Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Test Screening

A nail-biter --- you're showing the completed film to a room full of strangers for the first time. They're not your friends or your family, they've never heard of you or the film, most of them have never heard of Fermilab and none of them has ever heard of the Higgs boson. Will they like it?

The answer, as we found out a couple of weeks ago at a small theatre in Chicago at a test screening organized by the Chicago branch of the IFP, was yes! We were quite relieved. There was a question and answer session afterwards, and there was a lively discussion about the film that lasted about 20 minutes. Overall, it was very gratifying.

Well, I should be honest. The answer was yes, they liked it ... mostly. We heard some excellent feedback.

At the stage where we're at (nearly complete) there is feedback you like to get, and feedback you dread. The feedback you dread is the kind that sounds like "hmmm..... I didn't really understand it. What were they doing?" or worse, "so, what was going on?". The worst of all, though, is just a room full of bored people who don't even have a question. It just didn't work, they weren't interested, and they were just ready to leave. That's the kind of screening directors have nightmares about.

The good kind of feedback is, happily, the kind we got. People are truly engaged by the film --- they're asking question after question about the content ("did they see the budget cut coming?" "when are they all going to make the move to CERN?"), which means they were hooked by the story and the characters. And their critiques about the film itself are specific and small: "I saw that one shot of that piece of equipment twice" or "I think you could cut out that part about Intelligent Design. We got it, and that was a little repetitive." Those are clear, easy things to do, and by and large we agreed with every one of them. Altogether, they gave us smart, concise suggestions that could help us shave off nearly 8 or even 9 minutes of the film, which would bring us from a (slightly) big 97 minutes to a (perfect) 88 minutes.

We've set early January as the date for the final FINAL cut, reflecting these last changes...

Monday, December 10, 2007

The latest

So, it's been a while! Apologies for such a long delay in writing.

We've been working hard in two areas: first, the post-production. We have enlisted the services of Kate Simko as our composer, and she and I have had many hours of meetings to discuss the soundtrack, which she is composing for our film. She's an electronic/ambient composer, and you can check out her work here. We've wrapped it up and I'm feeling really good about the work she's done.

I've also been spending a lot of time in the studios of Mosaic Music where Rich Rankin has been doing the sound mix. He's done wonders with balancing the EQ, making sure the room tones sound the same, and making sure the music doesn't drown out the voices and vice versa. Such a pleasure not to have to do that myself.

And I've been working closely with Tyler Roth who has been doing the color correction to the film --- making things look as good as they can. Makes a huge difference.

Second, we've been working hard on the long list of contacts and potential relationships with groups we made while at the IFP Market in New York. Several people requested copies of the film, so we sent out quite a few in the two weeks that followed the Market. We got a few more requests after that. We made one round of follow-up calls, to remind them and encourage them to watch it (of course they hadn't yet). I've just finished making a second round of calls. I was encouraged --- this time they had all watched it and there were some expressions of real interest (knock on wood). Everything is going to grind to a halt at this time of the year so we'll pick things back up in early January.

We also have some legal things to do: we have quite a few people on tape that appear in the backgrounds of shots, or for just a few seconds, that we don't have signed releases for. We're in the process of talking to lawyers, etc. to decide how aggressively we need to pursue their signatures.

So, it's a different kind of work than the creative kind. But it's still fun, because now we have a (nearly) completed piece that we're working with --- it's always nice to be able to hold something in your hands rather than just discussing it in the abstract.

Monday, October 1, 2007

And In Other News...

The New York Times is not the only paper to document the difficulties scientists have in communicating with Washington DC. Scientists Ask Congress to Fund $50 Billion Science Thing.

But even worse is the news that the Super Monkey Collider Loses Funding.

We can be comforted, though, by the reassuring report that maybe we've been wrong about the Bush administration all along. After all, Bush Finds Error in Fermilab Calculations.

At last...

Our movie is done!

Or, maybe:


Holy cow.

A little clarification: our part is done. The edit is done. The movie exists, we love it, and we are extremely proud of it.

Now we turn it over to Kate Simko, our composer, to finish scoring the music, and Rich Rankin, our sound designer, to clean up all the sound, and Tyler Roth, our colorist, to make all the scenes match and make sure everything looks as good as it can. And Luke Haddock, our visual effects artist, is still working on some of the graphics. We have lo-resolution versions in there now, but he will soon give us the full-res graphics that we can then drop in place.

Now: I burn about 10-15 dvds for immediate mailing to some of the contacts I mentioned earlier and wait for our post-production team to finish up on their end.

Oh, yeah --- and send out another round of "can you help us?" fund-raising letters. Some of you might see some in the mail soon...

It's hard to believe I'm actually writing these words! It's been over three years...

More updates as they happen... but for now, I'm still trying to let it sink in.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Day Five

At long last, with apologies, I will complete the week at the IFP...

Our last day started well. We had a meeting with PBS, and again we were met with positive thoughts and comments about our film. Not surprisingly, we were told that NOVA would probably be a good fit for us, and were told that NOVA "had gone through some changes" and would be interested in a piece like ours. I raised the fact that we were all fans of NOVA, but had always assumed our film was not such a good fit, since ours is less a science documentary (one that sets out primarily to teach the viewers about science) and much more a story taking place in the realm of science. Our contact person indicated this would fit fine in the NOVA model.

She also asked if we'd be interested in being considered for Independent Lens, which we were very interested in, thank you. As before, she expressed a real desire to see a "full cut of the film whenever it's ready." It was a great meeting, and a little head-spinning that we were chatting with PBS about how our film could be a good fit for public television. She even indicated that a previous theatrical run would be just fine as far as they were concerned.

Our next meeting was one that was assigned to us during the week --- in other words, someone came across our project late and requested a meeting. It may have had something to do with mailings and phone calls we made, but whatever the reason, we found ourselves in a meeting with a very high-powered film sales company. Previous films include "Born into Brothels" (last year's Oscar winner), Crazy Love, Fahrenheit 9-11, My Architect, etc. Pretty big-hitters. What do they do? You might check into one of my previous posts about Film Reps and Sales Reps, but essentially they become a cross between your agent, your carnival barker, your palm-greaser, your used-car salesman, and your deal-maker. They get you into all the good festivals. They get everybody interested in your film. In his words, "we create a bidding war for your film." This group is among the best with an excellent track record, and you have to wonder if you'd be the small fish in their big pond. He said they were extremely selective, taking about 1% of the films that come their way. He liked our premise, he liked what he'd seen, and ... you guessed it, wants a cut of the film as soon as it's ready.

So, the week was over, and we were really pleased. We'd had more interest and more positive feedback than I expected, and I think it's safe to say that the three of us were more than energized to get the dang thing done. I joked to Andrew (a half-joke, anyway): "first item on to-do list: finish film."

I bought some great NYC souvenirs (I have a soft spot for tacky tourist kitsch), and on Friday we attended an extremely informative "Fair Use" seminar (I might go into Fair Use another time, but it's too big to cover here. It was good news for us, though, and implies we may not have to get as many clearances for some of our footage as we once thought). I headed home on Friday night, and got enough sleep for once.

The very next day I was up at the edit station... Look for an update soon...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Day Four

Today we had no meetings, but attended a couple of seminars as we got ready for our screening at 2:30. When we got there at about 2pm, it didn’t look as though there were a lot of people in the lobby. But by the time our doors opened, we had a decent enough crowd of 20 people there. We found out later that several of them were industry types.

Anyone who’s ever made a painting, written a story or a play, written music, recorded an album, or certainly made a film, knows the very strange feeling of watching/seeing/listening to what you’ve worked on for so long and having it appear to be something completely different than what you thought. That’s because you’re seeing it through someone else’s eyes for the first time, and you think “wow, that part is slow here. People are bored.” Or “that part doesn’t make any sense!” Things that had seemed perfectly fine, and even strong, suddenly seem clunky or just plain bad. There’s nothing you can do about those things, except learn from them, and go back and do something better.

There is one thing you can do, though, and that is to develop a better barometer so that you can anticipate those moments before you actually show something to the public. Monica and I have a decent amount of experience at this by now, and I have to say I was pretty pleased with our footage. I didn’t have those moments --- I watched the footage with a roomful of strangers and it still seemed like our film. Nothing seemed long, or boring, or nonsensical. In short, I liked it!

Surprisingly, that’s a huge relief. That means we have arrived at a place where things are about as good as they can be, and we’ve done a complete enough job of reviewing, revising, second-guessing, and deciding to get to the point where we can say “this is done.” A big deal.

So, afterwards, we had an all-to-brief 5 minutes of questions. There were many, and just like our screening at Kartemquin, they all were questions about the content, and about people wanting to know more, and wondering if we were going to answer this question in the film or address that issue (remember, we only showed a 20-minute selection of scenes). We were able to say “yes” and “yes” to those questions, and the conversation spilled out into the lobby after we were told we had to vacate the theatre for the next screening. We had quite a few people tell us how much they liked the film, and give us specific reasons why, ranging from the characters to speculation about how we are all just “ones and zeros anyway, and our information is written in the fabric of the universe. Maybe this one particle will finally prove that idea.” Well, maybe. Different film.

Wendy Sax, my contact and friend from the IFP market in 2003, introduced me to a very engaging lawyer in the lobby. We ended up talking for 30 minutes about deals, dealing, how things get done, how things happen. He’s the type of lawyer we’d hire to look over the paperwork in any kind of deal that we would decide to move forward with the company mentioned from yesterday, or any other company. He would be “our” lawyer, draw up the contracts with “their” lawyers, and angle for our best interests. He was low-key and laid back, and told me I could give him a call next week for advice without deciding to engage his services. He had many years in the biz in LA, then NYC, then settled in to Connecticut where he works on projects that he wants to work on. He gave me some inside scoops on some of the people we may or may not be talking to here at the Market.

Anyway, we were really pleased. Our list of people we’ve talked to who want to see the film is growing. Monica took off to go spend time with her family, and Andrew and I had pizza at America’s oldest pizzeria on Spring Street, then attended an outdoor screening of some narrative films in progress (only after I schooled Andrew in 2 out of 3 games of 8-ball in a gigantic pool hall we happened to be walking past. I got lucky).

Day 5, essentially the last day in the festival, is tomorrow…

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Day Three

What a difference a day makes --- ! After practicing our pitch in long form in a few meetings, we had it down pretty well. I delivered the first presentation, then Monica and I fielded the questions and the comments. We exchanged some good information and several people indicated they would watch the film in the library.

So imagine how surprised and pleased we were when we walked in to our first meeting today and met someone who had not only watched the trailer and was familiar with the project, but who had watched the entire film in the library. He was glowing about it. His company's roster was really impressive, with more than one oscar under their belt and many more oscar nominations. He was very interested in working with us. As I mentioned before, deals don't happen here, but rather the beginnings of deals can. These things are so complicated that lawyers have to get involved and complicated contracts drawn up with many different sets of rights negotiated (festival rights, theatrical rights, TV rights, international rights, internet rights, video rights, distribution rights, etc. etc.) But his level of enthusiasm and his ideas for what he envisioned (a festival run, theatrical distrubution, then international and cable/TV and finally video distrubution) sounded wonderful.

Then his partner arrived with a very different perspective. He said "this is not a theatrical film. TV maybe." He was sober, pessimistic, and watching guy #1 wink and nod at us and interject the occasional "we'll argue about this. I'll change his mind" was pretty amusing. Afterwards Andrew said "I think we were just good cop-bad copped" and I likened it to having a Paula Abdul / Simon Cowell experience. But guy #1 seemed to want to make something happen.

Naturally, we were cautious, but certainly happy. We were most happy to have two complete strangers tell us they loved our film and that we had a wonderful project (even guy #2 looked hard at us and said "it IS a wonderful film. Don't get me wrong) was the best part of the week so far. Obviously we're not green enough to assume that something wonderful is going to come out of a 30-minute conversation, but we were feeling bouyed. And in case your red flags are waving, it is comforting to remember that IFP doesn't allow hucksters here. There's a very careful vetting process and only established, legitimate companies are let in.

Anyway, we went to get some coffee and I thought I'd snap a picture of the three of us basking in the glow of some positive reaction to our years of hard work.

Tomorrow is our screening, at 2:30. we'll be showing 20 minutes to a crowd of ...? So far most screenings we've been to have had anywhere from 5 to 25 people in the audience. As I may have mentioned before, it seems as though most of the audience at the screenings is other filmmakers, as the industry folks go check things out in private in the library on their own time. But it will be interesting to see if our postcards and our listing in the booklet will generate some interest.

I'll let you know...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Day Two, supplemental

After the day's events, there was an "official" party at the Optimus, which was uptown a little ways from the IFP location. I arrrived around 9:15 and found a line outside --- we weren't allowed in yet. So I got in line (or "on line" as they say here in NYC) and found myself talking to a great foursome from San Francisco, here with their film "Silhouette City," which is an alarming tale about the far, far religious right --- where religion begins to blend with survivalism and militantism, in guerilla warfare preparations for the "End Times." We had a great time hanging out, and soon the place was packed with fellow filmmakers. This has always been one of the highlights of the IFP --- getting to meet hundreds of your peers; people who know exactly what it's like to struggle with the things we've been struggling with.

The funny part is that all of us are filmmakers, and hardly any of us are business-people. So we can all comiserate about the difficulties involved in "pitching," as I described yesterday. How to convert your art, your passion, into a saleable commodity across a three-foot table in 10 minutes or less.

Anyway, by the end of the night Andrew and I found ourselves ... uh, dancing ... on the floor with a great couple of ladies, one of whom was a producer who had a connection to a programmmer at Sundance. We had given her our trailer earlier in the day, and she just came right up to us and told us that she loved it. Just then the music started, and... let's just say I'm glad there were no cameras rolling.

Day Two

Today got off to a much better start. After an initial mishap, that is. I mentioned in the last post that I was staying with a documentary producer friend (Maggie), and I walked out the door to her apartment in Brooklyn this morning without my festival passes: a couple of over-sized laminated passes that hang around your neck and I.D. you to get in to all the events. So I arrived in the lower East side of Manhattan and met Monica and Andrew for our "speed dating" session with A&E, and immediately realized what I had done. The woman at the door seemed pretty strict that I couldn't get in, so I started calling up Maggie, hoping she hadn't left.

To make a long story short, one of the other volunteers vouched for me, I got in, did the pitch, and met Maggie at her office where she had my passes.

So how did the pitch go? Much, much better. Why? Possibly because Monica gave it this time, not me. She had just given it to someone in the elevator when I was running around trying to get my passes taken care of, and Andrew suggested that on this fast meeting Monica (who's a faster talker than I am) should give it, and I should do the longer meetings. Sounded great to me. So she opened it up and we both fielded questions. Andrew later said it had gone really well and in fact the A&E rep did seem pretty engaged. Regardless of whether there is any real interest on her part, just having a good meeting did wonders for our spirits.

Later, there was a panel with some of the programmers from the so-called "A-list" film festivals, including Sundance, SXSW, Slamdance, and Tribeca. Even though they were swamped by people clamoring for attention afterwards, I managed to hand the Sundance rep and the SXSW rep stuff on our film and gave the "elevator" pitch: the one sentence version of the film. What's the point of doing that? Will they really remember you? The purpose is to make a connection, hopefully stick an idea in their brain, so that when you follow up in a few days with a call, you can say "I met you at the IFP Market. My film is 'The Atom Smashers,' the one about the physicists looking for "the God Particle---" "---oh, yeah, I remember that. OK, I'll keep an eye out for that one when it comes through."

Or something like that. It is a strange shift, I’ll be honest. After spending the last three years of my life working with Monica and Andrew on this film, and debating, reviewing, contemplating, re-working and approving every micro-second of footage, it’s a bizarre exercise to try to suddenly come up with one sentence (one sentence!) that explains what the film is and why a perfect stranger ought to be interested. How in the world could this be a good system? Why should I have to compress thousands of hours of effort into one pithy sentence?

I guess the answer is because ten thousand people each have a 90-minute movie. Ideally, the work should be able to speak for itself, but the people in charge of programming, of distributing, of paying for films to be shown to the public, don’t have fifteen thousand hours to spend watching every movie. So they watch only the few, the golden few, that capture their attention, and pass on the bulk of the rest.

Why did I use the word “golden” just then? Because Leon Lederman used it when he described the process of how physicists examine the vast multitude of physics events, of collisions, in the tevatron. Most of them are average, unremarkable collisions. Maybe 10 percent are slightly interesting, and those get kicked up a floor to a bank of computers for analysis. Most of those are rejected as being ordinary, but maybe 10 percent of those are kicked upstairs another level to the next bank of computers for further analysis. And a tiny fraction of those, “The Golden Ones,” as Lederman described them, are flagged for actual human beings to take a look at, because they are really extraordinary.

So, when you’re a festival programmer or an industry executive and you have hundreds and hundreds of films being thrown at you, you can’t watch them all. You have to rely on a detection system like that at fermilab, and examine only the golden ones…

I'm being a little generous to the industry types. But Walter Murch, one of my film heroes, once described how a movie set worked by saying where there's a bottleneck in the process, there's power. There's a gigantic bottleneck at the intersection between filmmaker and audience. And it's the industry people who hold the cork.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Day One

Day one at the IFP market ended --- it was a loooong one. I left my place at 4am and got to New York at about 9, just time enough to jump in a cab and meet Monica my co-director outside the main building. Right away Milton Talbot recognized me from when I was here four years ago, which was nice. We got our passes, took a breath, and had some coffee to prepare.

Right away we started meeting people, and within the first hour we were exchanging cards and making contacts (some with the Film Arts Foundation) in San Francisco about possible screenings and donors on the West coast.

We have a total of six "buyer request" meetings: these are meetings from industry people who have seen our material and want to meet with us. The first two of these happened today: one with a consultant and one with Red Envelope, a division of Netflix that has started acquiring and distributing movies of their own (they recently did "An Unreasonable Man," the film about Ralph Nader. The first meeting was essentially a sales pitch to us for his services, which we probably won't be interested in using. The second meeting was a bit more relevent, and we thought we were ready for it.

But we weren't. Not really. First of all, we were exhausted, as this was at the end of the day. Second, we didn't realize that he hadn't seen our trailer and really knew nothing about the film. I was expecting him to "lead" the meeting (after all, he requested it) so when he asked what our movie was about I stumbled a little on the delivery. Then Monica jumped in, and we fumbled to a stop. And then, we all kind of looked at each other, and he essentially said "well, if you get into Sundance, drop me a line." We kept talking, thinking that we needed to keep the meeting going for some reason, but afterwards realized we should have just cut it short. If he hasn't seen it, we can talk about it all day, but until he sees it (which he said he would do at the video library here) there's not a whole lot more that can happen at a meeting.

That's when I realized that these things are really just a time to meet people, not necessarily to make deals. Deals come later --- and for a guy like this, he essential just wanted to introduce himself to us in case our film starts to get a lot of success. Then he can come in and possibly make a deal with us. Until that happens, there's not a whole lot either one of us can do for each other.

Also we found out that our list of 6 meetings was on the "low to average" side. When I showed Milton our list, he looked disappointed that more industry people hadn't requested to meet with us.

In short, it was a slightly deflating end to the day. I went back to Maggie's place (a film producer friend who has generously let me crash at her apartment) and decompressed a little. She helped me put things more in perspective. And she listened to my pitch, which I started practicing. Not that things were a total bust, but hopefully tomorrow things will go a little better...

Monday, September 10, 2007

It's a wrap!

"It's a wrap!" That's what the first assistant director yells on the set of a movie when the final shot is in the can. Everyone on set, from the actors to the gaffer to the dolly grip to the people stocking the food table burst into spontaneous cheers, applause, hand-shaking, hugs, and bleary-eyed stumbling. But for us, this moment will happen tomorrow, and it will be a little more subdued: Monica and I will be in the lobby of the High-Rise at Fermilab, and we'll probably look at each other, breathe a sigh of relief, and get in the car for the hour-long drive back to Chicago. Who knows; maybe we'll get crazy and stop at the gas station food plaza for some beef jerky or corn nuts.

It's true: tomorrow will be the last shoot of the film. It's a quick 15-minute interview with John Conway, and in fact we anticipate that not only is it the last shoot of the film, but it will in fact be the last SHOT of the film. Just like a novel or a symphony where the opening sets the tone for the whole piece and the final sentence or ending chord is what you walk away with, the first and last shots of a film are crucial. So, we're thinking quite a bit about it.

Let's do a quick review. My first blog entry was Thursday, July 15, 2004. My interview with Peter Higgs, the very first shooting day of the film, was about a month before. That means we've been shooting more or less, off and on, sometimes weekly, sometimes quarterly, for over three years. (Incidentally, through my stat counting plug in, I have been able to determine that the overwhelming majority of people who have stumbled across this blog have done so due to a link on the Wikipedia page for Peter Higgs to this entry).

127 video tapes, 77 blog entries, and several thousand dollars later (and a good thousand hours spent in front of the computer by yours truly) and we have a 90-minute film that's nearly ready to show the world (if the world, represented in this case by some finicky programmers at various film festivals, gives us a chance to show it). More on that part in posts to come.

Meanwhile, check your watches, and at about 11:30am tomorrow, give up a cheer or a few seconds of applause on our behalf when Monica and I turn to each other and gasp "It's a wrap!"

What's next? Watch this space --- we're about to head to NYC as I've mentioned in previous posts, and I plan to write an entry every day from that crazy event. I've been burning dvds round the clock with our new 3:15 trailer, we've got our postcards printed (see below), and we're starting to put together our "pitch." It's all a little nerve-wracking. But you'll get the "on-the-scene" report starting next week...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The God Particle

OK, I guess we all had it coming. Sooner or later I had to pull that moniker out of the drawer and throw it up there. "The God Particle."

I'm doing it now because our esteemed interview subject and Deputy Science Editor for The New York Times, Dennis Overbye, recently wrote an article, or an essay, really, called "What's in a Name? Parsing the 'God Particle,' the Ultimate Metaphor." I'll just quote one bit here:

In a stroke of either public relations genius or disaster, Leon M. Lederman, the former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, referred to the Higgs as “the God particle” in the book of the same name he published with the science writer Dick Teresi in 1993.

Lederman claims (and he told us when we interviewed him) that the whole "God Particle" thing was his publisher's idea. I believe him. But apparently it's caused a lot of eye-rolling among his colleagues. I think it's safe to say that physicists don't really respond well to that kind of publicity-seeking ploy. Especially those who are on the hunt for a major scientific discovery. When they have proven it to themselves and to their colleagues every way to Sunday, THEN they might enjoy a little press. But until then, the less attention, the better.

But as I cut together the third act of our film, I'm focusing in part on education and PR. Does science do a good job of making its own case? We are lucky enough to have footage from a 1979 episode of The Donahue Show (remember that?) featuring a younger-looking Leon Lederman. At one point, an audience member asks Dr. Lederman "does the government pay for your lab?" and he quickly says yes, they pay for all of it. Your government. He states the lab's budget (at that time) of $100 million and reminds the slightly shocked audience that $100 million buys about one jet airplane for the defense department. And Donahue (he's a lot smarter than I remember) says "yeah, but you can put the fighter plane in a movie. You know what I mean? Go, America, let's go and win." And then, looking pointedly at Dr. Lederman, he says, "your work is hard to sell, you know that?"

That's the kicker. This work IS hard to sell. Even for us. We're prepping for a big market in New York, the IFP Market, at which we'll have a series of 10-15 minute meetings with film and TV executives from Miramax to HBO to "pitch" our film. A woman from The Discovery Channel told us "it's like speed dating." Our trouble? As soon as we even mention the word "science," nearly all of them snap their notebooks shut and say "thank you. Have you considered 'Nova?'"

Mr. Overbye's colleague, Natalie Angier, gave us her stark assessment of the situation: "Kids get turned off of science so early," she told us. "The separation starts as early as fourth grade. And once you get off that track it's very hard to get back on to it. And, so, people become scared of science, they don't want to think about it. They think they can't think about it. It isn't seen as part of the fabric of society."

It's true. You can't believe how many people's eyes glaze over if they hear the word "Science."

But if you start describing the fact that physicists in Illinois are in a race with physicists in Geneva to find a tiny subatomic particle that gives everything mass, they start to get interested. They'll even get interested when you start describing that a particle accelerator is a four-mile tunnel underneath the prairie where they smash particles together at nearly the speed of light. Their ears perk up when you say that the machine is called The Tevatron and is 40 years old and destined for the scrap heap because of budget cuts, and it's trying to chug out one last gasp of a discovery before it's plug is pulled and the shiny new Goliath opens across the ocean. Before you know it you're talking about protons and anti-protons and they're taking it all in. Why? How? Because you're telling a story, and you didn't mention the "S" word.

Like Ms. Angier told us: "People like a good story. People love a good narrative. And if you could pitch it like that..."

The truth is, I don't blame Leon Lederman for agreeing to "The God Particle." In fact, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if he wasn't much more enthusiastic about it than he claims to be. The average person walking by a bookshelf probably wouldn't pick up a book called "The Higgs boson." But Dr. Lederman says he still gets about 500 sales per month of "The God Particle."

Two of his sales were to me and Monica, my co-director. And if I have my way, our film will be sold to the Weinstein Brothers and will open in theatres across the country, and the amount of people who know what the Higgs boson is will increase by a factor of about a million. And increased public awareness of what high-energy particle physicists are doing can only be a good thing for all those eye-rolling colleagues of Dr. Lederman.

So, to refer again to Mr. Overbye, maybe "The God Particle" was more public relations genius than disaster after all. Now we'll just have to see how "The Atom Smashers" plays out when we pitch our story...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

New York press

Another big article appeared in the New York Times today with the title of "At Fermilab, the Race Is on for the 'God Particle', outlining the race to find the Higgs boson, as well as exploring in good detail all the rumors about the possible Higgs sighting. Interviewed are three of our subjects, Robin Erbacher, John Conway, and Rob Roser!

So far, on schedule to have a "fine cut" for the first 2/3 by Friday...

Monday, July 23, 2007

"If we can (bump bump) make it there..."

New York, here we come! We just got the official announcement from the IFP (Independent Feature Project) Market in New York that we've been accepted to attend!

What is the IFP Market, you ask? It's a little like what the music festival South by Southwest in Austin is like for bands (or, more accurately, what it used to be like before being overrun by major labels): a place where unsigned bands can go and showcase their stuff for buyers, promoters, labels, publishers, agents, booking reps, etc. It's the same for an "unsigned" film. We are considered a "work in progress," which we are, because we are still finishing up our film and because we still need money to do the unglamorous stuff like rights clearances, color correction, high-definition up-rezzing, sound designing, legal stuff, and a publicity campaign.

And, most importantly, we need distribution.

That's where the IFP Market comes in. It's a week-long event --- well, I'll just let them say it:

The IFP Market is a week-long showcase, held each autumn in New York, for new features, works-in-progress, shorts, and scripts. For independent filmmakers, it is the only market in the U.S. where one can present new film and television work-in-development directly to the film industry in a selective and professional atmosphere. For the film industry, it is a vital exhibition and discovery forum for new talent and a place to discover new films before they hit the festival circuit.

What does the IFP Market Do?
The IFP Market is the only US film market where independent screenwriters, filmmakers, and producers with projects present their work directly to industry executives and accomplish in 5 days what would otherwise take months and miles of travel. From the many submissions received each spring, we invite 200 select projects. Once done, we turn our attention to the industry. We invite distributors, TV and home video acquisitions execs, domestic and international buyers, agents, development execs, and festival programmers from the U.S. and abroad for 5-days of screenings, 1,800 targeted meetings, dozens of special networking events, and 5-days of seminars. Since we limit the number of participants, business is always relaxed and personal. And because we facilitate the introductions, you'll be free to explore partnerships and innovative solutions just like thousands of filmmakers who have already done so in our 29-year history.

Needless to say, we're pretty excited. In the middle of September, we'll be headed to the Big Apple, with our movie in our back pocket. "...it's up to you (bump) New York, New Yoooorrrk!"

Friday, July 13, 2007

Preview screening

Last Friday we had the distinct honor of previewing the first 2/3 of our film at the HQ of Kartemquin Films, documentary legends of such films as Hoop Dreams, Stevie, The New Americans, and countless others. They've been Chicago mainstays for 40 years, in their humble but spacious neighborhood house-turned-offices. This was a little like being an aspring author and going in to read one of your stories for John Cheever. We got a lot of great feedback and came away very excited. Working now to implement their suggestions and rethink some things as we craft the final 1/3. We're keeping an eye on those rumors...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Gettin' geeky wid it

I have two computers running. The first, my 17-inch mac laptop, is connected to our firewire tape deck and a giant 500GB hard drive and is digitizing some of the 120 hours of footage we have shot so far. We have two of these big hard drives now, bringing our hard-drive total to nearly two terrabytes.

Video is incredibly, incredibly storage hungry. Each hour-long interview takes up about 15 gigabytes. And just a three years ago, when we started this project, hard drives cost a lot of money, so we could only afford a grand total of 250 gigabyes. So we had to digitize our beautiful footage at low-resolution.

Let me try that again: we have 120 hours of video for this documentary. 120 hours X 15 gigabytes = 1800 gigabytes, or 1.8 terrabytes. In the editing room you want to be able to see and access all of it, so what were we going to do?

Luckily, Final Cut Pro (the video editing software I use) has a low-resolution setting. You can digitize your video footage at a lower rate that cuts the size by about a factor of ten.

Unfortunately, a bi-product of this lower resolution means that the video footage looks fuzzy and is 1/2 the size. So I've been cutting together our film by watching it on a frame about the size of a credit card.

But thanks to rapidly declining hard drive costs (here's a great chart that shows the initial cost per megabyte in 1956 [$10,000] and the cost in 2004 [per GIGABYTE, $1.15]. Should be noted that the cost has approximately halved since then) we were able to purchase our terrabyte last month. So, at long last, the reason for this post: I'm finally able to start digitizing everything at full-resolution, and will soon see all our interview subjects and Fermilab's incredible environment in crisp detail and at full size.

I bring all this up because we've been lucky enough to have access to quite a bit of vintage fermilab footage, and in an interview in the 1980s Leon Lederman was discussing how he imagined advances in computer technology would mean faster processors, more storage space, and therefore more ability to analyze particle collisions. There are literally millions of collisions between protons and anti-protons that take place in the giant donut-shaped detectors at Fermilab. The computer systems from a few decades ago recorded information about them on tape, and (I'm surmising here) could most likely only pay attention to a percentage of the collisions that happened (the equivalent of fuzzy, half-sized images). Now, with the banks and banks of computers that are orders of magnitude faster and with vast, practically unlimited quantities of hard-drive space, the detectors can "look at" many more collisions (this is called the "trigger," and is one of the things Ben Kilminster works with) and determine in a split zillionth of a second which ones are boring and ordinary and can be ignored, which ones are possibly interesting (a few of which should be saved and looked at later), and which ones are "golden collisions," as Lederman said and need to be saved and studied in great detail. As I said, all this happens MILLIONS of times per second. Only possible with the incredible speed of computers and the drastic reductions in cost that computer equipment has seen in the last couple of decades. It's been estimated that CERN is going to generate one dvd of data per second. Per second! That's 4.7 gigabytes per second, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. Just not possible a couple of decades ago. Want 500 gigabytes of hard drive space in 1989? It's going to cost you. It cost about $800 for 20 MEGAbytes back then: 500 GB would be over... wait for it... 16 million dollars. Ha! Now, you can plunk down less than $200 bucks. As John Conway pointed out to us, a huge factor in the amazing advances in high energy physics is a result of simple economics (and Moore's Law). Stuff is cheaper now.

So, I'm digitizing in full-resolution, and Ben Kilminster is looking at amazing amounts of good data in his work with the trigger, and you're reading this blog split seconds after I post it. All thanks to our friends in Silicon Valley. Makes even more funny the (purported) statement from Thomas Watson, Sr., president of IBM from the 1920s through the 1950s, that "there is a world market for maybe five computers." If that were the case, I'd be a heck of a lot more handy with film, razor blades, and adhesive; Ben Kilminster would be spooling through miles of magnetic tape; and you would have no idea our film exists.

OK, so it doesn't exist YET...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Possible explanation for all the rumors?

Good grief, yet another article about this rumor about the possible discovery of the Higgs! This one from no less than ABC news, which looks like it picked up the story verbatim from Wired.

This stuff is infectious --- despite being told clearly from one of the leaders of the search for the Higgs that no, it's just a rumor, seeing it appear so many times in the media has an effect! Is it possible?

I don't think so. I think the media, like the Queen Mary, is very hard to stop once set in motion. And here's something no one seems to be picking up: that D-zero at Fermilab DID make a discovery of a new particle that was just published. They discovered a baryon called the "cascade b" baryon, having three different kinds of quarks. It only lasts for a few trillionths of a second. Here's a link to that story, which didn't seem to grab national headlines just last week when it was announced. Doesn't it seem likely that THIS was the particle that caused all the rumors?

I do have to admit, however, that what Judy Jackson (the PR person at Fermilab, whom we have interviewed a couple of times) said is actually more notable for what she DIDN'T say:

"We're delighted that there is this level of interest, but we can't say too strongly that there are some stringent criteria for being able to claim one has seen something in a particle physics experiment," said Fermilab spokeswoman Judy Jackson. "There are many examples of things that people thought they have seen that have promptly disappeared."

It does make one curious why she didn't just come out and say "No. It's all a rumor. We didn't find it. We'll let you know," just like John Conway told us.

More rumor mill

And I thought we had single-handedly dispelled the rumor about the discovery of the higgs at Fermilab. I'm stunned that my blog hasn't been referenced by all the news media. I mean, after all, didn't we already set the record staight three posts ago? (wink) Apparently not: another article.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A nod to our interns

We're lucky --- through a couple of university programs, word of mouth, and a couple of "hey, I like the project --- can I help?" conversations, we have a terrific staff of seven interns. Sarah is looking up media clips and checking on rights and availability, Gracie is currently writing up our next grant proposal, Stephen and Robert are beginning to step up as assistant editors, Tricia has been working on transcriptions, Mars has been compiling our film festival plan, and Ross has been working on graphic design and scanning. Having them makes our monthly meetings a lot more fun. There's good energy around the room.

Our next hope is that we can get some office space donated in the loop somewhere --- we've got a couple of leads on that.

Our next "deadline" is a screening at the veritable Kartemquin on June 29. The goal is to have the first 2/3 of the film done by then.

Back to work...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The race is still on ... again

Back when I first got interested in this project, what drew me to the story was the race between Fermilab and CERN to find the Higgs boson. Since we started filming nearly three years ago, that aspect of the story was downplayed by the Fermilab scientists ("it's a competitive collaboration." "It doesn't matter who gets there first; everybody wins." "We work there, they work here. It's not really about 'us' vs. 'them.' Well, sort of. But not really.") So we concentrated on other things, and turns out there were some really fascinating parts of the story (politics, culture, etc) that kept our attention.

But we're storytellers, and that notion of a race just kept simmering below the surface.

Well, it turns out we're not the only ones who have been thinking in terms of a competition. Despite assurances to the contrary from some physicists, there is definitely a race on, and there has always been. At least, according to the media there is. Consider this article from across the pond in The Guardian from London. I'll quote some choice bits for you. First of all, the article tells us of "a certain nervousness among Europe's scientific elite" as CERN grows closer to completion. They insist that when CERN is switched on in November of this year it will "hum into life as expected," yet nevertheless "there is an air of concern in the corridors and offices of the LHC's home at Cern, Europe's particle physics laboratory."

Why? Why is CERN concerned? Why are Europe's scientific elite breaking out into a sweat?

The competition, my friend, the competition. It's heating up. I love this part, the explanation of what's got the Europeans so nervous:

Such worries are focused less on the possible failure, however, and more on the issue of timing. Physicists know it will take months to tune their hadron collider (hadrons are a class of particle that includes the proton) to a perfect pitch so it churns out the data that they need to find new particles. And that gap could be awkward, for delays just might allow a bunch of upstart Americans, using a rival, older and less powerful device, to beat Europe to the draw. For the past few months, scientists at the Fermilab laboratory in Illinois have hinted that their ageing accelerator, the Tevatron, may be on the threshold of uncovering the Holy Grail of modern physics: the Higgs boson, or the God particle, as it is sometimes known.

"A bunch of upstart Americans?" Makes it sound like a few dudes got together in a parking lot. But it gets better:

Finding the Higgs was a prime reason for constructing the LHC [the collider at CERN]. Its tunnels, super-conducting magnets, experiment halls and banks of computers have been put together with this very much in mind. For almost a decade, Cern has concentrated on this project, at the expense of virtually all other research. But now, at the last minute, the Yanks are threatening to steal Europe's thunder: a galling prospect.

Oh, that's rich. "The Yanks: a galling prospect." It's funny that they say "at the last minute" here. Fermilab and "the yanks" have been searching for the Higgs all along, since the 70s and 80s. That was one of the main reasons we almost built the Superconducting Supercollider. If Fermilab does find the Higgs, it certainly won't be as if they just decided to start looking on a whim last year. Chris Quigg, one of the first theoretical physicists we interviewed, has dedicated a good part of his life to the search. And Leon Lederman wrote a whole book about it (unfortunately) titled "The God Particle." They even call it "The God Particle" in this article. [Lederman swears the editor forced that title on him because he said they had to sell more books].

And if there was any more doubt?

European scientists insist they are not downhearted. If the Americans want a battle, they can have one. 'We have spent most of the last decade building this machine,' says Professor Jim Virdee, of Imperial College London. 'Now we are almost there. There is a real buzz about the place. The race is on.'

The article is just loaded with juicy suggestions of a race between these two rival labs. And there is a really great setup here: a classic David and Goliath. CERN is seven times more powerful than Fermilab, it's brand new, and has a palpable buzz of excitement. Fermilab, on the other hand, is old (built in the late 60s), less powerful, and the scientists there are fully aware that its accelerator has only a couple of years of operation before the plug gets pulled. CERN estimates (with some bravado, perhaps) that they'll be lucky "to make more than one or two [Higgs particles] a day." It will therefore take "several months," we're told, before they can confirm they've found it. Several months? Sigh. Fermilab estimates it will take several years unless they're really lucky.

But luck may be on their side. Due to a most unfortunate, really, most unfortunate accident, some of the magnets that Fermilab built for CERN ... well, they blew up. Sorry! So the latest estimates, written after this article came out, are that CERN won't be up and running this November, but rather will be put back until April 2008. Oops!

All kidding aside, no one seriously believes that Fermilab did any kind of sabotage to hurt its rival's chances. And we don't either. But an article just sent to me by Monica today proclaims that Fermilab is now considering keeping the Tevatron, "Fermilab's venerable particle accelerator," up and running for an extra year.

Mmmm... sounds like a race to me...

But then again, I guess I AM in the media.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Rumor Mill

A couple of weeks ago I was at Northwestern, where I teach, getting ready for a screening of some of my students' work. I got an email that read "interesting article." Included was a link to an article on Slate, the online magazine. The title? "Quantum Scoop: The Holy Grail of Particle Physics May Already Have Been Found."

Ulp --- !! Huh??

It gives a nice summary of the situation in the first couple of paragraphs, highlighting all the press the Higgs boson has been garnering of late. Then it goes on to say

"A rumor flying around physics departments these last few weeks claims that physicists working at the Tevatron, an accelerator located outside of Chicago, have found something new. Originally passed by word of mouth and private e-mail, the rumor made it into the blogosphere May 28, with an anonymous comment on the blog of a particle physicist living in Venice, Italy. Since then, the rumor has spread."

Naturally, I ran outside and started doing some phone calling. I then ran back inside and dashed off an email to our friends at Fermilab. I mean, after all --- we're in touch with the people leading the search for the Higgs boson. Surely they would have at least given us a phone call? Email? Letter? No? It honestly wasn't too hard to imagine: they're excited, working feverishly, checking and cross-checking, and maybe the last thing they would do is stop and think "oh, yeah, we should get in touch with those guys making the documentary." As I've mentioned before, sometimes I feel as though I have to continually remind them that we're still here.

So I got an email back from John Conway pretty quickly. He said he was curious about it all --- a science writer from the NYTimes had emailed him earlier. He wanted me to send him the link. I did, and he wrote back that "the rumor had been flying around for several weeks." He said, quite directly, "we don't have anything like that, I can assure you."

So, I breathed a sigh of relief. But at the same time, I must confess I was disappointed. I had gotten a glimpse of the kind of moment a documentary filmmaker dreams of, only to have it disappear as quickly as a decaying subatomic particle (I must really apologize for that analogy).

But two things gave me encouragement. The first was another line from John a few days later that said "the hunt is heating up, who knows what we'll find..." and the second was his assurance that "We will let you know, I promise!"

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Big Press

Big story in the New York Times, written by our interview subject Peter Overbye: "A Giant Takes On Physics' Biggest Questions." All about CERN, how huge it is, how wonderful it will be when it turns on. They've got their targets set firmly on The Higgs boson:

[Dr. Fabiola Gianotti, a CERN physicist] listed possible discoveries like a mysterious particle called the Higgs that is thought to endow other particles with mass, new forms of matter that explain the mysterious dark matter waddling the cosmos and even new dimensions of spacetime.

“For me,” Dr. Gianotti said, “it would be a dream if, finally, in a couple of years in a laboratory we are going to produce the particle responsible for 25 percent of the universe.”

But this part really interested me, as you can imagine:

Game of Cosmic Leapfrog

The advent of the Cern collider also cements a shift in the balance of physics power away from American dominance that began in 1993, when Congress canceled the Superconducting Supercollider, a monster machine under construction in Waxahachie, Tex. The supercollider, the most powerful ever envisioned, would have sped protons around a 54-mile racetrack before slamming them together with 40 trillion electron volts.

For decades before that, physicists in the United States and Europe had leapfrogged one another with bigger, more expensive and, inevitably, fewer of these machines, which get their magic from Einstein’s equation of mass and energy. The more energy that these machines can pack into their little fireballs, the farther back in time they can go, closer and closer to the Big Bang, the smaller and smaller things they can see.Recalling those times, Dr. Evans said: “There was a nice equilibrium across the Atlantic. People used to come and go.”

Now, Dr. Evans said, “The center of gravity has moved to Cern.”

The most powerful accelerator now operating is the trillion-electron volt Tevatron, colliding protons and their antimatter opposites, antiprotons, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. But it is scheduled to shut down by 2010.

There is also a really terrific page or so on the Higgs boson, our favorite little particle. Oh, what the heck, I'll just paste it in here. It includes a quote from our own John Conway.

Cocktail Party Physics

The payoff for this investment, physicists say, could be a new understanding of one of the most fundamental of aspects of reality, namely the nature of mass.

This is where the shadowy particle known as the Higgs boson, a k a the God particle, comes in.

In the Standard Model, a suite of equations describing all the forces but gravity, which has held sway as the law of the cosmos for the last 35 years, elementary particles are born in the Big Bang without mass, sort of like Adam and Eve being born without sin.

Some of them (the particles, that is) acquire their heft, so the story goes, by wading through a sort of molasses that pervades all of space. The Higgs process, named after Peter Higgs, a Scottish physicist who first showed how this could work in 1964, has been compared to a cocktail party where particles gather their masses by interaction. The more they interact, the more mass they gain.

The Higgs idea is crucial to a theory that electromagnetism and the weak force are separate manifestations of a single so-called electroweak force. It shows how the massless bits of light called photons could be long-lost brothers to the heavy W and Z bosons, which would gain large masses from such cocktail party interactions as the universe cooled.

The confirmation of the theory by the Nobel-winning work at Cern 20 years ago ignited hopes among physicists that they could eventually unite the rest of the forces of nature.

Moreover, Higgs-like fields have been proposed as the source of an enormous burst of expansion, known as inflation, early in the universe, and, possibly, as the secret of the dark energy that now seems to be speeding up the expansion of the universe. So it is important to know whether the theory works and, if not, to find out what does endow the universe with mass.

But nobody has ever seen a Higgs boson, the particle that personifies this molasses. It should be producible in particle accelerators, but nature has given confusing clues about where to look for it. Measurements of other exotic particles suggest that the Higgs’s mass should be around 90 billion electron volts, the unit of choice in particle physics. But other results, from the Lep collider here before it shut down in 2000, indicate that the Higgs must weigh more than 114 billion electron volts. By comparison, an electron is half a million electron volts, and a proton is about 2,000 times heavier.

“We’ve nearly ruled out the Standard Model, if you want to say it that way,” said John Conway, a Fermilab physicist. The new collider was specifically designed to hunt for the Higgs particle, which is key both to the Standard Model and to any greater theory that would supersede it.

Theorists say the Higgs or something like it has to show up simply because the Standard Model breaks down and goes kerflooey at energies exceeding one trillion electron volts. If you try to predict what happens when two particles collide, it gives nonsense, explained Dr. Ellis of Cern, a senior theorist with the long white hair and a bushy beard to prove it.

“There is either a violation of probability or some new physics,” Dr. Ellis said.

Nima Arkani-Hamed of Harvard said he would bet a year’s salary on the Higgs.

“If the Higgs or something like it doesn’t exist,” Dr. Arkani-Hamed said, “then some very basic things like quantum mechanics are wrong.”

A result, Dr. Gianotti said, is “either we find the Higgs boson, or some stranger phenomenon must happen.”

Once I was of the opinion that our story was growing cold. Now I think we're poised pretty well --- assuming we don't drag our feet...

Sunday, May 6, 2007

First Act...

...finished. What's a first act? Movies, whether you notice or not, are made in a 3-act structure. Nothing very provocative about it: Act One: setup. Establish characters, situation, set an objective in motion. Act One ends with a hint of difficulties to come. Act Two: introduce complications. Obstacles. Conflict is built. Act Three: resolution, one way or another. In a feature film of say, 90-95 minutes, you might have a 30 min act 1, a 45 min act 2, and a 15-20 min act 3. Our act one? Clocks in at a tidy 31:05. Curtain rises on act two today...

PS thanks for the comments to the last post. Don't worry, most of that was metaphorical hand-wringing. Part of it is also a little excitement that ours is definitely not a "dead" topic. I'd much rather have to struggle with where to cut off following an exciting story than ... well, you get the picture.

PPS Congratulations to us! (OK, to our producer Andrew, mostly): we just were awarded a $10,000 grant from the Illinois Humanities Council!

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The story keeps going whether we want it to or not

That's our problem. We're editing, and things keep happening.

A new twist has developed, one that sounds straight out of a Grisham novel. Here are the facts: as you know if you've been reading, Fermilab (our heroes) are competing against the monolithic European goliath, CERN (the villain), to discover the secrets of the universe. Who will find it first? Does small but plucky Fermilab stand a chance?

OK, so that's not quite right. That maybe the pitch line we use to pique a film festival programmer's interest, but in fact the story is much more complex than that. Including the very blurred line between the two institutions. It's true they are in "competition" to find the Higgs Boson (and therefore take a crucial step towards understanding the fundamental way the universe works), but as Leon Lederman says, "it's a competitive collaboration." Fermilab would love to find it first, but after a few curse words and a stiff drink, they'd ultimately be glad if CERN found it first. The key thing in the physicists mind is that SOMEONE find it. Everyone will benefit. It's not as though this is the commercial science world, where CERN would slap a quick patent on the Higgs boson and it would become a corporate secret.

In fact, many of the Fermilab scientists are heavily involved in the work of building CERN and getting it ready to come online later this year. One of our main "characters," John Conway, has been actively involved in this for quite some time. Fermilab has been building parts and shipping them overseas to Geneva, where CERN is located, for a few years now. Some of the parts we've seen, long magnets to go inside the tunnel, have "FERMILAB" proudly emblazoned on them to indicate Fermilab's contribution to the glistening new machine that will ultimately drive their smaller, older one out of business.

But here's where the thriller novel plot twist comes in. As I've said, CERN will come online this year. But as Ben Kilminster, the rollerblading lead-singer / experimental physicist said, they'll come online for some preliminary tests, then in 2008 there will be higher-level tests, then finally, if nothing goes wrong, in 2009 they'll be taking real data. THEN, and only then, will they start looking for the Higgs boson in earnest. This means that Fermilab has about 48 or 60 months of operation to keep looking for the Higgs.

And the ironic thing is, the Tevatron, Fermilab's machine, is cranking on all cylinders. In fact, it's like they've added another cylinder to the engine, because it's roaring ahead, taking data at an unprecedented rate. Couple that with the recent discovery that the Higgs might lie more within Fermilab's target range than CERN's (see the "Where are those #$%@ keys??" entry below), and the folks at Fermilab are pretty excited.

And then --- uh, oh --- remember those magnets that Fermilab had built for CERN? The ones that are critical to getting CERN up and running on schedule? They were installed, tested, and .... BANG! Exploded! Ummm, oops. Hmmmm.... suspicous, you say? Fermilab building parts for the competition, and they blow up, you say? Now the schedule for CERN coming online is in serious jeopardy? Giving Fermilab even more time to find the Nobel-magnet Higgs boson? Hmmmmm.....

If you were thinking along those lines, you wouldn't be the only one. The science press has been all over this. A representative quote:

"CERN is reporting that the giant magnets that steer the particle beam
in the new and highly anticipated Large Hadron Collider have just
failed catastrophically in a stress test, apparently due to a design
oversight. It doesn't help that the magnets were designed and built by CERN's
US competitor Fermilab."

Here's the BBC article, complete with the photo of the "Fermilab" - labeled magnet in question. Here's the story from Australia, here's the story in the highly-respected journal Nature, specifically mentioning how it may delay the hunt for the Higgs and informing us that the failure caused a bang so loud the people nearby had to have their ears checked, and here is Fermilab's own article about it. The article in The Sunday Times from London quoted Pier Odonne, whom we have interviewed, as being "apparently furious and embarrased," and said that he wrote to his staff saying they had caused "a pratfall on the world stage." Apparently the error was a very simple oversight, and Pier said “We are dumb-founded that we missed some very simple balance of forces. Not only was it missed in the engineering design but also in the four engineering reviews carried out between 1998 and 2002 before launching the construction of the magnets.”

Also from that article: "Dr Lyn Evans, who leads the accelerator construction project at Cern, the European organisation for nuclear research, said the explosion had been potentially very dangerous.

“There was a hell of a bang, the tunnel housing the machine filled with helium and dust and we had to call in the fire brigade to evacuate the place,” he said. “The people working on the test were frightened to death but they were all in a safe place so no-one was hurt.” An investigation by Cern researchers found “fundamental” flaws that caused the explosion, close to the CMS detector, one of the LHC’s most important experiments."

And finally, as if John Grisham himself were writing the story, the article wraps up with "Coincidentally, Fermilab stands to gain most from delays at Cern. Its researchers also operate a rival but less powerful particle accelerator, the Tevatron. Fermilab staff are pushing the Tevatron to ever-higher energies hoping that they might find the Higgs boson before the LHC switches on. An LHC researcher said: “Ironically, this delay could be all they need.”

Do we believe Fermilab did it on purpose? Of course not. The Australian story got at that directly. It said "CERN has no suspicion that the failure was deliberate on the part of Fermilab, a spokesperson says. "Their scientific credibility would be compromised. It is in their interest that [the Large Hadron Collider] function properly," the CERN spokesperson says.

Monica and I have been struggling how to (and if to) incorporate this into our story. Even though we don't believe for a second that Fermilab did anything untoward in order to gain more time to look for the Higgs, as Monica said, we have to address it if it is a dramatic story element that affects the search for the Higgs and Fermilab's future.

Whew. Sometimes I wish everyone would just stop working for a few months while we get this movie done. Can't they just wait a while to find the answers to the mysteries of the universe? I mean, is it really THAT important? Sigh.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Nothing like a deadline...

...to scare the living daylights out of you. Recently, Andrew, Monica and I sat down with one of our intrepid interns, Mars (his real name is Scott Marsden Hanna, but everyone calls him Mars), who had put together some extensive research into film festivals.

For those of you who don't know, most of the films you see in the theatres are made by the major film studios or their so-called "indie" subsidiaries. Since it's a very high-dollar affair to get a film made and put into theatres, only companies with large pocketbooks can afford to do this (the same way it was until just a few years ago in the music business. A band had to be "signed" to a major label to get the expensive recording, manufacturing, distribution, advertising, etc done for them. The internet and the affordability of good recording equipment and software is changing this. The film world is a few years behind this).

But there are thousands of filmmakers making movies outside the studio system. Strike that; tens of thousands. What options do they have?

They depend on film festivals. You've heard of the big ones, like Cannes and Sundance. But there are more. Many, many more. Once an independent filmmaker has finished his or her film, s/he starts the at times grueling, at times disheartening, always expensive, but occasionally thrilling and fruitful film festival run. The idea is simple: you apply to many film festivals (the accepted "norm" for the average film is about 50) and hope to get accepted into several. If possible, you attend those festivals to which your film has been accepted, talking up your film, passing out promotional materials, angling for attention. If you're very very lucky, your film will generate a "buzz" and, hope against hope, win an award of some kind. If you're lucky enough to win an award at a major festival, you're on your way, and a lot depends on your preparedness and your ability to parlay this into catapulting yourself a several steps up the ladder from where you were before the festival. If you win an award at a smaller festival, though, this can still be a great opportunity: you might have better luck at getting accepted into a bigger festival, and chances are they'll pay more attention to your film when you get there. It also can put you in touch with producers, promoters, and the all important distributor, the one who might actually get you some kind of deal to get your movie distributed to theatres or to dvd, or to television or cable.

The tricky thing is timing. Where feature-length films are concerned (usually considered longer than 75 minutes or so, the category we fall into), film festivals are very competitive with each other. Exclusive, even. They won't consider your film if it has played somewhere else. Everyone wants a premiere. So you do what our intern, Mars, did: you do some research and find out the submission dates of all the major festivals (typically called A-list festivals): Sundance, Toronto, Cannes, AFI, Tribeca, Berlin, L.A., Seattle, SXSW, and put them on a calendar. You figure out a way to apply to the biggies first (usually in the order I have listed here) so that if Sundance doesn't accept you, you're free to accept Toronto. If they don't go for it, you can agree to Cannes, then AFI, etc. down the list. If you just start applying to festivals willy-nilly and take the first one you get (say the Great Plains Film Festival at the University of Nebraska), if suddenly Sundance writes you back and says "congratulations! You've been accepted to our festival!" You'll end up kicking yourself all over the room, because as soon as they find out about Nebraska (and they will) they'll rescind that invitation faster than you can say "But, Mr. Redford..."

So, back to where I started: nothing like a deadline. Our first festival application deadline is (gulp) June 10, for the Toronto Film Festival, generally considered to be #2 on the A-list behind Sundance. Luckily for us, they will accept an 80% completed cut, which means we don't have to have it completely perfect (there could be some rough sound bits, and some un-corrected color, possibly some stand in animations if ours aren't finished yet, and possibly temp music if our composer hasn't written the score yet), but it would behoove us to be as close to perfect as possible.

Which means, I need to stop typing this entry and get back to editing. (crack) that sound? The whip...

Saturday, February 17, 2007

I'm in the closet

Recently, I built a rack in the closet by my desk to hold my trusty G5 computer, NTSC monitor, sound mixer, speakers, and my one terabyte of hard drive space. A few weeks ago I set up an automatic backup system, opened up Final Cut Pro, and got to work. Since then I've been seated here eight or ten hours a day (when I'm not teaching) with a mug of coffee, pulling individual happenings, minutes, and seconds out of the 130 hours of footage we have amassed and placing them in order, shuffling them around, shortening or stretching them until I'm happy, adding music, taking away music, adding titles and graphics, then sitting back and watching, adjusting, fiddling, struggling, finding the perfect solution, scrambling around for the perfect solution, watching some more, then shutting everything down and going to bed or taking a shower, still thinking, then occasionally rushing back over to turn everything back on and work some more.

So far I am approximately 1/4 - 1/3 through the rough cut. I'm putting things together from start to finish, so I've just passed the 30 minute mark. I'm really excited about what has come together so far.

Walter Murch, the famous editor and sound designer of such films as The Godfather 1-3, Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, THX-1138, The English Patient, etc. etc. wrote once that sometimes he missed the old-fashioned way of editing, where you strung up film on spools, sliced it up with a razor blade, and put it back together with tape. The thing he said he missed most was when you had to rewind or forward through all the footage you weren't using. Unlike now, there was no way to suddenly jump to the middle of a reel. On the computer, you can just go to any spot you want, but on those old Steinbeck machines you had to sit patiently while all the film whizzed before you. Murch said that often the process of watching all that footage when you were looking for something else made connections happen; made ideas pop up that wouldn't have. You can plan an edit all you want, but sometimes the footage itself speaks to you and gives you opportunities and ideas that you could never have arrived at by yourself.

So I've been doing a lot of watching. When I'm looking for a second or two from a shot I remember, or trying to find a soundbite or bit of conversation, I make sure I watch and listen to as much of that 130 hours as I can. Over and over.

Incidentally, our first "goal" is to have the completed rough cut (!) by March 5. It would be a miracle, but I'm shooting for it. The first 30 minutes is easy --- now the harder part begins.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dusting off the camera...

We're planning on heading down to Fermilab on Wednesday. We're looking to speak with Rob Roser, Ben Kilminster, and Robin Erbacher about 1) the W mass discovery and what it means for the search for the Higgs (and Fermilab's chances of finding it) and 2) the recent budget developments. Our plan is to get them all 3 together, to try to have a more natural conversation and less of an "interview." We're also trying to get a little camera time with Fermilab director Pier Odonne, but so far we haven't heard from him. I'm afraid our last interivew may have rubbed him the wrong way --- we, as we tend to do, went on a little long. It's pretty common for us to say "OK, thank you. This is our last question." And then, 20 minutes later, we finally wrap things up. We're so interested in the conversation and looking for great quotes that we sometimes lose track of the fact that our subjects are REALLY ready to wrap things up. When we last spoke with Pier, that happened, and he said something like "I heard you guys go on and on..." So I'm a little worried that he might not be willing to speak with us for that reason, even though I tried to reassure him in the email asking for the interview. We'll see. He's been speaking to the press right and left about the budget developments, so I can hope that we get even a 5 minute soundbite for him. That's what we need at this point --- something to introduce that "plot" development.

I'll report back after wednesday and let you know how the interviews went and whether Dr. Odonne let us speak with him...

Monday, January 8, 2007

Where are those #$%@ keys??

So, remember from the last post that conversation we had about the supposed hint of the Higgs from a university team in Iowa? Turns out that our folks at Fermilab were about to find some interesting data of their own. On December 14 they "opened the box" on the year's intake of data collected from the Tevatron. All year they work on simulated data so that the work they do doesn't get biased by what's really there. Then, all at once, they reveal the actual data and compare it to what they had been working with.

As I said before, the Higgs exists for a tiny fraction of an instant before decaying into something else. So, while the physicists at Fermilab are searching for the Higgs all the time, sometimes this search takes the shape of a search for something else. In this case, they had been looking for the mass of something called the W-boson, which is "a key parameter of the Standard Model of particles and forces." What this means is that if they can nail down the W-boson's mass, they can get a much better understanding of the mass for the Higgs boson. It's kind of like walking into a dark room nightclub. You know your keys are on the floor somewhere because someone at the party last night told you they kicked them and heard them sliding around. The more ways you can eliminate places you know your keys AREN'T, the quicker you can figure out where they might be. The physicists at Fermilab now have TWO limiters: they already famously found the mass of the top-quark a few years ago, and now the W-boson. It might be the equivalent of stumbling around the room until you suddenly realize half the room is carpeted (keys can't slide on carpet) AND one whole corner is taken up by a huge entertainment system. That only leaves one corner where the keys must be!

Luckily for Fermilab, this plays right into their hand. It turns out that their beloved Tevatron, that beautiful 4-mile accelerator we have spent 3 years getting to know, is suited best for searching the particular range that the Higgs is limited to. It's as if, after eliminating three of the four corners of the room where your keys could be, it turns out that the remaining fourth corner happens to be right under the stage lights! The best place they could possibly be in order to be found. Now all you have to do is flip on those blazing lights and start looking. With a little luck...

This makes the scientists very excited. In fact, Rob Roser wrote back to us and said the enthusiasm is high --- he's sounding suddenly confident they will find the Higgs there in two years! He says it's still a risk, of course, but that the risk is looking better and better, which means people will be willing to "wager" their professional time and energy to keep looking for it at Fermilab. He said they've restructured their group to better search this range, and that "we are now getting the tools in place we need to nail this baby."

They officially published this result today. You can read about it here,but I'll paste in a couple of important comments:

The new W-mass value leads to an estimate for the mass of the yet-undiscovered Higgs boson that is lighter than previously predicted, in principle making observation of this elusive particle more likely by experiments at the Tevatron particle collider at Fermilab. By measuring the W-boson and top-quark masses with ever greater precision, physicists can restrict the allowable mass range of the Higgs boson, the missing keystone of the Standard Model.

"This new precision determination of the W boson mass by CDF is one of the most challenging and most important measurements from the Tevatron," said Associate Director for High Energy Physics at DOE's Office of Science Dr. Robin Staffin. "Together, the W-boson and top-quark masses allow us to triangulate the location of the elusive Higgs boson."

There's a link from that page to some graphics and pictures and some pretty clear explanations, including one that makes it look like instead of limiting the search to one corner of the room, it's more like one single floor tile... very exciting.

Some context: remember, CERN, the huge accelerator in Geneva, is scheduled to come online sometime this year. John Conway has said that while this is true, they'll still have to do tests, probably have a few snafus, a false start or two, some tweaks, adjustments, and THEN get it going. He estimates 2008 or even early 2009 before real, meaningful data can happen. And that's about exactly two years...

More on this next time...

Where are those $#@% funds?

Here's the other side of the equation. While we're hearing of the exciting scientific developments in tracking down the Higgs boson, we're also hearing this:

Congressional Budget Delay Stymies Scientific Research

This article is very disconcerting. A representative quote: “The consequences for American science will be disastrous,” said Michael S. Lubell, a senior official of the American Physical Society, the world’s largest group of physicists. “The message to young scientists and industry leaders, alike, will be, ‘Look outside the U.S. if you want to succeed.’ ”

Essentially what has happened is that multiple spending bills were "left hanging" by the departing Republican majority. Some Republicans didn't want to finish them because by not doing so it doesn't allow certain spending increases to go into effect, and therefore keeps the bottom line down. It's like you're the CEO of a company and you decide to give raises, but when the time comes around you don't actually sign them into effect because you don't want to increase your spending. Apparently the incoming Democrats have stated they are not going to try to finish these bills. Instead, they're just going to keep everything under the current budget until fall.

Remember this post from one year ago? Where I was describing how Rob and Robin were clapping and cheering the new budget for 2007, in which they were to get some additional money? Well, that's the "raise" the CEO just decided not to sign into effect. But it is actually wrong to think of it as a "raise." As the article says, "Last year, Congress passed just 2 of 11 spending bills — for the military and domestic security — and froze all other federal spending at 2006 levels. Factoring in inflation, the budgets translate into reductions of about 3 percent to 4 percent for most fields of science and engineering."

Fermilab is not the only one to be suffering. Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York was severely affected. The article states it was already operating on charitable contributions (!) and might shut down entirely. Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee might have to delay opening for a year. The Stanford Linear Accelerator, research at universities across the US funded by the National Science Foundation, an oceaneanic observatory, a global polar research program, and even missions at NASA would all be affected. John Conway at UCDavis said that they can't even hire graduate students because there is no money for teaching assistantships.

The article specifically points out Fermilab: "Another potential victim is the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, where a four-mile-long collider investigates the building blocks of matter. Its director, Piermaria Oddone, said the laboratory would close for a month as most of the staff of 4,200 are sent home."

Ulp. Closing up shop for a month?? I got on the (email) horn with Rob Roser and John Conway. John said that Pier Odonne, Fermilab's director, vividly spelled out the consequences to Fermilab in a meeting a couple of days ago (again, sometimes I wish we would get some notification of these things... we always seem to hear about them after the fact. But they're much more important to us that we are to them). It might be, of course, that Pier is talking loudly to get lawmakers' attention. Will the lab be shut down? We'll see. Monica and I have been talking about dusting off the old video camera and making another trip down to Fermilab...

Which brings us to the next post...

Where is that $#@% movie??

Yes, yes, we know. We've been working on this film for ... uh, let me see... three years? The first blog entry was July, 2004. So, I guess that makes two and a half years. What gives???!!

Here's the latest. We are a bit behind where we thought we'd be, but mainly this is because our story kept going and going. Our original plan was to film the year in the life of the Tevatron, which would have been the year 2005 (December 2004 through December 2005). But, if you remember, they extended the run past December 2005. Here's a quote from my blog entry, November 2005:

In fact, that's the same reasoning behind Fermilab's recent decision to extend the current run of the Tevatron. Normally, the accelerator gets shut down every November so they can get inside, do repairs, upgrade things, and generally brush out the cobwebs. They keep it offline for about 6 weeks, then fire it back up again. We were present when they achieved the startup (although I looked back and saw that I didn't write an entry about that... might have to write one after the fact) and run it for 10 months. Our film was designed to run for a complete start-up to shut-down cycle -- a year in the life, if you will. But not long ago they determined that the Tevatron was running so well and luminosity was so high that they'd be crazy to shut it down. They moved the maintenance shut down date to March 1 --- we plan to keep shooting until then, although it doesn't tie the bow so neatly to shoot for 15 months instead of one year. On the other hand, this builds a little momentum, especially where Ben is concerned...

So we kept shooting until March 06, but in February the budget got interesting again, and then we got the opportunity to interview Natalie Angier and Dennis Overbye on the east coast ... We finally called a halt to shooting in late summer 06. I was busy at that time also finishing up a fiction film I had shot with Andrew and Stef called Galileo's Grave, and during that time we assembled a team of interns who began working on the post-production preparations. In the fall, Monica and I began having edit meetings, and by late December 06 we had assembled a solid paper edit. And, in fact, Saturday, January 6, 2007, was our first day of official editing. Our schedule is tight: we hope to have a rough cut by March, and a final cut by May (or possibly June). Then we'll take it to the world.

It is difficult though: as evidenced by the two posts you've just read, the story just won't stop. The two crucial legs of our story, the search for the Higgs boson and the state of science funding, keep walking. Now it seems they've stepped it up to a brisk run. The collision here is exactly where our story lies: Fermilab is getting so close to the Higgs they can sniff it, just as the federal budget starts yanking the rug they're standing on. Monica and I are meeting Tuesday to discuss. Can we continue to edit our film while at the same time dashing out to Fermilab to hear about the latest? How much can we cover in title cards at the end of the film? What about an epilogue? Obviously we're not going to wait 2 years to find out whether Fermilab finds the Higgs. We've already drawn the line once --- do we extend it?

Ah, the wonderful challenges of being a documentary filmmaker on a "hot" topic! At least, we think it's hot. Hopefully you do too, or else you wouldn't be reading this...