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Skeptologists Pre-Production or “How to Make Three Months of Your Life Disappear”

by Ryan Johnson, Nov 04 2008

Ah, Pre-Production.  Think of it as cramming for the big test, or making weight for the fight, or preparing for cadacism.. Oh wait, strike last last bit.

Pre-Production is where all the wheels are set in motion for a production project. By the name of it, I’m guessing you figured out that much, so far on your own.  The team and I had been discussing the finer points of the show, and finding our talent and coming up with great ideas. It was time to set a date, and like a wedding, once you set that date, it’s kinda like chasing a burning fuse. Things start to move very quickly.

We chose to shoot the first week of April, and true to skeptic form, we decided to have everyone assemble in L.A. for the first time on April first.  Boy, I could have played a really rotten April Fool’s joke that night, But I thought better of it. 

We had Skeptologists arriving from all over in a symphony of plane and car schedules. But before all of that could happen, a lot of work by a lot of fine folks had to take place.  We had to figure out just what we were going to shoot, where it would happen and how to get it all done in the precious four days that we had with the cast. Four days.

Rewind back to early January.  We had finalized our cast and had, as Brian said to me in one email “an embarrassment of riches!” We had an amazing think-tank of people on on board.  “Boy, I really need to pull this off now!”  I thought to myself.

I also thought to myself; “Why must smart people think in tanks?”

Brian and I had been discussing this show since July of ‘07 so we had some real solid ideas, though the title was always a big question mark.  As we worked through the ideas we came up with a format.  David Vienna our story editor, after several phone calls and meetings, came up with this written treatment on the idea:

We all would love to believe that aliens have visited us, that there was a second gunman on the grassy knoll, that certain gifted people can move objects with their mind. But belief is not enough.

Like any accepted science, these theories must stand up to experimentation. Belief alone is not proof and theories are not fact. That is where we come in. We are The Skeptologists.

We’re not willing to just accept stories of the paranormal or supernatural. We want proof.

Each week, we’ll take on a handful of wild claims — from the Bermuda Triangle to Bigfoot sightings to haunted houses — and apply accepted scientific practices and experiments to see if these theories hold up.

Whether in the field or at The Skeptolab, we’ll literally put these theories to the test in the hopes that one day we find real proof that something can’t be explained and there is more to life than we have experienced.

From this beginning, we set out to get it all together.  We have further refined the language of this description, and the show format.  Several of the details are still remaining protected during our “shopping” of the show. 

We crewed up quickly to get through pre-production. Milena Hernandez was a relative newcomer to our company, New Rule Productions but handled the massive task of communicating with our talent, crew and location managers expertly as we put things into high gear. She also helped with the many, many resume’s and demo reels that we received from prospective cast members as well as many folks who offered to help on the crew.

Shawna Young, our coordinating producer got busy making sure that all the elements were in place for the production. She also crammed all the skeptic knowledge she could into her brain in a very short time.  I think at one point she watched YouTube videos of our cast members for a whole day straight.

Brian and I setup the business of the Skeptologists, kept in contact with the cast as we honed the ideas about how to execute and the topics we’d cover and their merits.

The schedule was set, and we needed to get the production details ironed out, where would we shoot? What were the topics? And how do we want this to look?

I had decided very early on that this was to be a non-scripted show. You can say reality-show, but in the industry, this is anything but a reality show.  There’s really nothing real about reality shows, as most follow very planned and contrived scripts. Most, at the very least, receive constant direction from the producers, to get that “reality” just right.  

In the Skeptologists there was no script for the talent to rehearse, however, we did work on a detailed outline, It was a bit like writing the Cliff’s Notes on the show as if it was complete.  We went through the process of imagining how the show would end up, what would happen when, how it would happen, how we as a viewer were supposed to feel and who was doing or saying what at each moment. From that, we worked backwards, to try and build a foundation that could allow this story-line to happen.

I liken it to showing a kid a picture of a spaceship, dumping a 5 gallon pail of Lego bricks on the floor, taking away the picture then telling the kid, “now build that picture!” and just when he thinks that he’s headed off in the right direction, you yell, “No, do it another way.”

Geez, I’m mean.  

OK bad analogy.  The best way to build a show like this is to control for as many variables as possible.  Much like science, the more unknowns you can carefully control for, the better and more predictable your result will be.  We had to control a LOT of variables because we were about to embark on the daunting task of creating a full length TV pilot.  This wasn’t going to be the 5 minute teaser video, or even the 15 minute mini-episode.  No, we were going for the full enchilada, a full length 1 hour pilot, (which in TV world is really about 45 minutes.) It all had to be shot in four days.

In order to do that pilot we needed to come up with the two topics our Skeptologists would tackle. We reviewed many of Brian’s most popular Skeptoid podcasts and discussed them.  We came up with one almost right away: Ghost Hunting Tools of the Trade.  This topic was ripe for the picking because of the almost ridiculous popularity of ghost hunting shows currently on TV.  These shows do very week in the ratings and a lot of networks have their own take on the ghost show format.  Doing our own investigation into the tools would give us many things, but not the least of which were, the opportunity to do science to show how these tools are really not doing anything close to detecting ghosts, and also would give us the ability to go to a dramatic location and engage in some fun investigation and re-create that spooky, suspenseful atmosphere for the viewer that will keep them wanting more.  I should remind you that at this point, the viewer isn’t you, there watching at home; it’s the network exec that may or may not buy the show.  

Our show had to look like or better than other shows, at least in terms of production quality and execution, so it’s important to give them something easy to measure it against.  Ghost shows abound, and we knew that we could pull that off. Its’ ad to say, but if the show is too original, it doesn’t have a chance. Networks don’t want to take big risks on new formats, they want tried and true performers that their advertisers will support and viewers will understand. We need to carefully push the envelope.  We’ll push harder once we get picked up and prove that there’s a real, solid audience behind us.

The second topic was a bit trickier, but after one particular lunch meeting with Adam, a friend that works at a network, we decided on Wheatgrass Juice, his reasoning, which we concurred is that a LOT of Hollywood types like to drink that foul, green yard mulch and make all sorts of ridiculous claims while hoping to be trendy and chic.  We were going for a “personal touch”  chances are, our network execs came right in from their juice bar fix to sit down and review our show, boy were they gonna be surprised! It was a “shot” in the dark.

Another reason to tackle this weedy topic was to show the depth of the science that we could execute and how that would look. We purposely combined these two completely different subjects to demonstrate how wide we could go.  In actual show episodes, we’ll most likely take on two subjects that have something more in common.  For now, we wanted to give each Skeptologist a chance to shine and these seemed like great examples of a large main topic and smaller secondary topic.

So, topics in hand, off we went to search for locations to conduct our Scary Ghost Hunt… Hmmm, where does one find ghosts being actively hunted (and apparently to extinction) in Los Angeles?

Stay tuned, and next week you’ll find out!

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6 Responses to “Skeptologists Pre-Production or “How to Make Three Months of Your Life Disappear””

  1. Peter says:

    Wait soo.. when does this show air? because this has gotten me excited to watch this.

  2. Stacey says:

    I hope this show is picked up by a channel we Canadians can watch. I love the idea of a “Skeptolab”. (Though I have to admit I picture it like the Batcave with labels like Skeptoccilloscope or Skepto-atomic pile.)

  3. Dave says:

    Like Peter said, I’m very excited to see this show become a reality (so to speak!). We need a skeptical take on all the crappy shows out there now. If there’s anything average skeptics can do to get this thing on the air, let us know.

  4. I am so excited by the prospect of this show! As soon as I hear of it, the DVR is going to be set to record every instance of the show.

    On the whole ghost thing, are there any plans to help explain why some seemingly intelligent folks really believe they saw a ghost? I know you mention tackling their equipment, but there are a lot of folks that may just not have the background to know exactly how fallible the human mind is, nor how susceptible it is to being fooled. Between electromagnetic stimulation, sleep paralysis, poor diet, retinal after images, pareidolia, etc. a lot of folks just fool themselves, but otherwise are generally rational and sane human beings.

  5. jackd says:

    I’m eagerly awaiting the show.

    But it’s “catechism”, not “cadacism”.

  6. Skeptico says:

    I’ll be especially interested to see what you have to say about Wheatgrass Juice. I’ve written about it a couple of times and I I can guarantee I will get numerous people who just can’t accept that this stuff is no good.