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The complex world of particle physics comes alive in a film that crosses the line from documentary to feature – but not in the way some documentaries re-enact scenes to tell their story.
Everything in Particle Fever is real. Director Mark Levinson and his producer-collaborator David Kaplan are both physicists by training but Mr Levinson left university at Berkeley to pursue a career in film.
They met years later when Mr Kaplan, by then a professor of particle physics at John Hopkins, suggested a film about experiments at CERN in Geneva using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
The LHC is the biggest and, at more than $US10 billion, the most expensive research machine ever built. It is underground, where its proton beams race around a 27km circular tunnel at nearly the speed of light, controlled by hundreds of powerful superconducting magnets.
Filming of Particle Fever started in 2008 with the first firing of the LHC and an early meltdown as 50 superconducting magnets failed and six tons of liquid helium exploded.
A year later, there is success and the film concludes in 2012 with the discovery of the Higgs boson, a theory put forward by English physicist Peter Higgs about the existence of a sub-nuclear particle.
Mr Levinson says he didn’t want to make a typical science documentary; rather he wanted to use his background in features to give structure to the narrative and characters.
The film centres on two groups of scientists – one is about those running the LHC experiments and the other thread concerns the theorists who debate various explanations.
When Mr Levinson set out, he had to cover all bases with competing groups and experiments.
“Everything happened with the accident and that set the whole film off in a different direction,” he told NBR ONLINE.
“It’s not unusual in documentaries to start off thinking you were making one film and it ends up being another. We had to eliminate the whole CMS [compact muon solenoid] experiment once the Higgs was discovered – that gave us the end of the story.”
Mr Levinson had 500 hours of film taken over seven years but was concerned whether he had enough compelling components.
“I come from a feature world and I had not seen a film about science that captures people in a dramatic way. So was a benefit that I didn’t have a documentary background – I didn’t know better.”
He was fortunate to have a good editor, Walter Murch, who won two Oscars for The English Patient and also worked in features.
“People relate to good storytelling and it hasn’t been done much before in films about science,” Mr Levinson says.
He is also impressed by the human scale of a project involving some 10,000 scientists from 100 countries.
“The great thing about CERN is that it was created explicitly by Unesco to unify a lot of formerly divided nations in the peaceful pursuit of science – no military research or secrets.
“It’s testament to one of the highest ideals we can have as humans to be able to put aside everything else for the pure pursuit of understanding.”
Since the film’s release this year he has been pleased with its critical and popular reception.
“It’s a ‘golden moment’ for documentaries and that people can access films more freely over the internet,” he says.
Before Particle Fever, Mr Levinson made a low-budget film, Prisoner of Time, about two former Russian dissident artists who move to post-Cold War America.
He is now working on an adaptation of The Gold Bug Variations, a 23-year-old novel by Richard Powers that combines the discovery of DNA with the musicality of Bach’s compositions. It was Time magazine’s book of the year in 1991.
• Particle Fever is screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival. Screening times at www.nziff.co.nz