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June 04, 2019

Looking Up

Jerry Kolber and Adam Davis want to inspire kids’ curiosity in their Netflix show Brainchild.

Iva-Marie Palmer
  • Sahana Srinivasan, the host of Brainchild

    Atomic Entertainment
  • Atomic Entertainment
  • Jerry Kolber and Adam "Tex" Davis

    Atomic Entertainment
  • Jerry Kolber

    Atomic Entertainment
  • Adam "Tex" Davis

    Atomic Entertainment

If you've ever had to decide whether to eat or trash an Oreo you dropped on the floor, chances are you've considered the validity of the five-second rule.

But, has anyone really put it to the scientific test? That question – and other endlessly intriguing queries – is exactly the type of real-world science producers/creators Jerry Kolber and Adam "Tex" Davis of Atomic wanted to answer when they set out to make their Netflix series, Brainchild.

Kolber and Davis grew up in the age of what Kolber called "incredible children's television" like Sesame Street, 321 Contact, The Electric Company and Mr. Wizard and wanted to make something equally fun and engaging. In the current landscape, though, they had lots to consider.

"We grew up before even VHS was a thing," Kolber said.

"We had school and some TV and playing outside. Now a kid comes home from school and they have 900 channels between YouTube and cable and whatever else is on their iPad. We realized that for kids to get excited about science and learning and ethics and philosophy and all of that, you have to make the topic and the education as exciting and entertaining as everything else competing for their attention."

As one-time C-students in science, Davis said the pair didn't realize that science could be so entertaining, until they started digging into topics for the show. "The way [science] was presented in school was boring, they didn't make anything fun." Nor did their classroom experience demonstrate how many aspects of day-to-day life actually fit into the science bucket.

"Once we started looking around, we realized how everything is science and there's a ton of cool stuff to explore, and present in a way that's equally fun to the topic." Thus, the first season of Brainchild includes episodes delving into the science behind creativity, dreams, motivation and even social media as well as subjects more normally associated with science, like germs, space and the ocean

The formula Atomic applies is somewhat simpler to explain (at least for a journalist writing about television) than the theory of relativity. "I don't care if you're 7, 70, 17, whatever, there is no person on the planet who doesn't appreciate something being entertaining while also being educational," Kolber said.

As they wait word on whether season two is a go (Netflix currently doesn't share ratings information but the pair does frequently hear from parents and kids who love it), Kolber and Davis are working on a Facebook series, Making Magic. The show, which Kolber compared to a Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee for magicians and illusionists, will debut in May.

They also were about to head to Pharrell Williams' first-ever Something in the Water music festival, to be held in Virginia Beach in late April 2019. Williams, who co-developed Brainchild with Atomic and serves as an executive producer, put the pair in charge of shooting the festival's official documentary.

Before they headed for Virginia Beach, the pair took a minute to talk about making Brainchild.

So, you both attended NYU but took divergent career paths for a while. How did you end up reuniting and forming this partnership?

Kolber: Adam was on the path of screenwriting and sold many screenplays and had many films made. I was on the path of producing and show running, on everything from the original Queer Eye and Inked to Gastineau Girls.

We reconnected on one particular project where I needed some writing help, and it was such a magical and fun working relationship and we thought we should just keep doing this. That was the birth of Atomic. So, we were friends and then we worked together and when we did it just made total sense. And we never realized it would, which was a very nice surprise.

How did you arrive at wanting to make Brainchild?

Davis: For starters, as you saw with our other show Brain Games, we were already thinking in that space of science and we were already using things like experiments and magic and all these ways to teach people abut how their brains work. We realized we could go much further and go outside of the brain and teach how everything in the world works.

We were inspired by all the great kids' shows we grew up watching. We knew kids liked Brain Games, so we said why don't we apply what we've learned and make a great kids' show reminiscent of the kids shows we grew up watching and that would explain the world, everything from social media, to germs to space and the ocean.

I know that Pharrell Williams is involved. How did that come about and what is his role and how does he influence it?

Kolber: We met him through our agent at WME. He had a gotten a global platform with kids after [releasing] "Happy" and doing the songs for Despicable Me. He also had one kid who was six or seven at the time and so he wanted to do something good for kids.

He'd told his agents that he loved the show Brain Games so... we met Pharrell and his producing partner Mimi Valdés. It was like personal and creative love and we were all speaking the same language. I think the way he put it was, we need to make a science show for kids that helps prepare them to be great global citizens.

And he has been everything from an inspiration to a collaborator to a guy who brings out the best in you and challenges you to think deeper and more creatively than you even normally would.

Davis: You also know you have him in your corner. If there's any issue or anything you feel you're not getting, if there's anything you feel strongly about that you're getting pushback on, he says, "lean on me." Break glass in case of emergency and Pharrell comes and says, "you know, I think the guys know what they're talking about."

The first meeting, he's telling us that we're the geniuses and what can he do for us which is an amazing thing to hear from a genius like Pharrell.

In your bio, Jerry, it mentions that you came to this idea of doing something positive in the TV space through meditation. Do you remember that moment?

Kolber: I started meditating very seriously in 2007, and one of the first things I realized as I started spending more time like highly noticing my thoughts – which is what you do in meditation – is that you spend the same amount of time and energy and money making a show that's positive and has a good impact on the world as you do on any other TV show.

It's definitely more challenging to get those shows sold because even though they're super entertaining they can sound a little mission-driven and sometimes networks shy away from that.

But I thought let's give this a shot and be a TV company that looks at some of the greatest social impact successes of the past and aligns with other people in the industry who are willing to take a chance on that kind of show. And you know, speaking really transparently about Brainchild, this is really a show that's very mission driven for us and for Pharrell Williams and for Netflix.

We ultimately hope and believe that everyone involved from our partners to the broadcaster all share the mission that this kind of programming needs to be out there for kids, regardless of whether it's a runaway ratings success or not [but because it's] meaningful and impactful and should have a place in this giant television and media landscape.

Without that gauge of ratings, what kinds of moments or feedback let you know you're on the right track?

Davis: I have a daughter who was 12 when we started Brainchild - she was a big fan of Brain Games - and as a parent you're always looking for that show that you're happy to let your kids watch. We wanted to make a show like that.

So, one of the coolest things is when you read something online like a parent who's saying, "I've been trying to get my kid to wash their hands every day for two years but then they watched the germs episode of Brainchild and now they're washing their hands three or four times a day. "

Kolber: We actually got this amazing post today on Facebook from another country: "My son and daughter just cleaned their room using tips they got from Brainchild on motivation. For the first time there were no arguments and no crying for help. In fact, they're both proud of themselves. From a very grateful mother, thank you!"

Davis: We get dozens of these every week. We love it. We share them with everyone and it makes us smile and we thank them for watching. It's so great to get that reflection back that the show is making an impact and people are taking the time to tell you about it.

In terms of impact, your show also has the first female science show host with [UT Austin undergrad] Sahana Srinivasan. Can you talk about how you decided to make her the face of your show?

Kolber: Every science show that has a solo host has always had a male. Not always a white male but generally a white male. Usually older. For us it's not about trying to make a point as much as it is trying to reset the balance of what the world actually looks like and have that reflected on television.

In the real world, 40 to 50 percent of people that work in science are female, not male. A huge number of them are not Caucasian. We had an opportunity here to put a face you've never seen hosting a science show hosting a science show.

It shouldn't be a big deal. Sahana looks like half the people who work in science. That's why we chose her, not to make a point but just to reflect back to people who need to see it to be inspired that they too can pursue careers in science and technology and can see themselves in media.

Davis: What's interesting is so many people in the industry and the office and at home talking about how important it is to empower women in science but then end up putting a white male person in the lead of every science or education show.

At some point you kind of have to put your money where your mouth is and realize that maybe it's a less popular choice or your ratings won't be as high but so what? Sometimes you just have to do things that move the needle rather than just move the ratings needle.

This isn't meant to be a political question but our current discourse sometimes seems feuds break out over science. For example, that we have people who doubt climate change as being real. In that kind of landscape, what are the stakes for you in making a science show?

Davis: The biggest stakes, I think, is that we get the information correct. [We get everything] triple verified so we are putting out the best information out there. We have scientists we call, we have everything annotated. We're not trying to play both sides, like 'Well maybe…" No, this is what it is and this has been verified. And the stakes for us is getting it right.

Kolber: I also don't believe that the show's purpose to convince a child who's growing up in a non-facts based household that climate change is real or that germs are real or that the world is not flat. That's not the job of the show.

The job of the show is to get that child stumbles on it to become curious, to investigate, to think critically, and to start to ask questions that can expose them and help them discover the truth.

And I think that's true whether we're talking about the extreme example of the child who's growing up in a non-facts based household versus a kid who's just maybe never been exposed to a certain piece of science.

I just want anyone who watches the show to get excited about whatever we're talking about. For me if someone watches an episode and then googles "so the world isn't flat," or "climate change is real," that's a win.

Davis: We're only going to show a round earth on the show.

Very important. In terms of not the how but the what, were there particular topics for each of you that you were just dying to do?

Kolber: I personally was super excited about doing a space episode. Ever since I was a kid I've loved space. My dad and I used to look through a telescope and talk about the constellations. I think space is really intriguing now because it's so easy with our cell phones and social media to constantly be looking down and at a screen.

I think it's critical to remind people that when you look up and think about all the stuff that seems so important right now - it's happening in my palm on the screen and screen is blinking at me and there's so much going on! - that we're actually really small and we're all on this planet together.

So I was excited with that episode to find a very fun and subtle way get people thinking about the fact that we are all breathing the same air, on the same little planet floating through space and there are amazing things out there that we know nothing about. And to just try to give kids a bit of perspective about their place in the cosmos.

And to look up a little more. What about you, Adam?

Davis: This was a tough one. I think I'm going to say creativity. My whole life I've been writing, I wanted to be a director, I produce, my whole life I've always been doing something creative. And people will say, "well you're a creative person, I can't do that" and I always say, yes you can anyone can be creative.

And people wall themselves off from creativity or too easily declare themselves not creative. So I thought if we could do a show that gets into the science behind creativity and do anything to help unlock creativity and make someone who feels like they're not creative say, "you know what, I'm going to try to do something creative," that would be a huge win.

Finally, this being a story to be seen by members of the Television Academy, and newcomers to the industry, what advice or insights do you have to offer other people in this business?

Davis: The first thing to remember is that there is no 'one way' to get ahead in this business. My story is different than Jerry's, which is different than everyone else's story. However, the common traits shared by all our stories are - hard work, perseverance, being open to learning new things, and staying flexible.

For example, for 10 years I was exclusively a comedy screenwriter - and now I'm the co-creator of a hit kids' science show. That's not the typical path - but I saw where the road was headed so I reinvented myself, worked hard, learned new things and was flexible in my thinking and creativity - while applying everything I knew about comedy screenwriting and storytelling to a different genre.

Always remember, the path that gets you home might not be the path you started down or expected.

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