Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Change and Progress

When we had our panel discussion following the screening of The Atom Smashers at the Museum of Science and Industry, John Conway talked about the cautious optimism they were feeling about Barack Obama. So far, I can only imagine John and others are pinching themselves to make sure they're not dreaming. First of all, he has answered lots and lots of science questions, and many of them substantially. "This is the first time we know of that a candidate for president has laid out his science policy before the election at this level of detail," says Shawn Otto, CEO of ScienceDebate2008, as quoted in this Wired article. Otto goes on to say that he "thought they were very substantive for this point in the campaign, and surprisingly detailed."

And John mentioned one thing in particular: Obama clearly stated that his administration "will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade."

Doubling is good!

But just as important as many of those detailed answers about policy, and perhaps moreso, are some statements that indicate the huge ideological shift that will take place. Consider the fact that he believes the restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research "have handcuffed our scientists and hindered our ability to compete with other nations."

And this: "I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees."

And this, said just yesterday: "my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

When did he say this? During the announcement that he was appointing Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, as the Secretary of Energy. And, yes, the Department of Energy is the funding agency for ... Fermilab. And Fermilab is happy... here's what Pierre Odonne, head of Fermilab (and someone we interviewed twice) has to say about it:

President-elect Obama’s nomination of Steve Chu to head the Department of Energy is an exciting prospect for us within the community of DOE national laboratories. For the first time in the history of the DOE, a distinguished physicist has been nominated to take the helm. Steve Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics and is currently the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is passionate about science. Even while serving as laboratory director he has kept a very active research program with students and post-docs, inquiring into fundamental processes in cell biology using new molecular and atomic techniques. One has to go back 50 years to the DOE’s grandparent agency, the Atomic Energy Commission and the leadership of Glenn Seaborg to find a scientist of such distinction at the helm.

Talk about change and progress!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Today PBS, tomorrow the world

When I was in Bergen for the Bergen International Film Festival, just as I was finishing my lutefisk, Paul Devlin (a fellow science doc filmmaker who has made a very successful film called "Blast") mentioned to me that there were some international distributors at the next table. I had a good conversation with one of them and attended a panel discussion where she was speaking, and learned quite a bit about getting a film ready for international distribution. Truth is, we had thought vaguely about it, but didn't really put a whole lot of thought into it.

Things I learned:

1. International outlets rarely want anything over 1 hour. Most American filmmakers aim for the feature, and the first hard hurdle is the realization that they're going to have to cut their baby to fit a 54-ish minute time slot. Luckily for us, we already jumped this hurdle and had our 53:30 cut ready to go.

2. There are many countries who do not subtitle foreign films. They dub them. Yes, that's right. Cultural issues, literacy issues, lot of different things mean you have to prepare your film to be dubbed into many different languages. How do you do this? You have to prepare what's called an M & E track (music and effects). This means you need to have your sound mixer work some magic on the edit: all the dialogue has to be pulled, but background sounds, music, sound effects, and everything else has to be left in. It makes me really curious to know how the dubbing is done. Do they hire a team of actors to play the different parts? Or do they just have one man and one woman who do it all? Do they just read the text, or do they... act?

A strange example of the expectations of dubbing can be found in the incredible film "I Am Cuba," which isn't exactly a documentary (but has been called a "poetic documentary"). This is a Russian film made in 1964, celebrating the communist revolution in Cuba. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but in the versions I've seen is quite a mind-bender in terms of its language: it was shot silent, then overdubbed with Spanish. However, a deep-voiced Russian "narrator" then repeats each line in a sonorous tone, whether the Spanish speaker was a man or a woman. Finally, on top of it all, are English subtitles. Whew.

So, the M&E tracks are placed on the master tape that you deliver. There are 4 sound channels on a master tape: 1 and 2 are for the regular stereo mix (in English) and 3 & 4 are for the M&E tracks. The broadcaster can access whichever they want.

3. For those countries who DO want to use subtitles, you have to also give them a version of the film that has no English text. Well, not actually the full version. On the same broadcast master, after the film ends, you insert blank versions of all the shots from the film that had text on them. These are called "textless elements," and are usually separated by a second or two of black. That way some lowly broadcast intern in the Czech Republic or Finland or Peru can insert the clean shots and slap their own subtitles on.

For example, our film has quite a few lines of text pointing out this or that fact or development. In addition, every once in a while a date will appear, and certainly everyone who speaks gets a name and ID (incidentally, these last are called "lower thirds"). All of those shots have to be provided at the end of the tape without any text on them.

4. Finally, the last thing to do is to convert your show to the PAL format. We in the US and Canada use NTSC, but in Europe and many places overseas PAL is the standard. What the heck are NTSC and PAL? I won't give you a technical answer (I do that in my classes at Northwestern) but here's the gist of it: imagine if two different cultures had the same idea and worked it to completion independently of each other. The end result would be the same, but the methodology would likely be completely different. That's the way it happened with video. They both work but they are utterly incompatible. Different frame rate, different size, different way color is encoded.

So, after that technical sidebar, back to my story: The woman I spoke with in Bergen took home a dvd and a few days later she indicated her company was interested in the possibility of distributing it internationally. Exciting! But it turns out they wanted a rather radical re-cut, in essence creating an entirely different film. We thanked them but passed.

Not long after, we got an email and a phone call from a Toronto-based company who had seen the film at the Pariscience festival (where it won the Audacity Award!). They were very interested, and in fact interested in moving fast because there was something called the "World Congress of Science Documentary" that they wanted to take our film to. To make a long story short (sorry, too late), we went into high gear and inked an international distribution deal!

So what have I been doing lately? You guessed it: creating M&E tracks and preparing textless elements. Soon I'll be able to send off the file to the post house for them to create the NTSC and PAL masters, and then... who knows? The Atom Smashers might be beaming into households from New Zealand to Iceland. A few days ago the distributor said "we've been inundated with requests for screeners." I like that word, inundated.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How'd you do that shot?

There's a nice thing that can happen when you're making a film, and to some extent you can plan for it, but to a large extent you can't. You can make a great shot, but you can't necessarily imbue that shot with meaning. That has to happen from the rest of the film that surrounds the shot. I've quoted Walter Murch before, and I'll probably do it again, but he said that music in movies should channel the emotions that are already in the scene, not try to install emotion into the scene. It's the same way with a certain shot: it works best if it can channel the emotion (or meaning) that's already present in the film.

Our film is pretty straight-forward in terms of its cinematography. We did have one or two "special effects" shots, one of which I outlined here and here, and the other of which we get asked about fairly often: the rollerblading shot from up above. I wrote about that here.

I teach cinematography (among some other things) at Northwestern University. It's true, we all have day jobs, despite the huge amounts of money that are pouring into our coffers from The Atom Smashers. Ahem. Sorry, I was daydreaming there. In my classes we often look at films and analyze things like color, lighting, camera movement, etc. A lot of times it's fun for us to speculate how a certain shot was achieved. Or a cinematographer will share how something was done in an interview that I assign as a reading.

It's interesting to me that while the cinematographer usually talks about the equipment used, the technical challenges, the film stock and developing procedures, he or she rarely talks about what the shot means, or emotionally how it affects the story (this is not always the case; some cinematographers are very sensitive to this). This kind of reflection usually falls to the director, although for the most part directors in interviews don't like to talk too much about the cinematography, preferring instead to talk about the actors and the story (which is how it ought to be).

So, this does leave a bit of a gap, and I've found that usually only viewers and reviewers are the ones willing and eager to talk about what certain shots actually mean and how they impact us emotionally and metaphorically, and how they fit into the process of telling the story. Only in the genre of documentary (and, specifically, very low-budget documentary) do you find the somewhat unique and clunky combination of "director/cinematographer."

Sometimes, though not as much as I would hope, there are moments when those two pursuits intersect in a way that allows for one person to be thinking of the story and about getting a nice shot at the same time, and an interesting moment will get caught on camera; a moment of reflection that can serve to gather much of the rest of the film up and shine some thought into it, perhaps a new or extended meaning.

We've gotten enough comments about Ben's rollerblading sequence to make me think perhaps this may have happened in our film. Hi Kooky, a regular commenter on this blog with her own great blog, wrote a nice email to me and called that rollerblading sequence a "transforming moment." Our film was barely underway when we shot that sequence, so there was really no way to know if it would even make it into the final product or not. But a strange combination of the complexity of the search as reflected in Kate Simko's music, Ben's optimism, his musing about how funny it is to need something so big to see something so small, and then that nice shot that Stefani Foster nailed on the first take where Ben keeps getting smaller and smaller and the ring gets bigger and bigger --- a perspective shift happens. Maybe it is a transforming moment in that way.

Or maybe it's just a neat shot. It's hard to tell. I do remember thinking, I'll have to admit, when Stef finished the tilt up and zoom out from Ben on the rollerblades, "wow, it's fun to make documentaries."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Audience Award

Hey --- if you're so inclined, vote for The Atom Smashers for the PBS Audience Award!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

CERN in the news

This article by Dennis Overbye of The New York Times gives an update on when the LHC is going to start back up. They say that they could be doing a more limited series of collisions by next August, but won't be up to full power for some time after that. Some say this is an optimistic timeline.

If you saw our film, you remember Ben Kilminster near the end, wearing his Batman T-shirt, re-iterated that Fermilab and Cern were in "kind of a bit of a race" to find the Higgs, and that they needed CERN to "trip a little bit --- stumble."

What ended up happening was not just a trip but an all-out head-over-heels tumble. A quick recap: in order to get the protons to go in a circle instead of in a straight line, CERN (and Fermilab) use gigantic magnets to bend their trajectory. How big are these magnets? Each one weighs ... ten tons. (that long orange thing in the picture is one of them...

in fact, one made at Fermilab and shipped over for use at CERN! See how cooperative they are in their competition?) There are a staggering 1,232 of these magnets. And in order to get them to be really efficient, they cool them way down, to 2 degrees above the temperature of deep space (absolute zero). This makes them "superconducting."

How do they cool them down? With liquid helium, naturally. Really cold stuff.

So, they think an electrical problem caused a spark which punctured the layer of liquid helium, causing it to flood out and expand (when liquid helium under pressure turns into a gas it practically explodes). I'll quote from the article:

The resulting internal pressures shoved some of the magnets off their mounts and crunched the connections between them. The beam pipes that the protons shoot through were also punctured and contaminated with soot. Or as Dr. Gillies said, "It's a mess."

Remember, those magnets weighed 10 tons!

So, they've got a major workload on their hands. As the article says, they have to bring no less that 53 of those 10 ton magnets to the surface (they're 300 feet underground) to inspect them and fix them, and then do tons of checking and evaluating of the whole darn thing.

Good luck, CERN! In the meantime, Ben and company are working away at Fermilab, regretting the difficulties their colleagues in Europe are having (and trying not to rub their hands with glee too much).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cosmos, and thanks, Monica!

Monica, my co-director, is perhaps the best gift-giver I know. She's given me antique movie cameras, and one Christmas after shooting Marcela Carena's tango club, she gave me ... a tango trophy. First place, no less.

I think I mentioned the TV party we had to watch The Atom Smashers at the Caro D'Offay gallery. Caro and Annie Stone built a cardboard "console" for my modern-looking TV and I projected a video fireplace on the wall next to it, so we all felt as though we were watching TV down in the den. All we needed was some shag carpet.

There's a quick scene in the last quarter of the film where the physicists are discussing why they got into physics. Robin is hanging around in John Conway's office, chatting with John's working group and says she got into physics "because of Carl Sagan." It's one of those nice moments where I think, for once, they truly forgot we were there. She said she had a "mickey mouse" physics class in high school, which didn't inspire her, but once she saw "Cosmos," she was hooked.

She wasn't the only one --- Cosmos riveted me as a kid. I'll be honest: I think Cosmos has been quietly swimming in the back of my mind the whole time we've contemplated making science documentaries. It is clearly a product of a different time, and could never be made today, because ... it's ... slow. Beautifully slow, unhurried, measured, calm, thoughtful. Profound, contemplative, awe-inspiring. Mention any of those words to a documentary distributor or sales agent today, and quite likely you're in real trouble. Mention them in conjunction with the word "science" and you'll get the conversational equivalent of a door slammed in your face.

Our documentary is nothing like Cosmos in that we don't have a narrator or an on-screen presence (Carl Sagan), and we're following a story rather than contemplating the universe at large. But I'd like to think we have a small connection. But before I elaborate, back to my story:

So, we're in the gallery getting ready for the TV party. The cardboard console (complete with big cardboard knobs) is being built, and I'm putting the finishing touches on the video fireplace. Monica arrives, followed by Andrew, who is carrying a FedEx package for me and one for monica. They're from PBS, and we open them to find a nice letter and a box of chocolates! Very nice, and a sweet touch. Then Monica gives me a wrapped package which I immediately open, and find ... a hardbound copy of "Cosmos," by Carl Sagan. Written on the front page:

The Atom Smashers 11-25-08
I got into science because of Clayton Brown! Here's hoping our next story is just as much fun!
Onward, Monica

Tonight I opened the book for the first time, and in Sagan's introduction, a passage leaped out at me. It says:

Cosmos is dedicated to the proposition that the public is far more intelligent than it has generally been given credit for, and that the deepest scientific questions on the nature and the origin of the world excite the interests and passions of enormous numbers of people.

If there was ever a motto for my feelings about our group, 137 Films, this is it. These two beliefs make the backbone of our philosophy, and why we had the nutty idea of making a film about one of the most esoteric, hard-to-fathom scientific concepts out there, brazenly assuming both of Sagan's declarations were true!

I feel like there is a lifetime of exciting work ahead.

So, thanks, Carl Sagan, and thanks, Monica!

See why I say she's such a good gift-giver?

Friday, November 28, 2008

On the air

Here's a great picture snapped by my girlfriend Kristine as Monica and I sat in the very public "showcase studio" at WGN, AM 720, doing an interview with John Williams. It's happening on a couple of different levels: there's the reflection of Michigan avenue, but if you look closely you can see Monica and me behind our microphones. It's literally right on Michigan avenue, so people walk by, peer in at you, make faces, do dances, all while you're trying to keep your head together to give a good definition of what the Higgs boson is. When Kristine pressed against the glass to snap this picture, I dimly understood that someone was taking a picture, but didn't allow myself to look too closely. Consequently, I had no idea it was her.

On quite the opposite spectrum of my single-minded tunnelvision sat John Williams, the DJ / host of the show, who seemed to be wired to a supercomputer in the sky. He carried on a very chatty conversation with us that never stopped during commercial breaks, all the while hearing talkback from a producer over a loudspeaker about the emergency alert system check that was about to happen, how many commercials there would be, what the next guest was, and how many seconds there were to go until we were back on the air. Not only that, but people were strolling through the studio, people on Michigan avenue were tapping on the glass to get his attention, and something seemed to be under repair in the room. Despite all this, he asked some great questions, told us what his idea for what our next film should be (he wanted to find people to give him the formula for true happiness) and waved and made faces for the people outside. When Kristine approached the glass, he actually posed and waved to her without missing a beat in our conversation. When Monica and I left I think we had aged a week in those 20 minutes.

For a slightly more tranquil conversation, Monica and I pre-recorded an interview with Alison Cuddy and producer Joe Deceaux on Chicago Public Radio's "848" morning show. We spoke for about 20 minutes, and they edited it down to about 10. They also did a terrific job of splicing in audio moments from the film to illustrate and enhance the conversation. We were really pleased with it.

And, just like that, our brief but exciting media frenzy is over! The film will air again January 27, so hopefully we'll get another round of attention. More about what comes next in the next post...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Talk Back

If you have thoughts about the film, join (or start) the discussion at PBS!

Another guest post

A post from Mark Oreglia. Thanks, Mark!

This post is from Mark Oreglia, one of the advisors to "The Atom Smashers".

My colleagues and I loved the film -- not because we were in it, but because of how the filmmakers communicated our arcane subject, and how they were able to focus on the human side of our endeavors. My wife said after the screening "this is the first time I really feel I understand what you do!" So much for my ability to communicate to the public.

The film correctly focusses on competition between various experiments. It is important to understand how important and useful this competition is. Most of the time it is not ugly at all, and it serves to drive us to work harder and produce the best science we can. It also makes sure that results are verified.

I was at CERN last week to attend a workshop on the ATLAS detector, one of the LHC experiments. Two months ago the LHC successfully circulated beams for the first time, so the prospect of bringing the experiments online soon has this place jumping. I was crammed into an office built to comfortably accomodate 4; there were currently 7 people. This is a phenomenon well known to CERN users in the LHC era -- after all, there are nearly 4000 personnel signed on to the 2 main experiments.

Excellent glimpses into life at CERN (at least from the perspective of young people) can be found at here.

Guest post

John Conway writes a guest post. Thanks, John!

When I was first contacted by Clayton and Monica, and invited them out to Fermilab to begin shooting their film, I had in mind at it would be typical science documentary: a sort of voice-of-God "explanation" of our science, what we do, why it's interesting. I could tell on their first visit to Fermilab, though, that they had bigger things in mind. Once I understood what they were after, I tried to hook them up with as many of the people involved in our great quest as I could, people who I hoped would turn out to be interesting on camera.

I have seen the film three times now, and every time I see it I like it better. It really is a unique approach to what could be a very dry and uninteresting topic. (Of course for us physicists it's anything but dry or uninteresting!) The film really captures the spirit of the hunt for the Higgs boson, the excitement and the frustrations. It delves into our lives, our work, and the state of our field.

Hopefully without giving away how the film ends, I can tell you we still have not found any experimental evidence for the Higgs boson. The Tevatron at Fermilab is running amazingly well, we are recording tons of new data every day, and every bit of data brings us a little bit closer to finally seeing the Higgs boson. Next year, the LHC at CERN will start operating for real. It was supposed to have already happened, but in the first two weeks of commissioning, machine suffered a rather serious setback when a string of magnets was damaged by an electrical malfunction. Will this be the break that the Tevatron needed?

Having studied this question for many years now, I think it will still be very hard for the Tevatron experiments to discover the Higgs boson before the LHC, unless the Higgs boson is of the type predicted, for example, by supersymmetry. (That is in fact what I spend my time looking for!) If nature we were that kind, we definitely have a chance to see that at the Tevatron, and as the film shows, we thought we almost had. But hey, you never know...

And what about funding for our field? Happily, we have elected a new president who has promised to try to double the funding for science in the next decade. That would be fantastic except for one quote from the film which keeps coming back to haunt me: it's when Bush's science advisor Jack Marburger intimates that he doesn't foresee funding for high energy physics increasing anytime in the near future. So, it could be that though the rest of science, other fields of physics, enjoy 5-10% increases every year, high-energy physics may not. Time will tell, but I think that we need a major discovery in their field one way or another before our funding levels will increase significantly.

On the home front, as noted at the end of the film, Robin and I (well Robin mostly) had a baby boy in June! Our four month old has made three trips to every lab and one trip to Mexico already, and we are going to Taiwan in December! Yes, his passport photo is very cute. He does take a lot of our time and energy, and we are certain he will be a physicist someday; what other choice could there be?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Passing around the hat...

Andrew, our producer, has been hard at work and has put together a great page where you can buy a copy of the film (and, as long as you've got your credit card out, you can donate to our cause to keep the films coming!)

"Can't your budget be diverted?"

We've just gotten a nice write-up in an online publication called "Worldchanging," which operates under the idea that many of the solutions to building a better future are all around us, but just need to be connected. "Informed by that premise," the magazine states, "we do our best to bring you the most important and innovative new tools, models, and ideas for building a bright green future." The writer, Julia Levitt, attended the screening at Vancouver.

The article focuses on one of the issues in the film that appears regularly in our Q & A sessions, and that we expound on in the film at some length: is this worth doing? What's the point of it? Should we care if we find the Higgs boson?

If you haven't seen the film yet, there is a section near the end from a 1979 Donahue show (remember Donahue?) that features Leon Lederman as the guest. Dr. Lederman is featured throughout our film, and is currently nearly as vibrant as he was 30 years ago when he appeared on Donahue. This segment is only a few seconds long, and shows a woman in the crowd standing up to ask a question.

"Hi," she says, "I guess my question is relatively simple. All this money, a hundred million dollars, is that what you said?"

She's referring to an earlier part of the show when Dr. Lederman had mentioned that figure as his lab's budget. There was a visible reaction in the crowd when he stated that figure (remember, this is 1979). Sensing the crowd's unease, he said "does that seem like a lot? Do you know what the military budget is? $100 million buys, I think, one jet airplane." At which point Donahue said "the problem is, you can put the jet airplane in a movie." There's some nervous laughter in the crowd, much of it confused, but Donahue follows up by sharpening the point: "You know what I mean? Then we can all cheer and say 'go, America, and win.'" Then, looking right at Dr. Lederman, he says very directly: "Your work is hard to sell, you know that?"

This point is now being illustrated in no uncertain terms. Donahue quickly answers her question:

"A hundred million. That's just his budget. There are others ---"
"That's just his budget," she says, looking back at Lederman. "Why can't that money be diverted? I feel that cancer research, and other kinds of research are really more important than finding out, you know, just how many quarks make up this world!"

Lederman is watching her with an unreadable expression as she speaks. Behind him is a chalkboard on which he has drawn a rushed diagram of a proton, and finished a (not particularly good) explanation of how a proton is held together. I suspect he is listening to something he has heard a thousand times and has answered hundreds of different ways. Maybe he's thinking he'll never find a way to convince this woman, the audience, or the other people who have expressed similar sentiments, that what he and his colleagues do is worthwhile. Maybe he's thinking that it's not fair to put cancer research and particle physics next to each other on some kind of scale to find out which is more valuable. Or maybe he's thinking it is fair, and doesn't know how to respond. Or maybe he's just tired of talking about it.

in some of the Q&A sessions we've had after the film, the question has come up. So far not in the way that Lederman experienced, but rather from pro-science people wondering how scientists answer this question. We've been asked more than once why we didn't include more information about the ancillary benefits that this type of science generates (after all, CERN invented the world wide web).

The way I respond is to say that our film, while obviously pro-science, is not a science advocacy film. We're not out to prove to you, the viewer, why this kind of science is worth doing. We could trot out a list of all the ways consumer technology or communications technology or even health sciences have benefited from the work people like Dr. Lederman or the other physicists in our film have done. What's far more important, in our minds, is to raise the question. We don't set about answering the question; that's something we feel only the individual viewer can do.

The research that the physicists do in our film as they search for the Higgs boson is called "curiosity-driven" science, or, more simply, pure research. It's knowledge for the sake of understanding. As John Conway says, this is something humans have been doing for 3500 years. That, and that alone, is the way to measure it's worth. And this is exactly where it snags in the fabric of everyday human activity, especially when things seem to be in turmoil. "What good does it do me? Can it cure cancer? Will it make my cell phone better?" To argue that point is, I think, to miss the point. Sure, it might do those things. But more importantly, it has to stand on its own. And many people might find themselves nodding in agreement with the woman from 1979 in the audience of the Donahue show, clearly uninterested in how many quarks make up this world.

In an example of the pleasures I get out of the process of editing, the very next thing you see in the film after the woman from Donahue makes her immanently reasonable statement is Natalie Angier, a science writer from The New York Times. You hear my voice in the background asking "Should we care if the Higgs boson is found?" What follows is one of my favorite moments in the film. Natalie laughs a little, then pauses for a full ten seconds as she tries to figure out how to answer the question. Ten seconds of silence is a long time these days.

Julia's article in Worldchanging addresses this notion. Her first line reads "Is there value in knowledge for the sake of knowledge?" In one of the comments posted at the end of the article, a reader called "sabik" writes

Of course, the problem is how to judge something that won't have a practical application for decades or even centuries. It's a question of what sort of intellectual landscape we are leaving for our children and grand-children - whether it's rich and varied, pregnant with discoveries to be made, or impoverished and bare.

I think this is nicely said. I'll mention something else along these lines that I may have referenced before somewhere in this blog, that addresses head-on the question of the intrinsic worth of "curiosity-driven" science, or pure research. When Robert Wilson (founder of Fermilab) was in congress arguing for the funds that would allow Fermilab to be built, a senator repeatedly asked how Fermilab would contribute to the defense of the country. Finally, exasperated, Wilson said "It will not contribute to the defense of the country. But it will make the country worth defending."

That's Robert Wilson's answer to the question. I wonder if that would have been enough for the woman in the audience?


Just got the word that John Conway, one of the physicists in our film, was just today made a Fellow of the American Physical Society! His citation states he's received this honor "for outstanding contributions in the search for the Higgs boson and physics beyond the Standard Model."

All this on the same day he officially becomes a movie star (OK, a TV star, anyway).

Congratulations, John!

Lotsa press

Monica, my co-director, is originally a playwright. She's had quite a bit of success in the world of theatre. Being a fiction filmmaker myself as well as a documentary filmmaker, I've had plenty of time interacting with actors, many of whom do double duty in the theatrical environment and on the big screen. I learned something interesting about how the role of a theatrical director differs from that of a film director when I saw a play with one of my favorite actors. She pointed out to me something that was clearly going wrong on stage that night: one actor was badly overshadowing another. I whispered something along the lines of "I guess the director is going to have some work to do tonight." She told me, in fact, nope, the director was done. When the curtain rises on opening night, the play, and the actors, are on their own. Hopefully, it's got legs to walk on.

That's a little how Monica, Andrew and I feel about our film. We've set it out there, and it's walking around on its own. We're watching, a little nervously, how it's making its way in the world. We've been gratified to see some positive indications so far: an review on MSNBC says the film "packs a lot of real life into its saga about the world's biggest subatomic quest." A review in Seed magazine says the film "splits open the US's problematic relationship with scientific research... a roller-coaster ride of near breakthroughs, complex research, and dashed hopes." And a review on "Popmatters" does a nice job of communicating many of the themes we were after.

But perhaps my favorite endorsement of the film comes from someone who hasn't seen it yet: a physicist who must have been hearing about it from his peers or reading about it. He even linked to this blog, which was nice. On his own blog, he describes some of the trouble the LHC is having after its major breakdown a couple of month ago. He then wraps up the post by stating

On a more cheerful note, tonight PBS will be broadcasting a documentary about the search for the Higgs at Fermilab called The Atom Smashers. It looks like this program should be about 10^(10^5) times better than a recent one featuring theorists. One of the filmmakers has a blog here. With the LHC out of commission for a while, the Higgs search at the Tevatron is where the action is, and the experimenters there may be the ones to find the Higgs or rule it out.

Now, 10^(10^5) would be 1,000,000, if I'm not mistaken. I've never seen the other film he's referencing, but I certainly can't guarantee that our film is a million times better than that one. But it's nice that a physicist has such high hopes!

[editor's note: I've just been gently corrected. I was, in fact, mistaken, and Mr. Woit of the aforementioned blog is confident that our film is not just a million times better, but rather ... ahem, 10 quadrupa-gazillion times better. In other words, a 10 with one hundred-thousand zeroes after it. The pressure is on!!]

Like the theatre director, though, all I can do at this point is sit back and watch...

(And watch I will --- it's on tonight, Nov. 25, at 10:30 on most PBS stations. But check your local listings.)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sharing a microphone and where ideas come from

Monica and I have been lucky enough to attend quite a few screenings of The Atom Smashers, and we've usually been able to stand at the front of the theatre, sharing a microphone, answering questions from the people in the audience after the film ends. It's really fun, actually. For the same reason that proud parents never tire talking about how smart their babies are, we could probably talk forever about our film.

There is a consistency in the questions we're asked, whether in Chicago, Vancouver, or Norway. One of the first to come up is "where did you find this topic?" Often the way the question is asked implies "where in the world did you find this topic?" Or even "what on earth were you thinking?"

It seems to be a predictable pattern: the general public is astonished to find that a) scientists are people not that different from everyone else, and b) that their lives involve exciting stories. It reveals the extent of the disconnect many people seem to have regarding science, and as New York Times science writer Natalie Angier says in our film, it's a disconnect that starts as "early as the fourth grade" and once people get off that track, it's very hard to get back on.

I answer the question by mentioning the newspaper article I read in the Chicago Tribune in 2000 (a link to which I would post here but the Tribune makes you pay for archived articles --- boo) in which science writer Ronald Kotulak beautifully and dramatically set up the scenario that eventually became our film.

It seems a little odd to give so simple an answer: "I read a newspaper article about it" --- but in truth I think that's how the best ideas strike. An idea in one medium presents itself for adaptation into another. When teaching a class at Northwestern to sophomore film students, I discuss where story ideas come from and give another example of just such an adaptive transformation: I remember a day quite clearly in 2003 when I was driving in Kansas City, listening to NPR, and heard a story about how NASA was going to deliberately crash the Galileo space probe into Jupiter so that it would not accidentally hit Europa, one of Jupiter's moons that is potentially harboring life. I nearly crashed my car into a signpost. What a bizarre moment, I thought, and immediately imagined a scene where the scientists sat around a high-energy radio speaker, listening for the last whistling signal before it stuttered to a stop. What would they say to each other? What would they be feeling like?

This time, rather than a documentary, I decided to write a short film script with that little scene at its heart --- not with scientists, but rather with a couple of ... well, science-lovers. I asked Andrew Suprenant, the producer of The Atom Smashers, to produce it, and the script won the Chicago IFP Production fund, which meant we were able to make the film with donated goods and services from cameras to film to editing and the whole shebang. The title? Galileo's Grave. It's nearly done, but got moved to the back burner behind The Atom Smashers.

Maybe it's just that I have a soft spot for where pathos intersects with the scientific method, but I believe the world of science is teeming with great stories. I think that's good news for us at 137 Films, because that's what we focus on.

And yes, when we premiered Galileo's Grave in Chicago, I stood up with Andrew, sharing a microphone, for the Q&A session. The first question? "Where did you get this idea?"

Turkey, Cranberry Sauce, and Blogs

On Thanksgiving four years ago, my dad asked "what's a blog?" At that time I told him it was essentially a diary written by someone for everyone to read. Clearly I didn't really understand the concept. "Who would want to read something like that?" my dad asked. I shrugged.

In my defense, that was largely before blogs became so specialized and so popular, and before I started writing this one.

I had no idea that there were science blogs. Two of them are notable enough that I think I'll add them as the first two blogs to my sidebar. The first is Cosmic Variance, a biggie, to which John Conway (one of our scientists) is a contributor, and which seems to have been absorbed by Discover Magazine. John wrote about our film here and here, and it was in this blog that he posted about the "bump" in the data that caused such a stir in the scientific world and became a major plot point in our film. John is going to make an appearance in the next couple of days as a guest contributor to this blog.

The other blog is Peculiar Velocity, which I'll write about next time...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

TV Party

We're gearing up for the broadcast on Tuesday night! Check your local listings here. It should be on most PBS stations at 10:30pm. We've decided to get together at our friend Caro D'Offay's gallery and watch it on an old-fashioned rabbit-ear TV.

If you haven't visited our PBS website, go check it out...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

BIFF part three: Lutefisk and used car salesmen

I found out the hard way that we had been mis-informed. Our film was actually not in competition. How did I find this out? In one of our nightly dinners I found myself sitting next to one of the documentary competition judges. I was paralyzed between trying to make a nervous joke about our film to see if she reacted enthusiastically and saying nothing in order to maintain a sense of fairness. I said something to the person on the other side of me that I thought it was odd that they would ask the filmmakers and the judges to the same dinner. The person hissed "you should talk to her!"

At film festivals you see a real struggle play out on the faces of nearly everyone around you. You can tell immediately who is a filmmaker because he or she is wearing an anxious expression; a combination of weariness, determination, and desperation. Why is this the case? Because this person, usually a soul-searching obsessive type perfectly happy when wrestling with the larger themes of what makes us human, is suddenly thrust into the role of used car salesman.

All filmmakers at festivals feel the sickening urge that they need to be "doing something" with their film: trying to make a connection, pass off a post-card, drum up attendance, meet a sales rep, get a lead on Australian distribution, meet a programmer for the next festival, find a potential investor. You can see the conflict play out on their faces, and I'm no exception. So, shamefully, when the filmmaker next to me prodded me to talk to the judge, I turned and waited for a pause in the conversation and said something along the lines of

"So, do you see all the films in advance?"
"Oh. I'm Clayton Brown. I'm the co-director of The Atom Smashers."
Pregnant pause as she sipped some wine.
"Oh. Is that here at the festival?"

Needless to say, I was slightly flummoxed.
"Y - yes," I said. "It's a documentary. It's in competition."
"Oh, no, I don't think so," she said firmly. "I would have seen it."

And that was that. She turned back to her wine and I turned back to my reindeer. The filmmaker on the other side of me shrugged.

Interestingly, two days later, this judge became quite friendly to me. I'm not sure why, but at that night's dinner she came right up to me and we hung out the rest of the evening together. She decided in no uncertain terms that I was going to have lutefisk.

What is lutefisk? It's a bit hard to describe. Check out this link for a full explanation, but I'll give you a brief rundown: it's rotting fish that's been soaked in lye.

That's right; lye. After soaking in various solutions of water and lye for over a week, the fish has a jelly-like consistency and is caustic. Only more soaking in water will render it non-poisonous. Doing this step incorrectly will turn the fish into soap. I'm not kidding. Even when done correctly, you can't use your good dinnerware because lutefisk will permanently ruin silver.

It's served with a couple of potatoes and a small pot of bacon. You dribble the bacon over the jelly-like fish which gives it some semblance of flavor.

Interestingly, some of the younger Norwegians at our table had never had lutefisk and stubbornly refused to even try it (I should have taken this as a warning. Actually I did, but the judge with me would have none of it. She ordered for me, and the waitress had an odd expression upon leaving. I asked about this and the judge told me that she had indicated exactly what sequence everything should arrive in. "I think she thinks I'm bossy," she said. "I think you're bossy," I told her.) They said "this fish is poison. It's made of caustic chemicals. It has lye. It's not meant for human consumption!"

So, I'll be honest, it was not my favorite. I was grateful for the bacon, at least, and the plain potato. At least I earned the respect of the judge.

In some ways I was not as disappointed as I thought I would be when I found we weren't in competition. It took a little of the pressure off. This is perhaps why I enjoyed the second screening of the film much more. It wasn't quite sold out, but the crowd was much livelier. Earlier in the week I had had a couple of conversations with other filmmakers, including Pietra Bretkelly, who had a great film at the festival called The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins. She was talking after one of her screenings and said "I think I shocked the audience with my film. No one said a word at the Q&A afterwards." Turns out many of us had the same experience, and when we asked the festival organizers, they said "oh, yeah. Norwegians are shy. It takes them a while to ask questions."

But luckily, the shy Norwegians had apparently gotten up their collective nerve because there was a lengthy and spirited Q&A session after the second screening.

Oh, one more thing: after eating the Lutefisk, one of the other filmmakers came around and said "hey, I heard you were looking for European distribution. There are a couple of sales reps over there at the next table." So I had to put on my used-car salesman face and head over there. Turns out one of them was interested in the film, and after I got back to the states said she wanted another copy...

BIFF part two: Lidenskapen, Reindeer, and James Caan

Apologies for the delay!

So, as promised: first, a report on the screenings. The first one was sold out, which was a real surprise. A pleasant surprise, to be sure, but somehow unexpected. A sold out screening in Vancouver is one thing, being neighbors with the US. But Norway? I think it pays tribute to our poster image, the nice blurb in the festival program, and, frankly, the Obama-fascination that is apparently all around the world. However, I would also like to think that it means we've got a good film on our hands.

Interestingly, after the film, there was hardly a Q&A at all. The full-house crowd sat, quiet as a mouse, with only one or two questions being asked. Afterwards one of the (incredibly nice) festival staff who was leading the session sheepishly apologized and said next time hopefully there would be some better questions.

While the film was screening, I was actually doing a panel discussion with two other documentary filmmakers for the BIFF TV website. I think most of what I said ended up on the cutting room floor. (There could be a long post here about what it's like to be on the other side of the camera, being asked questions, what it's like to wonder if what you're saying is interesting, but... maybe another time). By the way, "Lidenskapen" means "passion."

So, on to the other part of what I promised next time: an interesting dinner companion.

When your film gets accepted to a (larger) festival, there's a chance they'll fly you out, put you up at a nice hotel, and take you out to dinner every night. Boy, it's nice. I'd recommend you all start making films in order to experience this part of it. It's a little bit of payback for the 40,000 hours spent lugging equipment, pulling your hair out wondering if you've got a story, and working the kinks out of your mouse-clicking arm. Anyway, the second night, I found myself eating Reindeer again, sitting next to a man with a rather loud, low, gravelly voice. He seemed a little tipsy. He was telling stories in English, Norwegian, and a couple of other languages. I was talking to some other people at the table and hadn't really listened too much, especially since I couldn't understand most of it.

It came up that I was a teacher of film production, and so we started talking about films (what a surprise). Somehow the notion of the Dogme 95 movement came up, and how one of the leaders of that group (Thomas Vinterberg) had a new film that was here at the festival. I said that even though I thought some of the ideas behind it were great, there was really only one of those films that I liked, which was The Celebration. The guy I was talking to reminded me that Vinterberg was the director, and his film was here. He also casually pointed at the guy next to me, the one telling stories in Norwegian, and said. "He was in The Celebration." I blinked. "Really?" "Yeah. Remember the loudmouth brother? That was him." His name is Thomas Bo Larsen and we ended up having a really great conversation about acting and directing, especially after he told me that the best piece of directing he ever got was when Vintenberg told him during the shooting of The Celebration that "in this film, you are playing the role of James Caan in The Godfather." Really, what actor wouldn't nod and say "Ahh. Got it."? It was fun talking about good directing (short, loaded suggestions) and bad directing (long-winded explorations of minutiae), and what actors like and don't like (being part of, and excluded from, the creative process, respectively). At the end of the evening, he volunteered that he would fly himself to Northwestern to talk to my classes. I think he was a little drunk, but I believe he meant it at the time.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I'm in Bergen, Norway, at the Bergen International Film Festival... I just got back from the first screening, which wasn't part of the festival, but rather an additional screening the festival organized at a nearby science center. The audience was composed of about 60 high school students and a few teachers. There was a Q&A afterwards, which went pretty well. Last night I had dinner with the director of the festival at a traditional Norwegian restaurant, where I had filet of reindeer.

Next time I'll fill you in more on a fascinating conversation I had with an unexpected dinner companion, as well as on the first festival screening...

How audacious

We've won a prize!!

In the Pariscience festival, we picked up the "Audacity Award." This appears to be the second prize of the festival, and is described as awarded awarded "for a film that’s shows originality in its subject matter or treatment." It includes a nice cash component as well! One of our intrepid physicists, Gregorio Bernardi (who appears twice in the film: he is one of the explainers of the Higgs boson as well as the guy who describes what I call "the magic screen," referred to in an earlier post) actually teaches at the University of Paris, and was able to attend the awards ceremony.

He said that it was like "a mini-Oscars ceremony," where a clip from each prize-winning film was shown. He said the clip they showed from our film was from the animated section of the explanation of how the Tevatron works, with Luke Haddock's great animations and Dr. Lederman's voiceover. Apparently there was even a plaque awarded, which Gregorio kindly accepted on our behalf. Whenever we get an office, that will be one of the first things that goes up on the wall.

So now we can officially add "Award-winning" to our descriptions...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Vancouver News Part 2

The second screening went quite well also --- not sold out, but nearly everyone stayed for another lively Q&A. Hosting the session was the festival director, which was quite a treat. The film shows a third time at the festival on Wednesday 10/10, but alas, none of us will be there.

In the meantime, a good friend of mine posted a blog entry about my blog entry, so I'm tying us up in knots further by blogging about his entry about my entry. He's an old friend from college and has made a name for himself as a voiceover talent / NPR dj. He's got a great blog about music (specifically jazz) with great musings about recording, musical personalities, and how music holds up and changes over time. He was interested to read about my musings on music in film, and specifically my experience working with Kate Simko, the composer for The Atom Smashers.

More interest: today and yesterday we received our first inquiries from down under, specifically from the Australian Centre for the Moving Image as well as a film festival in Perth. If we only had a nice, fat, travel budget...

Now we're gearing up for the Austin Film Festival, where we have a nice page here, as well as the Bergen Festival in Norway, with a page here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Vancouver news (part 1)

Briefly, a picture of something every filmmaker would love to see: "Sold Out!" The first screening went beautifully, with a sold out crowd of about 250. Almost everyone stayed for a good Q&A afterwards. On my way now to the second screening, on a Sunday morning at 10:45. I'm guessing there won't be a "sold out" sign for this one...

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What a Triumf

Found out that TRIUMF, a Canadian subatomic research laboratory, has decided to sponsor our film at the Vancouver Film Festival! I don't really know what this means, but they have a blurb about the film on their website! Thank you, TRIUMF!

Ahora puedo hablar espanol

It's fun to stumble across your work on the web somewhere. On this blog I have a thing called "statcounter" which tells me more or less how many people visit every day. I can even find out how they navigated to my blog. Turns out 95% of people end up on my blog from Wikipedia. People do a search for "Higgs" or "Higgs boson" or "Peter Higgs." At the bottom of the page is a tiny little link that says "An interview with Peter Higgs." It goes to my page. Not sure how it got there, but several people every day click on that link and end up in my blog. I imagine most of them click away almost immediately.

But another link caught my eye. A single, solitary person found my blog from another blog called "Astronomia." I clicked on the link, and lo and behold, found a very long blog entry dedicated to the film, complete with pictures, a write-up, some thoughts, and a collection of links. They even explain the origin of our company name, 137 Films, with a picture of our logo, and a brief bio on Monica and me.

All in Spanish.

You've read about Marcela Carena in my blog in previous posts: the Argentinian theoretical physicist (and tango dancer). I think perhaps she passed on some information to them. There is a brief interview with her.

How do I know this? Do I speak Spanish? Alas, no. However, Google is an amazing thing. Click a "translate this page" button, and presto!

My favorite translation is that Leon Lederman's (infamous) nick-name for the Higgs boson, the god particle, comes out as "The Particle of God." So much more dramatic. Overall, though, the translation seems to be excellent, aside from a consistent confusion of gender of the third person pronoun (both Marcela and the film itself are referred to as "him"). I'm very impressed with Google. Maybe I'm just happy to see someone writing about our film in another language.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Keeping Score

Kate Simko, a local composer/electronic music artist with a pretty good national and international reputation, scored the music for our film. She just forwarded a link to a blog where she wrote about the process of composing the score for the film (Kate was a contributor to the blog; the blog as a whole is about the process of creating and listening to music).

It was really fun for me especially to read her entry. Andrew and I first met with Kate some years ago, as we were just getting started with the film. It was so early in the process that we didn't really have much to say about what we thought it would be like, so Kate listened to us and expressed her interest, and then we went our separate ways for about two years.

In the meantime, I fell into a trap that happens to many editors. (Monica fell into it, too). I fell in love with my temp tracks. This is a common phenomenon, and here's how it works: you have passed a critical phase in the edit. You've moved past "what should be in? What should be left out?" and are beginning to work on shaping, feel, tone, mood, rhythm. The fun part. You're no longer scouring transcriptions to find what quotes to use, you're so familiar with the "b-roll" (shots of buildings, landscapes, people walking, transition shots, or anything else that's beautiful or interesting that can be used to cover up awkward cuts, or shots that can take on metaphoric meaning when placed in context. Hmmm... I think I'll write a new entry in homage to the b-roll. Watch for that...) that you can draw from it at will, and you're constructing sections, conversations, phrases, moments. It's the real fun part.

So, naturally, one of the first things you do is to add music. Anyone who's ever edited (or even listened to This American Life, for that matter, knows the effect that the appearance of music can have on your material. Here's what Ira Glass himself said about it in a 1998 online article:

People ask, "Why do you put so much music?" It's because music is like basil. Everything's going to go better. Put it on, don't think twice. Chicken, vegetables — it's just going to be better.

Now, that was before This American Life was criticized for using music as liberally as, well, basil. They've since become a bit more careful about it. When I teach sound design at Northwestern, I often quote from the great film post-production intellectual Walter Murch, who lamented that many times editors used music to install or imbue a scene with emotion, rather than reflect and direct the emotion that (hopefully) is already there. In short, music often tells the viewer / listener "this is a sad moment. Hear the sad music? You should be feeling sad now." (This is how This American Life was criticized for its use of music: too often it served to tell the listener what to feel).

When done right, Murch claims, music simply unlocks or directs the powerful emotions that are already there. When that happens, it becomes a moment that is greater than the sum of its parts: the emotion in the scene and the music that appears catapults the experience beyond the left-brain understanding of what is being said and seen; the right-brain gets involved and the whole thing becomes magic.

So --- back to the temp music. Monica and I had discussed the music at length. The Tevatron (Fermilab's 40-year old particle accelerator) was a beautiful, ugly, advanced and primitive machine with percolating valves, hi-tech computers, rusting bolts, dirty concrete, gleaming surfaces, and a devious personality. What's more, it was located smack in the middle of a prairie, with native grasses and buffalo wandering around. We knew that somehow we needed music to reflect this crazy combination of unfathomable technology and raw nature. A tall order. Andrew, our producer, had introduced me to Jan Jelinek's music. It seemed to capture what we were looking for perfectly. It was electronic music, yes, but generated from dirty analogue sources. We fell in love with it, and I used it almost exclusively.

So much so, in fact, that I had a hard time trying to part with it. So, Andrew said, "well, why not ask if we can use it?" Being the producer that he is, he tracked down Jelinek's agent and inquired. Sure, we were told. We could use the music. As long as we licensed it.

At $120 per second.

Per second.

I did a quick tally. I had approximately 20 minutes of music in the cut. A cozy $144,000.

Suddenly parting with Jelinek's music was much easier.

Re-enter Kate Simko. We had gotten back in touch. She was ready and excited to begin working; it fell neatly between projects for her so she had the time. I screwed up my courage to tell her that I was really attached to the Jelinek music; most composers hate to hear that editors have fallen in love with temp music. It means they might be expected to try to mimic what's already there. With Kate, I felt instantly relieved. She said, "I love Jan Jelenik!"

She also stated in no uncertain terms that she was not going to be doing any mimicry. She had to have free rein to compose, not just replace. But having the temp music already there was, for her, a good starting point: it meant she didn't have to try to pick a director's brain about some of the basics of timing, mood shifts, rises and falls, etc.

Then the fun part began. Kate and I had many long conversations where we watched parts of the film and I got to expound on the emotional texture of the film. She asked me to just describe what the "feel" of the film was at a certain point, and she took copious notes. I'll quote here from the blog entry I referenced above:

Clayton and I went through the scenes in the film together and he provided poignant adjectives to describe the mood in each scene. For example, one of my favorite compositions, which we called "Tevatron Dream," was described by Clayton as, "the tevetron having a dream. slightly surreal; waiting, peaceful intermission; rye sense of humor, dreamy, wink in eye, half asleep, kicking back, relaxing after hard work; not dark, emotionally neutral." After understanding the underlying mood in each scene, I started collecting timbres, textures, and modeling synths that I thought might fit.

That phrase, "The Tevatron having a dream," was something that I came back to again and again. I thought it was an absolutely perfect way to describe the passage. If the tevatron could have a dream, what would it dream about? As this aging machine, contemplating the last years of its life, drifted off to slumber, what images would rumble around its four-mile ring? I suspect the Higgs boson would be part of it. I could imagine the Tevatron twitching as it slept, like a dog, its legs gently pawing at an imaginary lawn. The Tevatron might bump and rattle a little as it slept, drifting through the ether and racing across the universe, dragging through the Higgs field, bouncing between protons and electrons, sighing gently as it settled down next to the buffalo, then jumping up again as an anti-proton exploded into a shower of gluons and tau pairs.

I think Kate got it perfectly. It's an example of the incredible processes involved in creativity: taking a semi-incoherent series of descriptions (mine) through intense technology (Kate's synthesizers and computers) and emerging with something beautiful. (Trying to figure out how to post audio here; anyone know how to do it? Kate has an example on her blog of another cut from the film).

Over the course of several weeks, we posted files back and forth, and Kate was extraordinarily cooperative, going above and beyond the call by letting me sit with her and listen to the cuts in progress, patiently letting me say things like "it should be a little darker here" or "a bit too rhythmic --- can you pull back the beats?" I think it helped that I have a background in music, so I was able to talk to her about major and minor keys, tempo, tonality, and the like.

I'll wrap it up here by saying that Kate was extraordinary to work with. We ended up with something that exceeded what the temp track had done, because it was custom-fitted for the film. Rather than being a piece of music that was composed in Scandinavia and simply placed into a soundtrack, Kate's score was composed to match the characters and stories in the film. It rose and fell at the right moments, reflected the environment, and was guided by what was happening. It didn't install emotion into the scenes, but rather reflected what was already there.

I think Walter Murch would have approved.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Black and white and read all over

A brief interview with Monica and me in the Chicago Tribune in advance of our big show tonight at the Museum of Science and Industry...

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Speaking of competition...

We've found out that we're one of 14 documentaries in competition at the Vancouver Film Festival! 100 docs have been accepted, but only 14 are in competition. They even gave us a nice splash page --- in fact, I think the write up they gave us is about the best synopsis yet! We're showing three times there.

Also, we found out we've been accepted into the Austin Film Festival! Our drought of domestic festivals is finally over. We're in competition there, as well as in Paris. Keep your fingers crossed...

"I call it a competitive collaboration"

So, let's face it. CERN has stolen the show.

We all knew this was going to happen. The good old Tevatron (the accelerator at Fermilab) must be feeling a little neglected right about now. In our film, Ben Kilminster gives us an occasional countdown ("643 days until CERN starts up..." "422 days until CERN starts up"). For, as you will see when you finally get to see The Atom Smashers, Fermilab is in a race against CERN to find the Higgs boson.

And today, Wednesday, the time has come. CERN is starting up.

Rather than lament the passing of the torch, I'll join in celebrating the moment with the other gazillion physicists salivating for this behemoth to open its eyes and look around. In fact, many of the physicists at Fermilab are nearly as excited. Many of them are, in fact, going to ramp up working at CERN, making fewer visits to Fermilab. But, again, I'm not mourning. As Leon Lederman said, the relationship between the two labs is a competitive collaboration. Many results will be shared. So, I'm not going to rehash what this blog has explored in depth: the troubling future for this kind of science in the U.S.

I'll be excited, too. Because, let me tell you, physicists are ecstatic about this thing. How do I know? You can find out by watching this. You absolutely must, must, must watch it. There, I just watched it again. Who knew physicists could rap?

If we were still shooting our film, we'd certainly have the camera rolling at Fermilab, where they will be having, and I kid you not, a pajama party to watch the events live from a remote control room.

So let's all give CERN its due and celebrate this amazing technological marvel. It'll take a few months to get really rolling: this is just a baby step. But what a step...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

We're feeling accepted

More acceptances are coming in: we've been accepted to a science film festival in Paris called Pariscience, to one in Bergen, Norway, (our image on that link!) and we're waiting to hear from a big one called IDFA in The Netherlands. With the one in Milan from a couple of months ago and the one we're attending in Vancouver, it's striking us as a little ironic that we've been accepted to four, possibly five festivals outside the US but not one in our own country! Chances were looking good for the Chicago International Film Festival, but our screening at the Museum of Science and Industry makes us ineligible for that one.

We're getting a little press, too: recently we were interviewed for The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy magazine and Fermilab's magazine. Will post those when they come up. Hopefully more will follow... In the meantime John Conway did a blog entry about the film in the widely-read science blog, Cosmic Variance. Thanks, John!

At the museum

So, we've wrangled an exciting local event: we'll be screening the film at the Museum of Science and Industry as the kickoff to Science Chicago, on Friday, Sept. 19 at 7pm and again on Saturday the 20th in the afternoon (time TBD). The fun part is that we'll have a panel discussion afterwards with us, possibly a museum person, and several scientists from the film: Marcela Carena, John Conway, Robin Erbacher, Ben Kilminster, and Mark Oreglia! That should be really fun. If you're in Chicago, you should definitely be there!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Yee ha! We just found out we've been accepted to the Vancouver International Film Festival! It's our first big festival, so it will be the official world premiere. I'm going to try to go --- all three of us would like to, but it comes down to travel money. We'll see. Our primary mission there? Try for Canadian TV distribution...

Sunday, July 20, 2008


We made it --- the video tape master is in the hands of PBS, having reached them on the appointed day at the appointed hour. The last two weeks actually got pretty hairy. We were actually ahead of schedule, with our sound mixer and the composer humming along, doing their tweaks, and with only a day's worth of color correction needed before the thing was done. I was about to head out of town for two weeks on an extended camping trip (I know; smacks of hubris) when the hard drive gods decided I had had it too easy for too long. I flipped on my computer, coffee in hand, to check my email, when I saw the following message:

You may be surprised to know that I didn't panic. Truth is, when you have ten (TEN!) external hard drives like I do, occasionally one of them will get momentarily confused. All that is needed is a simple restart and the problem goes away. However, this time, the error message popped up again. That's when I started to get a little worried. I tried again, and, yep, the message appeared for the third time. I looked at the faithful drives that DID appear, and by process of elimination I saw that 137 Films VOL 3 was missing in action. I started trying to remember what was on VOL 3. That's when I really started to sweat.

First of all, and most important, all the edit files were on there. It's the equivalent of, say, if I were writing a novel, the manuscript was on that drive. Yes, that's right. The film itself. Of course, I would be a fool if I hadn't made several dozen backup copies in several dozen different places, so I wasn't too worried about that.

What was more troubling was that all the color-corrected video files were on VOL 3. These were many, many gigabytes, and without having twenty external hard drives, it's just not possible to back up the video files. All the work that Tyler, our color-corrector, had done. Without getting too technical, not only would this have meant the loss of all his work, but it would have incurred dozens of hours of work on my part, tediously re-linking non-color corrected video files and then re-color correcting everything.

I tried all my usual tricks and repair software, but nothing worked. I sent out email and phone calls, asking help, and searched the internet for suggestions. I even called one of those hard drive recovery places, but their quotes were nearly more than the entire budget of our film. Finally, Andy Swindler, one of our board members, emailed to recommend Data Rescue II, some software I had never heard of. Plus, it was only $100! To make a long story short, Data Rescue II cooked along for 12 hours, and made a nearly 100% recovery of all the files. Phew. I didn't even tell Monica, my co-director, so if she ever reads this blog, it will be the first she's heard of it.

Anyway, many gray hairs and several stomach aches later, the sound files came in, and the file went out to the lab where they transfered our film to digi-beta according to all the detailed technical specs PBS provided. After a stop-start hiccup from PBS involving credit approval (they have to approve all the credits down to the period: they have many rules about funders not appearing in the "thank you" section, that a person and the person's company cannot both be thanked, that only funders at a certain level can appear in the credits, there can be no duplications in the front and end credits, no company logos may appear (including our own), etc.) we got the go ahead and the tape was made and sent off to San Francisco. Even got a little thank you email from our contact for being on time.

Then I went on my camping trip.

Friday, June 20, 2008


Some of the things PBS wants from us:
1. a "Face of the Program" image. Meaning, a portrait of whomever is going to appear as "the filmmaker." Naturally, we wanted a group portrait of the three of us.

So we went down to Fermilab again (it had been a while) and arranged with their media/PR guy to allow us into various places around the complex. The most photogenic place by far (and one that all media people seem to gravitate towards) is the Flash-Gordon/James Bond inspired "Cockroft-Walton." We took a few down below on the floor, but none of us was happy with those, so we got up on the lift and rode to the top of the machine where we took some more. By this time we had loosened up a little. We took a couple of good ones.

That was a problem, unfortunately --- we had two good ones. We arrived at an impasse. Monica and I liked one, Andrew liked the other. What do you do? We argued back and forth, but ultimately sent both of them to PBS to let them choose. (I graciously won't tell you whose favorite they picked)

So, behold, our "Face of the Program:"

Next up:
2. A "Signature Image." This is whatever image we want to appear on the DVD, in ads, press, posters, postcards, etc. Not sure how much of that they'll be doing (probably no posters or even postcards). When we went to New York for the IFP market we printed up a batch of postcards and even a poster, which is now framed in my office at Northwestern. Andrew, being quite a skilled photographer, took a batch of photos in and around Fermilab last summer. Once again, we debated which ones we liked, went back and forth, and finally agreed on a picture of Marcela Carena at her chalkboard, with a mind-numbing array of equations. She agreed to "work" for us in front of the camera, writing equations. It was pretty fascinating: it very much resembled a writer (or even a poet) standing there, thinking, then writing, then erasing, then mumbling, writing a few more equations, mumbling some more, and changing things around. It would be interesting to hook up an MRI to Marcela and one to a writer as they wrote a short story out to see if the same brain centers lit up.

Anyway, we all agreed on this picture as our "signature image." We still like it. Many people (especially women) have commented on the buff biceps Marcela is sporting on her chalk-drawing arm.

Here you go, then, our "Signature Image," complete with some text in the postcard layout:

Finally, I'll post the runner up to our signature image. We all loved this picture as well, but decided that we preferred to have a person on our image, since our story is so much about the people in pursuit of this scientific breakthrough. This, in fact, is the same Cockroft-Walton from below, looking very much as if it could just pick up and start walking, blasting away with some photon torpedoes...

So why does PBS want all of this? They have plans to promote the show, of course, which makes us all giddy inside. More on that next time!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cracking the whip

The folks at PBS are serious. Even though our show won't air until November, they wanted our final edit by ... July 3. Ahem. Cutting down our movie from 81 minutes to 53:30 is nothing to be sneezed at, so we asked for a couple more weeks, and they said "one would be better, but if you need two, then go ahead." Here's another advantage of having a co-director: I had been editing for hours and tried to write an email asking for a later delivery date. I re-read it just before I pressed "send," and thought, "I think this might sound a little whiney." So I sent it to Monica, my co-director, instead. She had a more fresh perspective, re-wrote it, and sent it out. Normally I'm a little more tactful, but 15 hours in front of a computer monitor will do that to you.

Surprisingly, the 26 minutes were much, much easier to excise than we thought they'd be. One of the producers at PBS, Lois Vossen, gave us some very shrewd cut-down notes with recommendations on what she thought should stay and what should hit the cutting room floor. We followed many of her suggestions, as we had come at some similar conclusions ourselves, but we differed on a few things. A wonderful thing about Independent Lens on PBS is that key first word: "Independent." Lois made it very clear from the onset that I.L. was a showcase for independent filmmakers, and while she would give suggestions and feedback, ultimately the editing decisions would be ours. For a small filmmaking group airing nationally for the first time, that is hugely important and a vote of confidence from PBS that we appreciate tremendously.

So, we've almost got the 53:30 cut in place. To get it to this point we've taken the equivalent of a meat cleaver to it, and now must get the scalpel back out for delicate fine-tuning before we're satisfied. With a giant revision such as this, it's easy to lose track of your subtle transitions, breathing room, and moments for reflection. The danger becomes that the piece is hacked and rearranged to the point that it feels breathless and rushed, clumsy and lurching. That's the point where we are now, evaluating for "feel" and "pacing" and "rhythm" and all those other esoteric descriptors. (I've heard that musicians make the best editors, and I believe it. Of course, being a musician myself makes me a little biased) and I'm glad to say we've gotten to this stage a couple of days earlier than I anticipated. By end of day tomorrow, I hope to have the final cut polished and gleaming, ready for the next stage.

More on that next time...

Thanks to all who wrote in with congratulations!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Ta Daaa!!

At long last, I can post the news I've been hoping for ... The Atom Smashers has been acquired by PBS!

We're going to be on Independent Lens!!

Not sure how to make that text as big as it should be since I'm practically shouting it.

Let me tell you how this all came about. Remember back in September of last year? We attended the IFP Market in New York. At the time, Independent Lens requested a meeting with us. They were one of seven or so distributors who asked to meet with us to discuss the film. At that time, we thought we were about done with the edit. We spoke to Kathryn Lo, who was extremely friendly and encouraging. She didn't commit to anything at the time, but asked us to keep in touch.

We returned from NYC excited about the whole experience and ready to launch our film. Then, we entered the "waiting zone" that so many films encounter. We entered several film festivals but weren't accepted by any of them. We had many nibbles from different distributors across the country, both big and small, but we couldn't seem to close the deal. Meanwhile, our edit went from 97 minutes down to 88, then 85. We had quite a bit of feedback and tightened the cut, making it leaner, meaner, and more succinct.

At another IFP event in Chicago, the interest started to pick up again. P.O.V., another show on PBS, saw a 7-minute trailer and requested a dvd. Nova asked for a copy. Film festivals in Europe began asking us to enter. Netflix re-affirmed their interest. The World Science Festival in New York heard that we had made a documentary with Leon Lederman and asked for clips. The Science Channel was interested. We knew we had a good film on our hands --- but we just couldn't land a deal.

Each time we had a new edit I sent a copy to Independent Lens and followed up with an email and a phone call. Finally, in April, Kathryn Lo indicated they would make a decision on a certain Friday about whether to air our film. She asked at that time if we would be opposed to cutting it down to an hour. I told her we'd prefer to keep it at the current length of 81 minutes, but that we'd go for the 53:30 cut if they did indeed want to air it. The Friday came. We were on pins and needles. It was a cold April day and I went to the Garfield Park Conservatory here in Chicago to walk around tropical plants and breathe in some warm, moist air to keep my nerves in check. Finally, Kathryn Lo called. The verdict ... they ... said... maybe! They couldn't decide! They were going to put off the decision for another month. Agonizing. The issue was they weren't sure if the film could survive the drastic cut from 85 minutes to 53. Kathryn said she wasn't sure if the film would retain its "charm" if we had to take such a chainsaw to it.

So, we waited again. In the meantime, Andrew, our producer, watched the film with some friends, and came to Monica and I with a list of suggestions. We took another long look at our baby and realized there were still some problems with the story. We got out the scalpel again, sliced and diced, and stitched it back up again. We ended up with the tightest and best edit yet, and once again I sent it off to PBS with an email and a phone call.

Finally, last week, we got the good news! We'll be broadcast sometime in November, and have been told that our film will be seen by 1.5 million viewers.

Ulp. 1.5 million viewers.

Anyway, now that we have emerged from the endless circling pattern, I'll have something to write about again. The film will be moving into broadcast and we, as a young company, will be moving into our first film's premiere. I'll begin posting again and will let you know how all this works. We're going to be drinking lots of coffee around here...

Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll check in regularly for the next phase of this long story!