BBC films new documentary in the ISIS Second Target Station

Thursday 11 April 2013

Presenter Dr Helen Czerski, University of Southampton

Presenter Dr Helen Czerski, University of Southampton is shown next to the target in TS2 during filming of new documentary on the sun
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On Wednesday 27th February, amongst all the Particle Physics Masterclass tours, you may have noticed the ISIS Second Target Station being transformed into a film set. This is because the BBC had chosen ISIS to be one of their filming locations for a new documentary on the sun, for BBC 2.

During the set up day, TS2 was full of men hauling heavy electric cabling, stacks of set on the balcony and a giant plasma screen being assembled on the proton beam. The plasma screen was surrounded by a wooden block stage that resembled concrete, and was used to show impressive graphics of the sun. It was the main feature of the set, in front of which stood presenters Kate Humble and Helen Czerski as they recited their lines.

Instead of the normal sodium lighting, the BBC lighting team enhanced the target station with lights in shades of blue and green which gave a cool, icy feel in contrast with the red hot sun on the plasma screen. Several members of ISIS staff commented on how fantastic the lighting was and how different TS2 looked. It was a long night on Thursday, with filming on the proton beam lasting until about 1am.

Target Station 2 was transformed with impressive lighting

Target Station 2 was transformed with impressive lighting
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The following shoot on Friday night was moved off the proton beam and down to the ground floor next to NIMROD. A series of desks and computers were set up, at which eight ‘storm watchers’ were sat and filmed analysing solar storm data from the sun, in particular coronal mass ejections. Filming lasted until 1am after which the team packed up and TS2 returned to normal.

The Producer and Director of the documentary, Matt Barrett, revealed that the initial idea was to have a three-part series about the sun. But then it was thought it would be stronger as a single, one hour documentary which focussed specifically on what scientists have learned about the sun in recent times. For example, we have known about sun spots for a long time, but this programme aims to answer questions such as what is our current state of knowledge of sun spots – have they showed us something new? Can we predict space weather, i.e. solar storms?

“We cast the net very wide for what are the new and interesting bits of solar science, but we’d be lost without really strong science communicators. Richard Harrison from RAL Space is one of them, and we called on him to tell us about one big story on the way solar science has developed.  Getting information straight from the horse’s mouth, from an expert who can make the science clear and interesting, gives a programme direction” stated Matt.

“We can only get so far reading papers and trawling the internet, but the development of the programme goes up a gear after talking to approachable, clear and interesting experts. They give a focus that clarifies the purpose of the programme.”

Matt had established that the documentary was to be based in the UK, and on hearing about RAL Space scientists, like Richard Harrison, he thought it was great that there is a centre at the forefront of solar research in the UK.

When Matt arrived at RAL to scope out the site for potential film sets, he admitted he had never seen anything like ISIS in the UK:

“ISIS is an impressive facility, and I assumed these things only existed in the States. RAL has ticked all the boxes by having a scientific relevance to the programme, in the form of RAL Space, and ISIS, which is a physical, good-looking space to film in” stated Matt.

“TS2 is a very beautiful building and very few science buildings are beautiful. It’s rather fascinating to think the make-up of materials and fundamental questions about Physics are being answered in these strange box-like instruments on walkways.”

However, TS2 did not come without its challenges, the main one being that it’s a real, working facility as ISIS was running at the time.

“It has been hard to work around the needs of the facility, as we couldn’t waltz in and shut the whole place down to do some filming” admitted Matt.

“But it’s an awfully more interesting place to film than most science environments, like offices or labs. Instead of the cliché science lab set, with lots of bottles of colourless liquid on shelves which are falling apart at the seams, ISIS gave a real breath of fresh air. It is in a different league in terms of visuals.”

“Although it presents challenges to film in a place like ISIS which is doing its own work, it’s also very exciting to be in a place that has its own rhythms, doing research that matters.”

As for the broadcast date of the documentary, it has yet to be confirmed. There is talk of it being broadcast for the summer solstice but that is not set in stone. We will be announcing the date once we hear, so you can keep your eyes peeled!

Emily Mobley

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