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A World Of Talent Returns To “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey”

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

“Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” was ground-breaking when it aired in 1980. In addition to setting US Public Broadcasting Service viewership records, it aired in 600 countries and was described by David Itzkoff of The New York Times as “a watershed moment for science-themed television programming.” Ann Druyan, who created the series with Carl Sagan and Steven Soter, continued to monitor scientific exploration and technological advancements. She knew there was a new generation that would benefit from a return to the series, and three years ago she began shopping a pitch for “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey.”

Years went by before her concept landed in the hands of a perfect producing partner: Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy”, “American Dad” and last year’s hit comedy feature “Ted.” MacFarlane recognized the value of returning to the iconic educational series, and was in favor of both encouraging and fostering Druyan’s creative vision.

“I worked on the concept for about three years and took it to different networks, but the trouble I ran into was maintaining creative control,” said Druyan. “Once Seth MacFarlane and Brannon Braga became involved in producing the series, everything really took off.”

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Braga, a writer and producer on “Star Trek” franchise incarnations The Next Generation, Voyager, and Enterprise and sci-fi series including “Flash Forward” and “Terra Nova” had learned of MacFarlane’s involvement and happily jumped on board once the opportunity arose. In addition to his role of executive producer, Braga also directed episodes. He fully embraced the immersive experience of overseeing all elements of production.

“It was my first time directing and it was a trial by fire. It was a colossal task,” said Braga. “I loved every minute of it.”

A point of concern that arose early on was handling of historical lessons. Presented as live action retellings in the original series, the producers were encouraged to find a new approach. With MacFarlane’s connection to the animation world, the Cosmos executives saw an exciting and inventive way of bringing history to life. Many renowned actors, including Patrick Stewart, Marlee Martin and Richard Gere, enthusiastically jumped on board to voice animated sections.

Particular attention was paid to visual elements of the show. Every animation and stock footage clip, photograph and visual effect was scrutinized to ensure it had a cohesive aesthetic. Rounding out the overall look was the work done by cinematographer Bill Pope. Primarily a feature film DP, Pope was excited to get involved with Cosmos, recalling the original “really stretched my mind when I was eight.” From the start, Pope knew he wanted to shoot on an Alexa, however many companies were offering camera suggestions. Withholding camera names, Pope presented a camera test to the producers and asked them to choose. “Every time they pointed to the Alexa,” said Pope.

In addition to acting as director of photography and overseeing all live elements, Pope also directed some episodes. Directing the narrative flow was a natural fit for the DP who’s directed a number of music videos and commercials throughout his career.

“I was never assigned this job, but I am a buddinsky: I saw the potential for everything moving into different directions,” said Pope. “We were all in the same office; we were on a rollercoaster ride all linked together – we were constantly trading ideas and working together.”

Heading up the visual effects department were visual effects producers Adica Manis and Natasha Anne Francis and visual effects supervisor Rainer Gombos. They oversaw material that was produced by sixteen different companies assigned images per their particular specialties, such as space travel, galaxies, and molecular models. They consistently worked with a team of science advisors to ensure physics and geometry was being handled accurately. While realism was the goal, the team balanced a level of artistic interpretation within the show’s effects.

“We had to leave room to show we don’t know everything,” said Gombos. “Think of it as depicting a dream of science; no one has put a camera in these events.”

The greatest challenge for the team was overseeing the visual effects that appeared in all thirteen episodes simultaneously.

“The difference between ‘Cosmos’ as opposed to many other TV shows was that we had all thirteen scripts in some form,” said Manis. “There was a benefit of knowing what was coming but it was a challenge. We were working as fast as we could, we were working with different effects artists – it was a lot to manage.”

Added Francis, “We had close to 160 shots for close to 16 hours, and we had to keep it all straight with 16 companies that were providing us the best material. The breadth and scope was a challenge.”

Pulling all the elements together were editors Eric Lea, John Duffy and Michael O’Halloran. To help them stay on track as they simultaneously cut every episode during the piecemeal fashion they received segments, they hung pie charts on the wall that illustrated what sections were animation, visual effects and live action. They also created a scratch take that resembled an old radio play, laying down dialogue and using video references and story board art that was dissolved together to make a rough animatic.

“We could only get to a certain place, and then we’d have to move to the next sequence. There was a constant feeling of nothing being completed,” said O’Halloran. “We were constantly integrating new material that affected all the surrounding material.”

Added Duffy, “It was a lot of fun, but it was also a lot of work. Overall for all of us, it was an intense experience. It took a lot of effort, but there were lots of triumphs in being involved in this project.”

Every crew member had their own reasons for getting involved with Cosmos, whether it was to become part of an iconic program, to work with top artists and producers in the field, or to provide a lasting contribution to inquisitive minds and today’s youth looking to learn more about life, science and the universe. Some crew members, such as Gombos, liked the contrast of creating life instead of destroying it, which much of his VFX work requires him to do. With the series complete and heading into its final three episodes, Druyan is thankful to have had so many talented individuals involved in the return of “Cosmos.”

“I went in with expectations and dreams, and the reality was that it was expensive and difficult. My knowledge of the technology in creating a program was not great, in fact my ignorance was vast,” said Druyan. “At 10:00pm when I was going home, I knew all the crew members were still there, and that was a humbling experience. Everyone had such respect for the need to get the details right. They were all such an amazing team. The experience was sublime and a dream come true.”

To learn more about Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey and view full episodes, visit: