Science Programming: What Works?

Last week I attended a fascinating discussion about what works – and what doesn’t work, in science programming, and what the future holds for this genre. 

In the discussion, it became apparent that the original landmarks of science programming, such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon – programmes that were designed to introduce people to scientific ideas and explore them in a compelling but stately way, were fast being eclipsed by other formats, such as The Slow Mo Guys on YouTube. Short, funny, entertaining videos on VOD platforms responded to a demand from viewers to learn interesting facts about science, without having to invest in following a narrative for a certain amount of time.

We also discussed the place of epic science documentaries, such as Blue Planet II – which literally changed the world with David Attenborough’s final message. We agreed that series such as these, with high production values, enormous budgets, and huge time investment were perfect for inspiring awe in an audience and bringing science and nature to the whole family. Series such as these buck the SVOD trend: people were excited to set aside time on a given day to sit and watch these beautiful stories.

So does science programming have to be a choice between big budget epic series and fun short YouTube videos? Not necessarily, was the answer we came to. There is one thing that will make a science programme stand out without having bucketloads of money or a quirky format, and that’s having a brilliant, compelling, passionate presenter, like Brian Cox. We all love watching and listening to someone who is clearly inspired by what they are talking about, and that human engagement, that sense of connection, can still be the crowning glory of a science programme. 

Who is your favourite science presenter? And who do you think is the rising star who will inspire the next generation of scientists? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

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Science Programming: What Works?

One: [Don’t] Pick up the Phone

I’m not afraid to admit that when I started out in TV, I was absolutely terrified of picking up the phone. I’m also starting to realise that I wasn’t alone in this! 

The trouble is, picking up the phone is infinitely preferable to sending an email. Whether it’s to get a quick answer, or discuss something that’s a bit too complicated to write out, or just to create a personal connection, plucking up the courage to make that phone call is often worth the initial anxiety. 

So here’s how I got over my fear of phone calls, and I’ll give a few examples of where you should pick up the phone even before you send that introductory email.

My two biggest fears were that I would not introduce myself properly, and that I would forget to say something important during the phone conversation. The introduction needs to quickly tell whoever you’re on the phone to who you are, where you’re calling from and why you’re ringing – and sometimes, when you’re asking someone for something weird or specific, or if your programme is a bit complicated to explain, that short introduction can be tricky! Often I would listen out to how other people in the office introduced themselves, and then copy their opening spiel. But if that’s not an option, then I would just stick to the formula of:

Hello, my name is [name], I’m calling from [production company], and we’re looking for a [contributor/location/prop] for a new [programme/series] we’re making about [general topic]. 

In order to remember everything I needed to mention in that phone conversation, I used to prepare myself a little post-it note with the following things on it:

  • The person’s name (if you don’t know their name, make a note of the name of the person who picks up the phone, and make sure to repeat their name at the end of the call – e.g. thank you so much Brenda, you’ve been really helpful today!
  • Their phone number
  • An alternative phone number
  • Main question
  • Details needed e.g. date/time/email address/tech

After enough post-it note phone calls, this checklist became a mental one, and the calls started to feel a lot more natural! Another thing I found helpful was to imagine that whoever the person on the end of the phone is, they could become your new best friend by the end of the call. So it helps to engage them in the friendliest manner possible – even borderline flirtatious  😉

Always pick up the phone if you need a quick answer, such as a location for the next day’s shoot. If you’re post-it prepared, you could have it sorted within 5 minutes! It also helps to brief contributors over the phone, as you can discuss the structure and topics of their interview or contribution in more detail and make them feel involved, rather than sending them a list of things in an email. And if someone’s being difficult on email, or has raised a sticky problem, absolutely pick up the phone and talk it through with them straight away.

Let me know if this helps you with phone manner fear – and comment if you have any other techniques that work well for you!

One: [Don’t] Pick up the Phone

Edit Producing

Now that I’m an Assistant Producer, I’m looking to develop the skills that will help me to get the knowledge I’ll need when I reach the next step on the career ladder: a Producer/Director. There are two roles that are useful as intermediary positions between AP and PD, and those are Edit Producer and Story Producer. For now, the one I want to focus on is Edit Producer.

Edit Producers sit in the edit with the editor and put together the programme in a way that most effectively tells its story. It can be quite a tricky role: sometimes you’ll realise that the script doesn’t quite work when you finally get to putting it all together, sometimes you’ll have to think outside the box to find a better way to tell the story, and sometimes you’ll realise you don’t have enough material! As the edit producer, you’ll have to think of a way to solve all these problems within the time frame, the budget, and the requirements of the commissioner. 

When I edited my short film, Painting Freedom, I experienced those challenges. The first ideas I had for how to put together the film really didn’t work, and after getting some feedback from a few director friends, I realised that I had to do a better job of edit producing this film!

The first thing I did was go through all the footage we had, including some that I’d initially disregarded. It’s important to know exactly what your resources are. I then went through all the interviews I’d done with the artist, Hannah, and transcribed everything she said. This is a really handy thing to do, because when you’re looking through material, it’s a lot quicker to read than to watch! 

The next thing I did was to divide the story into five beats. Sometimes you’ll need more than this, but most stories can be easily summarised into five bullet points. The beats you should be looking to hit are:

  • What’s the main event for example
    • the women are painting their portraits
    • the spaceship is launching
    • the king is dead
  • What’s the background for example
    • they’ve survived ISIS captivity
    • the spaceship is looking for life on Mars
    • was the king murdered?
  • What’s the twist for example
    • they’ve never painted before
    • the astronauts are not sure they’ll get back alive
    • the king’s brother wants to seize the throne
  • What’s the next development for example
    • the paintings are exhibited at the Houses of Parliament
    • the spaceship computer starts malfunctioning
    • the king’s son beats his uncle to the coronation
  • What’s the resolution for example
    • the paintings inspire DFID to help the Yazidi women
    • the astronauts fix the computer and make it to Mars
    • the king’s son banishes his uncle to Corsica

I then looked to fill those beats with content, both audio and visual, and laid it out in a simple table with two columns, VISUAL on the left, AUDIO on the right. In VISUAL, I would put short descriptions of the clips I wanted to use, and in AUDIO, I would put the text of either Hannah’s interview transcripts, or my commentary.

And then it was time to put everything together! I gave the editor this ‘paper edit’, as it’s called, and we put everything in place. Over the course of doing this, we would sometimes change our minds about which visual worked best, and we cut down the audio significantly. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings for the sake of a better story!

The final, and arguably the most important step, is the music. In an ideal world, you would want to get a composer to write a score specially for your documentary, but in the real world of tighter and tighter budgets, that’s not always possible! Most companies will have their preferred music archive (ask the production manager which one they use), but for independent projects I love freemusicarchive.org. It’s got a fantastic range of tracks that are all free to use! 

So now that I’ve edit produced my own short film, I’d like to find the opportunity to learn about edit producing longer, more complicated films. I’m going to start by practising paper edits, and I’ll look for opportunities to shadow some of the edit producers on my current project!

Edit Producing

Across the Pond

Having spent just over a year working on Channel 5 projects, 2018-19 is set to be the year of the American projects! I can now count PBS, Science Channel and History Channel in my credits.

So what’s the difference between producing programmes for the UK and producing them for the US? Not much in terms of the basic production process, but the big differences can be felt in the time zones and in the target audience.

The time zones are the trickier ones to deal with. I was working on a large-scale documentary series for the Science Channel, and we had several shoots going on simultaneously in the US across different time zones. It meant that the mornings were quiet, and were usually the times when we’d have our production team meetings, but as soon as the East Coast woke up, right up to when the West Coast woke up at the end of the day, our schedules became rather busy! It resulted in quite a few late nights in the office making calls to LA, and at the end of the project I suggested that we trial a change of working hours to match our contributors – which was well received.

As for the target audience – this changes with every programme and every channel. It is often helpful to put a name and a face to the target audience, such as ITV’s Auntie Beryl! Then as we read each script, watch each edit or interview each contributor, we can keep asking ourselves if our target audience character will like/understand/be engaged by the content that we are creating.

If you are about to start on a US project, my advice to you would be to find out how much production will happen in the US, and also find out from your series producer what the target audience is like. That way, you will be able to offer better editorial feedback on target audience relevance – and you’ll be able to plan for the possibility of work eating into your evenings if filming is taking place in the US!

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to learning more about the vast and fascinating American market.

Across the Pond

Drama Reconstruction

Three days. Two nights. One country house. A lot of fun.

That’s basically what happened last week. We did a drama reconstruction shoot at a wonderful house in Suffolk; we stayed overnight in their bedrooms and filmed in their drawing room, dining room, library, and another couple of bedrooms. I was responsible for the costumes, which involved a lot of trying on Victorian dresses and working out which to put on first, the petticoat or the corset. Then there was advising the art department on props, a last-minute dash to find a Queen Victoria costume and a fiddly time learning how to tie ghillie brogues (I failed and pinned them into place).

But it all worked out in the end! Even though we were shooting drama, the atmosphere had a very ‘documentary’ feel about it: everyone chipped in, helped each other, made suggestions, found solutions, and although we were all tired by the end, it felt more like the end of an active holiday than a shoot.

I loved the whole experience, and I think the footage looks pretty good too. I would love to try my hand at a bit more drama reconstruction, as I think, if done well, it can really bring a documentary to life. Let’s see what the next job holds!

Drama Reconstruction

How to Recce – things to look out for

Throughout my last few years in TV, I’ve set out several times to recce filming locations – usually in order to film interviews with experts there. Over time, I’ve learned about the things to look out for when you’re checking a new venue – and for any of you about to embark on your first recce, I’ve listed them here.

  1. Space. Is the room big enough for you to sit your contributor down, have some space behind them, set up lights, put all the DoP’s kit in a corner, AND have space for you and the director(s) to sit? You’ll always need more space than you think!
  2. Set-ups. If you are planning to interview more than one person in the space, how many different set-ups can you do? How will the background look different for each contributor?
  3. Light. Can the curtains be drawn? Are there blinds? Especially in British weather, with our unreliable bouts of sunshine, it is often easier for the DoP to block out the natural light and light it him/herself. That way the interview achieves consistency, particularly if different parts of the interview are going to be cut together.
  4. Noise. Is it next to a main road? Can you hear trains? Is it on a flight path? Are the windows double glazed? Is it near a building site? Is there anything else happening in the venue on that day that might disrupt your interview because of noise? You either need complete silence or a dull consistent rumble of background traffic – but sudden noises will severely disrupt your interview and waste everyone’s time.
  5. Period features/background. If your documentary is about a certain period of history, you might want a background that fits your aesthetic. So for example, for my last two projects I’ve been looking for Victorian era houses/clubs/hotels – or at least places that are decorated with that comfortable, period aesthetic. But for other productions, I’ve been looking for locations with a classical background – clean lines, columns, statues etc.

Good luck with your next recce! If you think about all those things next time you visit a venue and there aren’t any problems, then you’re on to a winner – and you should probably make a note of the venue. It’ll most likely come in useful again!

How to Recce – things to look out for

Radio Etiquette

One of the other things I learned on the drama shoot was appropriate radio etiquette. Yes, that is a thing. And there are rules. And if you break the rules, people get cross with you. Here are a few rules I learnt the hard way:

  1. When you’re asking to speak to someone, say your name, then “to/for”, then their name. So for example, “Zenia for Tom”.
  2. If someone asks for you and you hear them, respond by saying “Go for [your name]”. For example, “Go for Zenia”
  3. Over-communicate. If someone asks you to do something over the radio, acknowledge them (by saying “copy that”), do the thing, then tell them when the thing is done.
  4. Any conversations that are longer than simple commands or questions should happen on a different channel. To do that, ask for the person you need, say the channel number you want to switch to, then switch to that channel and wait for them to come in. Don’t forget to go back to Channel 1 when you’re done.
  5. Code for the loo is ten-one. Technically, ten-two means…well…a number two, but no one ever says that. Too much detail.
  6. If you hear someone asking for you over the radio, but you’re busy when they ask for you, just wait till you’re finished and then say “Go again for [your name]”.
  7. If you don’t hear anything over the radio for a while, there’s probably something wrong with it. Check that your earpiece is in correctly, and that you’re on the right channel.
  8. To start up your radio in the morning and let everyone know you’re on comms, pick up the radio, fix on your earpiece, and say “radio check”. Repeat this whenever you make a change to your radio. The response to “radio check” is “good check”.
  9. If you can, go for the over-ear D ring connection, rather than the in-ear ‘covert’ connection. That way, you won’t feel half-deaf, and your ear won’t get really itchy.
  10. Radios, funnily enough, emit radiation, so try not to put them near your kidneys or your ovaries. This sound piece of advice was given to me early one morning by the 2nd AD. Try to wear the radio, therefore on your hip, and make sure you wear something that will support it (basically, wear jeans – slotting a heavy radio on to thin leggings can get awkward, as I found out. Also pockets are just generally very useful on shoots).
Radio Etiquette