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Kara Vallow Tackles the Mysteries of Science in ‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’

The Emmy-nominated ‘Family Guy’ executive producer returns for Season 3, delivering over 100 minutes of animation for the venerable, highly acclaimed science franchise, which debuts tonight on National Geographic.

On a normal day, Kara Vallow simultaneously wears two important animation executive hats, each with equal aplomb. With one, she is a five-time Emmy-nominated executive producer on Seth MacFarlane’s and FOX’s long-running hit animated series, Family Guy, which she joined in Season 3. With the other, she is co-executive producer on the most successful science franchise in history, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, which returns tonight on National Geographic with the Season 3 premiere of its latest chapter, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

In 2014, Vallow joined the venerable, Peabody Award-winning science series, originally developed by co-writers and co-creators Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, and first broadcast on PBS in 1980; she developed and produced the show’s animated content, winning an Annie in 2015 for Best Animated Television Special. In the new season, she has once again assembled a top team of artists to tackle the mysteries of science, producing more than 100 minutes of animation in support of the show’s narrative that consistently wows us about the limitless wonders of our universe.

Vallow is a prolific animation producer; at one point, she ran three half-hours of Sunday night FOX programming: Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show, building the studio that has produced over 700 episodes of the ever-popular trio of shows.

As the new season of Cosmos readied for this evening’s debut, AWN had a chance to speak with Vallow about how she deftly produces animation that successfully conveys complex scientific ideas, how she’s handled the challenges of producing highly successful adult animated comedies, and how she feels about the success, or lack thereof, of efforts to increase gender diversity in the animation industry.

Dan Sarto: Tell us about your role as executive producer on the new season of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.  

Kara Vallow: In 2014, I was hired during the development phase for Season 2 of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, to develop the animation style, put together a team, and produce the animated sequences. My team and I worked apart from the whole of the production, meeting weekly with the producers for handouts and approvals. For this new season, I assembled the same core team of directors, my line producer, and went back to work.

DS: How is animation used on the series?

KV: The animated segments serve the narrative portions of the series; they tell stories about historical figures and their contributions to society. In the first season of Cosmos with Carl Sagan [broadcast in 1980], these segments were told via actors in historical reenactments. When [executive producer] Seth [MacFarlane], [executive producer and original Cosmos co-creators] Ann [Druyan] and producers Brannon Braga and Jason Clark were well into development on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, crafting the narratives scenes in live-action seemed more and more out of the question because of obvious limitations in producing 20+ period vignettes, in different settings and time periods from all over the world. What became evident is that human actors couldn’t 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.

We had the opportunity to create a unique mode of scientific storytelling, but we also had the responsibility of making viewers understand the modern theories of science through our animation. We had to incorporate context and history into science; science should always explain how we know what we know.

DS: What type of conceptual foundation were you provided for the animation design and production? How is the animation designed?

KV: In 2014, going into Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, where we developed the animation style and pipeline, I was not given much specific instruction or guidance other than it should not be “a cartoon.” Seth MacFarlane wanted something “adult,” and unique to Cosmos, but not overly realistic. It also had to be uncomplicated. The narrative needed to be advanced; it would often 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; it needed an authored vision. Ann Druyan explained to me that this was the part of the show that was more than an exposition of science, but an expression of an essentially quasi-mystical reverence of the material universe. 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.

Plus, I was working with much tighter budgets than any show I had ever worked on, so value was a big factor in creating the pipeline. The style needed to be dictated, in some sense, by the production parameters.

We had to come to terms with a design and animation style that would seamlessly transition from the live-action location shots and the CG shots. I tried to be vigilant, to never remove the viewer from the experience. I wanted the animation to be an invitation into the fully realized worlds and landscapes of Cosmos, with a dreamy, diorama-like effect.

Although our characters are stylized, the backgrounds, created by Andrew Brandou, venture deep into the “real world.” We used amalgams of photos, textures and effects – smoke, fire, mist – from the physical world. We portray the landscapes as “real” settings, with a clever use of layered photo images, shading, and lighting that creates 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.

We have the responsibility of helping viewers understand modern theories of science, via imaginary journeys across time and space using animation and dramatic historical reenactments. I eventually came to terms with the evocative potential of Ann’s ideas and 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.

DS: What do pre-production and production look like?

KV: The first step of the process was us sitting down with Ann and Brannon Braga, who wrote the scripts, discussing them in detail. This was our favorite part of the process. There was no official previs, but we did produce storyboard animatics that the directors assembled themselves.

To get over 100 minutes of animation done on a tight schedule and an extremely low budget, we also needed flexibility to make many rounds of changes. So, we had to keep all the animation in a contained atmosphere.  Supervising directors Brent Woods and Lucas Gray chose a combination of Harmony, After Effects and Flash animation, for flexibility, and the ability to exploit medium-specific narrative effects. Since we didn’t have a lot of money, we couldn’t offer realistic animation; we had to offer representational cues rather than provide an 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.

Carl Sagan made it clear that the journey you're about to take can't be confined by the rigors of science alone. 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. 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.

DS: What were the biggest challenges for you on the new season?

KV: Making sure every frame did justice to the legacy of Carl Sagan. For me, Cosmos seemed to encourage a generation of viewers to contemplate the origins of the universe and their place in it. It is still the most compelling story of how humanity managed to unravel the science of the universe. For my generation, Cosmos is almost a mythic memory, hearing Carl Sagan flatly state that evolution was a fact, the best available explanation of life on earth. The sheer scope and ambition of Cosmos is daunting; I constantly worried about doing the material justice.

DS: How different is this role than your role as a producer and executive producer on several FOX animated series? I can’t imagine material being any more different, in every way, other than it all ends with pixels on the screen!

KV: In terms of the television cartoons I produce, the creative approach, and techniques, are all completely different. Family Guy and American Dad are tethered by some inhibiting rules. The staging is that of a live-action sit-com that doesn’t always accommodate cinematic shots or big camera moves. You have a script you must adhere to pretty conclusively. For artists who have worked on either Family Guy or American Dad, like Brent Woods and Lucas Gray, working on Cosmos was somewhat liberating.

The production process on a huge animated television series like Family Guy is a streamlined, assembly-line process in the grand Henry Ford tradition. This is actually positive if it is implemented correctly – it can bring out the best, or worst, of a studio system’s 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; they 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.

On Cosmos, we had to use outside artists for support, which is always challenging for the directors with whom every drawing needs to be perfection. We had to learn to compromise this season.

DS: The nature of mature-themed, dark, often raunchy humored animation has changed dramatically over the course of Family Guy’s lifetime, with the rise of cable and streaming loosening, sometimes obliterating, what we might consider cultural “norms.” Case in point, Big Mouth. How has your work changed over the years on these shows, and how have the tone, creative focus, and realities of studio directives (if any) shifted and adapted? Is your approach to a show like Family Guy appreciably different now than it used to be?

KV: Thank goodness it has loosened, to keep up with what is happening in modern society. We have always been able to mine a surprising number of laughs from “dark” places. There is a certain comfort in teasing out the humor from horrifying situations, and there always will be. It is necessary for our mental survival. If we can’t laugh in the face of the horribleness happening to us, there is really nothing left. Family Guy is still a FOX show, so the reins haven’t loosened much since we started. But we’ve always had a somewhat looser leash than other shows. American Dad, being on TBS, has a looser rein, which is great for that show. But, it’s not the only blueprint anymore. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this moment my entire professional life. For years, a creative dichotomy cleaved adult animation in two: low-budget late-night experimentation, and often staid, universal sitcoms where adult audiences seemed to find comfort in the familiar.

Big Mouth, BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty, there are all kinds of ways to be funny, and now you have the freedom to choose what kind of animated show you want to watch. A traditional studio would not have taken a chance on a show about a depressed horse. Shows now are more introspective; they deal with issues like depression in profound ways.

Prior to the advent of cable and streaming, creators were forced to compromise their vision to get shows onto the air; then, they didn’t have the capital to exploit the medium once they had shows because they were tethered to the studio system. So, adult animated shows usually failed to entertain audiences. That was followed by an erosion of support for creator driven animation like Family Guy or King of the Hill. Studios started thinking they could create the magic behind The Simpsons by cobbling together writers with overall deals from their other shows, artists from their other shows, and voice actors from their other shows, and boom, there’d be your next Simpsons.  It’s a failure they’ve repeated over and over. There was a fear of individual artists with clear creative vision. Matt Groening, Seth MacFarlane, and Mike Judge were all artists; that never really occurred to the studios trying to recreate the magic by simply acquiescing to committee-driven mandates that underutilized their skill and talent.  The old studios/networks were terrified of original ideas, preferring established properties and creators with whom they had long relationships. That’s changed now, thank goodness. Fortunately, cable and streaming came along, and they weren’t afraid. Now the studios are rushing to keep up.

DS: What are the biggest challenges in finding, developing, nurturing and keeping top talent for the studio? 

KV: I’ve been successful in finding and developing artists because I started out as an artist, and really understand the medium, the process, and have a high level of respect for it and the people who can do it. Those have been primary factors in my ability to recruit, suss out, and keep talent.

When Family Guy was resurrected, I was given an enormous opportunity to create an entire structure to produce, artistically, a great show. We were given what we needed to build an animation pipeline and team to make great animation. One of those things was exponentially more sophisticated animation, with well-realized direction. 

I was fortunate in being able to build a studio from the ground up that was able to incorporate the way I wanted to do things. I know exactly what needs to be done in terms of developing and building the production for each show. I create a pipeline for every show and manage all production staff; it’s my job to find and recruit artists who best suit the particulars of each show.

Running the shows like some sort of factory system benefits everybody as well as the end product. Artists don’t want to be put under any undue pressure regarding deadlines; it stifles their creativity. Of course, there are deadlines. But inasmuch as I can remove that element of the process from their brain, the better.  The “system” disciplines the execution process; where the environment is calm and controlled, and the process is ordered, it’s easier for the artists to be creative. When they have forced stresses such as huge script rewrites and audio tracks coming in late in the process, they are less able to give you a creative effort. The actual process of animation, the steps, IS a pipeline; the idea that only out of chaos comes the genius is barbaric. Animation is a production technique. It does not define anything creatively or emotionally.

DS: I imagine you must get sick of these types of questions, but they’re important to ask so we can share important insight from top creators like you. The push for a more diverse studio workplace, not just on production teams but in creative decision-making leadership, is an ongoing effort spearheaded by groups like WIA as well as many individuals, and studios, working towards change. How have working environments for you changed over the last 5 years? Are you seeing positive change both in your own career as well as in the careers of colleagues and the studio system in general? What more can be done? What are the biggest hurdles to such change that you see?

KV: I am not sick of these questions; they are questions that need to be asked continually, otherwise nothing will change. No, I have seen very little positive change. People will say that it has improved, but I can only control what I think. There should be mandates. Otherwise, change isn’t going to happen. The fight for representation is a slog. Men like to crow about how much more inclusive they are, but unless it’s 50-50, don’t bother.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.