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Producer's Notes Page 1 2

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.

 

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Shots that make is all worthwhile - photo by Jonathan Renouf
Director's Notes

Milla Harrison, director on Rough Science Four, shares her experiences of working on the series.