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Bank Street College of Education
Bank Street College of Education

30 Fun Facts About The Voyage of the Mimi

Bank Street College of Education
Bank Street College of Education

Thirty years ago this month, The Voyage of the Mimi debuted on PBS. The groundbreaking educational science series, part of the curriculum of many elementary and high school students (including this writer!), captivated kids throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, spawned a sequel, and kicked off Ben Affleck’s career. Here are 30 things you might not have known about the show.

1. IT WAS CREATED BECAUSE OF A U.S. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION PROPOSAL...

In the early 1980s, the U.S. Department of Education put out a request for proposals for a middle school multimedia science curriculum that would include TV, computer software, video disks, teacher guides, and other educational materials. “It was a time when two important trends were converging: the U.S. was losing its preeminent position as a world leader in science and math, and computer technology was in its infancy and people were beginning to think of it as a potential tool for education,” says Lorin Driggs, who at the time was working in the Publications Department of New York City’s Bank Street College of Education, which created Voyage of the Mimi. “The goal as stated by the Dept. of Education's RFP was to encourage more elementary-age students—including minorities and girls—to be interested in and pursue careers in science and math while also exploring/demonstrating the potential of microcomputing as an adjunct to conventional classroom teaching/learning methods.”

2. ...AND WAS THE BRAINCHILD OF EDUCATIONAL ENTERTAINMENT HEAVYWEIGHTS.

Director and cameraman D’Arcy Marsh (center) and Peter Marston, the owner/captain of the Mimi who also played Captain Granville, between takes.

The late Richard Ruopp, then the president of Bank Street, put together a small team to create the proposal and recruited Children Television Workshop’s Samuel Y. Gibbon, Jr., a producer on shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company, to help. At the time, Gibbon was working on the show that would become 3-2-1 Contact (then called "The Science Show") and was frustrated because “I couldn’t seem to find an entertaining way to design that show,” he tells mental_floss. “I just didn’t feel that the comedy variety format, which we’d used to good effect in Sesame Street and The Electric Company, was appropriate for science. I thought that we ought to be getting kids excited, and they ought to be encouraged to dive into the science, not stand outside it and be amused by it.” He jumped at the chance to work on the proposal, and when it was chosen, he stayed on as executive producer. Bank Street’s Driggs was also on the team, serving first as Gibbon’s special assistant and later as managing editor of the program’s educational classroom materials.

When the series got the greenlight from the Department of Education, Gibbon hired Jeffrey Nelson—a producer on director John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lianna—to serve as on-location producer, and recruited filmmaker D’Arcy Marsh to direct and shoot the episodes. Dick Hendrick, who Gibbon taught at Harvard while he was on a break from production with Children’s Television Workshop, was brought on to write the scripts.

3. FORMATIVE RESEARCH FOR ANOTHER SHOW INFLUENCED THE TOPIC OF THE SERIES.

From formative research done at the Children’s Television Workshop, Gibbon knew that shows with a plot were more interesting to kids than ones without. “Even a comedy bit with a plot line was preferred over one that just had a bunch of jokes—and if it was a semi-serious story or a drama, that was the most appealing thing of all,” he says. “I was very struck by that, and it seemed to me to support the notion that we could teach science in a storyline.” The team decided that their proposal would be for a 13-episode series; each episode would be broken down into a 15 minute dramatic segment followed by a 15 minute documentary—later called “expeditions”—hosted by one of the young stars that would show real scientists at work.

But what would the show be about? Gibbon again drew on what he had learned at 3-2-1 Contact, this time from an idea for an article in the show’s magazine about a sick whale. Testing had shown that it "was far-and-away the most interesting story to kids,” he says. Plus, at the time, “there wasn’t a hell of a lot known about whales. Whale research had been done, but not very much of it. I found it very interesting, so I sort of inflicted it on my chums.” The dramatic portion would feature a multicultural cast and take place on a sailboat chartered by two marine biologists—a man and a woman—who were studying humpback whales. They'd be joined by two high school students, the captain’s grandson, and a deaf graduate assistant. “Frank Withrow, who was in charge of technology and education projects at the Department of Education, started his professional life as a teacher of the deaf, and was very eager for us to include somebody with a hearing disability,” Gibbon says.

4. THE SHOW HAD A BOARD OF SCIENCE ADVISORS.

“We had consultants and an advisory board that met regularly throughout the project,” Driggs says. There were 18 total, including math consultant Magdalene Lampert, who recently wrote Building a Better Teacher; Ted Ducas, a professor at Wellesley College who taught a physics course on whales; Kristina Hooper, a cognitive scientist who later founded Apple’s Multimedia Lab; Bob Tinker, a designer of science probeware; and teachers and faculty at Bank Street.

5. IT HAD A NUMBER OF CHALLENGES UNIQUE TO A KIDS' SHOW.

Nelson was excited to book the Mimi job—and nervous. Most children's shows were filmed in studios at that time, but Mimi “would be shot at sea and on a remote island off the coast of Maine, with a cast that consisted mostly of children, and that was highly dependent on the cooperation of whales and weather, both of which featured prominently in the story,” Nelson says. “There were many scenes that involved whales, and we needed to have lots of good weather as well as a big storm at sea. What if the actors got seasick? What if the whales never appeared? What if there was no big storm? Or worse, what if we got a monster storm that would endanger the cast and crew? There were all these elements over which we had no control. These were not typical challenges for a children’s TV show.”

6. MARSH ALMOST DIDN’T DO IT.

Ben Affleck and Marsh.

The filmmaker had to choose between doing second unit filming on Gorillas in the Mist—which featured a group of gorillas he had filmed five years earlier with primatologist Dian Fossey—or directing Mimi. Meeting with Gibbon convinced him that Mimi was the way to go. "Mimi ultimately seemed a much more important project," he says. (Marsh later worked on The Making of Gorillas in the Mist. Mimi turned out to be the right choice, for one very big reason we’ll get to in a bit.

7. CAPTAIN GRANVILLE WAS CAST FIRST.

When he was looking for a boat for the series, Gibbon talked to some friends he had made while teaching at Harvard between producing The Electric Company and 3-2-1 Contact. His friends recommended he check out MIT professor Peter Marston’s boat, an old tuna trawler that had been converted into a sailboat. “I went up to see Peter and he was such an interesting character with his beard, and clearly a very experienced skipper—but also he had science connections,” Gibbon says. It wasn’t hard to convince Marston, a plasma scientist, to play the part. “We knew Peter had to come with the boat because he was the one who knew how to run it and knew all of its quirks," Gibbon says. "But then he’s also a wonderful character. He had done some performing—he would sing shanties around town, and he was part of a group that did theatrical productions. So he was accustomed to being visible, and it was a short hop, skip and a jump to his being Captain Granville.”

8. THE MIMI HAS A STRANGE HISTORY.

The 72-foot boat was built in Camaret, France in 1931, and was originally used as a cargo barge. In World War II, German soldiers used the boat to haul munitions. At some point, it was sunk in France and was basically a wreck when, in the 1960s, it was bought by a Frenchman who, with his family and two others, fixed the Mimi up with the intent of sailing it around the world. When they were converting the trawler into a sailboat, “they forgot to get the masts for the Mimi—and they had no money," Marsh says. "There was a national monument shipwreck that was sitting there rotting, so they got a chainsaw, cut the masts down and loaded them on a truck in the middle of the night, and had a car chase with the police. They were just filled with idealism and impracticality, but they did a great job fixing the boat up.” Still, it wasn’t long into their trip that the voyagers began fighting, and eventually, the owner sold the Mimi to Marston, who owned it until 1999.

9. EVERYTHING WAS RUN PAST REAL KIDS.

Gibbon believed in testing almost everything, from potential cast members’ audition tapes to the classroom educational materials to rough cuts of the documentaries. That work was carried out by people like Bill Tally, who joined Bank Street’s Center for Children and Technology (no longer a part of Bank Street) right after he graduated from college in 1983 (he's still a research scientist there). “As formative researchers, our role was to give the producers timely feedback about what, in their rough cuts, storyboards, scripts or software prototypes, was working and not working for kids, often in response to questions they had about which way was the best way to go with a particular set of design decisions,” Tally says. “What we did is to assemble small numbers of children, maybe 4 to 10 at a time, from Bank Street School for Children and often from nearby NYC public schools, and sit with them, while they watched, played with, and talked about a rough cut, or prototype.”

The researchers showed almost all of the expedition rough cuts to kids. “I would say we made tweaks in all of them based on those sessions,” Tally says. “Changes often included editing and re-sequencing of segments to make concepts and information clearer, the scientists more appealing, and provoke kids' curiosity more.”

In the rough cut of the expedition called “Boatshop,” for example, documents in Bank Street’s archives show that kids thought that the portions showing the boat makers bending wood were boring, and that, according to one kid, “everybody talked too much." ("It gets boring cause they just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk," another kid agreed. "Not enough action.”) In this case, the researchers recommended, among other things, “edit[ing] down the longer parts of the tape which are not critical to the structure or content” and adding “some more ‘humorous’ moments to ‘lighten’ up the documentary,” according to the document.

“The producers weren't always happy about our recommendations,” Tally says. “There's a built-in struggle between making appealing stories and making science concepts comprehensible to kids, and that led to a constant, fruitful and productive tension between the basement (production) and the 6th floor (research) at BSC. It was a lot of fun arguing and trying to make each piece better.”

10. THEY FILMED THE PILOT … AND RECAST TWO PARTS.

In July 1982, the production filmed a pilot episode, starring Marston as Captain Clement Tyler Granville, future Batman Ben Affleck as his grandson C.T., Edwin De Asis as scientist Ramon Rojas, Judy Pratt as graduate research assistant Sally Ruth Cochran, Mark Graham as Arthur Spencer, and MaryAnn Plunket as scientist Ann Abrams.

Previously, Affleck had been in a low budget movie that Marsh had filmed; Mimi was only his second role. “When we were auditioning kids for C.T., D'Arcy suggested Ben,” Gibbon says. “Ben was absolutely adorable. He came from a family that knew a lot about film and he had some experience on camera. He was a natural. Nobody else we auditioned could hold a candle to him.” They had found Pratt at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The pilot took about a month to film. Afterward, the National Science Foundation agreed to help the Department of Education fund the full series, and production was slated to begin the next summer (to accommodate the kids’ school schedules). But they needed to recast two parts: One actress, who was playing a high school student named Rachel “was a sweetheart, but she became very self-conscious and it was difficult for her to act and to become naturally emotional,” Marsh says. She was replaced with Mary Tanner. Plunket, meanwhile, had to drop out when she replaced Amanda Plummer in Agnes of God on Broadway; Victoria Gadsden was hired to play Ann Abrams. After two weeks of rehearsals in Gloucester, The Voyage of the Mimi officially got underway in the summer of 1983 and filmed for two months.

11. GADSDEN DID HER RESEARCH TO PLAY A SCIENTIST.

Gadsden’s character was supposed to be fluent in sign language to communicate with her deaf research assistant, so “my biggest concern when I was in New York getting ready to go was learning sign language,” she says. “So I did what I could to learn sign language and then during the shooting, Judy Pratt had an interpreter named Jo with her at all times—even when you’re not talking to Judy, she needs to be included exactly the way everybody else is. Once we were all together, Judy and Jo taught me. I never got fluent, but I was able to communicate with Judy, and they taught me how to do my lines.” Gadsden also went on a whale watch with a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and picked his brain. 

12. IT WAS SHOT WITH A VERY SMALL CREW.

Cast and crew shooting a scene on Dyer Island, Maine.

Marsh directed and shot the series on 16mm with just a few people to help: In addition to a chase boat with its own camera crew helmed by producer John Borden, on the Mimi there was an assistant cameraman, a sound man, a lighting guy, a continuity person, and a producer. Then there was the crew, with the actors sometimes helping out. “You can't fit many more people than that on the Mimi,” Marsh says. “I shot handheld almost all of the film. The only time I used the tripod was when it was like getting long telephoto shots of the boat out at sea or something like that. I had a Bosun's [also called a boatswain] chair and I would go up and down while [the crew was] climbing in the rigging.”

13. THE MOST CHALLENGING SCENE WAS A SNAP TO SHOOT.

Tagging a whale.

Nelson thought the scene would be tricky to pull off: In it, fictional scientist Ramon would attach a transmitter to a whale using a crossbow. De Asis couldn’t do it, of course, so the plan was to fly in from California the only real scientist who was authorized to tag whales, dress him up like Ramon, approach a whale in a Zodiac, and use a crossbow with a suction-tipped arrow to attach the transmitter. “We needed a calm sea and a still or ‘lolling’ whale, and we needed to get a good shot of the scientist firing the arrow and attaching it to the whale, with the other characters watching from the Mimi in the background,” Nelson, now a senior curriculum/instructional design associate at the Center for Children & Technology, recalls. “I thought the chances of all of those things coming together successfully were slight, at best.” Jokingly, he called for extra calm weather and asked the whales to appear on set at 8 a.m.

He shouldn’t have worried: The day was calm, the whales were right on time, and the scientist had great aim. The sequence was completed by 9:30, exactly as the script had mapped it out. “We were stunned and exhilarated—and hugely relieved,” he says. “I thought it would be the most difficult scene of the entire shoot, and it turned out to be one of the easiest. It was one of the best days I’ve ever had on a set.”

For Gadsden, the day was a once in a lifetime experience. “I got to go with the scientist and really and truly drive the Zodiac and get an arm’s length away from a whale that he tagged,” she says. “What a day. What an incredible day.”

14. BEN AFFLECK WAS A TOTAL PRO EVEN THEN.

Affleck in the Mimi, listening for signals from the radio transmitter on the whale.

“I’ve worked with a bunch of people who’ve gone on to become celebrities, and they have something in common—this intense focus,” Gadsden says. “It’s completely logical that Ben is where he is. He was adorable, number one. And he had a very intense overdriving ambition—he was incredibly mature and focused and had a sense of career even then.” Affleck, who had been in the pilot, even filled Gadsden in on the history of the project and gave her advice. “He was a very sweet, fun kid, and he was really into us all hanging around and having fun,” she says. “I’ll never forget one time running into him on one of our days off, and he was coming out of a story, and he’d gone in and gotten us all name tags, like a waitress would wear. He thought it would be fun if we wore these cheesy name tags. That was just Ben.” The young actor—just 11 at the time—wrote to his classmates, Gadsden says, and to his brother Casey, “who was at home and bummed not to be included.”

15. SEASICKNESS WAS SOMETIMES AN ISSUE.

Marsh, a former camp counselor, knew that “like an army, kids travel on their stomachs.” So, on the cast’s first trip on the Mimi, he picked up a box of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins. “Everyone ate them in the car and they were all excited,” Marsh says. “We got down to the dock and we got in the boat and the harbor was flat, no problem. And we went out of Boston Harbor and as soon as we rounded the breakwater and we got in the open water there was some hurricane out in the ocean and there were huge waves and the boat was going up and down. Everybody got seasick,” he laughs. “So much for the Munchkins.”

One person who never got seasick was Gadsden. “Some people did suffer,” she says. “But I never did. During the big storm sequence, everyone ended up really sick except for me, Peter, Judy, and D’Arcy. At one point everybody else was puking, and we were up on the deck doing whatever we could.”

16. THE MIMI'S FORMER OWNER RETURNED TO HELP WITH A CRUCIAL SCENE.

When Marston was acting, he had another skipper, a woman named Kate Cronin. “Of course, he was watching her like a hawk, and she was nervous,” Marsh says. “At one point she bumped into the dock and scraped the whole side of the boat!” But for a scene that required the Mimi to be beached and its crew stranded—which was filmed on a remote island off the coast of Maine—Marston called in the big guns: the Mimi’s former French owner. “He was fantastic—‘ah, it's no problem, no problem!’” Marsh remembers. “He brought the Mimi in on a high tide, and let the tide go out, and we had to shoot the whole thing between two tides. We filmed the whole thing, with the boat on its side—it's approximately 12 hours from low to high to low tide, so we probably had six hours to shoot in. But it never felt like a rush.”

17. THE WHALES WERE VERY COOPERATIVE—AND IMPRESSIVE.

“From the beginning we were saying, 'Sam, you know, there's very good chance that we're never gonna get any whales,’” Marsh recalls. “But it was an unbelievable summer, with the humpback whales all over the place.” Another crew, filming in a second boat, was able to get incredible close-up shots of the whales, while Marsh—who was shooting handheld—could get up in the rigging and shoot down on the cast interacting with the creatures. “We sailed out to where they were, and the whales came right up to the boat—you could see it in the film. It was just unbelievable. People could spend years trying to get shots like that.” Says Nelson, “There were many times when we’d be out at sea on a beautiful day, watching humpbacks breaching in the distance or swimming along right next to the boat, when I’d think how amazing it was that this was a job and I was being paid to do it. Seeing these magnificent animals close up is an experience I’ll never forget—and I’ll certainly never forget the indescribable stench of their breath when they exhaled just a few yards away.”

Even science teacher-turned-actor and New York City native Edwin De Asis, who played Ramon, found the experience incredible. “Native New Yorkers are not easily impressed,” he wrote in press materials. “Let me tell you, anyone, including New Yorkers, would be impressed when a humpback whale breeches—even the winos will give a deserving second look, and nothing impresses a wino.”

18. THERE WAS A LOVE CONNECTION.

Marsh and Gadsden met on the Mimi set, and it wasn’t long before “D’Arcy struck up his romance with her during production in the Gulf of Maine. He was much envied by many others in the group,” Gibbon says, laughing. The pair later married.

19. IT COULD HAVE HAD A ROCK ’N ROLL SOUNDTRACK.

Gibbon wanted the series to have rock ’n roll music, but Marsh disagreed—he thought the show needed a more traditional score. So they did a test, putting both kinds of music over the scene were the Mimi shipwrecks on a deserted island and Captain Granville gets hypothermia. “One soundtrack was with flute and guitar and the other one I used the music from [the movie] Day of the Dolphin,” Marsh says. Everything in the episode was the same, save for the music; Gibbon and the researchers took it around to schools and showed it in two classrooms, then asked questions. "The kids who saw the [rock soundtrack] said, 'They come to land, Captain Granville collapses, and has hypothermia, and then they walk around and discover they are on an island,'" Marsh says. "The second group, which saw the movie music, said, 'They come to an island, Captain Granville collapses and almost dies, they find they're lost on an island, and then they save Captain Granville by keeping him warm, and he lives.’” The movie score helped the students better comprehend what was happening, so the movie score stayed.

20. THE THEME MUSIC WAS COMPOSED BY JEFF LASS—WITH SOME GUIDANCE FROM MARSH.

As with the score, Marsh had some very particular ideas about what the theme should be: “’I said to Sam, ‘I think what we want is a theme that carries them through this journey.’ It’s got to get more and more exciting, and then they got to get to the top, and then they get to the other side and they get down. So that’s why the music is like going up and down hill.” Marsh gave that direction to composer Jeff Lass, who Marsh says was “a brilliant guy. He was fantastic—I came up with the idea of what the theme should be, and then he was very good musically.” The earworm of a theme song is one of the best-remembered things about Mimi.

21. THE “EXPEDITIONS” WERE SHOT AFTER THE DRAMATIC EPISODES WERE COMPLETED.

In each mini-documentary, one of the young actors—playing him or herself—would act as host, visiting real-life scientists who were doing research that connected to the content of the dramatic portion of the episode. “The initial impulse was to show some real science, lest kids think that everything was just wonderfully sexy and interesting and with beautiful people doing fascinating things all the time,” Gibbon says. “We needed to inject a little bit of reality into that. And we wanted to show real scientists at work, as opposed to just the fictional ones in our storyline.” Affleck, Graham, Tanner, and Pratt visited places like the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the New Alchemy Institute, and the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory. (Among the documents in Bank Street’s archives is a slip, signed by Affleck’s mother, giving Nelson and scriptwriter Hendrick permission to take Affleck there, who “take full responsibility for him during the course of that visit.”)

22. TO TEST THE COMPUTER MATERIALS, RESEARCHERS WENT ANALOG.

Back when Mimi was being created, computers existed, but they were by no means prevalent in the classroom. In order to test the concepts of the software they were developing, Tally and his colleagues had to test things on paper before the software was built. “We would take the crude screen mock-ups that the programmer created and test them with students at Bank Street School—in the lobby before school, during lunch, and after school,” Tally says. “From the beginning, Sam's idea was to model in the classroom uses of the computer that reflected adults' and scientists' use of real tools: simulations, programming environments, modeling tools, data recording, and graphing tools.”

The formative research led to tweaks in the materials: “A good example of formative research influencing design in specific but significant ways was a session that involved the 'Rescue Mission' game,” Tally says. “In the early prototype, the narrative was that a ship was lost, and kids were trying to navigate toward a Target Ship. We found that while boys were really engaged, girls were far less so. When we probed them about why, the boys talked about 'hitting the target' and generally invoked video game language. We talked to the producers and decided to shift the story and graphics around slightly—making the ship a fishing trawler that had accidentally caught a whale in its net, and the players' job a 'Rescue Mission’—and girls were just as avid about the simulation, and navigation skills, as boys. Given the project's goal of helping avert the well-known drop-off of interest in science and math among girls as they approach middle school, this was an important change."  

In addition to "Rescue Mission," which helped kids develop geo-spatial mapping and navigation skills, other computer software included "Island Survivors," a Sim City-esque game in which kids used software to model an island ecology, set parameters, and try to survive multiple seasons, and "Lab Tools," which allowed kids to plug probes into the Apple IIe and “learn to measure and graph heat, light and sound data from their bodies and the environment around them, conducting experiments that compared their own world to the whale in its environment,” Tally says.

23. ONE EPISODE WAS BANNED IN SOME STATES.

In the episodes “Tracking the Whales” and “Shipwrecked,” the Mimi is damaged and begins taking on water, and Captain Granville is swept overboard. Although he is pulled back on board, he gets hypothermia; to save him, Ramon and Arthur strip to their underwear and climb into a sleeping bag with a nearly naked Granville. “We knew it was saucy, and that was why we wanted to do it,” Gibbon says. “It illustrated something about hypothermia and about heat flow and the fact that a fire isn’t the best way to warm up somebody who is suffering from hypothermia; you’ve got to have contact. It’s not just heat transmitted through the air, it’s actually flesh-to-flesh. So that was quite deliberate.” But the episode caused some controversy: According to Marsh, it was banned in three states, including Texas, because “people almost naked in a sleeping bag with kids was a big no-no.”

It caused some trouble with the educational materials, too: According to Gibbon, “When the salesman that had to sell the materials to Texas and other conservative southern states saw the illustration in the book, he said, ‘I can’t show this to teachers in the south. They will go crazy.’ When they said we had to replace that illustration, we were devastated.” Ruopp persuaded the distributors of the educational materials that the story had to stay the same, but that the illustration could be replaced. “The publisher had to pay for an additional painting to be done,” Gibbon says, “and they had to cut out that page in all of these books—which had been bound and were waiting in the warehouse to be shipped—and paste in another page with a less provocative illustration on it."

24. THE SECOND VOYAGE OF THE MIMI WAS GREENLIT BEFORE THE FIRST PREMIERED.

The Second Voyage of the Mimi focused on Maya archaeology and incorporated social studies and language arts as well as science and math. “The decision to go ahead with number two—our decision to apply for funds for number two—was made very shortly after we finished production on the drama episodes for the first voyage,” Gibbon says. “We had done enough testing of those materials to suspect that [the show] was going to do alright.”

Still, the second Mimi almost never made it to the classroom. “The Reagan administration tried to defund the second Voyage of the Mimi,” Gibbon says. “We were on location in Mexico for the second Voyage, and they wanted to pull the project. But Frank Withrow [from the Department of Education] persuaded them not to do that.”

25. AFFLECK’S MOM TAUGHT THE KIDS WHEN THEY WERE ON LOCATION IN MEXICO.

“Chris, she's a great teacher,” Marsh says. “The first class that she had when she got to Mexico was math class, and so the math class was you take U.S. money and change it to Mexican currency, back and forth. The second one was Social Studies—you go out and spend the Mexican money in a local shop. She could make any situation a teaching, a learning situation.”

26. GIBBON WOULDN’T FUDGE THE SCIENCE FOR ONE SCENE—AND IT WAS WORTH IT.

Margaret Honey, now the president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science, came in after the first Mimi to do formative research for the second series. She remembers when the crew returned from filming a particular scene “looking a little worse for wear,” she says. “There was a lot of grumbling, and people were like ‘We went three days longer than we were supposed to, we went way over budget.’ And I’m listening to all this—I’m just a young thing in the office, kind of soaking it all up—and somebody says ‘Sam wouldn’t fake the science.’ So I’m like ‘What does that mean?’”

In the story in the second season of the Mimi—which deals not just with Mayan archaeology and the search for a lost city, but also a smuggling plot—the Granvilles and some archaeologists are trying to find a Mayan stele that they know exists because of stolen artifacts, which contain clues to the location of the lost city, that are showing up on the black market. The archaeologists discover the giant, half-buried stele on a dive, and realize that the clue to the location of the hidden city is on it—so they have to figure out how to raise the stele off the ocean floor. Which meant that the real production had to figure out a way to do it that made sense scientifically. A real stele would have weighed 5000 pounds; what the production used was much lighter, made of fiberglass. "What Sam wanted to do was have an authentic, plausible, legitimate way of how you would raise an object like this off the ocean floor,” Honey says. “What they settled on—and this is what caused them to go three days longer on the shoot and over budget—was, they ended tying rope around the stele and then inflating strong garbage bags with air from air hoses on the backs of divers.”

Though the production went over time and budget on the sequence, it clearly paid off. When Honey played the rough cut of the scene for students in a Harlem classroom, “the kids were riveted and they had a million questions,” she remembers. “It was clear that this episode hit a major league home run.” The next week, she returned to the classroom, and the teacher told her to go talk to a student named Jose. “Jose says ‘Margaret! You won’t believe what I did!’” she says. “He proceeds to tell me how he recreated that entire scene in his bathtub. I’m like ‘what did you use for the stele?’ He said, 'I used a brick and I used string.’ I said ‘What did you do about air?’ And he said ‘You know those bendy straws? Well, that didn’t work so well.’ And I’m like ‘Oh my god, Jose, that is so cool.’ And that, to me, exemplifies the power of Mimi.” (The fiberglass stele, by the way, is in the lobby of the Center for Children & Technology!)

27. There could have been a third Mimi.

It would have been about the Mississippi River, “from all points of view—geological, historical, engineering—and we were going to include the Indian settlements, the mound-builders along the river,” Gibbon says. The inspiration was John McPhee’s book The Control of Nature, about the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to reshape the bottom of the Mississippi River so it would stay within its banks. “It was just a ridiculous idea that anybody can control the Mississippi River,” Gibbon says. “But that effort, which the Corps of Engineers continues to this day, to keep the river in its banks and keep it from overflowing and flooding places and being navigable for its full length—that effort was so interesting and so fraught with difficulty that that became an inspiration for this third voyage. We wanted to do the biology of the river, the fluid mechanics of the river, the economy of the river, the history, and pitch it as an entire curriculum for a year of school. It makes me drool to think about it even now.”

Sadly, Bank Street couldn’t get the project funded. “I guess the [first Bush administration] was already in office, and they were not happy with spending money on educational television,” Gibbon says. “It’s expensive, and the Republican administrations were very interested in reducing government expenditures. So we were lucky that we came along when we did. Sesame Street and The Electric Company never would’ve hit the airwaves had it not been for the Johnson administration. There was sufficient acclaim for those shows and others like them that momentum carried us through the first two seasons of Voyage of the Mimi. But after that, the conservatives had their way.”

29. The show has fans in some strange places.

Years later, Marsh was shooting a fishing series called The Salt Water Fisherman. "The fishing captain that we were going out with was a Portuguese guy from New Bedford—very, very tough," Marsh remembers. "He had won the equivalent of the Silver Star for saving people's lives during a hurricane ... and he had also gone to federal prison for smuggling drugs. He immediately told the story and said 'I didn't do it, it was a set-up, it wasn't me.' He looks and me and says, 'So what kind of movies you've done?'" Marsh told him that he'd done Spenser: For Hire and Mimi. "He said, Voyage of the Mimi? When I was in prison, we watched two shows: NYPD Blue and The Voyage of the Mimi. He knew everybody in Voyage of the Mimi."

29. The Mimi went on a tour.

In the early ‘90s, Marston spent a couple of days a week taking the Mimi to ports along the East Coast, where students who had seen the show could take a tour of the ship, learn about its history, and sing shanties with the Captain. (When the ship came to Philadelphia, I was there!)

30. The Mimi was eventually destroyed.

In 2010, two University of Vermont graduates named Joe Fraker and Dan Koopman, who had watched The Voyage of the Mimi as kids, went looking for the ship during a trip to Boston. They found the ship languishing in East Boston bay. The Mimi was in bad shape, its hull rotting. Experts determined that it would cost $1.2 million to fix the ailing ship, and the funds couldn’t be raised; in 2011, it was scrapped. Most of the wood was turned into mulch.

Many thanks to Jeffrey Nelson, without whom this story would not have been possible, and to Bank Street’s Lindsey Wyckoff for letting me spend an afternoon looking through the Mimi archives!

All images courtesy of the Bank Street College of Education.

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Mister Rogers Is Now a Funko Pop! and It’s Such a Good Feeling, a Very Good Feeling
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It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood for fans of Mister Rogers, as Funko has announced that, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the kindest soul to ever grace a television screen will be honored with a series of Funko toys, some of them limited-edition versions.

The news broke at the New York Toy Fair, where the pop culture-loving toy company revealed a new Pop Funko! in Fred Rogers’s likeness—he’ll be holding onto the Neighborhood Trolley—plus a Mister Rogers Pop! keychain and a SuperCute Plush.

In addition to the standard Pop! figurine, there will also be a Funko Shop exclusive version, in which everyone’s favorite neighbor will be wearing a special blue sweater. Barnes & Noble will also carry its own special edition, which will see Fred wearing a red cardigan and holding a King Friday puppet instead of the Neighborhood Trolley.

 

Barnes & Noble's special edition Mister Rogers Funko Pop!
Funko

Mister Rogers’s seemingly endless supply of colored cardigans was an integral part of the show, and a sweet tribute to his mom (who knitted all of them). But don’t go running out to snatch up the whole collection just yet; Funko won’t release these sure-to-sell-out items until June 1, but you can pre-order your Pop! on Amazon right now.

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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists
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Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
iStock

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
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Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
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You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

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