Here at Pop Geeks we love real science just as much as we love science fiction and all of that other geeky stuff. So when we got a chance to interview Kara Vallow, animation producer and longtime Seth MacFarlane collaborator on shows like Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show, about the unique animation she and her team created for the new series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, we jumped at it.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, is hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and is a new version of the seminal Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the 1980s PBS series in which Carl Sagan opened the minds of millions with scientific concepts. A new episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.
How did Seth MacFarlane initially sell you on doing a new version of Cosmos?
Seth had already decided to do the show, after meeting Neil deGrasse Tyson and (executive producer, writer, co-creator of the original Cosmos and Sagan’s widow) Ann Druyan. It had been in development for quite a while before Seth and Ann made the decision to recreate the narrative portions of the show in animation and I was involved.
I’d been producing Seth’s TV shows for the past 12 or so years, so when the decision was made to use animation, he asked me to do it. At first I declined, because the very concept intimidated me. The sheer scope and ambition of Cosmos was daunting. I honestly didn’t think I could do the material justice.
I eventually came to terms with the evocative potential of Ann’s ideas and her written words and that through them we could exploit the unreal possibilities of the animated medium. Also, I liked the idea of bringing science to a popular audience and Infotain America into some book learnin’
The animation segments on Cosmos have a very unique style. Tell me about how you came up with the process and what is unique about it. What were your priorities in terms of the needs of this show?
First, it needed an authored vision, worthy of Cosmos. It couldn’t look like other stuff you see on television. I wanted to create stylistic and vibrant pieces of art that would tell rich stories. The style of animation needed to be sophisticated – decidedly “adult”, but uncomplicated, because the narrative needed to be advanced – and the narrative was often going to include profound scientific concepts that needed to be presented with clarity. I had to figure out a way for the animation to work within the context of a very complicated science show.
Secondly, I had to be able to come to terms with a style of design and animation that would seamlessly transition from the live action location shots. I wanted to be vigilant to never remove the viewer from the experience. I wanted the animation to be an invitation into fully realized worlds and landscapes of Cosmos, and a dreamy, diorama-like effect. Although our characters are stylized, the backgrounds, created by Andrew Brandou, venture deep into the ”real world”. He used amalgams of photos and textures and effects – smoke, fire, mist – from the physical world. The layering of photo real images, as well as shadows and lighting, create the illusion of depth and drama and aerial perspective. The effect is an expressionistic style that can work with little or no dialogue. Even though the movement of the characters is limited, the expressions of emotion and intention are still clear.
Finally, we needed to get over 100 minutes of animation done on a tight schedule and on an extremely low budget. Thus, we had to keep all the animation in a contained atmosphere. The style needed to be dictated by – in some sense – by the parameters of the production. The Supervising Director Brent Woods and I eventually chose to use After Effects and Flash animation, because of the flexibility – many of the producers had not worked in animation before, I knew we needed to have the ability to make many rounds of changes – but also because of its ability to exploit medium-specific narrative effects. Like with comic art, flash/after effects can activate the imagination of the viewer by offering representational cues rather than providing an immersive overly realistic experience. Using stylized imagery, non-multi dimensional characters, non-naturalistic movement and overt transitions, you distance an audience from the illusion and offer up space for real human feeling and critical reflection that overly realistic animation can’t. This style of animation offers both active engagement and a critical distance that opens a space for you to revel in the mechanics of Ann’s words, the deep characterizations and the stories, and create a narrative coherence.
How is this show, in terms of animation, different than what you’ve worked on in the past?
The only thing I can equate it to in my experience is a film I did called In the Realms of the Unreal, where I needed to bring characters in paintings to life through animation. It was a similar puzzle, in questioning how to approach it, making it exciting and visually rich without compromising the source material.
In terms of the television cartoons I produce, the creative approach, the techniques, are all completely different. Family Guy and American Dad are tethered by pretty inhibiting rules. The staging is that of a live action sit-com that doesn’t usually accommodate cinematic shots or big camera moves. I think for the artists who have worked on either Family Guy or American Dad, like Brent Woods and Lucas Gray, working on Cosmos had a kind a liberating aspect.
The production process on a huge television animated series like Family Guy is a streamlined, assembly-line process in the grand Henry Ford tradition. This is actually a positive if it is implemented correctly – it can bring out a studio system’s best or worst effects on the development of animation as an art form. For Cosmos, I knew the artists I wanted to work with and knew how little I could get away with, and kept it very contained. The complexities of bringing moving drawings to life on the screen are extremely time-consuming and expensive, and can be overwhelming. With a streamlined organization of talent, an equitable creative collaboration and without letting the logistics overwhelm the artistic potential of the medium, you can succeed in creating art regardless of budgetary restraints.
One thing I’m struck by is how extensively and creatively Cosmos uses animation to show things that could never be filmed. Can you tell us a little about the process of coming up with such creative visualizations of these concepts?
I think when Seth, Ann and the producers Brannon Braga and Jason Clark were well into development on the series, crafting the narratives scenes in live-action seemed more and more out of the question because of the obvious limitations of producing 20+ period vignettes, in different settings all over the world and different time periods. What I think became evident along the way is that human actors couldn’t have become these characters. Drawing is somehow less specific and more identifiable. The animated segments needed to serve the narrative portions; they needed to tell a story, and properly depict and contextualize historical dramas and events. Entire sections of the narrative are given over to courtroom dramas, tales of travel, sailing ships, meetings in 19th century labs and libraries and dusty old lecture theatres.
How much effort goes into making sure the animations are historically and scientifically accurate?
A huge amount of effort on the part of the animation team, who were each personally responsible for making sure every piece of science, every factual truth, every alignment of stars, was historically and scientifically accurate. We spent an enormous amount of time checking and cross checking everything. I was fortunate in that every member of my team was sincerely interested in the science and in maintaining complete authenticity and accuracy.
What do you think was the most challenging concept to animate so far? The most interesting?
Animating Faraday’s polarization experiment in episode 9. You can read his entire paper, and read about it broken down with colorful graphs and still not be able to wrap your head around it. The “Faraday rotation” – his observations that a magnetic field can indirectly influence the behavior of a light wave, which was the first definitive evidence that light and electromagnetism are related – is a rather subtle effect, and quite difficult to explain, let alone explain through animation. It involves Argand lamps and glass and magnets, polarized light rays and oldsey timesy eyepieces. Lucas Gray had the sad task of having to make this work and be understood.
Have you made an effort to be true to the style or spirit of the original Cosmos with the animations, or does this show go completely its own way?
I made an enormous mental effort to be true to the spirit of the original Cosmos.
For my generation, Cosmos is almost a mythic memory – we remember the feeling of hearing Carl Sagan flatly state that evolution was a fact, the best available explanation of life on earth. I didn’t underestimate the power that the original series still held over my entire generation.
Through Ann Druyan, we really had Carl Sagan’s spirit – and it infuses every minute of the new show, not least in the visual style and writing. For the show to succeed in getting so much carefully crafted science to a huge global audience and do it in a magical and unique way, and not be shackled by Carl’s enormous legacy, is really Ann’s triumph. For all the pretty special effects, what made Cosmos succeed is the storytelling — the people doing the science, to keep a human scale on the project.
If you’ve looked around, I guess it’s kind of obvious that science is not as popular as it could be in the country right now. And for the most part television seems to reflect this, even channels where the whole initial purpose was science education have dumbed themselves down to show things that seemed designed to actively make people stupid. How does it feel to be working on a show that swims against this tide?
What, you mean like “Discovery” – a network founded by the Department of Education to be an informative and instructional network – that airs Swamp Brothers, Storage Locker Vultures and Desert Car King? Surely those shows work to save the planet. It’s been interesting watching Discovery slide into the primordial ooze of television with the likes of TLC, in real time, with programs that so outwardly debase viewers’ intelligence. But it’s when they blatantly flout that pseudo-science supernatural crap that really offends me. Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, levitation, zombies, ESP and telepathy….applying science to supernatural phenomena. Blending science and fantasy is suddenly a mega successful formula.
When I think of whomever is coughing up those shows, I see them as literal troglodytes in a boardroom, wearing wooly mammoth pelts and communicating through a simple series of clicks and grunts.
Do you think there’s hope of reversing this trend? What needs to happen?
Oh, heavens no, there is no hope. We have fundamentally changed. This is how smart Americans are now. How do you understand a person who thinks there is sufficient possibility of zombie attack to warrant the purchase of several assault rifles? Yet is unwilling to contemplate carbon regulation that might keep his bunker from being flooded? I think the best that can come of this is if a show like Cosmos can inspire television people that something of this ilk can be popular as entertainment..
I don’t think we will ever get to a point again where America doesn’t need fancy effects laden edu-tainment style of science presentation, where a show could address even deeper issues like how it is that we think we know what we know. Because it’s easier to attack something that can be seen as overly technical…If you give people simple logic to follow it’s harder to argue with. That would open up some useful discussion and get us past having to listen to the controversy cycle of fire and brimstone battles between fundamentalists and science nerd types who improve their zip code by writing books with inflammatory titles.
But I guess scientific literacy is an important first step.