By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
His YouTube videos have been viewed more than 100 million times.
His record was played in space.
Now John D. Boswell can add another achievement to his resume: television producer.
He thought up the concept behind “Origins: The Journey of Humankind,” a documentary show that premiered in March on the National Geographic channel.
He also composes and edits for the show.
Each episode, hosted by Jason Silva, explores a different factor that helped to shape humankind, from mastering fire, to communication, to war.
“Our approach to history, we’re telling it cinematically,” Boswell said. The show cuts between Silva’s philosophical monologues, film-quality reenactments, commentary from experts, and fast-paced videos. “We’ve elevated the genre in terms of the look, the feel, the music.”
Boswell’s vision was to take scientific information and present it in a fresh, modern way that viewers can’t look away from.
It’s what he’s been doing his whole career, ever since he became a viral sensation on YouTube.
Boswell’s love of music started in high school in Spokane, when he was in a heavy metal band with his friends.
“I’ve long outgrown those days,” he said. “But I had a great time in high school.”
Boswell moved to Bellingham to attend Western Washington University. He never left.
“I never really wanted to leave,” he said. “It’s such a beautiful place.”
His interest in music continued through college, although he chose to major in economics.
In college he also discovered his fascination with science.
While it never interested him in high school, he found a new love for it taking elective classes.
“It kind of awakens that childhood wonder you have about dinosaurs and space,” he said.
At the same time, he first caught a late-night rerun of astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s documentary series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” on TV.
“I’ve always, since then, loved the series,” he said. However, the TV show first aired in 1980, and Boswell thought that the presentation and graphics haven’t aged well.
Then in 2009, he found a series of YouTube videos called “Autotune the News,” in which the creators would auto-tune and remix a series of recent news clips together to create a funny song.
“I just thought it was the craziest thing ever,” Boswell said. He realized he could something similar himself. “I had experience with all those programs.”
Instead of trying to create something funny, he decided to revisit his love of science, specifically, “Cosmos”.
“How can we freshen up this fascinating stuff that not a lot of people are paying attention to just because it’s being presented in old fashioned ways,” he thought.
He remixed clips from the show, autotuned Sagan’s narration into a song, added music and put it up on his YouTube channel called “melodysheep”.
The video went viral, and “A Glorious Dawn” has now been viewed more than 10 million times.
He’s continued to create remixed songs and put them on YouTube, mostly about science.
Third Man Records, musician Jack White’s record label, released “A Glorious Dawn” on vinyl.
Last summer the label teamed up with a group of scientists, and with a weather balloon and specially designed record-player, Boswell’s remix became, according to the label, the first phonographic record to be played in space.
“It was a huge honor for me,” Boswell said.
The popularity of his videos led to him to pick up a lot of freelance work remixing and composing for the entertainment industry.
A few years ago, he got a regular job remixing and composing for Disney cartoons.
“That was a lot of fun, but it was exhausting watching cartoons 10-12 hours a day,” he said.
That work, however, plus his YouTube success got him noticed. He said a production company approached him, and asked him what TV show he would make, if he could do anything he wanted.
He thought back to his love of “Cosmos,” and the let down he felt about the show’s recent reboot.
“I didn’t feel like they pushed the envelope enough,” he said. If he were to make a TV show, he’d want to take the scientific information, and present it in a way that was completely new and different.
“I came up with this grand vision,” he said. “It was very experimental, very avant-garde.”
He cut together a rough, speculative trailer out of clips from TV and movies. Eventually, the trailer made its way in front of the CEO of the National Geographic Channel, who was impressed.
Boswell said the channel was in the middle of a re brand, looking to get away from reality shows and move toward more premium content.
“I basically just got really lucky in terms of the timing,” Boswell said. “They were hungry for something like this, something big and ambitious and epic.”
The show has changed a lot as it has gone from inception into reality, Boswell said.
“The original ambitious vision and what you’re watching is, there’s a big discrepancy,” he said.
Originally, he wanted the first half of the season to focus on space, then get into human history. Since production started his role has been researching, editing and composing. It has been a learning process.
“I’m new to TV, I’ve never done it before,” Boswell said.
The actual content, however is familiar. Once again, he is making science look cool.