Do you know how trucks, bandages, circuit boards and liquors are made?
When Jean-Marc St-Pierre and Andre Douillard first came up with the idea for the hit Science Channel television series “How It’s Made”, they knew the show’s format would have appeal on an international level, but had no idea that the documentary about how everyday items are manufactured would reach the heights of global popularity.
“Our original thought was to do the show for 3 or 4 years,” says St-Pierre, president of Productions MAJ, the company that produces the show for the Discovery Channel network. “But it is now 8 years later and the show has become so popular that we are now entering season 14 with potential to produce up to season 18,” he adds.
Based in Montreal, Canada, Productions MAJ began filming in 2000 at different factories around Quebec. The first episodes aired in 2001 in Canada and were an immediate success. Soon after, the Discovery Network picked up the show for the U.S. market and within two months of being on the air, ‘How It’s Made’ was one of the top-ranked shows on the network’s Science Channel.
“How it’s Made” is now broadcast in 180 countries via the Discovery Channel network.
“The popularity of the show in the U.S. is crazy. Everyone knows “How It’s Made” and when we arrive at corporations we are often greeted with fanfare, banners and the directors are signing autographs,” says St-Pierre.
St-Pierre attributes the show’s popularity to its universal subject.
“Andre and I wanted a show that could be broadcast worldwide and we realized a lot of everyday items, like the zipper for example, are made and used the same way everywhere so we knew it would appeal to everyone…the way we produce things in the U.S. is not so different from how it might be made in France,” he explains.
Manufacturers who appear on the show also benefit from its popularity -- and not just in terms of exposure.
Scott Jonap, vice president of sales and marketing for Channellock, a manufacturer of hand tools based in Meadville, Pa., says filming how his company makes pliers not only increased exposure for their product, but was also a great morale booster for associates who got to see the products they work so hard to manufacture everyday featured on a reputable television program.
“For a small corporation to be seen for 4 minutes and 40 seconds, around the world, normally you would have to be a very big corporation to be able to advertise your product like that. So it is a win-win situation. Manufacturers that open their doors to us receive a nice exposure because their product can be seen worldwide,” says St-Pierre.
One episode of “How It’s Made” documents 4 products with each one getting almost 5 minutes of screen time. The host is simply a voice-over, a narrator who explains the manufacturing process for each product. This format is ideal for international markets where the show can be overdubbed in different languages, making it more appealing and easier for the local audience to relate to.
For example, Jean-Marc points out that in Canada a woman narrates the show and her accent would be noticeable to Americans, so in the U.S. the voice-over is done by a man with a dialect more understandable to American viewers.
Each season of “How It’s Made” features 30 episodes, and with 4 products each and 143 episodes already filmed, over 500 items have been featured on the show. With season 13 and 14 already in the works, the production team will have visited over 700 corporations by the end of next year. As the show continues to rise in popularity, St-Pierre predicts they will likely visit over 1,000 factories in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
The process for filming an episode first begins with finding 4 topics, or products, that the production company thinks viewers would find interesting. Once a week the team reviews 7 or 8 of the 52 topics needed for each season.
“We make sure to build each show around a variety of products from music to sports to food, etc. I will not do the same kind of product for an entire show, because if viewers don’t like sports items, then the next topic could be a musical instrument or some other product that might interest them,” says St-Pierre.
St-Pierre says they are always looking for new, interesting subjects that would appeal to viewers around the world. He currently receives over 1,000 emails a week from viewers and corporations with requests or suggestions on items they’d like to see featured on the show.
“We look for things that everyone uses everyday worldwide like a tire, a car, buttons, cooking pans, food and electronics,” he says.
Once topics are finalized, researchers at the production company then look for corporations that manufacture the item and are willing to open their doors to the film crew for a day. He says this is the most challenging part of the job.
“In the U.S. there are many corporations that make the same product and the challenge for us is to find them, research their background and look for other companies in the same area for other items we might film. We also research products by visiting stores and looking at the brands they carry. A lot of products we find are made in Asia, but we prefer to stay in the Americas and Europe because Asia is very far for us to travel and it’s not easy to get into a Chinese factory,” he says.
St-Pierre notes that in the beginning, he had to work at convincing factories to have the production crew film at their facility, as many worried that filming might slow down their operations.
Channellock’s Jonap, for instance, reports that the filming did not delay his company’s operations in any way.
“Director Gabriel Hoss lead an experienced crew familiar with manufacturers of all types and sizes -- we were impressed with the thoughtful, specific questions that they asked throughout the day. They would observe individual processes for several minutes before setting up their production equipment, making sure not to interfere so as to create the most natural filming of the process,” says Jonap.
For logistical purposes episodes are planned around companies located within one region to accommodate filming in one geographical area for several weeks. The film crew spends one day filming at a plant. They will visit other factories within the region each day for several weeks before returning to Montreal to edit the footage.
At the studio, a researcher collaborates with an engineer at the plant to ensure that the script describing the manufacturing process is accurate. When the edits are complete, Productions MAJ sends the footage and script to the company for final approval and to make sure that no company secrets have been revealed.
Once the company agrees with the edits, sound is added in the studio. The footage is also sent to the Discovery Channel U.S.A., where a voice-over using a U.S. person is done so it comes across more like a U.S. show.
Companies that appear on the show are listed in the credits as well as on the website, www.howitismade.net. St-Pierre encourages manufacturers to visit the website to see what subjects may or may not have been filmed, and if an item that your company makes hasn’t been featured, he would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org
For information on when future episodes will air and to see videos of previous episodes, visit The Science Channel at http://science.discovery.com/fansites/howitsmade/howitsmade.html