Independent producer / director Ruth Berry creates for Terra Mater Studios and PBS’s NOVA series, a fast-track special that navigates the many cultural challenges to successful field production in Africa while revealing that space exploration is for everyone – not just for the wealthiest countries.
Watch our MIPCOM 2022 Coproduction Case Study panel video here.
- Astronomer Maram Kaire’s ambition is to build a space agency in Senegal.
- He edges closer to his goal when NASA invites him to gather data for its Lucy Mission to explore asteroids near Jupiter.
- The asteroid observation event in Senegal coincides with the Lucy Mission launch at Cape Canaveral.
- But Maram’s stakes are high: he must convince Senegal’s traditional Muslim leaders that science and religion can be aligned for the benefit of the entire country.
Maram Kaire in Istanbul
Terra Mater Studios, NOVA and Ruth Berry are committed to programs that are both entertaining and based on deeply curated science.
Terra Mater Studios
- Specializes in premium factual programming.
- A Red Bull subsidiary based in Vienna, Austria since 2011.
- Portfolio: 300+ hours.
- Sabine Holzer’s Specialist Factual department produces 16-20 hours / year
- TMS has coproduced 2 programs with NOVA, 40 with PBS’s NATURE series, and 2 with WNET Group’s Secrets of the Dead.
- Other TMS unscripted departments are dedicated to factual entertainment, feature documentaries and Online/YouTube content.
- Read more about TMS here
- Launched in 1974, NOVA is PBS’s most watched returning series.
- Broadcasts 20 new programs each year, created approximately as follows:
- Co-productions: 10
- NOVA original productions: 8
- Acquisitions: 2
- Executive producers: Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt
- Watch NOVA’s Meet the Executive presentation at Sunny Side of the Doc
- Producer/Director/Writer, Ruth has enjoyed a development and production relationship with Terra Mater Studios for 12 years. She is based in Germany.
- She focuses on factual content, particularly science and natural history, “always looking for unusual stories that I can tell in creative ways.”
- Her most recent productions include Cute Little Killers about Australia’s carnivorous marsupials, The Pangolin and the Pandemic (for TMS), and Secrets in the Scat about the science of animal poop, from krill and wombats to the blue whale. Ruth’s partners on Secrets were TMS, NOVA and Arte France.
- “I had worked on two NOVA projects, so I’m confident pitching them directly.”
- Late in 2020, Ruth was researching the European Space Agency’s GAIA project to build the biggest star map of the galaxy.
- She contacted astronomer Marc Buie who uses the GAIA map to predict “occultations,” when the orbit of an asteroid passes by a star.
- Ruth then found an article about an occultation observed in Senegal.
- The article grabbed her attention because Marc Buie was involved, and it mentioned the Senegalese astronomer Maram Kaire.
- Maram’s involvement in a planned joint Senegal / NASA mission offered the unquestioned credibility sought by science programmers.
- She contacted Marc Buie again to learn more about Maram, who she hoped could be the compelling character driving the story.
- By December 2020, Ruth’s Zoom conversations with Maram convinced her that this was an engaging and high stakes science story, and to which she had unique access (read more about the science below).
- Ruth understood that PBS and public broadcasters worldwide are focused on diversifying their stories and talent, and therefore it was an auspicious moment to pitch a story that links NASA’s Lucy mission with African scientists.
- After many exchanges with Maram, she saw him as such a strong character that he could become the center of the story.
INITIAL PITCH / REACTION
- “I wrote up the story and in March 2021 pitched it to NOVA’s executive producers Chris Schmidt and Julia Cort.”
- “They loved the originality of the African Space Science story, and its multi-cultural dimension.”
- Once NOVA showed interest, Ruth approached Sabine at Terra Mater.
Chris Schmidt says:
“NOVA is almost 50 years old, and for the entire history of NOVA we’ve made films and stories that take place outside of the United States.
The classic science story outside of the U.S. is, let’s say an archeology program like an investigation of the builders of the pyramids in Egypt. Something like that.
In the past, films like that have tended to focus on American or European scientists who travel to faraway places and do science there.
For the last several years, we’ve really been focusing on trying to not tell the story from the perspective of the outsider, but to try to tell the story from the perspective of the insider. And to represent that culture in a way that is participatory for the people who live in that culture.”
Terra Mater Buys In
Sabine Holzer (center above at the MIPCOM 2022 panel) says:
“We enjoy a long existing sisterhood with Ruth. We’ve done several films together. This time, it was the usual pitch from her: “We need to talk! I have an idea.“
And I was really intrigued because it’s fresh; it’s new; it’s got a different angle. It’s a science show but with a really strong character who stands out.
And it’s African, and not one of these classical science films where you present hardcore science topics over 50 minutes.
It’s a very personal story and that was fresh to me.
Our decision was of course dependent on its potential appeal to other copro partners or buyers. As soon as we get confirmation from NOVA that they are in, I do my math and I know pretty well what I can get from other co-producers, or from pre-sales in the course of production, and what we might get through post-sales when the film is finished.
In this case, I automatically said “Yes! We’re going to do it, because I think this film is important, and it has to be shown.””
- In October 2021 there was time-critical filming event on which the success of the production would depend: an occultation of one of Lucy’s target asteroids, Orus was to be observed in Senegal.
- Ruth had six months to get the approvals and funding necessary to send a crew to film the occultation.
- For TMS to fund the shoot, they needed a letter of intent, and NOVA quickly provided a non-binding letter.
- “Thanks to the expertise and creativity of DOP Bernhard Popovic and his team, the material was exceptional. The occultation observation was a success, and the film concept was validated.”
- The initial field production was really helpful because it confirmed Maram as an appealing character.
- In December 2021, Ruth and TMS cemented the deal with NOVA by delivering a 5-minute preview cut from the rushes, and an updated, 12-page treatment.
- In March 2022, Ruth went to Senegal to research the story and plan the rest of the film.
- Field production started in May 2022.
- Time: 5 weeks
- Crew: 5 people on location in Senegal and Istanbul
- “NOVA requested we have a Senegalese senior consultant to guide us with cultural and religious sensitivities. Having worked in many different countries, I have always engaged consultants in this way.” Ruth Berry
- As well as Maram, the key characters are Cheikhounna Bousso, whose family practices medieval astronomy in the holy Mouride city of Touba, and Taha Yasan Arslan, historian of Islamic science at Istanbul’s Medeniyet Universitesi
Field Production Challenges
- “I was very aware of not crossing the line in my dress and conduct as a woman in the very traditional Muslim holy city of Touba, but still doing my job as the film’s director. Maram was always there, quietly guiding me.
- We often had to wait for permissions at very high levels before we could proceed with shooting, and we just had to be flexible, trusting that things would work out.” Ruth Berry
Video Sequence 1
In post-production: the Massalikoul Djinane mosque in Dakar,
with Maram Kaire, Chris Schmidt, Ruth Berry and Stefan Fiedler
- Time: 2 months.
- Ruth received notes and recommendations from NOVA team members, including newly-appointed Science and Equity Editor, Krystnell Storr.
- NOVA paid particular attention to the authenticity of cultural and religious content.
- TMS entrusted this process to Ruth, NOVA and TMS executive producer Susanne Lummer.
- A dedicated researcher was engaged by TMS to produce an annotated script with the guidance of NOVA’s fact checking department.
- “We initially used Maram’s voice, but due to the American audience, NOVA decided to record a more neutral narrator. A positive move, it gave the film another dimension.”
- Senegalese artist Baaba Maal was thrilled to perform vocals — he is big a fan of Maram.
- TMS engaged Barnaby Taylor who had scored many TMS films, to compose the soundtrack.
- NOVA audience-tested three titles, revealing the following preferences: STAR CHASERS OF SENEGAL (47%), SKY TRACKERS OF SENEGAL (30%) and SPACE MISSION SENEGAL (23%).
- PBS has U.S. rights.
- TMS has rest of world.
- Ruth is credited as director / writer.
- Less than $500,000, shared by TMS and NOVA.
The fast-track timeline was driven by the 6-7 months available between Ruth’s first ‘official’ pitch to NOVA in March 2021 and the need by early October for the partners to approve the funds for her crew to travel to Senegal and capture the observation of the occultation.
- Late 2020 Ruth begins researching GAIA project
- Talks casually to NOVA, interested, not convinced
- December: Discovers Maram’s story
- Talks casually again with NOVA – strong interest.
- Jan: Writes treatment #1, shows it to Maram
- Feb: Maram approves. Agrees to be involved.
- March: presents treatment to NOVA. Official Zoom discussions
- Ruth approaches TMS.
- April: Senegal film on hold. A film in production for NOVA is able to proceed.
- Senegal story changes.
- August 2021, Ruth drafts treatment #2
- Time-critical shooting is necessary in October.
- NOVA releases a letter of intent: October
- Letter triggers TMS to fund Senegal shoot: October
- Crew engaged and spent 8 days on location: October
- Key cinematography of occultation observation: October 16
- Cuts trailer: December
- NOVA and TMS validate project
- January: amendments to treatment #2
- NOVA officially greenlights project and prepares contract: February
- Ruth’s reccy in Senegal: March (2 weeks)
- April: basic shooting script
- Field Production: May (1 month), July (1 week Istanbul)
- Post-production begins: June
- Rough cut delivered: September
- Fine cut delivered: September
- Fact-checking and diversity-checking by NOVA: September – November
- Pic lock: November
Footage sources in addition to Ruth’s field photography:
- NASA archive including 3D animation (approx. 4 min)
- European Space Agency
- Getty Images
- Original 3D and 2D animation created especially for the film.
“In an ideal world, there is only one international version which suits all partners. NOVA and Terra Mater have developed a similar taste, so this film will have one version. If another party comes to the table and they have completely different needs, then we might think about versioning.” (Sabine Holzer)
- Scheduled PBS NOVA broadcast: Spring 2023.
- Autentic is Terra Mater’s distribution partner for territories outside U.S. and Austria
What producers and coproduction partners can learn from STAR CHASERS…
Sabine Holzer and TMS:
“Trust in relationships is the key to our success. I do a lot of international coproductions and there is a certain community who have known each other for many years, and these networks make our lives as producers much easier.”
Chris Schmidt and NOVA:
“It can be really challenging for us in the U.S. to manage a project in a way that we really feel confident that the participants in the story, in the foreign culture, are in the foreground. Both in front of the camera and to some extent behind the camera.
“With our coproducing partners, we’re really working hard to help them understand our needs but also collaborate with them, to be creative in ways that we can involve people from other cultures and local communities in the act of storytelling.
“And so in this film, Ruth did a masterful job of working with Maram, the main character, and others. And it’s worked out really well, but we recognize that it can be very challenging.”
“I’m reminded over and over again, that success as an independent producer depends on building and sustaining relationships over many years.”
MIPCOM Case Study
- At MIPCOM 2022, Sabine and Ruth presented (with a video insert by Chris Schmidt) the STAR CHASERS OF SENEGAL case study under the film’s working title Space Mission Senegal.
- Many thx to MIPCOM conference program exec Tania Dugaro for the invitation and coordination, and to Myriam Laville, Djene Kaba and other team members for planning, production and follow up.
- When a star, an asteroid and Earth align – called an occultation — observers can record the time it takes for the star to blink on and off as the asteroid blocks its light.
- This data can be used to measure the size, shape, and trajectory of the asteroid.
- NASA’s Lucy mission is to explore a set of asteroids near Jupiter known as the Trojans.
- These ancient space rocks hold important clues to the birth of our solar system and, potentially, the origin of life on Earth.
- The occultation of a distant star by a Trojan asteroid is observable in Senegal on October 16, 2021 — Maram’s third such observation for NASA.
- Coincidentally, the Lucy mission blasts off from Cape Canaveral within hours of the occultation which Maram is observing in Senegal.
- The diagram above illustrates Lucy’s orbital path.
- Read a detailed description of the NASA mission here.
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