Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Ben Kilminster, the young hipster physicist in the Fermilab rock band, agreed to let us shoot him as he rollerbladed around the ring. This was not on the inside of the ring, of course, because that's a cramped hallway (currently filled with lethal radiation since the accelerator is in operation) but rather above, on the one-lane service road that runs above the accelerator tunnel. We engaged some high-tech filmmaking wizardry: to get the shot, I brought along my bike and we gaff-taped a tripod to my bike cross bar so that it floated above my back tire. For good measure, we used nearly a quarter roll of gaff-tape, and the result was an ugly black misshapen ball with a lens poking out. But it was solid, by god.

I hopped on the bike and started pedaling, and overtook Ben. I wanted to get the shot of the movement around the ring first, and then Ben drifting into the frame. We set the iris a little too wide and I'm afraid the first pass was a bit washed out. The sky lost it's color and became white. On the second pass, coming back, I just turned the auto-iris back on and it looks better.

While he was rollerblading, puffing for breath, I asked him a couple of questions. He said once when he was stuck and needed to come up with a new way of looking at things, he came out and rollerbladed backwards. Another nice comment came when he said he needed to get out of the lab and look at some big things for a change, things that were far away. It's true, I would imagine: looking at things at the sub-atomic level might make you want to get next to a giant pine tree (or a 1000-pound buffalo). And, of course, the idea that this guy watches protons and anti-protons as they race around the ring then takes a break and gets inspiration by ... racing around the ring ... is a nice one.

Along those lines, I took Stef up to the 15th floor of the hi-rise and got a shot of Ben skating from 150 feet up. We used cell phones to communicate --- I told him "go!" and he started skating. Stef was in a tight shot and did a beautiful zoom-out/tilt to follow him and reveal the huge size of the 4-mile circumference ring. Later Ben joked that we should speed up the image to make it look like he was travelling at the speed of light. "I'll hold a torch," he said. "I'll be the proton." Luke said I could be the anti-proton on my bike, holding a torch coming the other way. The problem is, of course, that we'd have to crash, and our production insurance wouldn't cover that.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Data Taking

Monica went to San Francisco for her mother's 90th birthday party, so she couldn't come with Stef, Luke and me as we interviewed Gregorio Bernardi at Fermilab. Despite his Italian name, he's French, and seemed much more able and willing to call a spade a spade when it comes to what our country is doing wrong on the science front. We were there primarily to get footage of him as he heads a data-taking session at the D-zero detector, so I asked just a few questions about the budget cuts and America's relationship to science. He said, in a sense, that America had better get it's act together or it would be in serious trouble. Something only John Conway and Rocky Kolb have been willing to say on camera so far. It's strange to contrast that with comments from Chris Quigg who said "it's a wonderful time to be a scientist in America" or Judy Jackson's optimism. Dr. Bernardi poked some fun at Bush's idea to send people to Mars, which he said would really add very little to America's scientific advancement.

Once we went inside, we descended four stories to D-zero's control room. He did a shift change procedure (it reminded me a little of a new captain taking control of one shift of a battleship's operations). He explained some things to us and we got footage of him going about his business. At one point they had to stop the detector and start it again, which is a standard procedure which happens every four hours, and involves the main engineer ringing a little bell and announcing "Detector Stop!" About 60 seconds later, he rings the bell and says "Detector Start!" It was a little humorous: here they are, surrounded by unfathomable technology, and they've got a little "ring bell for service" type dinger on the desk that he taps lightly with his hand. Of course, I had Stef get a close up of the bell ringing. I loved the irony there. Plus the engineer seemed to get a kick out of that tiny act of low-tech physicality.

Dr. Bernardi gave us one of the best moments yet on tape, in my opinion, in terms of the science leg of our story: the actual search for the Higgs boson. It came when we were asking him about the different screens, monitors, and displays flashing all around the room. I pointed to a big one with what looked like a 3D-bar graph on a giant 30-inch TV monitor. About once per second, the graph changed. Sometimes there were a couple of different tall lines, and sometimes there were dozens of multi-colored bars, short and tall. It was hypnotizing. Dr. Bernardi's eyes lit up.

"Oh, that one," he said, "that's what the detector is seeing. Each spike is a collision." He pointed at the screen. "When there are two or three large spikes like this, that's good. That's two or three discrete events. That's good data." Then the graph changed to a multi-colored mess, with lots of different bars of all sizes. It looked complicated and fascinating.

"That's junk," he said. "Useless."

I asked him if he ever found himself just staring at that monitor, looking at the spikes, the collisions. "Yes," he said, smiling, "I've stared at this quite a bit. Maybe one of those spikes is the Higgs boson, you know?"

I had Stef shoot that screen in a few different ways, including a really tight close up, with the bars changing, for about a minute. The idea of the Higgs boson being one of those spikes really caught my attention, and I think it's one of the few visual, comprehensible (and even poetic) ways the audience can relate to this notion of a search. I found myself staring at that screen a long time.

Monday, April 11, 2005


Part of our story involves portraying the passage of time, as this is a year in the search for the Higgs boson at Fermilab. We've been careful to get shots of the seasons as they progress along the prairie at Fermilab, and what better way to illustrate spring than a new crop of baby buffalo?

For those of you who don't know, Robert Wilson (the physicist who envisioned and designed Fermilab) wanted the facility to embrace nature as much as possible. After all, these physicists are not creating new particles, creating toxic waste or developing murky new substances. They're simply trying to understand how things work. They are intimitely tied with nature, trying to unlock its secrets, and their facility reflects that. The whole place consists of one high-rise and a few low warehouse buildings in the middle of a huge prairie. And, per Dr. Wilson's design, that prairie features natural prairie grasses, lots of wildlife, and a herd of buffalo.

Everyone knows about the buffalo at Fermilab. They're a big tourist draw. Any time a news story, magazine article, documentary, or photo shoot features Fermilab, you can almost guarantee the buffalo will be mentioned, along with some kind of attempt to make the connection between high-energy physics and nature via the buffalo (much as I just did in the preceding paragraph). We're no exception, of course.

Yesterday Monica, Stef and I met Mr. Pleses, the guy in charge of the buffalo herd at Fermilab. He was a few minutes late, so we killed some time by shooting some "spring" footage: birds chirping, buds budding on trees. I spied a security guard adjusting his belt before getting into the car. He was eating an ice cream cone. I wandered over and started asking questions. He said there was all kinds of wildlife at Fermilab: foxes, deer, coyote. Just the other morning he had heard some coyote pups yipping. But the buffalo, of course, were the main draw. He said that the herd had been there since the 60s, and that people from all over had come to see them.

"Contrary to what people say, they're actually bison," he said. He said that every year they sell off the calves.

"For meat?" I asked.

"For whatever. To whoever," he said. Then he told me that the first one had actually been born the day before easter.

"The next day I came in," he said, "and I saw the momma buffalo chasing off two coyote, and there were two more having breakfast. No more baby buffalo."

I asked if he would mind if we asked him a couple of questions on camera. "Not a chance," he said, laughing. "Not a chance."

Finally the actual buffalo herder showed up. He was a youngish guy, probably around 40, and he had hair that was styled perfectly, short in the front and long in the back. He had two or three earrings, a shiny belt buckle, and gator-skin cowboy boots with polished metal toe-tips. He was a little nervous and thought that we were "newspaper people." The presence of the camera seemed to stump him a little, but he was game. We wired him up with the mic and asked him a few questions. We asked if we could go out with him in the huge pen.

"It's a little dangerous," he said. "We should probably go in the truck. You never know how they're going to react. Especially with all the little calves." He said ever since he got charged once by a nervous mother he keeps a ladder in there as a quick escape route.

I got in the cab of the tractor with him, and it was a tight fit since it was a single-seat tractor. I had to huddle in behind him, pressed against the rear glass, and try to shoot from overhead as we bounced along the field. The buffalo looked at us sideways and shuffled out of the way at the very last moment. He drove by the troughs and dumped feed. Then we came back and climbed on board the flat-bed pickup. Stef took the camera again and we got footage as he peered through binoculars, counting the calves and reading the eartags of the mothers. There was one that was about 24 hours old, lying on the grass. It's mother stood over it, licking it.

We drove around and asked him some more questions --- careful to get some shots of the buffalo with the high-rise of Fermilab in the background. We asked him if he had heard the rumor about the buffalo: that they were not really a tourist attraction, not really a gesture to nature on the part of the scientist who envisioned the facility, but in fact served as "canaries in the coalmine." If they all dropped over dead, the rumor said, then the scientists knew it was time to high-tail it out of there. Radiation leak. Another rumor claimed you could see the buffalo glowing at night, they were so charged with radiation. God only knew what those scientists were doing down there. But, no, he hadn't heard those rumors. We thought it was strange --- if anyone had heard them, we thought it would be him.

Saturday, April 9, 2005

The Ring Cycle part II

Getting down to Chicago's Lyric Opera House on a Saturday at 5 proved to be a little more difficult than I suspected. I was coming from a music class I was teaching, Monica was coming from her house, and Stef and Andrew were already downtown filming for another project. I took the Brown Line elevated train, and if you are from Chicago you know that's a good way to get into the city because (unlike the Red Line) the Brown Line winds through the city on a track about 20 feet above the street level. It's a beautiful way to get downtown.

And it was a beautiful day, too. Andrew had made arrangements for us to arrive and meet the manager of the Lyric Opera (he had warned us all to dress a little nicer than normal) and to get shots inside the lobby, which was very generous of the Lyric and worked well for us.

Rocky and his wife, Adrienne, showed up a few minutes late, but dressed perfectly. Rocky was looking quite relaxed and poised, and Adrienne clung to his elbow. We "staged" a little event where they walked up and handed their ticket to an usher before the crowd was allowed in, since they were anticipating a full house and a really loud, crowded lobby. Then we took them back outside and strolled down the columned sidewalk and asked Rocky some questions. He is perhaps the most skilled interviewee of anyone we've spoken to so far, and today, in his expensive suit at the Opera with his wife on his arm, he was in fine form. His answers were polished, clean, and the perfect length. Unfortunately, at times, it sounded a bit rehearsed, perhaps something more along the lines of a Nova episode. However, what he said was provocative and interesting: he expressed some real concern about the future of science in America. He also made a couple of nice connections between the opera and high-energy physics, admitting that he loved to come to the opera in part because "where else can you sit for three hours with no one talking to you? It's the perfect place to think about physics."

The whole time he was talking, a Streetwise guy was leaning against the wall shouting "Streetwise! Get your Streetwise!" hoping for a donation. During the last part of the shot, I think Stef framed him in the shot, which was nice. Later Monica and I wished we had thought to get a shot of the Streetwise guy all alone (Monica thought of it at the time, but didn't push for it since we had Rocky and his wife for a short time).

Then we went back inside the lobby, made our way up to the upper level, and shot the crowd as they entered. We said goodbye to the Kolbs and went back outside where Stef got some great shots of the outside of the building.

On the way back, Monica handed me the tiny remote video camera which we plan to strap on to one of the model airplanes when we meet with Barnstormers, Fermilab's Remote Control Model Airplane Club....

Thursday, April 7, 2005

The Ring Cycle

We've made arrangements this weekend to interview Rocky Kolb, an astro-physicist, and his wife Adrian (who happens to be Fermilab's archivist) at the Wagner opera. We're meeting them a couple of hours before the event in order to avoid the rush. We're not able to film inside the opera house (the Lyric has forbidden that) but the lobby and exterior are acceptable.

And Sunday we'll be at Fermilab bright and early to get footage of the buffalo. A pretty exciting weekend...

Saturday, April 2, 2005


We heard back from the buffalo keepers. They said they'd be happy to do the interview. There's a chance we might get the call tomorrow, in which case we'd really have to scramble. I'm hoping, secretly, that it will be next week.

Friday, April 1, 2005

Understanding your audience

Last night Monica and I interviewed Judy Jackson, Fermilab's Public Relations director. Initially we met with her back in October or November, and at that time we wanted simply to get releases signed, to get her blessing on our project, and to follow the proper protocol so that the doors would be open to us. Immediately, however, we were taken with her and wanted to get her in front of the camera. Among other things, she turned us on when she said, in essence, "Higgs, shmiggs. I'm sick to death of hearing about the Higgs boson."

Last night she was great --- you could tell she was very skilled at presenting Fermilab in its best light. But occasionally things poked through the packaging, such as when she said of the budget crisis "I don't have any patience for hand-wringing and moping around. These people should have seen this coming. It was pretty obvious." That's quite a different take on the situation!

She's also great because it's clear she absolutely loves Fermilab, and is in love with the field of Particle Physics in general. I think there's always a certain amount of spin at play when you speak with a PR person, but with Judy it was immediately obvious that she truly is optimistic and practically glowing with excitement about the prospects for the future of high energy physics. Her take on America's dwindling support of high-level science? "That means Fermilab will BE high energy particle physics! How exciting is that?" Now that's optimism.

She told a good story about politicians vs. scientists: politicians usually want to know what the scientists they're funding are up to. So the 20 scientists on the committee go into a room and write a report. They send it to the politicians who read it and scratch their heads. It's never what they want, they get frustrated with the scientists who in turn get frustrated with the politicians. Judy decided to break that circle by rounding up the scientists and taking them to the politicians in washington.

"They didn't want to go," she said. "They told me I should just go for them. I said 'nope. We're all going.'" So all twenty flew to Washington where they had a meeting with the politicians, who told them exactly what they wanted. And, in fact, the scientists were surprised to find, the politicians wanted to know about the science. "We want to know what you are trying to find," they said. "Tell us what you're excited about. Then we can better understand why you want us to pay for this stuff."

So the scientists went back and wrote the report. Halfway through the process, Judy rounded them all up and flew them out to Washington again. "How are we doing?" she asked. The politicians said "No! It's all wrong!" Apparently the scientists had been "sexing it up." Trying to make the stuff more exciting, more dramatic. "Just the basic science," they said.

They went back and started over. For the first time, Judy said, they made a book that was just perfect for the politicians. For once, they were all on the same page.

That's called understanding your audience. Something that filmmakers struggle with constantly --- it was fascinating to hear about this process. Of course, the analogy is not quite right for us: we don't intend to let our audience dictate our film. But in terms of how to present something you are passionate about, it's very appropriate: the lesson the scientists learned was that honesty makes the best story.

We also found out that there are 8 new baby buffaloes --- we're planning an interview with the buffalo keeper. Monica wants a shot of an actual baby buffalo birth --- hope I've got the stomach for it. When I cringed at her suggestion, she shook her head and laughed. "You men," she said.