For Fermilab's 50th anniversary, we produced a story about the universe in near real-time that is as beautiful and poetic as any we've ever attempted.
The story begins 12 years ago when I moved to Batavia and started meeting my neighbors, many of whom worked locally at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.
One of those neighbors was Erik Ramberg, a senior scientist at Fermi and within months of meeting, he took me on a tour which to this day, I still share stories of the experience.
Flash forward to 2017 and our efforts at pioneering a new method of storytelling. I ran into Erik and asked if he'd be interested in giving me another tour to test our process. Not only was he game but promised to blow our minds with even more amazing things to show.
I ran into another neighbor I coincidently met the same day I met Erik. She was playing in a string quartet at Erik's home at the time. I asked if she and her group would supply the musical backdrop for our fellow neighbor and friend. They agreed and my mini Zoom recorder captured two of their rehearsals in the center of a living room filled with music stands, two violins, viola and cello.
Our busy schedules meant taking the tour just over a week before 20 thousand people would descend on Fermi's campus to celebrate their 50 birthday celebration.
Erik swung by my house at 8 AM, picked up me and another neighbor, Richard, a veteran writer of 30 years, and we drove the 7 minute drive into the Fermi grounds. We were then met by another neighbor, Andrew, a director of photography for the last 17 years. We each clipped on a mini recorder and microphone and in less than 5 minutes we forgot they were there as we spent the next five and a half hours moving through nearly every corner of the lab.
It was essentially the same tour structurally as 12 years prior – Erik taking us in and out of buildings, through "the bowels" of Fermi, overlooking the prairie of Batavia, meeting random scientists in elevators, control rooms and the cafeteria and then ultimately finishing up at the gravesite of Fermi's first director, Robert Wilson.
But this tour was different.
Every utterance from Erik's unique ability to explain what we were seeing and how fifty years of effort coalesced into that single day was captured by a tiny mic perched vigilantly on his and our collars.
Andrew also receded into the background, quietly capturing beautiful images of everything we were witnessing. I also took pictures with my mobile phone – impossible 12 years ago.
At the end of five and half hours, we were all mentally exhausted from the sheer depth and breadth of everything we'd just seen and heard, but giddy with excitement knowing what we'd just captured.
The three of us all tried telling our families and friends about our experience, but each of us had the same difficulty to come close to expressing it all as Erik had so effortlessly done.
The night before the celebration.
Knowing we had just been given the gift of a Fermi tour that 20,000 people would have killed for, I set out to commemorate the day by creating a short trailer for the final podcast and film we planned on developing.
Our four voices were pulled into an audio editing program, panning between each of our dialogs. Notable highlights marked.
As I listened to Erik speak, one song my neighbors' string quartet had practiced stood out and couldn't escape my mind – "Pax" by Catherine McMichael.
The marriage of music and narration feels consistent throughout projects. There's a rhythm in vocal recordings that reverberates when the right melody is woven into it. With Erik, Pax seemed to meet his intensity.
Several 30-second segments were exported for a final composition.
The music began as the foundation to the audio segments as a puzzle. Different ordering condensed and reflected our experience, all the while building an arc around a theme that could flow through the story, and then abruptly inspire a yearning for the rest of the story.
Cutting 5 hours to 1-to-2-minutes was essential in creating that mystery.
Visuals were the last addition to the audio bedrock. Having learned from our video partner, Andrew – videos are best edited to an audio done first.
Saving the best for last, I used solely my phone pictures – converted to black and white and sized to small frames within the blackness of the frame. Only the final picture was a full-screen color explosion of Andrew's beautiful photography.
That Saturday, threaded in-between family activities, the video was completed and posted around 10 pm. A little over 24 hours from start to finish and 8 hours total work.
Not only has the response been among the best we've received, the effort was minuscule in comparison to effect and speed of the production.
There were no meetings, storyboards, wireframes or approvals. Everything was captured in-the-moment. The only pause was from Erik on the visual equation used, which he ultimately said was still a good choice, but he'd been thinking of a different version.
To do justice to a story on the universe, possibly the biggest story I will ever experience, with so little prep and such minor interference, is an exciting validation of this minimalist process.
Something I learned about the universe that day – the scientific principle that the act of observation in comprehending something while causing the least amount of impact on the observed– is exactly what our Hypersite process attempts. That gave me the shivers.
The Art of Erik's Narrative.
The end of the video, where the credits are rolling, introduces the sound of blowing wind – a natural music bed. When Erik was explaining to us why we are here, we were outside with a lot of wind.
But there was a moment when something I said elicited a response that gave Erik the shivers. How is it possible anything I could say could impact him so strongly? What I've concluded is that his artful way of explaining things opens our minds to deep concepts in ways that raise the conversation to his level of understanding.
So, I added a sound recording of "A Prairie" to illustrate how deeply tied Fermi is to the Batavia prairie. I then included that tiny comment Erik made that not only inspired my profound gratitude, but also highlighted his wit and humor when he added "or is that just the wind?".
Watch the final trailer below...
Some sound clips that didn't make it into the video.
What is Hypersite?
Hypersite is a radical, paradigm-changing way to capture and produce a story that moves the needle.