Mike Best of Inside Space
March 11th, 2004
Interview with Mike Best
Kenna McHugh ran into Mike Best while surfing the internet for some really topical Sci-Fi one-on-one interviews for STORYCRAFTING. Mike and Kenna hit if off right away. They started talking about science fiction and the fascination of the correlation of scientific advancement. Kenna found out that Mike is one of the Segment Producers for INSIDE SPACE a scientific magazine show on the Sci-Fi channel. He is also wears the hats of on camera talent and writer. Kenna was feeling pretty cocky and insisted that Mike have an expresso drink with her at the Cyberspace Cafe. She bought a non-fat latte for herself and a white chocolate mocha for Mike. She smoozed him into an interview, which she took ample notes while that sat at the coffee table. This is the beginning of a beautiful interview
KENNA: Tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to a unique show like INSIDE SPACE?
MIKE: I come from strict "newsroom" training. I learned to tell stories, using pictures and words, at a couple of small television stations in Texas before landing a job as a reporter for the ABC affiliate in Huntsville, Alabama. Although a small city, Huntsville is the 79th largest market in country, and also one of the most dangerous. Part of my job was chasing tornadoes throughout the Tennessee Valley [more people have died by tornado in this region than anywhere else in the world!]. Also, I was assigned to cover NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center based in Huntsville. Most people don't realize that the United State's Rocket Program [and thus NASA itself] was started by Werner Von Braun amongst the Smokey Mountain Foothills in Huntsville.
It was after a 3 year stint in Dixie when Dave Brody, Senior Producer for Inside Space called and offered me a job---happily on my birthday!
What a great birthday present! Inside Space encourages classroom participation. How does that work for your show?
A big part of Inside Space is our Cable in the Classroom participation. We air shows about everything concerning space in our regular format on Sci-Fi. Then we re-write the entire episode so it's geared toward kids. Same info, different way of speaking. As far as trying to tie any story to school, or education or a specific student for that matter, it's difficult to do. Important, sure. Students obviously are more interested in subjects they can really get involved in [nothing gets them more involved than when they see themselves on television]. But connecting the two is tough. Getting schools to participate can sometimes be a chore as well. First of all, if you want to do stories about, with or concerning students, you have to get permission, waivers, disclaimers etc.... Secondly, getting students involved directly doesn't necessarily make for riveting t.v..
The best approach is to consider the audience as a diverse group eager to listen to what you have to say. If you do it right, maybe a small percentage of that group, including students and teachers, will learn something.
How much research do you do before you go and shoot the segment?
Whew! This is really a must. Considering that our show is a SCIENCE FACT magazine show, research is critical. It really is important to have a strong grasp of the subject you are covering, mainly because of fear. The last thing you want is to sound as if you don't know what you're talking about. If you go on a shoot, say about Solar Terretrial Physics, and you don't have a clue, the interviewee will know it and so will the audience. If you simply look at material readily available, or some other's work on the subject [i.e. newspaper headlines, magazine clippings, etc...] you may miss out on crucial information that could add something unique to your story. Here's an example:
I was given an assignment to do a piece on the 30th anniversary of the Apollo One tragedy. I had the privilege of shooting some stand-ups [where I am on-camera introducing or talking about my segment] at the actual launch pad where astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee died. After spending what seemed like hundreds of hours on the segment, I happened to see a similar segment on ABC's Dateline. It was about the same subject, they had the same video and the same information. One problem---they had dug up some previously unseen film footage of a NASA fire test. It was very visual and added a lot to the viewers idea of what happened [the astronauts died when the capsule burst into flames during a routine checkout days prior to liftoff]. I scrambled to find that video. I was facing a deadline as well and it took a lot of tooth pulling to obtain the tapes from NASA in time. It was during this two day period, when everything had been shot, and edited and the piece had been written, that we took some more time to check out the story...to do just a little bit more research. What we found was that the astronauts had died, not by burning to death or a lack of oxygen, but by asphyxiation. Ironically, the capsule was in fact FULL of pure oxygen, which fueled sparks into flame. On top of that, the astronaut's use of velcro, a new innovation at the time, was deadly. Velcro, when burned, gives off a thick choking smoke. Given that the inside of the capsule was virtually carpeted with the stuff, anyone inside didn't have a chance.
If it wasn't for the fact that I watched someone else's segment on the same subject...just to see what the other guy was doing, I would never have done more research and gotten that little extra bit of info.
That is really fascinating, and I have to ask: Is pre-production just as important as post-production in a magazine show like INSIDE SPACE?
Good question. Sometimes, all the organizing and planning in the world can't save a dog of a story. Sometimes, post- production can really save a dog. Others, when the story is good, post-pro only gets in the way. I guess it all hinges on what the story is and who you are working with. I know of several instances when I have looked at my cameraman and said, "don't worry about shooting that again, we'll be doing something in post" or using graphics or a visual effect. To answer the question as written, Post-production can make or break a story. But without Pre-Production, there is no story.
NASA technology has really advanced over the last 25 years. They are doing what science fictions writers have been writing about for the past 70 years -- Does that fascinate you? (There's an idea for a show: relating science fictions writers of 1920 - 40's to today's science standards.)
Sci Fi from the past: Yes, that is an interesting subject. Often, when you look at fiction from long ago, you find the fact of today. The question that immediately comes to my mind is "Did the fiction inspire the science or the other way around?" If you look at Gene Roddenberry's flip-up communicator from Star Trek, you're looking at a modern day cellphone. If you read Jules Verne, you are peering into the mind of a man who thought of nothing but the possible...because really, nothing is truly impossible.
How different is it writing for a magazine show versus a plot driven and character driven show?
Obviously, they are two completely different animals. I guess you could say that one revolves around fact, the other around what's in the mind's eye. I have done the bulk of my writing for news and on fact based stories. Here I can honestly say that the facts do the writing for you. That isn't to say skill and technique don't come into play. On the contrary. What I am saying, is that if you have done your homework, and you are comfortable with the context and format in which you are writing, then often, the story can write itself. It is the story that is confusing and muddled and hard to understand that tests your craft.
Is the script format the same?
Scripting is different to different people. A Feature Film is usually in a strict format. But when a comedy writer, especially stand ups, "write" a joke, it is rarely written down with pencil and paper. It is "written" in their heads. Television sitcoms are written in a certain format, but TV journalists, on the other hand, use lots of different formats. It all depends on who you are writing for and how they work. I can write something in a format I am comfortable with, but someone else may look at my two-column format and not be able to read it.
Thanks for the insightful interview.
Youre welcome. Thanks for the mocha. Take it easy and make sure to watch Inside Space on the Sci Fi Channel, Sunday mornings at 10:00am!
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