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'A show about life': Missoula science communicators produce PBS show 'Eons'

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Eons PBS Digital Studios

Kallie Moore and Blake de Pastino work on the web video series "Eons" for PBS Digital Studios from Missoula. Moore, the collections manager at the University of Montana's Paleontology Center, hosts the shows, while de Pastino is chief content officer at Complexly, which produces the series.

Fun fact: The greatest ape in world history was a species called Gigantopithecus, probably twice the size of modern gorillas, that lived from 9 million years ago to 100,000 years ago in a lush rainforest, some of which is now the Arctic.

Another fun fact: During the Triassic geologic period, Earth experienced a 2-million-year rainy season, an event that created the conditions for dinosaurs to exist.

Those are just some of the stories told by a crew of Missoula-based science communicators, who for the past year and a half have broadcast a web video series called “Eons” for PBS Digital Studios to millions of viewers worldwide.

From a converted mortuary near downtown Missoula, a team at Internet-star Hank Green’s video production company Complexly, in partnership with the University of Montana’s Paleontology Center, produces the weekly YouTube series.

The show was born when PBS approached Complexly about doing a show about dinosaurs. But it turned into a show about the entire history of life on Earth.

The show explains everything from super volcanoes to ancient climate change to the fossil record to the evolution of humans, dinosaurs, mammals, amphibians and everything in between. It’s got detailed, historically accurate “paleo art” and animated graphics done by producer Seth Radley. Each episode comes across as a wild visual ride back in time to give viewers a sense of how life as we know it came to be. It’s funny, beautiful, informative, captivating and shocking at the same time.

“We hope to give people a sense of humility and about the transitory nature of life,” explained Kallie Moore, the collections manager at the Paleontology Center and a host of the show. “Everything you see around you is the product of sometimes billions of years of evolution to get to this form. We hope it fosters more of an appreciation of current life by looking at the ancient past.”

Blake de Pastino, a science journalist and the chief content officer at Complexly, works with Green and Moore and a team of scientists, writers and editors to create each script.

“EONS will go on a deeply engaging and wildly entertaining tour of Earth’s four-billion-year natural history, one fascinating vignette at a time,” Green said in a statement when the show was first launched. “I’m excited to explore these topics in detail with Kallie and Blake and hope it will encourage audiences to become more interested in paleontology.”

This week, they’ll be debuting a show on “Megalodon,” an ancient extinct species of giant shark that’s believed to have reached sizes of nearly 60 feet long. It prowled the oceans for millions of years.

“I’m so excited for that one to come out,” Moore said, clapping her hands. Other shows were titled “The Biggest Thing That Ever Flew” and “How Sloths Went From the Seas to the Trees.

The show doesn’t just oversimplify things to make things easy, de Pastino explained.

“We’re called Complexly because we allow complex things to be complex,” he said.

The goal is to reach an audience of people who may never have cared about giant extinct armadillos or a group of huge amphibians that existed for 210 million years.

“We decided we weren’t going to pitch this show to a select-few viewers who care about natural history,” he said. “We wanted to pitch it to people who didn’t know they were interested and we wanted to answer questions they didn’t know they had.”

In essence, they aspired to be the “Cosmos” of natural history, referring to the groundbreaking 1980s television show by astronomer Carl Sagan that got a whole generation of people interested in science and space.

“We’re interested in talking about the broadest possible view and providing the most context and giving a deeper, more meaningful understanding of every subject,” de Pastino said. “A mainstream television show might just introduce a new dinosaur a week, but we realized in order to do a meaningful show we would have to do an evolutionary context of where they came from and what birds evolved from them. And we also have to talk about changes in climates and habitats and ecosystems. And at the end of it, we realized, oh, this is basically a show about life.”

He informed PBS of their ambitions before the show launched in June 2017, and he said PBS has let them have creative control ever since.

“We said, 'We’ll see you dinosaurs and raise you a history of life on earth,' and they loved the idea,” he said, using a gambling analogy.

Moore said the show fills a “niche that needed to be filled.”

“The show takes a big look at the evolution of life and how it has changed and why it has changed,” she said.

De Pastino credits the producer, Radley, with making it visually enthralling with graphics and artwork and special effects.

“The reason the show is so successful is because it’s so beautiful,” he said.

With 605,000 subscribers and some of the 70 shows being viewed as many as 3 million times, its popularity appears to be growing. De Pastino isn’t surprised because he knows humans are intrinsically curious.

“Some of our most popular episodes are the most counterintuitive,” he said. “They are unexpected, and so they make an impression. There are things that happened in the past that we can’t imagine.”

The show can be found at YouTube.com/Eons or at pbs.org/show/eons/.

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