Michael Barnes - Periskope

Prior to establishing Periskope in 2008, Michael Barnes gained an international reputation as a producer and director of innovative and popular science, history and docudrama films. He has directed over 40 hours of primetime television for PBS, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, BBC, C4, FIVE, Discovery Canada, La Cinquième, History Channel and CBC.

In Periskope’s first production, Barnes applied his distinctive style to the last installment of the twice Emmy nominated Doctors’ Diaries (PBS NOVA): a series of sensitive observational films about the training of 7 doctors filmed over 21 years. Filming began on the day the students started classes at Harvard Medical School. The series captured many of the rights of passage required to join the medical tribe. First broadcast in 1988 it was a forerunner of reality TV and won the praises of critics, viewers and the medical profession.

In 1992, This Old Pyramid (PBS NOVA) breathed new life into the archaeology documentary (and created a format which continues to be emulated to this day) when Barnes brought to Egypt a stonemason and an Egyptologist to put construction theories to the test by building a mini pyramid in the shadow of the Great Pyramid.

Stonemasons from Cairo used tools and techniques available to their ancient counterparts as they tested out methods for positioning limestone blocks weighing up to two tons on the rising pyramid. Throughout the three week build the Egyptologist checked their efforts against the evidence left on the Giza plateau by the original pyramid builders. The engaging protagonists and the film’s experimental archaeology approach were enthusiastically endorsed by academics and also garnered high ratings. The accompanying website and teacher’s guide are widely used by schools and universities. “It’s not peer-review, vetted experimental archaeology”, explains Egyptologist Mark Lehner, “but it’s the closest we’re going to come on a lot of these gigantic projects”.

The popularity of the “Pyramid” format, (aka The Pyramid Builders, BBC) resulted in Barnes executive producing further series in the same vein. He also directed several episodes. In Secrets of Lost Empired (PBS/BBC) he led teams that explored how the Egyptians raised an OBELISK and investigated two great engineering achievements of the INCA: grass suspension bridges and earthquake resistant structures.

In Medieval Siege (PBS NOVA/C4) two full size trebuchets were reconstructed at Castle Urquhart in Scotland. The experiment convincingly demonstrated that 13th century siege weapons could sling 250 pound stone balls with such accuracy that they destroyed stone ramparts at 200 yards distance. In China Bridge , the task of engineers, historians and timber framers was to decipher from a 900 year old scroll the long forgotten design of a unique Song Dynasty wooden arch. This experiment resulted in the construction of a rainbow bridge in the town of Jinze, near Shanghai. It is still in use today.

In Machines Time Forgot (C4, DISCOVERY etc) Barnes brought the series closer to the present when investigators dived in a reconstruction of David Bushnell’s “turtle” Submarine that in 1776 came very close to sinking the British admiral’s flagship in New York harbour.

Using a British Museum wall relief depicting a Chariot as a starting point, a carriage maker, horse trainer, weapons expert and an historian try to figure out how these mobile war machines were deployed by the Assyrians in 8th century BC campaigns. In the Chariot episode two and four horse chariots are built and road tested to destruction at the site of an Assyrian battlefield on the present day Turkish-Syrian border.

In a documentary that becomes as compelling as drama Anastasia Dead or Alive (PBS NOVA/C4) follows investigators on both sides of the fence as to whether or not the youngest daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, survived the bullets of the Bolsheviks’ firing squad. The programme was instrumental in helping to produce the DNA evidence that ultimately proved that Anna Anderson was an impostor.

Last Flight of Bomber 31 follows a son’s emotional search for his father who went missing 55 years after his father’s bomber failed to return to its Aleutian Island base after a raid on Japan’s Kuril Islands. Tom Rains travels to an isolated volcano on Siberia’s Kamchatka peninsular where the wreck has been discovered. Will a crash investigator and a Pentagon team of forensic archaeologists find out what happened to his father and the other six crew members of Bomber 31.

In the summer of 1942 two fighter pilots - Pug Southerland and Saburo Sakai - faced off in a dramatic Dogfight Over Guadalcanal (PBS/NATGEO). Both pilots were injured but amazingly survived to fight another day. To learn why the American, who briefly had the Japanese Ace in his sights, did not fire on him, involved getting a crash investigator to the inaccessible wreck of his aircraft deep in the jungle of Guadalcanal. The other major challenge was to authentically recreate the lengthy dogfight by seamlessly blending specially filmed air-to-air shots of a restored Zero and Wildcat fighter with CGI, location aerials, studio based cockpit reconstructions and special FX.

Bomb on Board (NATGEO/five/DISCOVERY CANADA) tells the story of how terrorist Ramzi Yousef (played by Sam Kalilieh) built a liquid bomb that he successfully smuggled past Manila airport security screening and onto a Philippine Airlines on the first leg of its flight to Tokyo. The bomb exploded, crippling the flight controls, but miraculously did not destroy the jumbo. Yousef’s attack on PAL 434 was a test run for a larger operation, codenamed “Bojinka” that would have targeted eleven American passenger planes in the hopes of killing up to 4000 people in one day. To increase the production value, street and airport scenes filmed in Manila were designed to add authenticity of scenes with the cast shot in the studio and streets of Toronto.



David Dugan Chairman Windfall Films

I have known Michael for 20 years and have always admired his eagerness to experiment with new forms. While on staff at NOVA his most important innovation was to devise a completely new approach to archaeology (that has since been widely imitated) He teamed up archaeologists and engineers to establish how ancient structures were built, by attempting to re-build them using the tools and techniques available at the time. This hands-on approach to archaeology developed into a fresh style of film-making so much more engaging than the familiar “men-on-knees-with-trowels” approach. It successfully wove a contemporary narrative (that often included abrasive arguments and suspense) into an ancient detective story.

He is committed to science and medicine and has a consistently strong track record in communicating complex ideas in an entertaining way. On a personal level, he has a self-depreciating sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye. He is always approachable and adds thoughtful contributions to any debate.


Paula Apsell, Executive Producer NOVA

Michael is a bright television journalist, filled with ideas and passionate about science and engineering. He was one of the most accomplished and creative producers, coming up with many of the ideas (Doctors’ Diaries, Secrets of Lost Empires) for which the series is known.


Jared Lipworth, Director, Science Programs, THIRTEEN

I worked with Michael on a PBS documentary called “Dogfight over Guadalcanal” which aired as part of my Secrets of the Dead series. The film was a forensic and personal investigation into a famous World War II dogfight between an American pilot and Japanese ace.

Michael did an outstanding job, paying careful attention to the science, the investigation and the storytelling. During a grueling shoot in the jungles of Guadalcanal, he was able to film a crash site investigator examining the wreck of the American’s plane, as well as beautiful and compelling reconstructions to tell the story of the American’s pilot’s escape after he was shot down. In the air, Michael was able to obtain excellent images of the two planes in action, and using simple illustrations, he was able to explain the complex scientific laws that govern aerial dogfights. Additionally, he was able to bring the two pilots to life, delving into their characters and allowing viewers to get to know them as individuals, not just anonymous combatants.

The combination of Michael’s efforts and approaches made for an educational and entertaining film, and his constant desire to find new ways to convey scientific concepts made him an ideal partner. This is something he has done with great success throughout his career. From NOVA’s “This Old Pyramid” which pioneered the genre of experimental archaeology, to his docudrama for National Geographic on Ramzi Yousef, Michael has always strived to find fresh storytelling approaches while staying true to his science journalistic roots.