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Visit with the ‘Daily Planet’ … hovercraft and more …
Posted By Brandon Reid On February 13, 2013 @ 7:00 am In Local News, News | No Comments
By Frank Schier
Editor & Publisher
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted, Friday, Feb. 1, during the Universal Hovercraft shoot on the Rock River with Mark Stevenson, director of photography, and Jay Kemp, producer, for the Daily Planet show on the Discovery Channel. We’d like to thank Becky Haddad, the owner of Mary’s Place, the oldest tavern in Rockford, and “the hottest live entertainment spot in the Midwest” for being a fine hostess with plenty of hot coffee and chocolate during this interview, and for giving us shelter from the 18-below-zero temperature that day.
The Rock River Times (TRRT): How did you find out about Universal Hovercraft?
Mark Stevenson (MS): That’s a good question. I’ve got to think. We have researchers who work in-house, who are always sort of scouring the news and anything, looking for things that might be of interest. And I believe someone just sent me a link saying, “Hey, you might want to check this out,” so it’s as simple as that. So I did some research — it works differently every time, but in this case somebody had sent me a link. I checked out the link, and then I thought, “OK, well, hovercraft. What’s different about that?” We’ve gone around the world doing stories. We’ve done all kinds of things. So, I’m always looking for something that we hadn’t done, and I saw the flying Hovercraft.
TRRT: Were you just on the same research project as him, since he is the producer?
(MS): Yes. At Daily Planet we have 12 producers, and there’s two staff camera operators. We hire many other free-lance camera ops, so I get assigned to go with whichever producer. So on this, we do a swing, so we research several stories. So in the Wisconsin-Chicago area, with this trip, we are taking three stories. Sometimes we do as many as 12-14 stories. This is a quick trip for us we can go away from home, which is Toronto. So, I get assigned to a producer, and we just shoot a whole bunch of variety of stuff.
TRRT: So what are your three projects this time out?
MS: The three we did — we did a guy who built a planetarium, and it’s really unique. It is a wooden planetarium. He built it himself, which is way up in northern Wisconsin, I can’t remember the town now. And then what did we do, the next one was …?
Jay Kemp (JK): Oh, the Mini-Monster Truck.
MS: We did the Mini-Monster Truck in Wisconsin. A guy built a monster truck. It’s a miniature version, sort of like a go-kart, but it has a jet engine on the back. It’s extremely loud. This guy also built a jet pack, and he built a motorcycle that’s got a monster engine on the back. So, we look for these types of characters, funny characters or an interesting piece of technology; and then our third story on this trip out is the hovercraft. We’ve been lucky, fortunate, on this one because it’s a two-day shoot. So some of the stuff we’re in and out, shooting maybe 10 hours a day, and then we’re on to our next location.
TRRT: Now they started where I discovered them down on the Mississippi. And they have a shop down there. Are you guys going down to that?
JK: No, we won’t. We’ll just be focusing on their facilities here and the one flying hovercraft in particular.
TRRT: If you ever get a chance to go down to Port Byron and Cordova, it’s fun. They’ve got a big one down there that handles 12 people. They took that thing out, and they got it up to 60-70 miles an hour for me, whipping up and down the Mississippi, and it was really fun.
MS: The good thing about our show is oftentimes we’ll come and visit these people, and they’ll be building a piece of technology. Then, sometimes the technology might be finished, and there might be something else in the works. So we come back, or we go visit their shops elsewhere, or we might get a swing in their next location. So, we might tack that on as another story. So, it’s the science and technology show that is constantly evolving because science and technology is constantly evolving.
TRRT: Universal Hovercraft really started out as a garage corporation. If you go to their shop on the Mississippi, in Cordova, you’ll see it behind their uncle’s house. They’ve really, really come a long way with it, up to the one contract they had for the Navy SEALs. They have some neat stuff in the works.
Please tell us about the work of the editing process on this. Once you get your footage, how long does it usually take for this show to get aired?
MS: It all depends on the story and if it’s part of a special or not. This one will be a pretty quick turnaround. We’ll get back on the weekend, and I’ll spend the day screening the footage, write a script, and the next day we’ll go into editing. We’ll spend a day editing and then package that with music and maybe animation. And then, in most cases, the host of the show, one of the hosts will voice the story. And then it goes into Pro Tools, like for an audio mix, and the color correction, and then it goes to air.
JK: What makes our show unique is it’s a daily, hour-long science and technology show that airs Monday to Friday. So we have an hour content. The stories we shoot, for example, the hovercraft here, are, they are between 5 and 7 minutes long, and if you figure the average shot is 2 to 5 seconds here, it’s a lot of shooting. So Mark might research a story. It might take him two or three days to research a story, get his information, make all the phone calls. We plan the trip, we come out here for a week’s shoot. He’ll go back. He’ll take a day to screen the footage. He’ll take a day to write a script for this maybe a day of editing, a day of pro Tools for the audio editing, so it’s a long process, and if we have to turn these stories around pretty quickly, my part ends easily here. I go out, and I shoot the stuff, and I’m on to another project. But Mark will be with this for maybe another week. So, it’s a 5-minute story, but it’s unlike a news story, it’s sort of like a mini documentary.
TRRT: Mark, give us the background on the Daily Planet. It’s on The Discovery Channel. And tell us when it airs and the genesis of it, and how long it’s been going, and where it’s been going, and where you think it’s going.
MS: Well, I actually don’t know. I’ve been working for them for about 10 years, but …
JK: The show’s been on the air for 15 years. It started as a show called @ Discovery. The reason why was named @ Discovery is because 15 years ago, people didn’t really have e-mail, so the “@” symbol and “Discovery” were sort of a catchy technology thing. But not everyone has e-mail, so the show evolved from a show call @ Discovery, which is the same thing, an hour-long science and technology show 15 years ago; and we’ve been on the air ever since. And it’s produced in Canada, the website is discoverychannel.ca . It’s a link to Daily Planet, and a lot of the stuff we shoot, including the hovercraft will be available online for anyone to see. And it’s one we don’t have the numbers in terms of population or television viewers in Canada as you do in the United States. You know, there’s 34 million people in Canada; there’s 300 or so-odd million people here in the United States. But in terms of numbers, our show does very, very well. We can get an average viewing audience of 250,000, which for Canadian television for a cable channel is highly impressive. Very often, we need a story when we do those mini-documentaries. They are re-packaged into other Discovery Channel shows and other Discovery Channels around the world.
TRRT: Is there a particular time of day that the Daily Planet is on, that it airs?
JK: It airs weeknights at 7 p.m., Eastern time. And that’s obviously in Canada on the Discovery Channel. Like Mark said, the show is a package and the individual mini-documentaries, the little segments that we do, have to be sold around the world. They can be seen usually in the United States; I think it’s on the Science Channel.
MS: And in Europe, and the U.K..
JK: I think they have a deal with the Science Channel now. That’s where it can be seen in Canada. But the way technology is now, a lot of people watch it on their iPads, so we have a lot of web traffic as well.
TRRT: Good. This is your last day here, and then you fly back to Toronto, and you go out of Chicago?
TRRT: If you ever get down to the Quad Cities, there’s another character — Chad Pregracke of Living Lands and Waters — down there. I think Discovery Channel’s done some programs on him. He’s given the Rock River Trail Initiative 10,000 trees for three years, 30,000 oak trees. This is our third year of planting them; his goal is to plant 1 million trees.
He has several big barges, and he goes out picking up cars and washing machines and all kinds of big and small junk out of the river. And ADM just came in and gave him $350,000. Honda is the major sponsor, etc., etc.
But he is up to about 600-700,000 trees now, I think, at the end of the season. We gave ours out up the Rock River as part of the Rock River Trail Initiative. It’s kind of our calling card. He first came up here for a legislative briefing when we had all the congressmen and senators here, telling them about the trail. He was going to give us 5,000 trees; and at the end of the presentation, he said, “Oh, let’s make it 10,000.” That was the first year we did it.
If you go down to the Quad Cities, and go to the original spot, Cordova, where they started Universal Hovercraft, you meet Bill Zang’s Uncle Bob Windt, the founder in 1967. He’s amazing, and he has a new book out. He would be a good film for you, too.
MS: Let me think about it. The other thing about our show is we like characters like that, and everything we do is in a positive way.
TRRT: Wait till you meet Chad Pregracke. He’s like a firecracker walking around. He’s just going off all the time.
MS: We love characters like that.
TRRT: You would love him! Please put him on your storyboard list. I think the Discovery Channel has already done it; but also for technology, he’s really done some amazing things with just little technology, of how they clean up the river. They’ve got a classroom on a barge now; it’s really one whole barge. If you go to www.rockrivertimes.com  or www.rockrivertrail.com  and type in “Chad Pregracke,” you’ll see we were down there for River Action’s Floatzilla. That’s where they tried to set the Guinness World Records for the largest number of canoes and kayaks, all in one place at one time. He was down there for that, and we took some pictures. Two barges he has are just full of garbage. Another one has this huge classroom on it. He’s got an old tugboat that they tricked out for him. He is a pretty cool guy; he’s doing the tree thing; he’s on the Potomac, he’s on the Missouri, he’s on the Mississippi, he’s on the Ohio, so it’s a big story.
MS: Yes, we like characters like that.
TRRT: And he is just the nicest guy; he’s really, really a good, good guy. You know, every once in a while, you run into human beings that give you a little faith in the race again, you know, and he’s one of them.
MS: Yeah, we meet all sorts of people around the world, just like the gentleman you’re talking about. They’re doing things of value like the next electric car, the next electric battery, something for the environment. You know, I say that we have the best job out of anyone in the world because today we get to be Hovercraft specialists. Next week, we might be working with an astronaut, so we’re astronauts. Next, we can work with a guy who’s built electric cars, so you’re a future energy expert. We get to experience everyone’s job for one day. And to me, that’s the greatest job.
TRRT: It’s a wonderful job. What would you say has been the wildest story you’ve shot?
JK: We were just talking about that. Mark and I get that question a lot. I had the opportunity with Mark to take off in an F-18. We spent a day on a military base, and it was in northern Quebec, and it was on a day like today. It was extremely, extremely cold. I spent a day training, learning how to wear a pressure suit, how to get into the aircraft, how to get out of the aircraft. And then I had an opportunity to fly in an F-18, which was spectacular. The scariest moment I had was in a pit with a crocodile, and it was quite a pretty close call.
TRRT: Where was that at?
MS: It was in Toronto. It was a place called Reptile World. We were in a glass enclosure, and I was shooting through the glass. I said to the producer: “I can’t see this crocodile well enough. I gotta be in there.” So, I got in there with the crocodile, and there was really no way for me to escape ‘cause it was a really tight enclosure, and they were trying to capture this crocodile to take blood from its tail. So, they had to tie up the beak of the crocodile, and he wasn’t gonna have any part of it. And so keeping a long story short, he started to snap, and it’s probably on the scared-est I’ve been.
TRRT: And you, Jay?
JK: I mean, there’s been so many different things I could name. It’s hard for me to think of one in particular. The one thing that just comes to mind cause he mentioned flying, was I spent some time with the Blue Angels recently, and I got to fly with them. So, it was pretty cool. I mean, that’s just what I’ve done recently.
TRRT: What’s the farthest you’ve been overseas?
JK: The farthest I’ve been personally last year, I was in Italy, Belgium, France. Mark and I did one in Iceland. I’ve been to Hawaii, I’ve been to Iceland. What a beautiful place, Hawaii’s nothing compared to Iceland. And Mark and I had an opportunity to go there. We actually got lost on a glacier. We started to do some scouting. We did some shooting, and we went up on a glacier, and we got caught in a blizzard a huge whiteout storm. And for some reason, we were able to make it back. And that day, they rescued 20 people on a glacier. But I haven’t been to Asia yet. My colleague has. But this show goes around the world. Mark’s been up to Iqualyt, up to the northern Arctic Circle.
MS: Antarctica is on my list. There’s another staff camera operator; and if there is a call to go to Antarctica, he and I were fighting over it because that’s where I want to go.
TRRT: Well, this is the weather I hate; you’re a cold weather man. If you can handle it, God bless you. You can have it. Ha, ha, ha!
MS: It’s colder here than it is at home.
JK: I know. I think we’re actually on the same latitude; Toronto is on the same latitude [as Rockford].
TRRT: Well, I’ve heard nothing but good things about Toronto. I’d really like to visit. You’re on my list of places to go here in the near future, and it’s a beautiful town. You guys are lucky to live there. And welcome to the States; welcome to Rockford. We’re glad you’re here, and The Times will always be a resource for you when you’re around. Give us a holler if you need us.
MS: Thanks very much. Glad to be here.
To see Mark and Jay’s work on the Universal Hovercraft segment, go to: http://www.discovery.ca/dp/videos/  and click on the 2/11/13 Daily Planet show. Included in this show is a wind-powered landmine exploder, an Iron Man, arm-gauntlet laser that will even pop balloons, and an inflating hail protector for your car. This interview was transcribed by Copy Editor Susan Johnson.
From the Feb. 13-19, 2013, issue
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