Glass-blowing competition series “Blown Away” returns to Netflix July 22, with new artists, judges and challenges. The series, produced by Toronto’s Marblemedia, found fans on Netflix during the pandemic. The premise is simple: a group of glass-blowing artists come together in an enormous studio, or hot shop in glass-blowing parlance, and create glass art for specific challenges. Much like a glass art version of ‘Project Runway” or “Top Chef,” the drama comes from the time constraints and challenges, and also from the fact that these artists are molding fragile glass and working with temperatures that soar between 1600 and 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.
So how did Matt Hornburg, “Blown Away” executive producer and co-CEO of series producer Marblemedia, and Donna Luke, co-executive producer and Marblemedia senior VP of business operations come up with this concept? “We’ve been in business now for 21 years. And we’ve had a lot of success in the game competition space,” says Hornburg, noting that they were looking at a show that would celebrate a different art form.
“We had a group of people — a mixture of development people, interns — and we’re just jamming on a million different art forms and then glassblowing was suggested by one of the interns,” Hornburg says. “We all thought that sounded awesome. Here you have something so fragile and so delicate and so beautiful, but then it’s in juxtaposition with the danger of the fire, the sweaty hot shop and in 2000 degree furnace — and we thought that sounds really cool. It sounds very niche. We were a little bit concerned about our ability to sell it, but then simultaneously we’d been actively talking to Netflix, trying to find what the first show is that we could do together.”
They thought the glass-blowing competition might work for Netflix. “Even though it is niche, they have such a wide reach that it would still find an audience. And yeah, we were delighted that it’s had the critical and audience success that it has had,” he says.
OK, so how does one actually put on a show like this anyway?
Luke started looking around for experts and consultants, and came upon globally renowned glass artist Koen Vanderstukken, who also happened to be a professor at nearly Sheridan College. He was soon onboard, helping guide the build-out of the work space, a “hot box” big enough to accommodate 10 fierce and competitive artists. “I was very proud of myself because I’d written a budget at the time and Googled basically the equipment that I needed in a hot shop, and Koen’s first question was, ‘Well, how much do you have for equipment? And I told him and I thought it was a lot of money and he went very quiet and said, ‘Ummmm…. one furnace will run you to that.’
“So we need more furnaces. We need 10 glory holes, etc. Etc.,” she says. Indeed, the set is kitted out with everything that a glass blower may need, from, well, glass in all colors and shapes, to benches, paddles, yokes, blowpipes, shears and other equipment that artists use to shape and manipulate the molten glass, to annealers, which are structures that artists use to slowly cool their pieces. Essential because the annealer cools the glass so that it won’t shatter.
It was important for “Blown Away” to also educate the audience, but in an organic, entertaining way.
“I think that scripting was really something we carefully balance with Netflix and with our team, trying to find that sweet spot. That partly of why we also cast Nick [Uhas] in the role of the host. They have to be someone who is interested in this world but doesn’t really know anything about it.
Uhas was a contestant on “Big Brother” but more importantly, he is a science YouTuber. Chief judge Katherine Gray, who is a glass artists and associate professor at Cal State San Bernardino, brings insider credibility to the show.
“Nick was perfect in that because he’s a scientist. That’s his background. So he can ask very specific questions. But if he was from this glass world, then it would be too insider baseball. But he’s asking those sort of generic broad questions that the audience at home are asking as well, like, ‘Oh, what is that? How do you do that?’”
Gray’s input is also important to the scripting process, while Vanderstukken and other experts are consulted. “[We’re] just trying to find ways to disseminate information to the audience because there’s this whole sort of lexicon that has to be shared as it relates to all of the different tools and the process.
“We want to make it accessible to a broad audience, but the audience also has a thirst for learning, and so I think that’s part of why it’s been successful — it’s because it’s so niche because it’s so specific. It’s an entire world that you’re entering,” Hornburg says.
Both note the tremendous help from the Sheridan faculty, as well as the Corning Museum of Glass. “Everybody got really behind it and just wanted to make the show because it had never been done before. They were very keen to give us the resources and the help we needed,” says Luke.
With all the fragile glass, high heat and contestants and their aids running around the purpose-built hot shop, were there any disasters? “We were very nervous and believe me, all the crew at the beginning was, well, thoroughly nervous,” says Hornburg. “But we stopped worrying about it simply because all the glass artists are very accustomed to the environment.
“And we learned that air conditioning is super important,” he notes.