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An interview with “Cosmos” animation producer Kara Vallow

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Kara Vallow, the animation producer for, “Cosmos,” was kind enough to answer some questions about, Cosmos: A Space-time Odyssey, which currently airs on Fox. If you haven’t seen it, you don’t know what you’re missing.

First of all, this isn’t really a question, but I can’t help myself. Man almighty do I love this show! The book, “Cosmos,” is one of my favorite books, I am loving the updated show so far, Dr. Tyson is great, congrats to you and everyone involved. Really. I love that science and astronomy are on primetime television, and that both Carl Sagan and Dr. Tyson just might inspire so many more kids to pursue a career in both.

It is one of my favorites too. The scale of the cosmos is such that you must allow your own thinking to expand accordingly to fully appreciate where we’re about to go. I’d never read anything like it. It’s still the most compelling story of how humanity managed to unravel the science of the universe.

How did you first get your start in animation?

I went to art school in New York, and a dabbled in many different of the arts, animation being one of them. My first legitimate job out of college was as a PA at Broadcast Arts studio in New York, which was a commercial animation studio. My career kind of evolved from there.

How did you first get involved in Cosmos?

Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan decided to animate the historical recreation segments of the shows, rather than film them in live action. They asked me if I would create a style of animation that would serve as the narrative portion of the series. I initially declined, because I didn’t really think that I could do the material justice. The sheer scope and ambition of Cosmos intimidated me.

What has been the most challenging aspect for you in the making of it?

Well, I knew that the imagery in the show, the visual effects and the live-action, would include lots of awe-inducing shots of glowing celestial bodies and such. So I needed to find a style that would work seamlessly in a sophisticated and high-tech world. I also had to figure out a way for the animation to work within the context of a very complicated science show. The animated segments needed to tell a story, so I needed to create a unique mode of scientific storytelling. I felt a very big sense of responsibility to viewers who would be looking to understand modern theories of science.  

How did you approach the animation sequences for, “Cosmos,”?  What informed your stylistic choices? Was there any thought of going full CGI (i.e. Pixar style)?

I spent 12 hours straight watching independent animated films. Some of the ones that informed me were “The Secret of Kells” and “Invention of Love,” a story told with animated shadowplay images against a backdrop of floating cities and countrysides. It was a narrative told in a beautifully and economical style, referencing Indonesian shadow puppetry with the contract of pitch-black silhouettes against simple backgrounds. We didn’t have the budget for either traditional 2D “cel” animation or CGI. Whichever route I went, it needed to sophisticated and rich, it couldn’t look cheap or hokey. Years ago I did the animation for a documentary feature called “In the Realms of the Unreal”, where I had to bring figures in paintings to life, and used the digital program After-effects, which was very successful. So that’s what I went with for Cosmos.

In the analog age, the foreground elements and backgrounds are physically separate and there are intrinsic restrictions on lighting. In After-effects, we can be more sophisticated with lighting and color schemes. Our characters are stylized and not multi-dimensional, the settings and backdrops are amalgams of photo real elements. I wanted to create a dreamy, enchanting diorama-like effect. I wanted the animation to be an invitation into the fully realized worlds and landscapes of Cosmos. We used layering of photo images and shading and realistic lighting to create the illusion of depth and drama and aerial perspective. The effect is an expressionistic style that can work with little dialogue. Even though the movements are limited, we are able to get the expressions and emotional intention of the words.

How much creative freedom have you gotten from Seth Macfarlane, Ann Druyan, ect.?

Complete freedom stylistically. For some reason, Seth trusted me implicitly with this.

Who would you say is your #1 target audience for the show?

Children, and adults who have the scientific literacy of children.

How much flack have you gotten from folks who object to the whole, “Evolution” thing (i.e.,bible thumpers who think the earth is only 6,000 years old…sigh)?

Well, more than I expected, although I don’t know why I keep allowing myself to be surprised/disappointed by my fellow Americans.

Speaking of which, did you hear about the Oklahoma affiliate that had, “Technical difficulties” when Dr. Tyson mentioned evolution?

I did. Affiliates do have control over their feeds, so I wouldn’t be surprised either way, intentional deletion or a ham handed accident.

Do you agree with Dr. Tyson’s point of view that creationist scientists should not have equal time with evolutionary scientists?

I don’t know. I understand the point of not wanting to lend credibility to the wackaloons. Theories of creation can superficially sound right to people without a science background, so, creationists win the debate simply because they just aren’t talking about the same thing, both sides are not talking about science. In spite of overwhelming evidence to support Earth’s age, and Darwin’s theory of natural selection, most young-Earth creationists believe that God created the universe in six days less than 10,000 years ago, and almost 33 percent of Americans believe in this theory. So, no matter what is said during these debates, we will all be hammered (possibly hospitalized) and no matter what Bill Nye says, the Creationists will declare themselves the winners. Because faith in jeebus, amen.

Then again I really feel for Bill Nye. He’s not a combative person, he is a science guy who exists in a climate in which conservatives and religious fundamentalists are more prone to picking fights, and he’s not afraid to shy away from a fight, and acquits himself well in them. Of course he knows that creationists aren’t capable of being convinced by facts, but he’ll take one for the team anyway. The fossil record shows a sudden increase in the thickness of the frontal cranial wall among finds in the north american wasteland. Some scientists aver the catalyst for this evolutionary change was the prevalence of head desk banging.

What did you think of the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate?

One thing I would have like to have seen is Bill Nye saying that the Bible makes frequent testable assertions about reality, many of which are completely wrong: the cow jumping over the moon, a beanstalk that grows up to the clouds, Jesus coming back from the dead to hide eggs in childrens’ houses, etc.

Finally, being a fellow Philly ex-pat…Pats or Genos? 

Which is the one that has the “English Only” sign? The other one.

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