"Cosmos" Continues Carl Sagan's Legacy At A Pivotal Moment In History
Executive producers (l-r) Brannon Braga and Ann Druyan, and co-producer Sam Sagan on the set of "Cosmos: Possible Worlds" (photo by Dan Smith/FOX)
Emmy-winning series started 40 years ago set for season 3 debut; filmmaking talent spanning varied crafts is again brought to bear on a show which this time explores "Possible Worlds" on National Geographic, FOX
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The late astronomer and educator Carl Sagan helped to put wonderment sparked by science in the mainstream public consciousness with the lauded 1980 PBS docuseries Cosmos, which won three Emmys in ‘81: a pair for Outstanding Individual Achievement--Creative Technical Crafts (both for the premiere episode “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean”); and one for Outstanding Individual Achievement-Informational Programming (for the episode “Blues for a Red Planet”). Among the breakthrough series’ other Emmy nominations was one for Outstanding Informational Series.

Ann Druyan was a co-creator/writer on the original Cosmos collaborating with her husband, Sagan, who passed away in 1996. She struggled for many years to get a new version of Cosmos on the air. There was interest but not the commitment for the first-rate production and other resources needed to meet the standard of the original show. She finally broke through in 2014 with the acclaimed second season--this time on FOX primetime and the National Geographic Channel. Key in getting season two off the ground was primetime producer Seth McFarlane (of Family Guy fame), a big fan of the original series. McFarlane came on as an EP, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson became host of the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey which went on to earn 13 Emmy nominations in 2014, winning four, including for Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming (for Druyan and Steven Soter) on the strength of the episode “Standing Up in the Milky Way.” Season two also earned a Peabody Award in Documentary and Education.

Now the third season is almost upon us, looking to live up to its Emmy lineage but more importantly to stand up for science and what it means to our past, present and future in terms of advancing civilization. Cosmos: Possible Worlds is set to debut March 9 on National Geographic, beginning a run of 13 episodes shot across 19 locations in 11 nations. The series will then air during the summer on FOX. Cosmos is now slated to run globally in more than 170 countries and in 43 languages. The previous season was seen by more than 135 million people worldwide and the hope is that Possible Worlds will surpass that total audience.

After a preview screening of the first episode last week on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles, series creator/exec producer/writer/director Druyan and several of her Cosmos: Possible Worlds colleagues--including Tyson, series EP/writer/director Brannon Braga, EP Jason Clark, co-EP Kara Vallow, producer Joe Micucci and visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun--participated in a panel discussion moderated by Scientific American journalist Lee Billings. Druyan noted that season three unfolds at “a critical moment in our history,” when science is under assault. She affirmed that science must be championed and can no longer be diminished or compartmentalized if we are to successfully “defend our civilization and to see it endure.”

Optimism, microcosm
Yet even during a time when there are global warming deniers, anti-vaccination proponents and the like, Druyan remains steadfastly optimistic about our future and that truth, knowledge and wisdom will ultimately win out. She said it will take a concerted effort by many to bring this to pass.

In some respects Cosmos: Possible Worlds is a microcosm of that much needed concerted effort by many as more than 1,000 artisans across all crafts came together to make a show which transports viewers to not only our past but also distant stars and unknown frontiers. Cosmos: Possible Worlds was produced for National Geographic and FOX by Cosmos Studios, the company Druyan co-founded in 2000, and MacFarlane’s Fuzzy Door. Cosmos Studios creates, produces and distributes eye, brain, heart and soul-nourishing science-based entertainment in all media. Fuzzy Door, headed by MacFarlane and president Erica Huggins, produces such fare as the Hulu space adventure series The Orville, animation series Family Guy and American Dad!, and has to its credit features including Ted, Ted 2 and A Million Ways to Die in the West.

Brannon was brought into the Cosmos fold for season two by McFarlane and continued into season three. Brannon’s entertainment industry pedigree includes having served as EP on such series as 24, The Orville, Salem, Star Trek: Enterprise and Star Trek: Voyager. Clark too spans seasons two and three of Cosmos, having been EP on such features as TedTed 2, 42, Cabin in the Woods and TV series including The Orville and the miniseries The Long Way Home. Vallow brings an animation pedigree to Cosmos with credits including Family Guy and American Dad! Her acumen is evident in episode one of Cosmos: Possible Worlds as we see animation sequences depicting the ancient Polynesian voyager people navigating the high seas to find new lands--providing inspiration for the daunting journeys which will face us in terms of finding new planets that could be home to our civilization billions of years from now. Vallow said that extensive research and tapping into leading animation directors and animators enabled her to help bring to life varied stories for Cosmos, including that of the Polynesian voyagers. Supervising animation directors contributing to Cosmos: Possible Worlds include Lucas Gray (The Simpsons, Family Guy), Emmy-nominated Brent Woods (American Dad!, and an Annie Award nominee for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey) and Best Animated Feature Film Oscar nominee Duke Johnson (Anomalisa).

Druyan added that in another episode, stop-motion animation was deployed to tell the story of an up-until-now obscure Russian plant geneticist Nilolai Vavilov, voiced by Oscar-nominated actor Viggo Mortensen (The Green Book, The Lord of the Rings). Druyan said she wanted to tell the story of Vavilov who refused to bow under pressure from Stalin to lie about science. Risking personal peril, Vavilov had the courage to stand up for the scientific community.

Other world class entertainment talent recruited for Cosmos: Possible Worlds includes Emmy-nominated cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub (Houdini), Oscar-winning and Emmy-nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther, Roots), two-time Oscar-nominated composer Alan Silvestri (Forrest Gump, The Polar Express), who also won a pair of Emmys for season two of Cosmos (Original Main Title Theme Music, and Original Dramatic Score for a Series), and VFX supervisor Okun (Clash of the Titans, Blood Diamond, and a VES Award winner for The Last Samurai).

Okun said that 15 visual effects companies contributed to Cosmos: Possible Worlds. Vendors were located in such centers as Prague, Vancouver, Sweden, Australia, Italy, France, L.A., NY, Germany, London and Montreal, along with an in-house team.  Main vendors were BUF in France and UPP in Prague. Okun affirmed that it was an honor to do justice to the words of Druyan and to “feel the beauty of science” through the effects work. Okun said he was “humbled” to collaborate with Druyan, Braga and their science colleagues.

Cosmos: Possible Worlds continues on the mission embarked upon by Sagan in the original series, finding a profound sense of purpose in demystifying science. As Sagan famously said, “We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.”


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