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MontanaPBS, MSU film graduates win $500,000 grant to make film about the kilogram

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Montana State University has received a $499,988 grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology that will support the making of a feature-length documentary film about the international race to redefine the standard for the kilogram and reboot the international measurement system.

MSU, in collaboration with MontanaPBS and filmmaker Jaime Jacobsen, an instructor in the MSU Honors College and the principal investigator for the grant, are producing the film, “The Last Artifact.” MontanaPBS is based at MSU.

The documentary will detail the scientific race to find a fundamentally new way to define our standard for mass and replace the ‘last artifact,’ an antiquated metal cylinder that has served as the standard of mass for the entire world for more than a century. Since 1889, this cylinder of platinum and iridium, “Le Grande K” or “Big K,” as it is called, has defined the kilogram. The small, polished cylinder, which is about the size of a golf ball, it is kept in a triple-locked vault on the outskirts of Paris.

“Big K” is mysteriously losing minuscule amounts of weight. So, measurement scientists around the world are racing to redefine the kilogram, seeking a constant in nature that can serve as a new base.

Jacobsen said the documentary will showcase the beauty and dynamism of the scientific method, as well as the personal journeys and pitfalls of those involved in the global effort to find a new way to define mass.

Jacobsen will serve as the project’s co-producer and co-director. An assortment of MSU-connected filmmakers will be associated with the project, including Ed Watkins of Abbey Gateway Productions, who is based in Bristol, U.K., who will serve as the co-producer and co-director of the film. Jacobsen and Watkins are graduates of MSU’s graduate program in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. Other graduates involved with the film are Rick Smith, a member of the MontanaPBS team who will be the director of photography; Parker Brown, sound; and Stefanie Watkins, also of Abbey Gateway Productions, who will serve as the film's editor.

MSU graduate Scott Sterling, who is senior producer at MontanaPBS, will serve as the film's colorist and online editor, and Aaron Pruitt, also an MSU graduate who is associate general manager and director of content at MontanaPBS, will serve as the film's executive producer. MontanaPBS will distribute “The Last Artifact” through a variety of platforms, including cable, satellite, Internet,  HD, VOD, mobile and educational forums, as well as create PBS Learning Media resources for classroom use in high schools and colleges across the U.S.

“I couldn’t be more pleased to support our talented and creative production team, as they chart this scientific challenge on film, and reveal the surprising wide-spread implications for our world,” Pruitt said.

Jacobsen said work has already started on the film, which is expected to be released in early 2019.

“It is a huge honor to receive this award after going through such a competitive  selection process,” Jacobsen said. “I’m thrilled to be collaborating with many talented filmmakers on this endeavor. We are excited to create a beautiful film that highlights the hidden process of science, and the work that goes on behind the scenes to modernize the measurement system upon which all of modern life depends.”

For more information about the efforts to redefine the kilogram, see NIST’s webpage. More information about MontanaPBS may be found on the organization’s website.

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