Friday, October 11, 2013

INTERVIEW: Behind the Scenes at a Reality Show - The Big Bang Theory Gets a Reality Check on Discovery Channel's The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius

A Behind-The-Scenes shot of the cast of the Big Brain Theory-Pure Genius

Did you ever wonder what it was like to get on or be on a reality show? Suzee goes Behind the Scenes with Eric Whitman of Discovery Channel's "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius" who gives us a vivid picture of what it was like to "live" on a reality show!

Eric Whitman - The Big Brain TheoryMany thanks go out to Eric for this interview and his time. Eric is as near to a real Big Bang Theory cast member as you may find though he may not appreciate the analogy. Eric is a is graduate of Princeton University who studied Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. He is currently in the Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute specializing in bipedal walking.

If you didn't catch "The Big Brain Theory" while it was on, find it! The premise of the show was that a cast of very, very, intelligent individuals trained in engineering, science, physics and all those subjects that were the hardest in high school (for most people anyway) were challlenged to build structures and devices that would meet certain seemingly unattainable goals that made you wonder, "How the heck are they gonna do that?" There was a lot of blowing up things, robots, races and welding goin' on! I have to say, every project looked complicated, but read on, and you'll see if Eric thought so too.
SBTS: How did you get on the show? How did they find you? Did they seek you out personally (as some people for reality shows now are) or did you answer an ad?
I saw a link to the casting call on an internet forum associated with FIRST robotics, a high school robotics competition that I'm involved in as a mentor for a local team.

SBTS: What was the interview process like?
The casting call asked for some basic information and a paragraph about why I would be good.  I also made a video because it seemed like a good idea.  First they called me asking for a video.  I
reminded them that I already sent them one, but they had a few specific things they wanted, so I made a longer version including them.  Then there was a round or two of phone interviews. Eventually they flew us out to LA for an in-person interview. 

SBTS: How did you work the filming into your school/work schedule? Did you get paid? Do they pay for everything while you are there? 
I was a grad student finished with classes, so my schedule was pretty amorphous.  I simply took a leave of absence (unpaid).   My adviser was very supportive and excited about the whole thing.  I was paid a small stipend (plus room and board, obviously, since I was locked into the cast house) by the production company - actually a bit more than the student stipend I was giving up.  The real cost was that it pushed back my graduation (and therefore real-job-salary) several months.

SBTS: How long was the filming?
A few days over 7 weeks.  Each challenge was the specified number of days (3-5) plus a start day with the blueprint challenge and demonstration and a test day afterwards.  No days off between challenges.  A day or two of preliminaries at the beginning and final interviews/photo shoot the same day we flew home. 

SBTS: Where was it filmed? It looks like somewhere out in the desert. Did they tell you in advance where you would be going? Sometimes there is a lot of secrecy involved in reality shows.
The shop was adjacent to the Burbank airport.  You occasionally see the alley outside the shop.  The airport was on the other side of the alley from one of the two shops.  The house was a 5 minute drive away.  Demonstration and test days were all over the place up to more than an hour's drive away. 

SBTS: In reality shows the cast always seems to be eating!! And there were plenty of scenes in the BBT in which people were eating. Was there a fully stocked refrigerator? Did you order out? Were you able to request food or did you get what you get? Were you able to leave the premises to go out to a restaurant or to go to the supermarket?
There was a whiteboard in the kitchen where we could write whatever we wanted them to get us. This was mostly just for breakfast.  On shop days, they brought us restaurant food for lunch and dinner.  They gave us the menus in the morning and we got to pick what we wanted.  On location days (demonstration and test), we got food from the catering ("crafty").  There were always snacks and soda & water around.

Now some questions about the show itself...

SBTS: Were the any romances brewing?
No.  Very few of the contestants were single.  Both female contestants are married. 

SBTS: Were there some people that really didn't like each other (no need to name names) that had to act cordial on camera?
The cameras were always there, so if they acted like they liked each other on camera, I probably wouldn't have known they didn't.  That being said, we mostly got along except for the people you see not getting along on camera.  I consider most of the other contestants friends. 

SBTS: Was the show pretty real? There are some shows were storylines and drama are created. How does that compare to BBT?
It was all real.  They may have chosen to focus more on the drama than we thought it deserved, but it was all real.  I only once noticed them taking something somebody (I believe Tom) said out of context, but it was so trivial I don't remember what it was anymore.  It may well have been accidental since I think the thing it sounded like he was saying was also something he would have said.  Other than all the walking places shots, they never told us what to do or say.  A few times we did something important in the shop and the camera happened to miss it, so they asked us to reenact it.  I think they stopped doing that after a while because we were never able to muster the same enthusiasm the second time.  They asked plenty of leading questions, some interviewers more than others, but you were always free to refuse to say what they wanted, and I often did.

SBTS: Were any of the project very basic to an expert like yourself, like something you had in Engineering 101? Or, were they really as complex and difficult as they seemed?
Many of the projects were easy to complete by themselves.  The problem was that we were playing against the other team and had to succeed in a way that impressed the judges more.  Trying to do something more complicated than necessary was the cause of several failures.  Sometimes both teams failed in this way.  It was analogous to playing blackjack: you needed to do the most impressive thing you could, while making sure it really was something you could do.  It took us a few challenges to get a good feel for what we could do in the given time. 

SBTS: Were the projects really done in the time frame required or did some require additional time which was not shown on air?
On several challenges one team would be granted a few extra hours to finish on the condition that the judges would be made aware of them running past the deadline.  Sometimes the other team would be offered the same extension, which they might decline, preferring to be able to say they finished on tome.  It was unclear how strongly the judges took this into account.

SBTS: Are there any rumblings about doing another season of the show with a different cast?
They wanted to do another season, but it was always dependent on how well it did.  The numbers I've heard for viewers were lower than the numbers I heard for their hopes, so I think it did not meet expectations and they will not do another season.  It was rather expensive to make. 

Now about you..

SBTS: What was your favorite project?
My two favorites were the robot and the waterfall.  The robot project was my favorite team achievement, particularly the jumping bot.  The waterfall was the personal achievement I am proudest of.  I had a strong influence on the design and think I did a good job as team captain.  On both projects, I'm proud of what our team built and they were the first two successful builds by any team and one of the few (along with the bridge) where one team succeeded and one team failed. 

SBTS: One of my favorite shows in the Big Bang Theory, so I have to ask if you watch that. If you do, do you think the characters are pretty realistic, or do you see obvious flaws to the show?
I've only seen a few episodes of the Big Bang Theory.  From what little I've seen, I don't find the characters believable.  That being said, I have meet people who made me think "I thought people like this only exist on TV." before.  And I've never been to CalTech. 

SBTS: Did you enjoy the experience? What did you like about it and what did you not like about it?
I had a ton of fun.  I really enjoy the short term projects and the fast pacing.  I don't get to actually build things in my real job very often (I primarily write software), so it was nice to get my hands dirty again.  And I liked most of the people.  It was a truly unique experience.  I didn't like the constant stress.  I think it bothered me less than some other people, but it got to all of us somewhat.  It was also long hours with no days off, which could get exhausting.  I'd say I had fun every day but one (the final build day of the food challenge).  But by the end, I was ready to go home.  After the food challenge, I was a bit burned out.

SBTS: Do you think you made any lasting friendships or connections to help you in your career?
I definitely think I made lasting friendships.  I'm in contact with several of the other contestants and expect to remain so.  I doubt the connections will help much with my career though.  I'm in a fairly small, specialized field.

To watch episodes of the Big Brain Theory, visit Discovery Channel online:

To see one of Eric's favorite recipes, visit the Recipe section on this blog.

To watch Eric and his robot, just click play!

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