Joanna Baldwin-Mallory’s connection to the Brain Power project is unique: she created it. In 1998 she came to Partners Health Care—a health-care system in the Boston area and one of the largest biomedical research enterprises in the country—as the first director of the Office of New Ventures. The company hoped to capitalize on Baldwin-Mallory’s experience in documentary film and media projects. Coming from WNET in New York City, where she’d worked on a five-hour series called “The Secret Life of the Brain,” Baldwin-Mallory “had a solid base, though we’re paid to be communicators,” she explains. Her mission is to convey basic science concepts along with a sense of what’s new in neuroscience. “That’s our joy in life: having access to great scientists and cutting-edge ideas, and transmitting them in a way that’s accessible, exciting, and challenging for a lay audience.”
Thinking bigBaldwin-Mallory was given a blank slate and a mandate to “think out of the box.” There had never been a large-format film—a technology Baldwin-Mallory had first encountered as director of public programs for the IMAX film Lost Worlds with Bayley Silleck (also the director of Brain Power)—about the workings of the brain. So in 2000 she pitched the idea as Partners’ first venture, and began shepherding it through the rounds of development and funding necessary to bring such a complex undertaking to fruition. Partners provided the seed money, and planning funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) enabled her to assemble teams of advisors and specialists to help develop the project. During the next funding cycle, this time for production, consultant Peter Frumkin suggested the Tour de France as an avenue for the storyline. Everyone liked the concept, and in 2001 she received $2.8 million from the NSF for the very first public science-education project Partners had ever engaged in.
Much more than a movieBaldwin-Mallory’s teams are developing more outreach materials—five sets for different age groups and audiences, including teachers and families—than any other IMAX movie has offered. In partnership with the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, the teams are creating a reference library that will accompany the educational material. They’re producing a Web site, organizing a neuroscience symposium for science educators across the country, and planning a national conference on “Science in Society and Science Communications” — all designed to enhance the educational message of the film itself,” she explains.
The filmmaking was a tremendous challenge, nothing less than a grueling, three-week endurance test for the crew. “You can’t control the action, and the large-format technology is very cumbersome,” says Baldwin-Mallory. On any given day, 24 vehicles moved 50 crew members, set up positions for two to four cameras, built platforms and cranes, and used new technologies—like mounting an IMAX camera on the back of a motorcycle for the first time—to obtain unprecedented footage of the Tour. The movie also features computer-generated imagery of the brain that takes viewers seamlessly from a moment in the race into the mind of a rider at that moment. The pathways of pain, for example, or the fear response, are visualized “so the viewer can see and internalize how that experience plays out in the brain. Both that and the technical complexity are major factors that set this project apart,” says Baldwin-Mallory.
Making it all run smoothlyAs senior producer, Baldwin-Mallory oversees all elements of the project. “I approve budgets, create schedules, go on shoots, work with filmmakers to make sure we’re on track, and bring advisors together to critique the rough cuts.” She brings in outside experts to evaluate the print materials, and oversees and participates in fundraising efforts. As the principal investigator she manages the information flow to the NSF. “For example, this month we’re preparing an annual report for the NSF that details what we’ve done: what shoots we’ve mounted; what footage we’ve gotten; how the script might have changed; how we’re coming on the Web site; feedback from advisors about the film and the printed materials; the results of our formative evaluations; and how we’re incorporating these changes and suggestions.” In other words, Baldwin-Mallory not only keeps all the balls in the air, but keeps all her sponsors up to speed. As she puts it, “I make sure they have everything they need to continue to have confidence in this project.”
It’s enormously satisfying to see all the elements start coming together, but this is not a job for the fainthearted. As she points out, “You can’t control real life, and therein lies the risk of documentary filmmaking. You have to be up for whatever potential crisis the day might bring.” Why do it? “Because I love this medium, and the adventure and drama,” says Baldwin-Mallory. “It makes me feel alive, and it’s doing good work: communicating important ideas to millions of people.”
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Name: JoAnna Baldwin-Mallory
Born: Southern California
Where I go to watch IMAX films: Science museums, wherever I am.
Job: Senior producer of Wired to Win
Education: B.A., U.C. Santa Barbara; ABD in art and film history, Penn State