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May 4, 2000

A weekly feature provided by scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.


HVO and Show Biz; unlikely but useful bedfellows

Kilauea is a magnet to volcanologists, visitors, and television production companies alike, drawn from around the word by the spell of its eruptions. Kilauea is also of great interest to those who cannot travel here to see it firsthand. So, it is reasonable that HVO should work with TV crews to bring the Kilauea story into tens of millions of homes on all continents.

Since January 1, three major productions (Pioneer Productions for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic TV, and NBC-Today Show) and several smaller ones have involved HVO staff. Many companies contact HVO first, but the National Park Service must approve any shooting inside the park.

Each production company has its own ideas about what it wants to do. Certain themes, however, carry through. Most TV crews want to show flowing lava and HVO staff members doing something with it-sampling, measuring temperature, determining velocity, etc. We oblige if the volcano cooperates. Many of the companies want to see a lava lake in the crater of Pu`u `O`o and are disappointed that it no longer exists. Nonetheless, they still want to shoot footage of the cone and the murky crater. Finally, many companies want footage of an ocean entry, but only a few are willing to be there at night, when the scenes are the best.

Sources of conflict come not with the footage but with the dialogue and editing. HVO wants a scientifically accurate portrayal of the volcano. This is sometimes difficult to accomplish, when producers want sensational statements. Generally we are rather satisfied with the major documentaries, which strive to be factual. Nonetheless, errors can creep in during editing after the production crew has left the field and our direct involvement has ended.

Misleading impressions are sometimes made. Spectacular scenes from the past are often interspersed with up-to-date footage of the eruption, sometimes in a way that implies an upsurge in current activity. Then we get frantic enquiries from the mainland or elsewhere, wondering if we're about to be overrun.

Rarely are deceptions blatant. Several years ago, a filmmaker was determined to include footage of a car imbedded in a lava flow in Kalapana but could find only rusted-out examples. So, he went to a junkyard and had the top half of a car cut off and trucked out to the flow!

We have some control over other matters. We try to tone down scientific jargon, as Show Biz rightfully requests, but sometimes this makes it hard to explain something we do. We try to use either English or metric units, depending on the desire of the producer. This may seem simple, but HVO, together with most of the world and all scientists, uses metric units. We often have to do quick mental arithmetic or haul out a calculator on the spot when the producer insists on English units.

Finally, there is the question of time. We have jobs to do and sometimes find it hard to accommodate the day or more of shooting that a major production needs. But we try to find the time if at all possible.

These issues aside, the interplay between HVO and television companies is generally positive. Television is a powerful medium, reaches most of the world, and is probably the best way for the public to learn about active, dynamic events such as eruptions. Everyone complains about TV, but most watch it. Even if some concepts don't come through exactly as we would like, 80 percent of our message does. And, in truth, we probably live in an 80-percent world, anyway.

Eruption Update

Eruptive activity of Kilauea Volcano continued unabated during the past week. Lava is erupting from Pu`u `O`o and flowing through a network of tubes toward the coast near the eastern boundary of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. A large skylight of the main tube is visible on Pulama pali. Surface flows are intermittently active in the coastal flats from the base of Pulama pali, to the Royal Gardens subdivision private access road, and beyond to the coast. Lava is entering the ocean primarily at two locations to the east of Waha`ula. The public is reminded that the ocean-entry areas are extremely hazardous, with explosions accompanying sudden collapses of the new land. The active lava flows are hot and have places with very thin crust. The steam clouds are highly acidic and laced with glass particles.

There were no earthquakes reported felt during the week ending on May 4.

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Updated: 8 May 2000