Tales From The Industry XXIX – Dune

death_valley_shoot_2_1There was a 24 hour period from 3:30pm Monday to 3:30pm Tuesday where I was engaged in a seemingly insane enterprise. My original plan was to document it here as one of my “24”-style blog posts, but since about 9 hours of it involved nothing but me screaming along to various songs (there’s something marvellous about singing “Roooooxx–anne!!! You don’t have to wear that dress tonight!!!….” and repeating “Put on the Red Light! Put on the Red Light!…” while whizzing along – fast!- on a road trip. I don’t know why), and five and a half hours asleep, I’ll spare you the details of each hour.

So what was the mission? To head to Death Valley. Yes, one of the hottest places on earth at this time of year! Why? To film something for The Universe (that History channel series I sometimes appear on). After my experiences of last Monday, you’d think I’d swear off hot filming situations for a while, but there you go. The physics involved is interesting, and it was an opportunity to get across some rather fun and interesting material (that you don’t usually see on TV) and so I went for it.

So since I had an afternoon meeting at 2:00pm with a Dean and some other colleagues, I could not leave on the road trip with the film crew, which was my original plan. (They needed to get away earlier so as to scout locations before sunset.) My hope was that I could chat with them for a while, and even get some work done in the back of the car as we went along. But that was not to be. The Dean wanted to talk about big structural plans for the future, and wanted my input, and I’d already agreed to attend that timeslot. I’d have to drive myself to the shoot. So the company rented a car for me, a compact (at my request) model made by Chevrolet (brand not my request, but perfectly adequate). It was white (which seemed a good choice for the hot sun I was heading into) and woefully – almost comically – underpowered, as I was to discover later when changing lanes and climbing inclines. At 3:30 I pulled away from USC and hit the highway (after filling up the gas tank).

I’d left home after packing in a hurry, but remembered to throw into the car my ailing and ancient ipod, and since there’s no tape machine with which to couple it into the car’s sound system, I threw in the iTrip device for coupling via the radio. Was not sure it would work (it is years since I used it, and the ipod has been a bit shaky in its operation at times), but I did not have time to test, so just crossed my fingers for luck.

death_valley_shoot_2_5Anyway, I listened to NPR’s All Things Considered (it’s so great to have Madeleine Brand back on the radio even if only for a while) until I was far away enough so that there were good clear holes in the radio band, and then tested it out and it all worked. So I was able to listen to a wide variety of music for the trip, but not so much and for so long that I screamed/sang myself too hoarse to carry out my assignment the next morning.

It was my intention to just go the usual way I go to Death Valley (where I sometimes disappear to hide at times each year), which is up the 15, connecting to the 190 that way and then coming into the Death Valley East of Stovepipe Wells (my destination) coming through Furnace Creek in order to get to it. However, I’d noticed on the call sheet that their directions to everyone were to go up the 5, connect to the 14 and then the 395 and enter the Valley from the West, approaching Stovepipe Wells from that direction. This makes sense for the production company given thier starting location, but is that the case for me, leaving from work? While buying gas I bought a map (I’d not thought to bring one since I knew my usual route) to compare the two and it seemed that the latter route was indeed shorter. Considerably. This made me wonder why I don’t usually do this route (in fact I later remembered that it was the route by which I first entered Death Valley some 13 years ago). Had I been silly for all these years? Along the way I remembered why. At the time of year I usually go, the Winter has not usually fully receded from high elevations, and portions of the 190 coming into the area from the West are often closed or only passable with special equipment. Ah, good.

So anyway, it was a pleasant adventure. I had made three sandwiches for the trip (one for lunch, one possibly for dinner in case there was nothing there when I got there, and one just in case), and had three liters of water (including two hiding in the trunk in a small cooler full of ice) to keep me hydrated.


I made excellent progress, stopping for gas and coffee about 2/3 of the way, and discovering (as is often the case) how clever the ipod seems to be at picking music appropriate to the scenery and one’s mood death_valley_shoot_1_1(presumably forgetting the number of times I reached over and skipped a track when it didn’t do such a clever pick), and I was fully into the wilderness when the sun was well on its way to touching the horizon. I got to a lookout point just before the final decent into the Valley (having slowly risen in elevation in the struggling car for a while) and the sun was doing something quite marvellous with colour in collaboration with the air, dust, clouds and surrounding mountains, and so I thought I’d get out and pay witness to this concert. Immediately upon setting foot on the ground I was almost blown over by a sand-laden blast of hot wind! I suddenly understood why the car had been doing a strange shake every now and again while I was driving, since I was near the crest of the climb. There was a remarkable wind blowing around the valley, and I was on the edge of this turmoil. I retreated (with difficulty) to the car again and took my photos from there, and retreated from the edge of the cliff I’d parked on for fear of being blown down it. I headed down into the valley, and bid goodbye to the sun.

I arrived at Stovepipe Wells, not too long afterwards, at about 8:45pm (making for a five hour trip including my stops, taking of photos at various points, etc) and, after a quick visit to the supply store before it closed at 9:00 (bug repellent for the next day), I went to the hotel at Stovepipe Wells. This was a first for me. I usually camp when in the desert, and tend to pretend the hotels (with their showers and restaurants and swimming pools) are not there as I rough it for a week in my tent. So I felt a bit like I let myself down walking up to the check in desk. Well, not really. Stepping out of the car was like stepping into an oven. It was hovering around a little over 100 degrees out there, and I overheard a conversation at the front desk that suggested that the temperature might drop overnight to a nice cool (!) 85 or 90 that night. I learned that there was a huge sandstorm and hour or so before that I was lucky to have missed. (This coincided with the buffeting I was feeling on the way into the Valley. I must have just touched the edge of it.) I went to the restaurant before checking in (on the advice of the check in agent) since last orders were at 9:00, and there was a note at the desk for me saying that the crew were at dinner and would meet me there.

It was good to see them and spend a bit of time. I knew all of them (except Kerry Clemens, the PA) from previous shows, in various other crews. The writer/director Savas Georgalis I knew from our work together on the episode “Cosmic Apocalypse” (and of course our emails and telephone conversations discussing physics associated with the this episode). Jason Newfield the cameraman I’ve met many times, as he has shot so many of my pieces on the show in all four seasons, and Paul Wustruck, the sound engineer, I’d met just a few weeks earlier while doing the tennis shoot.) So it was like a bit of a reunion. The restaurant’s food was (not surprisingly) mediocre, but not overly offensive, and I managed to convince (wasn’t too hard) everyone to stop in the tavern/saloon next door for a drink to end the evening. We got talking about camping in Death Valley, and the star gazing to be done, and Kerry, the PA, expressed the interest to go outside and look at the amazing stars we should be able to see, and so we all went out, walking away from the lights of the hotel into the solid blackness of the night. There were only about as many stars as you would see from downtown Los Angeles. Not the breathtakingly clear Winter or Spring skies I usually encounter. Why? Clouds, haze and dust, brought in by the sandstorm. A bad night for stars. Oh well.

So, you’re wondering, I imagine: Why were we there? What science was I there to try to communicate to the history Channel audience? A crucial part of the mission was to shoot on the Mesquite sand dunes, not far from Stovepipe Wells. The idea was to get up and be ready to go at sunup, (rising around 5:00am) for Andy and Jason to scout locations (since the sandstorm scuppered that earlier as previously planned), and then to get set up and shoot before the roasting began in earnest by late morning.


It went well. Except for the fact that the roasting begins by 8:00am or so, but it is a gentle roasting, rising in intensity until it is already ridiculous by mid-morning. A big surprise to us was that there were actual tourists at the dunes, and as early as we were there. We’d assumed that nobody would be insane enough to be in the desert by choice at this time of year, but of course the hotel is open for a reason. Adn of course, they;s also get up very early to beat the heat. This meant that we were at risk of having lots of the lovely virgin slopes (nicely prepped by the sandstorm the night before) trampled over by the tourists before we could shoot some of the scenery. We managed to get enough footage before this happened, I think, and so all was well. By time we got to shooting the interview portions (me sitting looking to camera and saying hopeully informative things) it was after 8:00am, hot and sticky, and the many cars of tourists had mostly long gone. We had the dunes to ourselves for long stretches, at least as far as the eye could see. This made sound recording and so forth very easy (compared to shooting in the Los Angeles area where there are, for example, planes or helicopters stopping me mid-flow every few minutes or so).

Again, you ask, what is this episode about? Well, I don’t want to reveal too much about the upcoming season (I will let the program makers do that themselves when they are ready) but I will tease you with the following. The working theme of this episode is to do with liquids and/or fluids in the universe. So I will let you make some educated guesses as to why we’d be out there in the desert, filming me playing with sand. You can watch the actual episode when it comes out to see if your guess is right. (You may discuss your guesses in the comments, if you like.) Remember – it is not as obvious as you might think.

Here’s the crew, all comfy in the shade:


I was not doing too badly myself. I’m helped in my quest to avoid heatstroke and even appear cool and unsweaty in the 100+ degree heat death_valley_shoot_2_4(amplified by a shiny reflector doubling the sun on my face) by a translucent shade above my head (the umbrella pictures was dispensed with once shooting began), but especially by Kerry coming over every now and again with a bottle of water attached to a misting device that she sprays all over my face, arms and neck in a way that – given the intensity of the heat – is almost sinfully delicious. (I don’t think I’ve ever had such simple pure pleasure from someone I’d only just met. This includes that time I was convinced to get a massage at a spa in Cornwall, during which I fell asleep because it was so relaxing. (Slightly disturbingly, I also recall waking a little later to find the masseuse giggling to herself. I never found out why…))

By 11:00am we wrapped, and I decided to get on the road immediately and lunch during the drive (sandwiches 2 and 3 were in the car) in order to make it back to LA before the rush hour, and in time to perhaps join a couple of friends for a drink and snack downtown at Bottega Louie’s, the new Italian (ish) place. It was a good decision, as I managed to coast along pretty rapidly, making it to my home at 3:30pm, almost precisely 24 hours after setting off from the USC campus at the beginning of the trip. It was mostly a Kate Bush singalong on the last half of the journey back, in case you were wondering what was mostly on the ipod. She randomly came up while I was making the transition from the 395 to the 14, her voice reached into my heart and gently squeezed once again (as it has always done since the 80s) and so I flicked to just wall-to-wall Kate for the duration.


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5 Responses to Tales From The Industry XXIX – Dune

  1. Pope Maledict XVI says:

    It was about the fact that certain substances [like sand] can behave in ways that are unexpectedly fluid-like. Like the quark-gluon plasma. Right? No, maybe not……

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