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Paula Apsell Tribute: A Heroic Leap, by Doug Hamilton

Picture 6-foot ocean swells off the coast of France, a Zodiac dinghy bashing through them, and at the bow, Paula Apsell, a bit ashen, hanging on for dear life

When I think about why Paula is such a TV legend, one specific — and potentially dangerous — moment comes to mind. We were shooting a NOVA special to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the crucial WWII D-Day landings that would highlight the science and engineering critical in the assault. Paula was being ferried out to our film set that day, which was onboard a high tech sonar vessel searching for shipwrecks still littering the seafloor from that battle; by the time she arrived the swells were increasing, and she was confronted by the choice of turning back or leaping from the dinghy onto the sonar ship.

Her jump would require precise timing, as the Zodiac was aggressively bobbing up and down in the notoriously rough waters off the Normandy landing beaches. That surf had been a major obstacle in the D-Day invasion itself, contributing to the devastatingly high casualty rate.

But Paula was not about to let the rolling sea get in her way of taking part in what was to be a very special day. The shoot included not only this state of the art sonar-mapping vessel, but also watching an incredible personal drama unfold. On board was a remarkable ninety-year-old veteran of D Day, who we planned to ferry underwater — with the help of a small James Cameron-like submarine — and film as he saw the ghostly remains of the very ship he had once sailed on — and nearly died on.

Let’s just say that Paula’s leap to the sonar ship was suitably heroic — demonstrating to everyone on board that while this Boston raised city girl might not have the sea legs of a veteran sailors, she had a grit and an enthusiastic spirit to match any of them.

There is no doubt that Paula Apsell is a remarkably deserving recipient of this lifelong television achievement award. She is a too frequently unsung industry legend: 33 seasons at the helm of the most watched and respected science series on American television. As one of NOVA’s regular program directors, I can attest to her passion and tireless determination to keep NOVA’s commitment to dynamic science reporting through exciting storytelling.

I also can attest to the reality that that excellence doesn’t always come painlessly. She won’t compromise — even if you’re breathing down a deadline in what was intended to be the final screening. “Wouldn’t this sequence really work better split between the top and end of the show?” she says making my head spin, knowing that little tweak means I’ll have to completely restructure the film (while fact checking and fine cutting) to make air.

Paula’s unforgiving commitment to excellence is fortunately paired with a remarkable skill to navigate rough scripts and sequences that fall flat, but I would say that the key to her success is much more, it is the grit and enthusiasm demonstrated by that heroic nautical leap. Paula doesn’t just want to make TV, she has a deep curiosity and drive to reveal how the world around us works — down to the molecular level — and she has a fundamental eagerness to be right there with you in the trenches. For me, that is why Paula is legend — and frankly, why I’m so proud to work for her. Who wouldn’t want a boss that will leap on board — literally — because they care more about the work than the discomfort that commitment entails? It is inspiring, and in the end, a lot of fun.

No wonder the excellence of NOVA thrives year after year — and why it’s been on the air longer than Seinfeld, I Love Lucy, and Friends — combined.

Doug Hamilton has 30 years experience reporting, producing, directing and writing documentaries on a wide range of subjects including investigative reports, international affairs, arts, science and history. He produced and directed more than 20 films for PBS NOVA and FRONTLINE, was a producer for Ed Bradley at CBS News 60 Minutes, and directed the Showtime and feature release film, Broadway Idiot