TV Crews at NASA Goddard
Throughout this summer, I have escorted four television crews on the NASA Goddard campus. This was exciting because before this, I had never seen any part of what goes into making a science TV show! All four were making science documentary programs, but all four had significant differences in production style, crew sizes, and interviewing techniques.
Production Company: Left/Right
Network: History Channel H2
Producer: Sarah Holm Johansen
Shoot Date: June 20
Interviewees Included: Dick Nafzger
Shooting Locations: Interview in front of our studio green screen, show and tell in the basement storage room and tape library
Synopsis: This episode was about the “Apollo 11 missing tapes,” which was a search for the best-quality recordings of the telecast of the first Moon landing.
This was the largest production crew of the four, with six people (the maximum one person is allowed to escort at Goddard) – a producer, assistant producer, associate producer, director of photography, audio guy, and production assistant (the most thankless of positions). The producers were all women, which was nice to see.
As you might expect with a show for the History Channel, this had a particularly “television entertainment” kind of feel. There were glamorously styled dolly portrait shots of Dick standing in the atrium, reenactment shots of Dick finding “lost” Apollo tapes by walking down the stairs into the basement and swiping a badge to get into the tape archives and storage room, and super dramatic lighting and filming of an old tape on a table with a steamed-flat black tablecloth. According to Left/Right’s website, they “blend the the conventions of documentary filmmaking with the look and feel of scripted television.” It was all really fun to watch.
Despite the theatrics and the History Channel’s reputation for lacking informative programming, Sarah seemed genuinely interested in Dick’s story and the whole crew seemed excited to be at NASA. I remember admiring Sarah’s interviewing technique, and how she was able to ask for sound bites to be repeated in more concise ways.
Hubble 25th Anniversary
Production Company: Bigger Bang Productions
Network: National Geographic Channel
Producer: Christopher Riley
Shoot Date: July 22 and 23
Interviewees Included: Ed Weiler, Charlie Pellerin, John Troeltzsch, Frank Cepollina
Shooting Locations: In our studio with their own set-up, in front of the hyperwall, and in the Space Telescope Operations Control Center (STOCC)
Synopsis: In April, Hubble will be celebrating its 25th anniversary since being launched in 1990. This documentary will celebrate everything Hubble’s done in the past 25 years.
There was a lot of anticipation here at Goddard for this TV shoot – “The producer of ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’ is coming!” – so I was surprised to find it was only a two-man crew. They even asked me to help out a little bit with their equipment, which I thought with most productions was a no-no because of liability issues. (“Are we paying you to be a cameraman? No! Then don’t touch that!”)
Chris actually comes from a geology background, has a PhD and everything, but is definitely now firmly in the communication and media production world. He was very focused on getting the human aspect of the Hubble story, and boy did he get some great stories. The initial failure of Hubble’s mirror, and the subsequent manned servicing missions, were tightly linked to NASA’s overall success as an agency, a notion that weighed deeply on some of Hubble’s key players. I’m excited to stay tuned to National Geographic next year to see how this all plays out!
Xploration Outer Space
Production Company: Steve Rotfeld Productions
Network: Fox and Hulu
Producer: Matt Howley
Shoot Date: August 13 and 14
Interviewees Included: Jim Irons, Noah Petro, Julie Mcenery, John Keller
Shooting Locations: In front of the hyperwall, in our studio with our TV monitor as the back-drop, in the LRO control room, and in a clean room
Synopsis: This is a half-hour show in a two-hour block of programming on Saturday mornings called Xploration Station. They were filming portions of a variety of episodes, including one about extreme space weather, one about the Moon, and one about Earth-observing satellites.
This show has four significant differences from the other three shows: it’s aimed at a younger audience, it’s for a network station, it has a host, and it is currently airing! (The show premiered a few weeks ago.)
I was really excited to see a hosted show in action, because I was curious what that would look like. In this case, the hosting gig consisted of sometimes being an on-camera interviewer, sometimes walking and talking with the scientist as the scientist explained something, sometimes memorizing a few lines that she would say directly to the camera in front of a particular location, and sometimes being on camera while walking into the locations. And as a co-producer, the host was also helping to develop the content. It’s a lot to think about at once – steering the conversations, responding, looking good while doing it, and keeping the overall show and episode framework in mind.
The host was Emily Calandrelli, whom the production company found just by searching the internet. They were looking for a young woman with a background in space sciences who would have a good on-screen presence. “Hey, what about Katrina?” you might ask. (It’s definitely not something I would personally ask, because, you know, I’m not that self-promoting…) It seems I wasn’t as easy to find in such a search, and I really didn’t have any videos up showcasing myself. I’m changing that now, though! Emily, meanwhile, is perfect for this role. She has accolades and accomplishments galore, she has that whole “MIT grad” thing going for her, she’s one smart cookie, and she’s amazing at doing the interviews and interacting with the scientists.
This was a fun five-person crew – the producer, the assistant producer, the host, and two cameramen. At the end of the second day, the producer led the crew in a round of Katrina trivia, quizzing everyone on things they had learned about me throughout their visit. Unfortunately, the things they had learned about me consisted of my somewhat immature taste in music and that I was dressed nicely to “seem professional.” This means I made a good impression, right?
“My Million Dollar Idea” but that’s just the working title and it doesn’t really fit the show so they’re probably going to change it…
Production Company: Nutopia
Network: Smithsonian Channel
Producer: Jon Davenport
Shoot Date: August 25 and 26
Interviewees Included: Former Astronaut Kathryn Thornton, Malcolm Neidner, Nick and Lydia Spitzer, Frank Cepollina
Shooting Locations: In the Space Telescope Operations Control Center (STOCC), in the Visitor Center and the adjacent rocket garden, in our studio disguised as a living room, in the Robotics Laboratory building, and by the observing platform by the High Bay Clean Room
Synopsis: The show is about innovative ideas and the people behind them. This shoot was for a space telescopes segment, part of an episode on optics-related inventions.
This was another two-man shoot, and it was for a segment of an episode of a show that doesn’t have a name yet. This shoot also focused on Hubble, but also brought in James Webb, and was trying to showcase the revolutionary idea of space telescopes.
The son and daughter of Lyman Spitzer flew in to talk about how their dad was one of the people who came up with this idea.
This crew had a particular affinity for filming signs. And for saying, “Did you tweet that? She didn’t tweet that. It must not have been important enough.” And for telling stories about past filming experiences that I probably shouldn’t mention here… You’ll have to ask the cameraman himself for that hot tub story.
So that’s my summer of TV crews. To any science-related television or film crews – please consider coming to Goddard! We have tons of great locations and people here, and I’d love to tag along on your shoot!