Howard Hughes Medical Institute launches documentary unit

Michael Rosenfeld leads Tangled Bank, which focuses on science

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has launched Tangled Bank Studios as a film-TV production company specializing in science documentaries

Veteran producer Michael Rosenfeld, who joined the institute last year to head its $60 million documentary initiative, is leading Tangled Bank and told Variety that production is under way on a pair of three-hour TV series that will likely air in 2014 on PBS:

•”Your Inner Fish,” based on Neil Shubin’s book about the 3.5 billion-year history of the human body. The three-part series is being produced in collaboration with U.K. production company Windfall Films.

•”The Quest to Map the World,” a three-part series that tells the story of the scientists and explorers who risked their lives to map the planet. Series is produced in conjunction with National Geographic Television.

“The scientific mysteries explored in these initial Tangled Bank productions possess drama that is sure to be universally appealing,” Rosenfeld said. “Our goal at Tangled Bank Studios is to capture the adventure and excitement of science and share that with mass audiences via great entertainment anchored by great science.”

Though the first two projects are in TV, Rosenfeld said that the studio — which has a staff of half a dozen — is exploring the possibility of feature films. “We think there’s a great potential in the giant screen arena,” he added.

The studio’s immediate goal is to generate 10 to 12 hours of programming annually. Rosenfeld, who spent two decades at NatGeo, will act as exec producer, with David Elisco as director of development.

While at NatGeo, Rosenfeld worked as a supervising writer, producer, executive producer and president of National Geographic Television, overseeing production of more than 130 hours of documentary programming a year that aired on National Geographic Channel, PBS and worldwide.

The launch of Tangled Bank, based in Chevy Chase, Md., comes a year and a half after the institute announced a $60 million initiative to fund films and TV as part of its commitment to science education. Footage from every Tangled Bank movie or series will also be used to create short films for the classroom.

The two programs are being developed and produced in collaboration with PBS. Amsterdam-based Off the Fence will handle international distribution.

Sean B. Carroll, VP for science education for the institute, is overseeing tangled Bank.

“Film remains the most powerful mass medium for communicating ideas and stories, and science is one of the most important but least understood domains in our culture,” Carroll said. “We are looking forward to bringing rich, important stories to audiences of all ages.”

The Tangled Bank moniker is derived from the final paragraph of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in order to reflect the ambition to combine a deeper understanding of science with a sense of wonder about the natural world.

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