Science focus: Raising the bar with “Forces of Nature”

In advance of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers, the BBC's Andrew Cohen gives realscreen a first look at its upcoming landmark science copro with PBS and France Télévisions.
November 30, 2015

In advance of the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers, the BBC’s Andrew Cohen gives realscreen a first look at its upcoming landmark science copro with PBS and France Télévisions, Forces of Nature.

“It’s so difficult now to deliver visual spectacle that makes your eyes open again, and to have novelty driving a series throughout is also difficult,” says BBC Science Unit head Andrew Cohen, speaking to realscreen about the Beeb’s upcoming landmark copro with PBS and France Télévisions, the four-part Forces of Nature.

“‘Everything’s been filmed,’ is the sense that production teams have when you say that. But we wanted to do that with this series. So while we can’t have every sequence be completely unique, there are a large number of sequences here that will make you say, ‘Wow.’”

Forces of Nature‘s four parts – divided into the categories of color, shape, motion and matter – attempt to, in Cohen’s words, “create an understanding of our planet and how people across the planet interact with its most extreme forces.” The UK version of the miniseries will be hosted by “rockstar physicist” Brian Cox, and the project, a realscreen MIPCOM Picks for 2015, is being shopped globally by BBC Worldwide.

Since heavy development on the project began two years ago, the production team has carted kit to some of the world’s most fascinating, occasionally inhospitable places – ranging from a sulfur volcano in Indonesia to the Pororoca tidal bore along the Amazon and several points between – in the hopes of catching glimpses of “locations, phenomena and events that you haven’t seen before,” says Cohen.

“It’s journalism that gets you to these extraordinary events first, and then it’s raising of the bar with the kit that you are able to put into very difficult locations,” he says. “So what you get back is important not only in terms of being there for the first time, but also in how it’s filmed.”

With BBC science productions renowned for innovative filming techniques, Cohen says this project is no exception, with myriad makes and models of camera tech – from drones and wirecams to beyond – being trotted out to get “the” shot. In some instances, the assignments can result in not only the cameras and equipment getting a little banged up, but the operators as well.

“With the volcano, you’re going into an environment where you’re essentially breathing in sulfuric acid and there’s molten sulfur on the ground,” Cohen says. “We had a cameraman who was burned and we had to deal with that on location.” In another instance, while attempting to capture ‘moonbows’ – rainbow-like events that occur when the light of the Moon is reflected and refracted through water droplets or mist – in Iceland, a cameraman dislocated a shoulder.

Beyond potential injury or camera damage, another prime challenge for the team has been the age-old quandary of being at the right place at the right time.

“[If] it’s being out in Norway to catch the aurora borealis, you can take all the kit you want but if it’s cloudy, you could be there for a week and get nothing,” he admits.

The diligence and daring-do is paying off, says Cohen, and he hopes that by the time the series airs, the team will also have a virtual reality component prepped. Although nothing is planned on that front at present (a VR experience is in the works for the BBC’s coverage of British national Tim Peake’s journey to serve on the International Space Station), Cohen says: “It would be criminal for us to not have that component, as you want to give the audience as visceral and immersive an experience as possible.”

  • Our Science Focus feature first appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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