The mysteries of the universe are captivating American viewers once again in Fox’s “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” more than three decades after Carl Sagan’s original series explored the wonders of space.
Science programming isn’t prevalent on network television, but thanks to producer Seth MacFarlane — the heavyweight behind “Family Guy” and “American Dad” — ”Cosmos” is getting a primetime spotlight on Fox. MacFarlane worked with Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (who hosts) to develop the “Cosmos” follow-up.
Last week's premiere episode debuted to excellent ratings, and got people buzzing on Twitter about the extraordinary visual storytelling. For that, MacFarlane turned to his longtime animation producing partner, Kara Vallow, and her team at 6 Point Harness studio.
Yahoo TV chatted with Vallow about how those striking animated scenes came to life.
How did you get involved with “Cosmos”?
Seth had been developing this project with Ann Druyan and with Neil Tyson for quite a while. In the original series, the narrative portions of the show that tell the stories of the scientists were done via live-action historical reenactments, and that was their intention with this version, too. But at some point, they decided that was untenable, for a lot of reasons. If you look back at the old show, it worked really well for the time, but it would seem a little unsophisticated today to have actors portraying Giordano Bruno and Einstein.
So Seth had the idea of doing it in animation. This was about a year and a half ago, and they were already well underway on production. I stepped into it midway. I was very reluctant at first to say yes to it, because I was very intimidated by the source material — the sheer scope of it was intimidating to me. It wasn't until after speaking with Ann Druyen at great length, and we came to a consensus about how we were going to approach it, that I said I would give it a shot.
How did you develop the style of animation?
I've been developing television shows here for quite a number of years. I had to expand my mind outside mainstream television animation to think about a visual style that would suit this show, that was more sophisticated and adult, but not overly complicated.
So I watched endless independent animated films. What really appealed to me were films I saw that were sort of less animation and more cut-outs and shadow puppetry, black silhouettes pitched against backgrounds. I started to have a vision of how I could use stylized characters that weren't completely multidimensional.
The first script had this very emotional set piece about Giordano Bruno and his life, and I felt very attached to that and a great amount of responsibility for telling that sensitively and with the necessary emotion. I didn't want the characters to be hyper-realistic. It might come across as hokey.
There’s a very authentic quality to those scenes. They feel very real.
I knew that we were going to have transitions between live-action locations into these animated worlds, and that couldn't be jarring. I didn't want the viewer to be like, "Oh my God, now we're in some cartoon land." So there had to be a way to make semi-seamless transitions and not have them look weird.
That's how we came upon the idea of using layered photo images, which is a lot of the backgrounds are. There are a lot of scanned-in textures of real objects and photographs. They bring in that element of reality into the animation. We wanted an impressionistic style that could work without too much explanation, and be able to work with limited movement of the characters, because we weren't 2D animating this like we do with "Family Guy," where you can get a lot out of small gestures and character animation.
Also, one of the big hurdles was that the narrative often included a lot of exposition of science. The narrative included a lot of profound scientific concepts and complicated experiments that it was our responsibility to explain, and we had to do it clearly. All that really needed a very specific and authored vision, and at the same time, it had to be visually interesting and vibrant.
How hands-on was Ann Druyan? Did she give you a lot of feedback as you worked on the animation?
She was very involved in every part of the show. The show is really her. She would sit with us and first tell us the story — she would tell us the story of Giordano Bruno very intimately as if she knew him. She knows so much details about all her subject matters. Not being an animator, she couldn't give very specific instructions, but after some time, we got to understand her vision.
And what was Seth’s involvement?
It was so out of the realm of anything he and I have done before. He pretty much left me alone to figure it out, which showed a great amount of trust. The first couple times I showed him what we were doing, he was so positive and enthusiastic about it. He was filming his movie [“A Million Ways to Die in the West”] around that same time, and after that, he never had any criticism. He put a lot of trust in us.
What was your reaction when you saw the completed series?
I was pretty blown away. I actually saw the show in its entirety when I went to do a DVD commentary. I hadn't seen it with all the finished visual effects. Not that I had any doubts that it was going to be great, but I was pretty blown away. And I was surprised at how poignant it was, and how touched I was by the show.
“Cosmos” already has a lot of people talking about science again.
That was something Seth and I have been griping about for the 15-plus years we've known each other, about why something like this hadn't been made and why a rejection of science has emerged in America. I'm from a family of scientists and engineers and medical people, and Carl Sagan's original "Cosmos" was very dear to us.
When we were at the premiere screening and Seth showed me on his phone and on Twitter how many people were tuning in, that's when I felt that maybe we will make some sort of inroads into getting people interested in science again.
“Cosmos” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Fox.