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!