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Mars Needs Docs! Red Planet Now the Subject of Science Nonfiction

By Tamara Krinsky

An animated image of one of the two Rovers used in the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project. Photo: NASA.

It used to be that when you went to see a movie about Mars, you assumed it was science fiction. Tales of the red planet involved little green men, ancient canals and doomsday radio broadcasts. However, with the arrival of the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers on Mars in early 2004, the fourth planet from the sun has become a hot topic among factual filmmakers. A number of docs are currently in production, with the blessings and full cooperation of NASA and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratories), the lab where Spirit and Opportunity were constructed.

Projects in the works include two NOVA programs (one has already aired, the other is due at year's end), a documentary by photographer Norman Seeff about creativity among the scientists, Discovery Canada's Race to Mars--a season of hybrid docudrama programming--and several independent and student doc shorts. Additionally, Mars chat boards are abuzz with rumors of a Disney IMAX film directed by George Butler (Endurance: Shakleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition) and an NHK project in HD.

NOVA's MARS Dead or Alive aired on January 4, 2004--almost immediately after the first Rover, Spirit, landed on the Martian surface. The program is a behind-the-scenes look the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project, and follows the scientists and engineers throughout the months of building, testing and finally launching the Rovers. Writer/producer/director Mark Davis is currently working on a follow-up piece, which picks up the mission where the first program left off.

The program follows the traditional NOVA style of explaining the science in terms that the casual observer can understand, for, as Davis put it, "They are science documentaries, and there is a certain attention that has to be paid to how things work. But NOVA has also become more and more interested in the human elements of [its] stories." Therefore, in addition to the explanatory animation and informative interviews, audiences get to know the scientists, witnessing their excitement and unique ways of dealing with stress and hope for the project.

One of the key figures in Dead or Alive is planetary scientist Stephen Squyres of Cornell University, the driving force behind the mission. His goal for MER? To find out whether or not there have ever been conditions on Mars suitable for life. Squyres is a fantastic documentary character; he is excited, imaginative and intense, yet able to laugh under pressure and keep his teams motivated throughout the long, often discouraging development and testing process. Recalls Davis, "When I first talked to him, I thought, 'What a great character he is to help tell such a visually inaccessible story.'"

Perhaps two of the most surprising "characters" in the program are the Rovers themselves. Davis says that thinking about them as actual creatures was unavoidable. "Everybody seemed to relate to them that way. They do so much autonomously; there was a huge attachment to the machines when they were built." According to Davis, the Rovers even seemed to possess distinct personalities. Spirit had an older child's complex, throwing a fit and losing communication when Opportunity, the "younger sibling," landed and stole some of the limelight.

Filming at JPL presented several challenges, including the common documentary quandary of figuring out where to be at any given moment to catch the most interesting development in the story. The campus was huge, and Davis and his team couldn't be everywhere at once. It became a bit easier during the filming of the second piece, for once the Rovers had landed, there were very few locations. However, with scientists working round the clock, the challenge shifted from "where" to "when." Davis couldn't afford to shoot 24 hours a day, so choosing the right moments became particularly important.

Another challenge with the new piece lies in finding the story. Dead or Alive was inherently dramatic, as it was built around the problem of getting there, and the tension escalated with each mechanical and technological problem, culminating in the climactic moment of a successful landing. The currently untitled follow-up program, on the other hand, is about the day-to-day progress of the mission, and doesn't quite have the immediate spectacle of the launches. Instead, the drama comes from unusual places, such as the loss of communication with the first Rover, and the moments of tension as scientists and engineers are forced to cooperate despite differing needs and opinions.

Another challenge for the new doc was structural in nature. The first piece used a combination of photo-realistic animation pieces by Dan Maas that had been created for JPL and an additional animation piece that Maas created specifically for NOVA. The animation is both wonderful to look at and intrinsic in telling the story of the landings to layman audiences. Much of the story in the second piece is about how the scientists and engineers' view of Mars is revealed little by little by the new pictures they receive from the Rovers. The animation looks so authentic it was hard to use it and not have it disrupt that feeling of "getting Mars one piece at a time," according to Davis. "It was a challenge to figure out how to use both the real pictures and Maas' animation."

Another project that made use of Maas' animation was a 28-minute HD student documentary by Mark Andrews, who is currently working towards his MFA in filmmaking at Montana State University. The school has a new degree program in science and natural history filmmaking, with the specific goal of graduating directors and producers who will have the knowledge to create accurate and interesting programs that advance the public understanding of science.

Andrews' piece is centered around the research and fieldwork of several scientists exploring how and where to look for life on Mars. In addition to the Maas animation, Andrews incorporates archival footage and interviews in his work. "I knew I would finish it after the Rovers landed," he asserts, "so I concentrated on the next step to make sure it wasn't outdated." He shot on location with the scientists in Death Valley and Mono Lake in the Sierras east of Yosemite in California. Both are extreme environments that are similar to what Mars may have been like when it was warm and wet.

"One of the biggest surprises to me while shooting was this idea that there are microbes living underground that eat and breathe rock," Andrews reflects. "They could be anywhere." Equally surprising to him was the idea that scientists don't really know how to define life. Said Andrews, "That's one of the problems in looking for extraterrestrial life--they don't have an absolute definition of the term."

Another short doc about Mars recently played at the 2004 AFI SilverDocs Festival, and is currently being shown at museums and planetariums, including the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Director Barry Kimm's Future Frontiers: Mars, a 22-minute piece shot in high definition video, provides a candid look at the MER mission through the lives of the scientists and engineers behind the machines, and explores some of the difficulties facing NASA's project. For example, to contact one of the Rovers takes scientists 10 minutes, and another 10 minutes to see if the Rover responded. The film was produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota and TWIST Films in association with NASA and Cornell University.

Further insight into how the scientists think and work can be found in Norman Seeff's upcoming documentary. The renowned music photographer is working on a project that focuses on the creative processes of scientists. The yet-to-be-named documentary is part of a larger series tentatively titled The Power and the Passion to Create, which examines the foundations of the dynamics of creativity.

Seeff, formerly a medical doctor in South Africa, began his creative career as a music photographer when he came to the United States. He has shot hundreds of album covers for everyone from The Rolling Stones to Ray Charles to Joni Mitchell. He began to film the photography sessions, growing more and more interested in the internal dynamics of the creative process. Eventually, he began filming people from all walks of life--dancers, actors, athletes, politicians, scientists, etc.--in the attempt to distill the underlying commonality of innovative, successful and visionary thinking.

Seeff shot at JPL during the mid-development stage of the mission and during the landing itself, capturing the engineers, scientists and managers on film. Sound designer Kent Gibson, who worked with Seeff on the project, says that part of the focus was on how one fosters creativity in a huge, government-sponsored organization and keeps a team stimulated in light of all the failures that were part of the earlier efforts.

One of the reasons it has been possible to make these films is the unusual level of access granted by JPL. When Blaine Baggett joined the company in 1999 as executive manager of its newly created Office of Communication and Education, suddenly a documentarian was heading the media division of a space exploration company. Baggett had produced many science and technology documentaries for PBS, including Spaceflight, The Astronomers, John Glenn: American Hero and several NOVA programs, and won two national Emmys, the Peabody Award and the Alfred P. DuPont Award for Journalism for his production of The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century.

Baggett's filmmaking background has had a clear effect on the output of docs on Mars. "NOVA's Dead or Alive project sprang directly out of my relationship with the executive producer of NOVA [Paula Apsell] because I used to produce for them," says Baggett. "They've got a great track record."

When Baggett arrived at JPL five years ago, he was particularly interested in allocating more resources towards television and the Internet, and in the growing convergence of the two media. He invested more in production resources, personnel and equipment, specifically for HD television. "We wanted to cover whatever happened with the latest technology, whether the missions failed or succeeded," Baggett asserts.

Discovery Canada's Race to Mars project is a good example of this convergence. A year ago, Discovery announced a contest for an undefined project on the red planet. The company received 40 pitches, narrowed those down to four finalists and eventually chose Galafilm's proposal as the winner. Says Galafilm's executive producer, Arnie Gelbart, "They were putting a lot of seed money behind the project, so we knew it had to be on a grand scale." Race to Mars will consist of an entire season of interrelated pieces, complemented by an online Web presence, and is planned for broadcast in 2006 on a variety of Discovery channels worldwide.

Anchoring the venture will be four one-hour HD docudramas that tell the story of the first manned mission to the red planet in the year 2018. Gelbart explains that Galafilm is thinking of the piece as a documentary expedition film set in the future. Real science is being used to create probable scenarios, with the cooperation of NASA and the European Space Agency.

Another component of the Race to Mars project is a The Right Stuff-style reality show, in which everyday people will be put through astronaut training for the 2018 mission. The training will be scientifically based, informed by the research done by the American, European and Russian space programs. For example, "contestants" will have to undergo testing on the psychological effects of long-range travel.

The purest documentary components of the Race to Mars project are 12 half-hour pieces that explain the real science behind the mission. Each investigative doc will focus on a specific area, including technology, medical issues and crewing, with scientists looking at where we are now and where they expect us to be in 2018.

The online component of the project will include additional "Web exclusive" story content, further exploration of science and technology, and related activities and games. "This project is something that might push this whole thing forward," Gelbart maintains. "[President George W.] Bush announced that NASA is now interested in going to Mars, the Europeans are committed to going in 2030 and the Chinese have a secret project no one knows about. Doing all the research with NASA and the European Space Agency is forcing them all to see the different possibilities of how something like this might actually work."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of International Documentary.