Down Memory Lane

07/05/2010 by Sylvain Hallé

When Université Laval's Professor Jean-Marie De Koninck called me on the phone one evening in early 2005, I had no idea that six months later, I'd be running across the university buildings in Québec City with a video camera, wearing a very fake-looking grey wig, and instructing a very serious professor to redo a scene where he throws a cell phone over his shoulder. "Wait a little longer before you drop it, so that we can insert the phone operator's voice in the final cut."

Photo of Show Math

At the time, we were filming bits of what would become Show Math, a conference on science and mathematics where seemingly arcane concepts are demystified with humor --plus lots of video clips and sound effects. The conference was Pr. De Koninck's idea, simmering in his mind ever since the successful conference he'd given in 2002, and which, in retrospect, was a modest dress rehearsal for the full-blown show we were creating. Little did we know then of what would happen next: within a mere twelve months, Show Math would earn Pr. De Koninck's the title of Scientist of the Year by our national television network (Radio-Canada), the happy clique of wannabe actors that accompanied him would travel across Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick to spread the Word of Show Math, and to this day more than 90 performances of the show would be played by an ever-renewing cast of enthusiasts, even spawning an English version of the French original and a sequel, Show Math II. Latest statistics tell me that Show Math has now been seen by over 200,000 people. Not bad for something we predicted would last, say, five or six times. Yes, little did we know of that.

As a matter of fact, little did we know of anything. Sure, we'd already heard of some professors preparing "public lectures", but most of them merely looked as traditional course slides pimped up by somebody who actually has some talent for drawing. We were preparing something on a totally different scale: a presentation where real multimedia clips prepared especially for that purpose were to be mixed with live skits prepared especially for that purpose. Not a lecture, a show --a funny one, that just happens to talk about math and science. As far as we knew, nobody had ever tried something of that kind.

Photo of Show Math

With my friend (and Duo Tang companion) Sébastien Roy, and with good cues from Pr. De Koninck, we ended up choosing the show's topics, thought of funny ways of presenting them, scripted, directed, and for the most part acted and edited the whole material. There was no textbook on that kind of stuff, and certainly not much to copy from others. So we just invented whatever we needed as we worked. It resulted in bits of material I'm really proud of --such as the part where Pr. De Koninck dialogues live with a costumed version of himself onscreen; we made him learn the exact timings of each phrase to fit with the pauses in the taped clip. Or the fake TV ad we prepared for the show, where for a reason that eludes me, we chose to dress as Japanese-talking farmers holding a pitchfork and a shortwave radio. That was a lot of fun.

I now have a page summarizing the work I did for the Sciences and Mathematics in Action (SMAC) project, as it was later called, with heaps of interviews and video clips from that golden era. I sure wish I could work on something of that kind again some day!

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