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OU on the BBC: Rough Science 4 Death Valley - Producer's Notes

Updated Tuesday, 29th August 2006

Series producer Jonathan Renouf describes the difficulties - and rewards - of bringing Rough Science to the screen in the producer's notes.

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Sunset over death valley - photo by Jonathan Renouf Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

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.

 
Sunset over death valley - photo by Jonathan Renouf Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Everyone works like crazy to get the show back on track, and we make it to Death Valley just as the sun is setting. The scene that follows - with Ellen dressed in a white suit and wrapped in copper tubing whilst pulling a Heath Robinson cart behind her sprouting silver foil pipes - is one of the most memorable of the series. Watched by some bemused German tourists and a flabbergasted National Park ranger, Ellen sets off across the desert. As the wooden wheels fall off the cart one by one, she continues dragging it across the salt playa, whilst reporting back breathlessly to Kate by walkie-talkie. Everyone - even the tourists - dissolves in hysterics. The film crews try not to laugh on camera, but the scientists and Kate are beyond help - almost unable to speak. The ranger confirms that no more bizarre sight has been seen in all his years at the park.

Other highlights from the series? The solar balloon in programme five (aerial surveyor). I was so sure that it wasn't going to work that I was strolling back to the cars telling the others that it was a failure. Then there were screams of excitement behind me, and I turned around to see the balloon rising gently into the morning sky. Miraculous camerawork from Keith caught the scene. And the water rockets in programme six - never have I heard so much insane cackling in one day.

Before we could start filming we spent hours - days even - negotiating for filming permits. The Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the City of Los Angeles, the State of California, the Department of Water and Power, the Forest Service; the list went on and on. The US protects its wilderness fiercely, and the discussions are sometimes tortuous. Even though we are an "educational" programme, some organisations want to charge us as if we were making a car commercial. We have to supply lists of the plants that Ellen may need (before she knows herself), and the rocks that Iain may want to chip at. Exact locations have to be supplied weeks in advance, so I try and explain that this is a "reality" show, and our scientists have to have the freedom to act on the spur of the moment. In the end we negotiate enough flexibility to get most of what we want, but it is a long, tiring, frustrating process.

Yet that is not my main memory of filming. I remember two things above all else. First, the privilege of filming in one of the most extraordinary places on Earth. The desert - and some of the people who live there - won me over completely. Just one example; driving home at the end of each day we cruised through an endless Joshua tree "forest", with the sun setting over the mountains ahead. The majesty of the scenery was beyond words. Commuting in to the urban desert of White City in West London is something of a let-down in comparison. And the second memory is of working with a team who made this series the best fun I've had making television in a very long while. Hopefully some of the sense of excitement, fun and energy that we felt whilst we were filming has translated onto the screen.

Rough Science aims to show that science is fun and practical - it certainly felt like that when we were filming.

Rough Science 4: Death Valley in more depth:

 

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