By Jonathan Renouf, producer of Rough Science 4
It's the eve of filming day one of the new series of
Rough Science. We're in California in the small town
of Lone Pine. Early next morning, we're due to get in
a helicopter which will fly us to our base, an abandoned
silver mine on the edge of the Death Valley National
Park. We're tucking in to dinner and everything seems
fine except for one small detail; the helicopter hasn't
arrived. Abbi - the series' production coordinator -
phones the pilot. There's no answer. We take this as
good news - hopefully he is too busy piloting his chopper
under rapidly darkening skies. Tension mounts. Long
after dark we get a call; he's made it. I drive down
to Lone Pine "airport" (a runway and a couple
of hangars) and spot our man striding up the road. He
has a hair-raising tail to tell; the winds were so strong
over the desert that he was forced to land and hang
on to the rotor blades to keep his machine on the ground.
Eventually the wind abated enough to continue.
Next morning it's cloudy and I am seething with frustration;
we've been in California for almost 10 days and it's
been nothing but hot and sunny. Now my plans for dramatic
opening shots lit by a low angle sun raking across the
desert have been stymied. Whilst I seethe, Kate Humble
is wandering around practising her opening piece to
camera - amazingly she can memorise the words in minutes,
and often ad lib an improvement into the bargain. Our
(very Californian) pilot gathers us together for a safety
briefing; he concludes with the memorably bizarre instruction;
"Stay frosty!" For the next few hours we concentrate
hard on filming whilst staying as "frosty"
as we can. The sun comes out and we get a precious few
minutes of aerial shots with the desert colours fired
up by the early morning light. I send one of the directors
off driving on cross country dirt tracks and we swoop
all around the car at Joshua tree height getting our
master driving shots. Flying so low like that it feels
like we own the desert completely - it's utterly exhilarating.
I finally start to relax when I hear Kate doing her
first on camera discussion with the scientists later
that morning. It sounds just like Rough Science, and
at last I know that all the planning is paying off.
There are a lot of laughs, science is suddenly fun,
and the combination of challenges feels about right.
The first day wasn't our only encounter with unseasonable
weather. The third challenge
- to make a water cooled spacesuit and go for a "moonwalk"
in the heat of Death Valley - is almost ruined by the
weather. We wake on day three of filming ready for an
early start but the road to the mine is blocked by the
police. Sound recordist Rob goes to investigate and
reports that a very stern policewoman says that the
road has been "taken out" by the storms. The
traffic is backing up and no-one knows when it will
be clear. An already tough day is getting to be near
impossible. But just before lunch we get the all clear;
apparently "taken out" slightly exaggerated
the scale of the damage to the road.