WCSFP ’13: “Particle Fever” team on making a physics thriller

Ahead of Particle Fever director Mark Levinson's World Congress of Science and Factual Producers (WCSFP) session, realscreen spoke with the first-time doc-maker and editor Walter Murch about turning the world's most expensive science experiment into an entertaining feature doc.
December 4, 2013

Ahead of Particle Fever director Mark Levinson’s World Congress of Science and Factual Producers (WCSFP) session, realscreen spoke with the first-time doc-maker and editor Walter Murch about turning the world’s most expensive science experiment into an entertaining feature doc.

The origin of all matter is a question that has captivated scientists for centuries, and four years ago, physicists came closer to answering it through the biggest and most expensive science experiment in history.

Less expensive and time consuming is a question often facing science documentarians: how to make complex scientific theories palatable for mainstream audiences?

In 2008, director Mark Levinson set out to do exactly that, by profiling a group of scientists using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to smash sub-atomic particles together in order to find answers for unsolved questions of physics.

The LHC took 20 years to build, with 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries working in collaboration at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Located roughly 574 feet beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, the machine went live in 2008 and four years later discovered the elusive particle that confers mass to all other particles, the Higgs boson.

Levinson knows the topic well. He earned a doctoral degree in particle physics from the University of California at Berkeley, but then landed in Hollywood, specializing in post-production writing and recording of dialogue – or ADR – for filmmakers such as Anthony Minghella and Milos Forman.

In 2007, he was shopping a narrative feature idea to angel investors when he heard that David Kaplan, a professor of physics at Johns Hopkins University, wanted to make a documentary about the LHC.

“I have not seen many narrative films that have treated science in a realistic way,” explains Levinson. “When this story came up it struck me as having the dramatic potential to be the real thing.”

He began working on the doc full-time in 2008 until the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. A year later, Particle Fever (pictured, top) began its festival run at Sheffield Doc/Fest. It has since screened in New York and Moscow, screens at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in Montreal this week and opens theatrically in March.

Essential to turning the story into a character-driven film were the scientists at the center of the action. Levinson ended up focusing on six – a mix of theoretical and experimental physicists – at varying stages of their careers, including young American post-doctorate Monica Dunford and Stanford University professor Savas Dimopoulos, whose 30 years of research would be tested by the particle collider.

With the support of CERN’s press office, Levinson integrated himself into the physicist community in Geneva. “Some people actually thought I worked there,” he says. “It got to the point where people would ask me what I’d heard about when the beam was going to be up again and what the energy was going to be.”

Although his physics background meant he understood what was going on, when and if a discovery would happen were the big questions.

Nine days after the LHC became operational in 2008, a short circuit between superconducting magnets caused tons of liquid helium to hemorrhage and explode. Consequently, the machine was shut down for a year and a half. The accident ratcheted up the drama and gave Levinson and DP Claudia Raschke-Robinson a chance to film the LHC’s five-story particle detectors, which are inaccessible when running.

particle fever atlas detector

A view inside the Large Hadron Collider’s ATLAS detector.

To sift through 500 hours of material, Levinson recruited long-time collaborator Walter Murch, an Oscar-winning film editor and sound designer whose credits include Apocalypse Now and The English Patient.

Murch has a deep interest in particle physics that allowed him to get a handle on the material. Although he has edited short docs and documentary sections in narrative features, Particle Fever is his first feature doc.

“For 15 months, it was the two of us in a room in New York pounding away at this material,” he recalls. “So I had to gear up my assistant chops to allow me to do the work that I need to do.”

To build momentum, Murch had to “visceralize” action that occurred off camera and at a minute, unobservable level. Take the accident that shut down the particle collider: it happened underground and out of sight – save for blinking monitors in the control room.

To lead up to the explosion, they used macro shots of the LHC, added sounds that might indicate protons traveling at the speed of light and interspersed images of people going about life on the surface unbeknownst to the brewing trouble below.

A shot of the superconducting magnets goes out of focus as the sound gets louder and cuts off. Cut to an eerily quiet scene of dead sunflowers with the CERN dome in the background. There’s a low frequency thud, and the audience is now in the control room where the monitors flash from green to red.

“In essence, none of that ‘really happened’ – meaning, when the machine was operating nobody could photograph it,” Murch explains. “When the explosion happened it didn’t make a sound anyone could hear because it was so far underground, and yet we bent the rules to say, ‘No, there could be a sound to indicate this moment.’ So there’s a musical truth to what’s going on that serves the larger story.

“That’s always the trail that you’re walking down: this border between what actually happened and what you need to put together to convey the essence of what happened,” he continues. “In documentary, you’re clearly obligated to not bend things too much.

On the other hand, to not bend things at all would make a film like this impossible because the physical representation of this world is so small.”

Levinson’s ADR background came in handy when it came time to craft clear and simple explanations of the particle theories.

mark levinson

Director Mark Levinson

Early on, the filmmaking team decided on lingo and vocabulary to use consistently throughout the film. Levinson (pictured, left) opens the film with Kaplan giving a lecture breaking down the main theories that would be put to the test, the divisions between theoretical and experimental physicists and why undertaking such a massively expensive project with no immediate financial benefit is necessary.

Levinson frequently filmed the physicists talking video diary-style into the camera, a technique that relayed the theories in a personal way without disrupting the dramatic flow. If an explanation was too complicated or unclear, Levinson wrote and re-recorded voiceovers and integrated them into the video diary scenes.

“The physicists are all very good and have a lot of presence but it was a process to get it down to the most concise, clear and useful explanations,” he says.

Particle Fever concludes with footage from Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams depicting the ancient paintings in the Chauvet caves of southern France, which serves to connect early representations of nature and the complex equations physicists use to explain particle theories.

“As Savas says in the film, ‘Why do we do art and why do we do science?” says Murch. “These things are not obvious in how they help us through the day of eating and breathing and surviving. And yet the presence of art and knowledge – because science ultimately just means ‘knowledge’ – is arguably the thing that defines us as human beings.”

  • Particle Fever director Mark Levinson and producer David Kaplan will speak during the session Particle Fever: The Pitch and Making Of at the 2013 World Congress of Science and Factual Producers on Wednesday, December 4 at 11:30 a.m.EST
  • This article appears in the current November/December issue of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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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.