Tag Archives: get set demonstrate

Chip pan fire

No other film in this series provoked more discussion and argument than this. Mostly from me. It’s a classic demo and was highly-requested in the nomination stage of Get Set Demonstrate, yet I argued against filming it.

For many years I made essentially all the science programmes that went out during the UK’s teatime ‘children’s television’ window, and there were only a few demonstrations I flat-out refused to show. This was one of them. You can show a safe method, you can treat the science with due respect… but with video you have precious little knowledge of your audience. You can’t tell when their attention has drifted away and they’ve maybe missed a crucial detail, you can’t be 100% certain of the message they take home, and most importantly you can’t guess what they might be tempted to try for themselves.

In person, the heat from the fireball is impressive: on video, it’s the size of your TV, or a YouTube window, or your phone. And it’s cold.

Film-makers can’t be responsible for the behaviour of their audience (discuss, 20 marks), but in this case the risk is very, very high. If 100,000 children saw the demo in our show, and 1 in 1,000 tried it themselves, and 1 in 100 set the curtains alight… that’s not something I ever wanted on my conscience. It’s not that the demo is too dangerous, it’s that it’s too easy. It’s trivial to perform it yourself in a kitchen, and the results can (and will) be catastrophic. So I never filmed the demo. Until now.

Others on the team eventually convinced me, using effectively the same argument applied backwards. The demo is straightforward to reproduce, and reproducing it is dangerous. Knowing that – understanding how and why oil fires are dangerous – might just save someone’s life, and for that reason alone, the team argued, this demo should be known and used in schools, and hence we should make this film.

I’m glad we did.

Three quick notes:

  1. In a UK school, follow the CLEAPSS guidance (Scotland: SSERC). As a teacher or technician you should consult CLEAPSS as a matter of routine before attempting hazardous activities, and where they issue standard guidance (as here): follow it. ScienceDemo.org doesn’t have access to the CLEAPSS archive so we can’t link directly to the resource, sorry, but you’ll find it easily enough.
  2. The formal government advice on how to react to a chip pan fire in the home is: get out, stay out, and call 999. It’s no longer considered appropriate to attempt the ‘damp tea-towel’ remedy yourself: the casualty rate is too high. We should have mentioned this in the film.
  3. In person, our fires were a little underwhelming, with the water often putting the flame out quickly. We’ve cut around that for the film, but speaking to other demonstrators subsequently it seems we were probably more assiduous than strictly necessary about turning the gas off the instant the flame caught. Give it a few more seconds and you’ll get a more satisfying fireball, we’re told. Do see Bob Worley’s comment below about one-upmanship, however!

Get Set Demonstrate logoThis film was produced for the Get Set Demonstrate project. Click through for teaching notes, and take the pledge to perform a demonstration to your students on Demo Day, 20th March 2014.


Traditionally, video production is split into three phases, imaginatively called ‘pre-production,’ ‘production’ and … wait for it … ‘post-production.’ For a field which depends on imagination, film-making jargon can be spectacularly tedious, so we try to make ourselves feel more important by corrupting our own jargon. Thus, you’ll often hear the phases referred to as things like ‘prep,’ ‘shoot’ and ‘post,’ respectively.

So it comes to pass that I write a blog post titled ‘Post.’ Oh ho ho, how terribly droll.

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Demo: The Movie – Production Blog 11

Thought we’d wrapped shooting last night? Nope. It’s never that simple.

Day 11 – Saturday 24th August – San Francisco and home

We’d filmed every scene in the script, every bit of dialogue (well, apart from the bits we crossed out, rewrote, abandoned, or generally disregarded. Which is normal), but we’d known for a couple of weeks that we had a hole to fill: the odd schedule dipsy-doodle around Las Vegas, where we filmed the magicians, ditched my beloved Jeep thing, then flew to San Francisco in the nick of time to film at the Exploratorium had left us with a problem. In the grammar of the film, how had we travelled to San Francisco? It’s not an irrelevant problem, in that one of the stories the film tells is of Alom’s Summer holiday road trip. How does that resolve?

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Demo: The Movie – Production blog 10

Like the previous Monday, we’d schedule today as a day off. Also like the previous Monday: aye, right.

Day 10 – Friday 23rd August – San Francisco

We headed back to the Exploratorium to pick up all the shots we didn’t get the previous day. But I already showed you those yesterday, by accident. Oh, go on. One more:

Alom tickles a Mimosa plant in the Exploratorium
Alom tickles a Mimosa plant in the Exploratorium

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Demo: The Movie – Production blog 9

Our destination all along had been – and this isn’t really a spoiler, honest – the Exploratorium in San Francisco. My previous visit to the Western US had been effectively a pilgrimage to their original building, and this was my first glimpse of their new digs. I was excited.

Though first we had to convince the staff we weren’t going to burn the place down, or at least: if we did, that our insurance covered it. That was a bit nerve-wracking as the way location insurance is done differs somewhat between the US and Europe. We finally received the ‘You’re all good’ confirmation only when we were in Las Vegas, which was… a little close for comfort. But hey, as long as the camera gets to roll, that’s a win, right?

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Demo: The Movie – Production blog 8

I mentioned a couple of days ago that we didn’t shoot this film in order. Today was why.

The last time Alom or I set up a shoot like this we got to start phone calls with lines like, “Hello, my name’s Jonathan and I’m working on a documentary for the BBC, I wonder if…”. It’s remarkable how many doors those three magic letters open. Sure, some are slammed in your face too, but at least the person you’re contacting has some sort of mental model into which they can place you. No such luck when you’re working for a production company and charity few have heard of. Several people we really wanted to talk to said ‘No.’

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Demo: The Movie – Production Blog 7

Today was nuts. It went a little something like this:

Day 7 – Tuesday 20th August – Death Valley and Las Vegas

07:30 – Back at Rhyolite, re-shooting all the stuff we did the night before. It looked a little nicer this time around, and it wasn’t dark by the time we’d finished:

Alom backlit by the rising sun, Rhyolite
Alom backlit by the rising sun, Rhyolite

It still took a while, though, what with all the early flights heading out of LA steering right above us. Harrumph.

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Demo: The Movie – Production Blog 6

One of the things you typically do when you’re making a documentary is scout out locations ahead of time. The recce is a crucial time-saver, but this project clearly didn’t have the budget for it. That’s one of the reasons we shot the film in Colorado, Las Vegas, Death Valley and San Francisco: as you’ll have gathered from these posts, I’d done the whole ‘road trip’ thing before and hence had a bunch of locations in mind already.

Now, the last time I was in Beatty was three years ago, and at that point it had a couple of motels, a couple of bars, a crossroads, an implausibly-grand carpark, and a gas station. It’s since added a vast casino with a 24-hour Denny’s. So, you know, pancakes happened.

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Demo: The Movie – Production Blog 5

It’s rare to film a script in page order: usually one records whichever bits fit the schedule rather than adhering to the script. This becomes mightily confusing, but not so confusing that one can drive past a city the size of Las Vegas by accident. No, no – we absolutely intended to do that.

Really, we did.

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Demo: The Movie – Production Blog 4

This film interleaves several stories, then brings them together (we hope) neatly at the end. There’s the obvious ‘Alom’s road trip summer holiday’, but there’s also the story of that bottle you’ve glimpsed at the top of Pikes Peak, and there’s a little tickle of a story about a remarkable guy by the name of Oppenheimer.

No, the other one.

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