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In Vitamania, the latest documentary made by Emmy Award-winning Australian filmmakers Genepool Productions, scientist and YouTube star Dr Derek Muller investigates the centuries of claims and counter-claims in the science behind vitamins.
We chatted to the Writer, Director and Producer of the film Sonya Pemberton about the genesis of the project and their filming journey.
How did this story enter your filming your radar?
The idea for Vitamania evolved during the production of our previous feature documentary, Jabbed - love, fear and vaccines. Whilst filming I met many people who identified as being vaccine hesitant; they perceived little benefit and significant risk, so they refused or delayed vaccinating their kids. These same people often said they took vitamins and often gave them to their children because, despite not knowing what vitamins were, where they came from, how they were made and regulated, they perceived significant benefit and no risk.
In early 2015, backed by Film Victoria and Screen Australia development funding, I began my deep dive into the world of vitamins and other dietary supplements. I discovered a complex, fascinating, and often contradictory story. I discovered that vitamin pills could be life-savers (they can heal the blind, the lame, the sick) and that vitamin science had won an astonishing ten Nobel prizes! I came to appreciate that today’s vitamin pills can be powerful, biologically active compounds that can alter our health. At their best, they are truly wonderful. But they can also be useless, even downright dangerous.
What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of filming Vitamania?
Three years in the making, Vitamania was filmed across Norway, England, Scotland, France, the United States and Australia.
Curiously, we found it more difficult to get into a vitamin chemical plant than a nuclear power plant (as we did in Uranium -Twisting the Dragons Tale.) After two years of trying, making enquiries across the world, we were unable to actually film inside. So, we had to find creative ways to tell this part of the story. We worked with chemistry experts in labs to determine how, say, vitamin D was built.
Five researchers, four associate producers and three scientific fact-checkers were employed over three years to ensure accuracy and scientific rigour. Key advisors spanned the globe. The script has over 300 end notes!
One of the most rewarding aspects is the great people you get to work with! In 2016 the inimitable Derek Muller came on board. We had just completed our science series Uranium - Twisting the Dragon’s Tail and wanted to work together again. We decided to employ a fresh approach in Vitamania - and to have some fun. A key element became the distinctive musical score (by composer Rafael May) and the original songs (written and performed by Casey Bennetto). Adding musical numbers to a science documentary is, well, unusual and challenging. Our intention was to take potentially ‘dry’ content and make it surprising and memorable. The original inspiration came from the man who first named vitamins – Dr Casimir Funk. His name paved the way into a whole new world.
Following the huge success of Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail, how do you build on audience’s expectations?
Vitamania is designed as a 90-minute landmark, ‘blue-chip’ science documentary. We have explored new ways of getting to our audiences.
The launch strategy of Vitamania is unique: it begins with a short run Australian theatrical release via Think Inc, a global streaming premiere via CuriosityStream, the global television premiere on SBS and then 24 hours later a global, science-targeted TVOD (transactional video on demand) release on our Vitamaniathemovie.com website.
In 2015, Derek hosted our science series Uranium-Twisting the Dragons Tail, written and directed by Wain Fimeri. We doubled the under 35yo audience on TV, we had over 7 million clip views on social media and the show became ‘the most illegally downloaded series in PBS Internationals history’. It seemed the audience on Derek Muller’s YouTube channel, Veritasium, wanted to see the show but couldn’t find it, or they were not prepared to wait for a traditional TV release. So they found it and shared it online, through any means they could. The series went global, underground, in days.
We learnt much from this experience and have committed to releasing Vitamania on multiple outlets, fast, so that audiences can access it quickly and easily. There is no excuse for missing out on this film!
Vitamania offers a significant opportunity for Genepool to test a new distribution method for our high-end science films. Science is a global endeavour, and science media flourishes online. We are keen to expand our reach into the independent digital distribution space, and to attract and satisfy new audiences.
What’s on the horizon for Genepool Productions?
Genepool Productions makes high quality, globally relevant science films, about significant subjects, subjects that often polarise and confuse people. Our intention is to make useful and engaging films, films that help audiences better understand a complex subject. Next on our radar is a major project on CARBON, with the Shark Island Institute. We are also in deep development on a number of other fascinating projects and we hope to make some exciting announcements soon!
Vitamania will air on SBS at 8:30pm 12 August and will be available to purchase and rent at Vitamaniathemovie.com from 14 August.
Vitamania is a Genepool Productions feature documentary for SBS Australia, CuriosityStream, and ARTE France. Principal production investment from Screen Australia, in association with Film Victoria.