Bend­ing Time and Space

Vet­eran Fam­ily Guy pro­ducer Kara Val­low and Six Point Har­ness talk about de­vel­op­ing a style wor­thy of the grand scale of Cos­mos: A Spacetime Odyssey. By Tom McLean.

Animation Magazine - - Tv -

It should be no sur­prise that the idea to an­i­mate his­tor­i­cal se­quences for Fox’s hit sci­ence se­ries Cos­mos: A Spacetime Odyssey came from Seth Mac­Far­lane.

Best known as the cre­ator of Fam­ily Guy and co-cre­ator of Amer­i­can Dad! and The Cleve­land Show, Mac­Far­lane had helped grease the wheels at Fox for the show, a con­tin­u­a­tion of the clas­sic and mon­u­men­tally in­flu­en­tial 1980 PBS se­ries Cos­mos: A Per­sonal Voy­age, hosted by the late renowned sci­en­tist and ed­u­ca­tor Carl Sa­gan. Mac­Far­lane’s in­volve­ment as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and his years of suc­cess at Fox put him in the ideal po­si­tion to pro­pose the se­ries’ his­tor­i­cal recre­ations — done in live-ac­tion in the orig­i­nal se­ries — could be more ef­fec­tively and in­ter­est­ingly done with an­i­ma­tion.

It was Kara Val­low, a vet­eran an­i­ma­tion pro­ducer who had long worked on Mac­Far­lane’s var­i­ous se­ries, to whom Mac­Far­lane gave the re­spon­si­bil­ity of tak­ing this idea and re­ally mak­ing it work.

For her part, Val­low says the sug­ges­tion sur­prised her and at first she had no idea what Mac­Far­lane had in mind or how it was even pos­si­ble to do it well enough to live up to the grandeur, won- der and grav­i­tas Cos­mos was known for.

“It was kind of a puzzle,” says Val­low. “I spent one whole night just think­ing about it. Is it pos­si­ble to come up with some­thing that’s go­ing to be unique and go­ing to be able to clearly tell these sto­ries and is go­ing to be wor­thy of this show?”

While the fi­nal re­sults have earned nearly uni­ver­sal praise, both from within the an­i­ma­tion com­mu­nity and from the gen­eral pub­lic, find­ing that style was a far-from-sim­ple propo­si­tion. The an­i­mated se­quences had to do a lot of things: They had to tell his­tor­i­cal tales of real sci­en­tists and events in an en­gag­ing way, which is not al­ways easy as many sto­ries lacked a lot of ob­vi­ous vis­ual punch; they had to ac­cu­rately con­vey sci­en­tific con­cepts and in­for­ma­tion; they had to look of a piece with both the live-ac­tion se­quences of host Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the slick CGI vis­ual ef­fects cre­ated by Rainer Gom­bos; and they had to not draw the wrong kind of at­ten­tion to them­selves by be­ing too car­toony.

Val­low drafted a small team to de­velop the an­i­ma­tion that con­sisted of su­per­vis­ing an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Brent Woods, an­i­ma­tion di­rec­tor Lu­cas Gray, and an­i­ma­tion as­sis­tant di­rec­tor Andrew Bran­dou. Some of the first con­ver­sa­tions with Mac­Far­lane and with ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mitchell Can­nold were de­fined by such un­ex­pected ideas as “graphic novel” and “In­done­sian shadow pup­petry.”

“We were strug­gling with how do you por­tray real­is­tic hu­mans,” says Woods.

“How do you con­vey a real­is­tic per­son with­out spend­ing lit­er­ally five years try­ing to con­ceive two hours of an­i­ma­tion, and not have it seem hokey, not have it seem like you’re at­tempt­ing to do re­al­ism.”

The first script clar­i­fied the is­sues by call­ing for a se­quence about Gior­dano Bruno, a 16th century Ital­ian monk whose the­o­ries about the Sun be­ing not just the cen­ter of the so­lar sys­tem but also just one of the many stars in the uni­verse got him con­victed of heresy and burned at the stake.

“It seemed sort of daunt­ing,” says Val­low. “I think it was Bruno specif­i­cally, it was try­ing to bring this per­son to life and elicit em­pa­thy and all these things, but my hugest fear was go­ing into that world of hokey an­i­ma­tion.”

The style de­vel­oped with a few ba­sic ideas. One was us­ing sil­hou­ettes. “Those were very ef­fec­tive, where the char­ac­ters were sil­hou­et­ted but they told beau­ti­ful sto­ries,” says Val­low.

An­other was ground­ing scenes with real­is­tic physics and adding el­e­ments like rain, fog, smoke or dust motes that could give a sense of the events tak­ing place in a fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment.

And a fi­nal key el­e­ment was cre­at­ing pho­to­re­al­is­tic back­grounds — of­ten us­ing pho­to­graphs — a style de­vel­oped by Gray. “We’d layer pho­to­graphic im­ages on top of each other. They were al­ways re­ally happy with the back­grounds be­cause they had a re­al­ness to them,” says Val­low.

To ex­e­cute the an­i­ma­tion, Val­low turned to Six Point Har­ness stu­dios, which an­i­mated the char­ac­ters us­ing Flash and com­pos­ited it to­gether with the back­grounds and ef­fects us­ing Af­ter Ef­fects. Many of those choices, Val- low says, were made to fit time and bud­getary con­traints. “My first in­stinct to­ward us­ing Af­ter Ef­fects was money and time and want­ing to keep a very con­tained core for the an­i­ma­tion depart­ment,” she says. “I wanted to choose the people I re­ally trusted.”

Val­low had pre­vi­ously worked with Six Point Har­ness and its prin­ci­pals, Brendan Burch and Greg Franklin, on var­i­ous projects in­clud­ing a film called In the Realms of the Un­real.

“We had to prove what you al­ways have to in Flash, which is that you can an­i­mate well in Flash with the right people,” says Burch.

Re­search was a ma­jor com­po­nent of an­i­mat­ing Cos­mos — and not one Val­low’s team of Fam­ily Guy vet­er­ans was used to deal­ing with. From the Bruno se­quence, for which there was rel­a­tively lit­tle ref­er­ence, the se­ries moved ahead to sci­en­tific fig­ures like Isaac New­ton, whose home and tools are pre­served, right up to rel­a­tively re­cent times like 1960s Pasadena.

“As we got into the sto­ry­board­ing process, we would work with re­search — and we would do our own — and that would some­times greatly af­fected how we told the story, in a shock­ing way,” says Woods.

For ex­am­ple, episode seven con­tains an an­i­mated se­quence cen­tered on the work of geo­chemist Clair “Pat” Pat­ter­son and how his re­search into the age of the Earth re­vealed the ex­tent of the dan­ger posed by lead con­tam­i­na­tion. The se­quence in­cluded one where Pat­ter­son walked the streets of 1966 Pasadena en­vi­sion­ing the in­vis­i­ble lead con­tam­i­nants in the en­vi­ron­ment and on passersby. “Six Point added a lot of the qual­i­ties that make this a suc­cess­ful se­quence,” says Gray. “This was also an in­ter­est­ing mo­ment be­cause it was my first de­par­ture, and I think the show’s first de­par­ture, from real pe­riod pieces, and now we’re com­ing up into stuff we all know.”

The an­i­ma­tors’ ap­proach veered to­ward film noir and In­va­sion of the Body Snatch­ers, even go­ing so far as to con­sider mak­ing the se­quence in black-and-white. El­e­ments de­vised for older time pe­ri­ods, like the grunge matte that gave an an­cient parch­ment look to his­tor­i­cal se­quences, had to be up­dated for a world close to the one we live in now.

There was a lot of op­por­tu­nity to em­bel­lish and tweak se­quences — they could be ex­tended a few frames when needed, or space could be left for mu­si­cal el­e­ments to help tell the story. All quite dif­fer­ent from work­ing on

Fam­ily Guy or Amer­i­can Dad!

“It was real fun to play around with the dif­fer­ences,” Val­low says.

Re­search was metic­u­lous, down to en­sur­ing ap­pro­pri­ate tai­lor­ing for men’s suits and en­sur­ing that the stars in the sky were accu- rate — down to the ex­act date, lo­ca­tion and time of day. “That stemmed from a com­ment Neil made about James Cameron’s in­ac­cu­racy on the night the Ti­tanic sunk, that the stars were not cor­rect,” says Gray.

Char­ac­ters were de­signed by Sah Tan- tivaranyoo. “It was re­ally tough to hire for. We were re­ally picky,” says Burch. “We went through a lot of people early on un­til we had this re­ally great lit­tle core.”

“It’s not as car­toony as what people in our in­dus­try were used to deal­ing with. I would see people at Six Point who I knew were great an­i­ma­tors in that car­toony bouncy world, but would strug­gle with just a straight-ahead walk cy­cle be­cause it’s not what we do 90 per­cent of the time,” says Gray.

One fac­tor was deal­ing with pro­duc­ers on the se­ries who were un­ac­cus­tomed to work­ing with an­i­ma­tion and were there­fore un­fa­mil­iar with its lim­its and ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

“This group of writer-pro­duc­ers was not as ac­cus­tomed to the process of an­i­ma­tion as we are used to in our world,” says Val­low. “And it seemed like they would make big­ger changes later than we usu­ally see be­cause it just came to them then.”

Val­low says that is a com­mon is­sue when work­ing with pro­duc­ers new to an­i­ma­tion. “An­i­ma­tion is very in­tim­i­dat­ing to people that can’t do it or don’t un­der­stand it. You don’t have con­trol. You can’t draw it yourself. You vi­su­al­ize some­thing or you write some­thing and you are putting a lot of faith in other people to cre­ate your vi­sion,” she says. “And I’ve seen it again and again — it’s very scary for people and I un­der­stand it. I’ve be­come able to em­pathize with it, as frus­trat­ing as it is.”

Ex­am­ples in­clude pro­duc­ers ask­ing for small changes in cam­era po­si­tion or a cut to cov­er­age or b-roll — com­mon and easy in live­ac­tion but re­quir­ing dras­tic re­vi­sions up to re­do­ing en­tire se­quences in an­i­ma­tion.

“Ev­ery se­quence was its own puzzle,” says Franklin. “I think the thing that kept ev­ery­body go­ing through the whole thing was the fact that we were work­ing on Cos­mos. This is the great­est honor, of all the projects that have come through our stu­dio, this is the great­est honor, hav­ing worked on this show.”

“It was a priv­i­lege. For the first few episodes it was re­ally dif­fi­cult and then it got less so and we were able to sort of en­joy the process a lit­tle more,” says Val­low.

Sto­ry­boards (be­low) and the fi­nal im­age from the Clair Pat­ter­son se­quence in episode seven of Cos­mos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Ex­am­ples of how the back­grounds for the an­i­mated se­quences in Cos­mos were lay­ered to­gether like a col­lage us­ing pho­to­graphs.

Pho­tos of real lo­ca­tions and items — some­times taken with a phone — were com­bined to cre­ate the se­ries’ vi­su­als.

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