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?