Tales From The Industry, XII – A Shooting Diary

Here’s my promised report/diary on yesterday’s adventures in film-making.

history channel shoot september6:45am Got up a bit earlier than perhaps I should have, given that I got to sleep at 1:00am. Spent a while reading a ton of email, and sending some more. Will be away from my regular professoring duties for the whole day, and so wanted to make sure the fort was held. Prepared some appropriate TV clothing (pretty much what I wear normally anyway – simple solid colours), and so forth. Attempted to beautify myself just a tad (with the usual…inconclusive results). Shower and so forth. Coffee and oatmeal, sprinkled with NPR… Read a bit of stuff on dates of historical background on material I’ll be talking about. I often forget that sort of thing, and its never ever needed whenever I do remind myself of it, so after a few minutes I decided not to bother. The core physics ideas are more important, ultimately. Spent time looking for rain gear (the micro-brolly, basically), since supposedly there’s going to be a rainstorm later (hurrah! finally!). Ready to go.

8:45am Fifteen minutes later than I intended to (how did that happen?), I set off to walk to the Sunset/Vermont Red Line subway station. Waved to a neighbour, and we exchanged pleasantries about how nice a day it was.

8:47am Walked past surprised neighbour back toward home…. briskly.

8:52am Riding the Brompton (the folding bike, for those of you not keeping up), I cycled off to the Sunset/Vermont station.

9:01am Arrive at said station on schedule (one minute late does not count in LA), and there’s the crew! It was Laura Verklan (writer/director), and Jason Newfield (camera/sound) who did an amazingly good job making my (in my opinion) somewhat shoddy work on the last shoot look a lot better than it really was (it was part of the “Dangerous Places” episode of the History Channel show, The Universe). It was great to see them – felt like old friends even though we’d only done a few hours of shooting last time. Met Melissa Tittl also, an associate producer for the shoot that I’d been talking with on the telephone over the last week about locations.

history channel shoot septemberSo here’s the thing. We were not going anywhere via the subway. This was our location. The History Channel was so pleased with how well their first season of their new venture into science programming went (“The Universe”), they’ve ordered a second season! So various teams are making new shows already, and Laura called me some months ago with a program idea. So this was the program we were shooting today. She’s put together a show which mixes some of the firm ideas explored in previous episodes with some of the more speculative ideas that are out there. So: more on black holes, and how they went from solutions of a set of equations written down in 1915 to routine observational astrophysics, and then into a discussion on white holes. Then wormholes. And so forth. These are also interesting solutions, but what of their fate as actual objects out there in our universe? What do they mean? And so forth…

Well, I don’t want to spoil Laura’s show by telling you all the things we did in detail, in case you’re a fan of watching science shows on TV. Instead, I’ll let you try to fill in for yourself some of the connections between the ideas and the settings we used. So here’s the first of the settings we used:

  • We were shooting at the subway station, on the actual platform itself, with trains coming in and going out, and various people (the slightly more than a handful that constitutes rush hour public transport use at your typical subway station in LA, sadly) milling around.

This was fun actually, even though we had a minder (Herman) from the MTA who kept an eye on us the whole time. He brought a golf club along, and from time to time, he’d stand by the edge of one of the platforms and practice his swing. I hasten to add that there were no golf-balls involved. Just the club.

history channel shoot septemberThe idea arose that I ought to be filmed getting on to the train, and then getting off. We did not want it to be too staged-looking, and so given this is what I do every day anyway (either with train or bus), we settled naturally on having me do it all as though I was on my usual morning commute – So the Brompton got involved, which I’m rather pleased about. I was filmed stepping on and off the train carrying it all folded up as I would normally. This involved me going one stop and then returning of course, which was amusing. I think it might fit with the whole show rather well, since they like to have lots of b-roll of the scientists doing things they normally do. I’m pleased because the idea of using a folding bike (and of course the subway in LA) gets a bit of prime time TV exposure. Maybe my dream that more people will consider the bike as perfectly normal will come to fruition a bit sooner…Or maybe people will just think it is some weird scientist-guy and so the poor folding bike will suffer further image problems by being associated with me. (Photo on right by Melissa.)

11:30 am We wrap and break for lunch. I managed to convince everyone that we really should not be going to Quizno’s for the lunch when we’re so close to so many good places to eat in this neighbourhood. I suggested Casa Diaz (Hollywood and Vermont) which has now been taken over by Yucas (and so the name has just changed – there’s a bit of cloth over the old sign trying to implement this) and we had an excellent lunch from their new menu.

Over lunch, Laura and I chatted quite a bit about science, the public’s perception of and knowledge of science and the role of television in all of this. It started with her asking me a question about atoms, since she was confused about something that someone had stated in a presentation over on the West Side (yes, there does seem to be a strong positive gradient in the kookiness and new-age-iness departments, at the expense of actual science facts, as you move West in this city) – the person was supporting their claims for one thing or another by trying to lend it an air of scientific authenticity. I explained the answer to Laura’s question and she said “I thought so!”. So I said “You should have raised your hand and pointed it out to the speaker, then…”, and she said “I did!”. So I put down my (tasty moist carnitas) burrito and shook her by the hand and thanked her for doing so.

This led us into further conversation about why (I think) that it is just great that a number of channels seem to be enthusiastic about creating new science shows and even doing big science shows for the first time. That was why I was happy to take out a whole day to work with them on this because it is so important to encourage – especially if there is a dialogue between the scientists and the filmmakers in aspects of shaping the program (as there seems to have been overall in this History Channel venture). Most importantly, since we scientists are not filmmakers, it is important for filmmakers (writers, producers, directors – people such as Laura) to feel comfortable that they can just pick up the phone and call (or email) a scientists to give feedback on her facts and ideas, or who can direct her to someone who can. At social gatherings involving Industry people, on this issue it is the lack of this comfort (or willingness to do so) that is the most striking and disturbing thing of all to me (of course, the parties themselves -being parties- are overall tremendously enjoyable in other respects, I should say) – I’m often the first scientist most of the people in those circles have met in their professional lives, or had a drink with and simply shared a social moment or few. Is it any wonder that the representation of science and scientists (as subject or characters) is still so poor in film and television (the two media that most influence the view of the world of so many people)? And of course, if anyone gets to the point where they think to get a scientist to cast an eye over a piece of work, its often just too late in the process. They key parts (the drama, the story) have already been fully formed, and the science content (if any at all) must bend to that at all costs. The recipe for how these things are done needs stirring up, changing quite a bit.

One thing that will help very little is what we largely do now, which is sit and complain about it. Scientists are not filmmakers either. We’d do just as bad a job at making good film as filmmakers often do with presenting good science (although it is probably ingrained into our nature to refuse to admit this – the “how hard can it be?” attitude to the expertise of others). The answer is of course collaboration and compromise. The latter two don’t usually occur until there’s some big reason to do so, and so there’s a lot of work to do. “Because it’s a good thing to do” is not going to go very far on its own, I suspect. Money will be the reason, just like it was when mainstream Hollywood movies suddenly began to be regularly headlined by pairs (even teams) of actors drawn from very different races. That also was driven more by economics than an effort to reflect back to America what it actually looked like (or could look more like), breaking the mold of primarily closely matching the race of the headline actor to the target demographic. There’s no real money or prestige to be gained (yet) from making films with good science or even that simply portray being a scientist as just another career (without all the accompanying clichés – science geek, socially awkward scientist, arrogant scientist, cold and withdrawn scientist, obsessively controlling scientist, and a host of others), and so I don’t expect a rush to change things just yet, but nothing will change and the idea/practice will gain no momentum without a little push in the right direction. Hence getting involved with filmmakers and writers to lend a hand when the opportunity arises. Sure, it’s also fun, so that’s a bonus.

A nice thing I learned from Laura is that several of the scientists she worked with on season one have reacted well to their involvement with the program. So much so that they’re enthusiastic to contribute more, so this is an excellent outcome. I say this since it is usually the opposite. First, a writer who knows little or no science decides to write a story, gets a bunch of scientists to say things in complete sentences and paragraphs to camera in good faith, and then slices and dices their contributions in a way that fits the (wrong) story. Of course, the scientist involved (assuming they care about the science and are just not jumping at the idea of being seen on TV) will really not want to have anything to do with that process again, and of course end up hoping that nobody ever sees the final result. That this is largely not happening in this case is a very good sign, I’d say.

12:10 pm We set off for the USC campus. In three cars. (I know, ironic.) I showed them a better route than the obvious and so we got there in 20 minutes.

12:30 pm On campus, we find waiting for us three coned-off parking spots and a member of the PR department (Erica Caskey) waiting for us in one of the USC golf carts. She’ll be our minder for the shoot on campus. Melissa had worked with her to get permission for campus shooting, and to set up parking, the cart, and other access. Happily I did not have to declare that I could not bring myself to be shuttled around the campus like some wannabe VIP, since we bundled lots of the equipment onto the available seats of the cart and walked over to the next setting:

  • Nice shady green spot (one of my favourite on campus) for more concepts to camera. A prop (purchased at my suggestion by Melissa from a grocery store half an hour ago): An apple. The standard red delicious (all bland sugary flavour) variety that looks great on TV.

history channel shoot september

More concepts to camera for a while, made a bit difficult by the remarkable (and unusual?) number of planes, helicopters, and firetrucks that seemed to be in operation near campus. We had to keep stopping a lot. We were there for quite some time, to the extent that a trio of squirrels got so used to us that they kept coming quite close to investigate us. (Apple photo by Melissa.)

We shot close shots and wide shots out of sequence, partly to keep the light consistent. Laura, wearing her editor hat, will make it all make sense later on. I got a bit confused at some point about which show and which subject we were doing – turned out that she wanted me to say some things about the LHC and about RHIC (their similarities and differences – use the search engine above right for discussion of these in other posts here), for another show and so I spoke about quarks and their interactions for a brief while, before jumping back to astrophysical objects. It’s interesting to observe that I can get derailed a bit in my fluency of delivery when I jump out of one narrative (on one circle of ideas) to another.

history channel shoot september
(Laura and Jason making decisions about the use of the space for one of the pieces they wanted to shoot.)

3:10pm We wrap, and go off to a new location on campus. As we cross campus James sits on the golf card and shoots some b-roll of my cycling across campus. Amusing. There was a weird moment when I noticed that we passed a professor who is in fact the offspring of one of the physicists whose work helped shape a lot of what I was discussing a few minutes before. I wonder if somehow they might have ended up in the footage they’ll use?

  • Nice fountain (see photo at very top – I eat lunch there from time to time) with several benches set in a circular arrangement. Fountain shoots a high volume of water upwards into the air.

3:25pm – 4:00pm Final campus interview shots. Mostly stuff for inter-cutting into other things we did earlier, I think. Fountain was involved a lot. Wrapped before the USC band started its rehearsals for the big game on the weekend – the sound from this can be heard anywhere on campus, and so there was a race to make sure we did not fall afoul of that.

4:10pm We said goodbye to Melissa, and then the three of us nipped up to MacArthur Park area for a little more location shots. Fun was had, and we wrap. I jumped onto a subway train home from there.

5:00pm Cup of tea at home and reflection. Back to regular Professoring tomorrow.


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6 Responses to Tales From The Industry, XII – A Shooting Diary

  1. wormholes. And so forth.

    Can’t wait to see the show!

  2. Clifford says:

    Me too. Laura’s lined up some really fun and interesting people to talk on these topics, so how it all gets put together is going to be fascinating to see.


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