on an aircraft carrier, at a demolition derby, hang gliding, swimming with sharks and more. ‘At most of these locations there wasn’t a lot of science going on but they provided set-ups,’ explains Schmidt. ‘Then we’d be able to go to labs and see the more cutting-edge stuff but with the context that made it more compelling.’

Another challenge was for the ‘Smaller’ element of Making Stuff. The producers had to employ CGI and animation, partly done in-house and also with New York-based Edgeworks, in order to present materials that the human eye can’t see. ‘We constantly had to look for metaphors and ways to talk about things that people will get without being able to visualize them and we used a lot of graphics and animation to make things clear,’ he says.

‘One of the things that we’ve found over the years is that there are one or two different variations on science programs,’ says Tom Koch, VP of PBS International, of the series. ‘One is [the] ‘bigger, better, faster’ engineering show, but also thoughtful science programs are also very popular. This is one of those seminal ‘NOVA’ productions that come about every year or so; big multi-hour projects that explain how things work with very high production values and people know what they’re going to get.’

I Spy (w/t)

Produced by: Science Channel, Karga Seven Pictures

Air Date: 2011

Not to be confused with the Bill Cosby and Robert Culp secret agent series or the less fondly remembered Eddie Murphy-Owen Wilson film, I Spy is a human science approach to the mysterious world of espionage. The Science Channel and L.A.-based Karga Seven Pictures have gained access to formerly classified information and spies willing to talk about their famous missions.

Science Channel’s Michael Sorensen, director, program development, says that I Spy ushers viewers into worlds that are seldom seen or discussed. ‘The stories are compelling, [including] the twists, turns and obstacles [the spies] had to overcome,’ he says. ‘I think if we were to look at the show three or four years ago, it would’ve been about spy gadgets. But now it’s about the spies and the human part of the science,’ says Sorensen.

Each episode of the series will focus on one mission, based around first-hand accounts of espionage. The first episode focuses on Gerald Bull, the Canadian physicist and weapons expert who was subcontracted by Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War to build a giant missile gun for the Iraqi government. Bull was assassinated in 1990. Sorensen says that in the first episode alone, former agents from the Mossad (the national intelligence agency of Israel), the CIA, and the KGB are interviewed.

Besides the human stories, tech talk is a part of the proceedings for I Spy. The program does examine the spy gadgets that were needed in order to make the missions work, such as the boomerang shoe, special listening devices, and other ‘tactics or technology that it takes to be a spy,’ says Sorensen.

‘You’re going to see the real stories, the real intelligence officers from the past and some from the present talking about what they did, how they did it and how technology plays a role,’ says Deborah Myers, GM and EVP of Science Channel, who adds that the series balances ‘pure action entertainment with science as [a] part.’

Karga Seven and the Science Channel’s production team had only filmed the first episode at press time, which included shooting many reconstructions in Turkey and the Middle East. The series will have a six-to-ten episode run, and viewers will get a sneak peek on Science Channel on December 23.

March of the Dinosaurs

Produced by: Wide-Eyed Entertainment

Partners: National Geographic (US), History Television (Canada), France 5, SuperRTL (Germany); distributed internationally by FremantleMedia Enterprises

Air date: January, 2011 (U.S.), February 2011 (Canada)

The fully-animated March of the Dinosaurs is combining CGI with a feature film approach to bring an unlikely story to the tube – that of dinosaurs in snowy winter.

A producer on the epic BBC/Discovery/TV Asahi series Walking with Dinosaurs, Wide-Eyed Entertainment CEO Jasper James serves as executive producer for this 90-minute doc, which James describes as a ‘coming of age’ tale about dinosaurs in the Arctic. Directed by Matthew Thompson (Hawking’s Universe, Discovery Project Earth), the story stems from recent scientific finds regarding the southward migration of dinosaurs in the North Pole. The end result, says James, will incorporate a narrative feel to depict the story of dinosaurs enduring harsh winter conditions on a 1,000-mile march through the Arctic in order to survive.

In the last decade or so, James says, only the most intrepid paleontologists have gone into the far northern reaches of Alaska and Baffin Island, enduring remote locations, hard ground and permafrost, to find out more. ‘It’s only recently that people have gone to lengths to go up there [and] what they’ve found is a whole thriving community of creatures who lived there, which is quite surprising when you imagine what it might have been like,’ he says.

March of the Dinosaurs (with a working title of Escape of the Ice Beasts for the U.S.) takes these scientific findings regarding the conditions that the dinosaurs would have endured and tells the story through one Arctic-born dinosaur, or edmontosaurus. The doc will show the little dino undertaking a treacherous migration in order to escape a winter with four months of darkness, freezing temperatures, snow and ice.

‘A lot of science is embedded in the whole premise [and] the way its structured is very story driven,’ offers James. ‘We really are following the trail of this young dinosaur and his trials with life.’ As of yet, a narrator hasn’t been announced for the project, and James says the amount of factual information in the narrated script will be up to the assorted territories airing it. ‘What’s different about this is there’s a very solid story here,’ he says. ‘In fact, you don’t have to make the science explicit. It can be wholly implicit.’

Deadly Descent

Produced by: Pyburn Films

Airing on: Science Channel, first quarter 2011

Deadly Descent brings the high-stakes world of extreme cave exploring to the Science Channel, featuring a cast of five men who are willing to plumb the depths of caves to bring scientists the data that they need. New York-based Pyburn Films came to the Science Channel after assembling a group of extreme cave explorers, each with their own specialty, including a rescue expert, a mapping expert and a geologist.

Deborah Myers, EVP and GM of the Science Channel, says that this series taps into the subcultures of science that the channel’s audience loves. ‘They’re pockets of science that you never hear about,’ she says.

Deadly Descent focuses on the cavers who are willing to go where no scientist is willing to go. ‘If there’s a group of scientists looking for samples in a cave and some of these caves are one or two miles down in the earth, they have to call these guys to go in and help them,’ says Michael Sorensen, director, program development for the Science Channel.

These people who are willing to put their lives on the line help scientists discover the rich science of the caves. ‘These caves are like time capsules. Down in the center of the earth you can find the complete history of the planet and that’s what they’re looking for,’ Sorenson says.

For the first episode, Pyburn Films and Science Channel assembled a specialized crew in Puerto Rico, where a team of scientists arranged an expedition a mile underground for global warming research. The production team enlisted special camera operators who only do cave photography, and brought underground and underwater lighting equipment to withstand cave conditions. ‘It’s damp, cold and wet and all the equipment has to stand up to this,’ says Sorenson. ‘If your battery goes out and you’re a mile and a half underneath underground, you have to rope one in, have one behind you, or go back up. For the Puerto Rico expedition, we were down there for 36 hours but the ascent back up is 18 hours. You don’t want to do that.’

Besides the risks involved with filming, the episodes themselves feature the high stakes of the extreme cavers. ‘You have a very human story that people can relate to,’ he says. ‘They have wives and girlfriends who are above ground who are wondering if they’re going to make it back. This is their occupation. Even if they’re not traditional scientists, these are the people that make science happen.’

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