A major new documentary following the Chinese space program placing of an explorer on the dark side of the moon is currently in production. Producer Valérie Grenon of Camera Lucida, Loren Richardot of CPB Films and Julie Tolza of CLPB Rights discuss the project’s scientific and artistic ambitions and the formidable team they are putting in place to bring these major advances in space exploration to international audiences.

The Interview

One giant leap for TV

Unifrance: How did you have the idea for this scientific documentary?

Loren Richardot: There was a major accomplishment in space at the beginning of 2019. The Chinese space explorer Chang’e 4 landed on the dark side of the moon. It was a first! Fifty years after Neil Armstrong, this scientific achievement reignited interest among international scientists for our planet’s natural satellite. The film was born at this exact moment.  

Valérie Grenon, a producer with Camera Lucida, is passionate about space. She has already produced one film about the moon and another about the cosmos. She also knows CCTV really well having worked on co-productions with them.  

Valérie Grenon

Valérie Grenon: Aware that we were living through an historic moment for science, when Yves Janneau invited us to Sunny Side 2019 to meet the CCTV teams who were looking for a co-producer, François Bertrand and I jumped at the chance. We found mutual trust and a shared desire to produce an ambitious scientific film that deals with the new stakes involved in conquering the moon.

Within Global Doc, Caroline Behar of France Télévisions immediately shared our enthusiasm and understood the international and original nature of the co-production.

Unifrance: What are the program’s strengths?

Loren Richardot: With this documentary, we’ll have front-row seats to a new space revolution in which the moon will play a decisive role in its conquest.

Exploring – without a pilot – the dark side of the moon, something which is itself a challenge – is the first step in the Chang’e program launched by China in 2004. This extremely ambitious research program is making new strides in lunar science and opening doors in terms of outer space exploration.

Valérie Grenon: Thanks to its location on the dark side of the moon, the explorer can observe space away from the pollution of radio waves produced by the Earth and so contribute to a better understanding of the origins and evolution of the solar system. There are already projects for the construction of giant radio telescopes underway.

For the first time ever, the CNSA, the Chinese space agency, is opening its doors to an international team, ours. François-Xavier Vives, the director, has access to the latest discoveries as well as the CNSA’s previously unseen archive footage. He will travel there to meet the Chinese scientists working on the Chang’e-5 program in order to understand what their research means at an international level.

What will the latest samples from the South Pole reveal? What new things will we discover about the dark side of the moon and what technological progress will be made in terms of lunar exploration? China has really surprised the world by the speed of its performance and isn’t stopping there. Its objective is to send a person to the dark side of the moon in 2036.  

Loren Richardot: We will travel the world to meet European scientists from the French National Center of Space Studies, a partner for the film, and the European Space Agency, who are cooperating with NASA. The space world is on fire! The scientific challenge is reinforced by intense geopolitical competition. Alliances and rivalry are part of this extraordinary technological adventure. We will be unflinching in questioning the ethical, economic and politic implications.

Our greatest strength is also – in fact it is above all – the film team. François-Xavier Vives, the director of Ariane, une épopée spatiale (90’, prime time) and Cosmic Flows (90’, prime time), masters the work perfectly. In addition to his scientific rigor, he knows how to spotlight the human aspect in each of his films. He tells a story. We associated his directing skills with the knowledge of Christophe Galfard, a student and colleague of Stephen Hawking. He is the film’s scientific adviser and will work alongside the scientists featured in the film to ensure the quality and clarity of the knowledge shared regarding this often complex discipline.

Unifrance: The film targets the general public but is rooted in science.

Julie Tolza: The public has a natural appetite for things related to space. The film therefore targets people who love this subject. The very latest technological advances and the inherent challenges of this exploration are revealed and explained with great clarity by the physicist Christophe Galfard, who loves to share his passion through his experience.

Valérie Grenon: We are leveraging the notion of immersion to facilitate that. We will film in Iceland, for example. The volcanic terrain there, which has been subjected to the elements, is the most similar to the surface of the moon. Against these spectacular and breathtaking backdrops, viewers can feel the intensity of volcanic activity on the moon. We will trace the creation of underground caves made by the flow of lava just like those on the moon’s surface. That is where scientists plan to install inhabited stations in the future, safe from radiation. The Gobi desert, which is similar to the landscape on Mars, and Hainan Island, from which the Long March rockets are launched, are among the destinations.

Loren: We are developing special holographic effects to immerse the scientist within a reconstruction of the solar system. He will be able to point to an asteroid or a part of the moon and information will appear. The film needs to be both informative and attractive.

Unifrance: This documentary is also a large-scale scientific challenge.

Loren Richardot: This adventure is a scientific challenge at every step. The documentary offers backstage access to these feats. How did the Chinese teams manage to land on the dark side of the moon? What obstacles did they encounter? What failures did they overcome? Once the samples have been taken and analyzed, what will the results be and what conclusions will be made? We will also be there beside them to understand the next steps for the program.

Just a few years ago, it was unimaginable to think there was water on the moon or that a lunar station would one day exist. Now, the question isn’t so much whether it can be done but how we will extract the water and when, and above all who will be the first to build an inhabited station there.  

Unifrance: The program has a large target audience and is being honored with a prime time slot on a French public channel.

Julie: We are producing a 90-minute HD feature for France Télévisions to be broadcast with the large-format science slot. We will also create 52-minute HD and 4K versions for the international market. Right from the development stage, we worked hand-in-hand with the production (Camera Lucida/CPB Films) and distribution (CLPB Rights) teams in order to ensure the film reaches a large variety of international partners.

Beyond the rigor of the scientific content, we have developed an original type of documentary that combines a strong storytelling aspect in the form of a scientific enquiry made by Christophe Galfart and an ambitious artistic vision.

Space is fascinating to the general public, for both science fans and the simply curious. It may be scientific, but the film also looks at questions of geopolitics, ethics and the future of humanity. It is a timeless and universal story that will take the viewers on a voyage of discovery via incredible landscapes in all four corners of the globe.  

Unifrance: What feedback have you had from potential partners?

Julie Tolza: After the development phase, start of production was confirmed in September 2021. We are delighted to have been able to present it for the first time on the international market during the Rendez-Vous de Biarritz.

NHK is once again placing its trust in us and co-producing the film. We already enjoyed their support for the documentary Cosmic Flow by François-Xavier Vives, which was an historic success. The documentary saw the year’s best viewer figures in their Cosmic Front slot. We are currently in talks with the USA and Spain. Radio Canada and Planète+ Poland have already confirmed their pre-purchase. And I will be at MIPCOM to present the project to new countries and follow-up on the search for new financing.