From "Hollywood" To The "Cosmos"--Series Creator and VFX Supervisor POVs
"Hollywood" co-creator Ian Brennan (photo courtesy of Netflix)
Plus a TV critic turned showrunner sheds light on "Briarpatch"; and a two-time Emmy nominee takes us on a "Star Trek" sojourn
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Ian Brennan’s longstanding collaborative relationship with Ryan Murphy includes their co-creating with Brad Falchuk such series as Scream Queens, The Politician and Glee, the latter earning Brennan (in concert with Murphy and Falchuk) three Emmy Award nominations, for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2010, and Outstanding Comedy Series in both 2010 and ‘11. Murphy himself is a six-time Emmy winner (spanning such work as The Normal Heart, American Crime Story and Glee) while Falchuk has won a pair of Emmys (both for American Crime Story).

Now emerging in this Emmy season’s conversation is Hollywood, a limited series created by Murphy and Brennan, which debuted May 1 on Netflix. On one hand, the show is a nostalgic love letter to glamorous, magical Hollywood in the late 1940s, hearkening back to the studio system and such icons as a beautifully reconstructed Schwab’s Pharmacy where tomorrow’s starlets are discovered. 

On the other hand in Hollywood, Murphy and Brennan deftly create an alternate history, adding a progressive social magic to that era as the motion picture business starts to break free from racial and sexual prejudice, helping to influence public perceptions and putting us decades ahead in the struggle to advance inclusion and diversity in society.

The catalysts for change include director Ray Ainsley, a Filipino American passing as white (portrayed by Darren Criss), gay African-American screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), African-American actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone) as a woman thrust into a studio chieftain role when her husband (Rob Reiner) suffers a heart attack and is incapacitated, and Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) a studio production head who’s tired of industry injustice and decides to finally take a stand, signaling his own coming of age and no longer living a lie.

There’s a naive, good-natured aspiring, closeted actor Roy Fitzgerald (who becomes Rock Hudson, portrayed by Jake Picking), as well as name stars who have felt the career sting of prejudice, namely Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah). Playing a lead role is David Corenswet as Jack Castello, a straight counterpart to Fitzgerald. Castello’s big break, though he didn’t know it at the time, was being recruited to work at a gas station, a front for a drive-through brothel (run by Ernie West, portrayed by Dylan McDermott) catering to straight and gay clientele, many of whom are well connected in Hollywood. Castello in turn recruits Coleman to be a gas station attendant where he makes both an industry and a true love connection.

Brennan recalled how Hollywood evolved, noting that “the first conversations” centered on "a glossy, sepia-toned era but it was as dark and salacious as it is now, possibly even more so. There was something appealing about that--it hadn’t been fully delved into in a way. This was an essential theme.”

At the same time, Brennan observed that another theme clearly was reminiscent of the adage “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The movie industry is full of power grabs, inequality and exploitation. So much of moving up the ladder is based on relationships, who you know, getting into the right room, attending the right party, which Brennan said can be “the breeding ground for bad behavior.” He recalled that “our original conception was to tell a classic story through a modern lens.” 

Then a “what-if?” dynamic entered the equation. While on the path to showing injustice--Coleman losing credit for his screenplay, Washington only being cast in black stereotypical roles beneath her talent, gays being ostracized unless they pretended to be straight--Murphy, Brennan and executive producer Janet Mock took a detour from the series’ planned destination. “What if this kid got his screenplay made?” said Brennan. “Just posing that question, then suddenly the whole show opened up. That’s the show. It was really eye opening. What would movies look like? It’s almost a truism. Popular culture sort of predates change--it’s 10 years ahead of changes in political and mass culture. Movies are that powerful. Within my lifetime, the first gay characters (on TV) weren’t Monroe next door (in Too Close For Comfort) or Paul Lynde. They were living, breathing people rather than part of some criminal underbelly.” 

Brennan cited Ellen DeGeneres in the TV sitcom Ellen and such shows as Will & Grace as reflecting the power of Hollywood and storyteling, “showing American culture there’s another way to do it.” Relative to Netflix’s Hollywood, when the idea of telling the story “the way we wish it could happen” emerged, there was “no going back. We rewrote from the beginning. There wasn’t that much changing to do in the early episodes” but as the story progressed, instead of the up-and-comers hitting wall after wall, “they started to break through.” Brennan said the process was “very exciting” and Hollywood became “the most creatively fulfilling project I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on.”

Helping to attain that fulfillment were the cast and crew. Among those colleagues cited by Brennan were cinematographer Simon Dennis and production designer Matthew Flood Ferguson. Brennan had worked with the former on The Politician; Dennis had lensed an episode Brennan had directed. “He’s a funny Brit from Devonshire,” said Brennan of Dennis. “My background is in theater. That’s what I studied. Anytime you encounter someone like Simon, it’s like film school. He’s seemingly watched every movie. The visuals he has in his brain are tremendous. You just give him a sense of what you want to feel in a shot, he knows right away how to execute it. He’s a charming, lovely man, up to any challenge. When you’re an hour behind, he can keep it looking good but get through it all. When I heard I was going to work with him on this (Hollywood), it was a huge relief.”

As for Ferguson, Hollywood marked his first TV gig as a production designer. He served as set decorator on such films as Battle of the Sexes, and Murphy-created shows like American Crime Story and the upcoming Ratched. Brennan said that Hollywood had relatively few visual effects. “We don’t fake a lot of stuff. We bathed in that period, the charm of it,” and Ferguson’s production design was a key factor. “Ryan (Murphy) can be quite exacting,” including when it comes to looks and locations. According to Brennan, Ferguson “must have scouted every period mansion in L.A. County at one point” for Hollywood but he was up to the challenge, exhibiting “really spectacular taste” for what Murphy wanted. The bar was set high as Brennan said that Murphy has “an encyclopedic knowledge about the Golden Age of movies spanning the 1940s and ‘50s. He’s obsessed with classic Hollywood.”

Jeffrey A. Okun
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.

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 again merits Emmy consideration. But beyond looking to live up to its Emmy lineage, the new Cosmos: Possible Worlds seeks to again stand up for science and what it means to our past, present and future in terms of advancing civilization. Cosmos: Possible Worlds debuted March 9 on National Geographic, beginning a run of 13 episodes shot across 19 locations in 11 nations. The series will then air on FOX, and is set for Tuesday night on that network’s fall 2020 primetime season lineup.

Jeffrey A. Okun remembers seeing Sagan’s original Cosmos, saying “it changed my life” in that he didn’t “dive into things that were beyond my reach before. I got a ‘D’ in physics in high school and that show reawakened my drive. I watched the series, read the book. When season two came on the air, I didn’t know about it ahead of time. It would have been a dream come true to get to work on that.”

However, the third time around found VFX supervisor Okun ready. Okun, whose credits include Clash of the Titans, Blood Diamond and a VES Award-winning turn on The Last Samurai, heard from a friend that a season three was in the works and he sought to put his name in the hat for consideration. He eventually got to meet Druyan and EP/writer/director Brannon Braga. “It was like meeting Jimi Hendrix. I was so thrilled to meet these people,” recalled Okun who noted that “the budget was limited but the scope was huge” for Cosmos: Possible Worlds. “I’m such a dedicated fan that no way I was going to let them be shorted on the visuals.” He and VFX producer Jack Geist developed processes to get the most ambitious effects work while staying within budgetary parameters. At the same time Okun was getting an education on the concepts put forth in Cosmos: Possible Worlds so that he could help the VFX best do justice to what the series hoped to impart to its viewers.

Some 15 VFX 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.

Okun said that studios such as BUF and UPP “were able to exceed my expectations...Both vendors were very much like partners and thrilled to be involved in the project." Overall, Okun said that his VFX ensemble did 1,700 to 1,800 shots with sequences ranging from 20 seconds to five minutes. He estimated that VFX work accounted for 40 to 50 percent of the screentime. The priority, affirmed Okun, was “facts first and beauty second.” Going in, Okun said that by keeping the facts accurate, “I was afraid would make things gray and boring. But I spoke with Ann, Brannon and the scientists and that’s when I realized the beauty that was involved. We can make stunning visuals and have them be accurate. It was an inspiration to look at and get to know the science.”

Okun shared that he walked away from Cosmos: Possible Worlds as “a changed person. The universe is totally different than we think it is based on our day-to-day interactions. Another aspect that was key to the show is that Ann is pro-science. Anne and Brannon opened up the door to things, revealing a physical beauty that most people aren’t exposed to.” Okun added that the journeys that the series takes us on become all the more essential when we see “science especially in this day and age which is being ignored by so many.”

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.

Animation and stop-motion fare also played roles in Cosmos: Possible Worlds. Series co-producer Kara Vallow, for example, brought 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 noted 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.

Andy Greenwald
Former TV critic Andy Greenwald became one of the subjects he used to cover, writing and learning about the industry from showrunners, creators, EPs and other artisans before getting his feet wet as a co-producer of the FX series Legion. He then took on full-fledged creator/showrunner duties on the series Briarpatch based on the Ross Thomas novel of the same title. Emerging as a prominent USA Network Emmy contender this season, Briarpatch, which debuted in February, stars Rosario Dawson as Allegra Dill, a fashionable political fixer who returns home to her Texas border town to investigate the bombing death of her sister, a police officer. 

Greenwald has been a fan of this and assorted other distinctive crime fiction novels authored by Thomas over the years. “I devoured all of his books,” shared Greenwald, who first discovered them in the basement of his parents’ home. He saw "Briarpatch" as being a prime candidate for TV adaptation. Greenwald has found that journey to be gratifying and a learning experience, observing, “Things that make you a good writer aren’t necessarily the same things needed to be a good showrunner. You need to be a good manager, sure of decisions, collaborative and humble about things you don’t know.”

Thomas’ book was adapted from a male protagonist investigator to a female Dill for television. For that Greenwald enjoyed assembling a diverse writing room with women’s voices strongly represented. He found himself drawn to television despite the pressures. In that vein Greenwald summed up the showrunner role--either “the zenith or nadir depending on how you feel about it”--as dawning on him at LAX one day when he had to fly back to Albuquerque for whirlwind postproduction on episode two during a time of ambitious multi-tasking--while episodes five and six were being shot as a block, eight and nine were being rewritten, prepping for seven was underway and episode 10 was being written. Greenwald recalled thinking, “I can’t imagine anything worse than this. Well, the only thing worse than doing this would be not doing this. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The talent from the writers to the actors, gaffers, the costume designer and so on are all great at what they do. You get to work with brilliant people including directors and DPs who are generous with their time. I get to go to every part of the circus, including signing off on the last visual effects shots.”

Greenwald cited cinematographer Zack Galler--who picked up after episode one was lensed by Tod Campbell--as one of his many valued collaborators. Campbell had to move onto another show to honor a prior commitment. Greenwald described Galler as “a phenomenal person and a brilliant DP. Following up on the work of Tod isn’t easy. Tod made choices for the pilot that we had to build on and tweak for the series. The pilot has a darkness and claustrophobia to it. But that is not what I wanted for nine more episodes. Zack picked up that thread and brightened the canvas. I’m a fan of his work. He has such a calm demeanor...breaking the myth of the ‘difficult genius.’ He projects an air of calm. He’s an artist with his lighting and composition, a pragmatist in the best possible way. He’s artistically inspired, aesthetically alive while paying attention to the realities of the business.”

Greenwald regards individual episodes in TV as “a puzzle piece,” each with its “unique contours” exploring different aspects, tones and emotions to collectively tell a story. It can be a drama in one episode, something quite different in another. “If successful it can be both surreal and emotionally real, funny and emotionally wrenching.” And putting the team together to realize that far ranging continuum, having actors “able to swing” from one emotion to another allows you to build something special.

Jason Zimmerman
Jason Zimmerman possesses an Emmy pedigree, having scored a pair of visual effects nominations--in 2006 as compositing supervisor on the telefilm Mammoth, and last year in a VFX supervisor capacity for the “Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2” episode of Star Trek: Discovery. This Emmy season he continues his Trekkie journey, this time as an effects supervisor as well as a supervising producer on Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access). The dual role is starting to emerge in the industry, he observed, as effects supervisors have dovetailed into producing and/or directing. 

Zimmerman loves the deeper involvement, particularly for a Star Trek franchise which is iconic. “I came into the Star Trek universe with Discovery two years ago. It’s a show with such a passionate fan base.” 

Zimmerman believes that fan base, though, isn’t interested in visual effects as spectacle but rather for its ability to advance the story. “Fans want the stories and the characters,” which only intensifies the delicate balancing act Zimmerman and his colleagues must navigate on the VFX side. “You look at all the different Star Trek iterations of visual effects over the years, including interactions with models and miniatures. With CG now we can do some things that weren’t possible before. But you still want the nostalgic feel and familiarity. You have to start from a place honoring what came before you.”

For Star Trek: Picard, the effects feats include creating the Borg cube, one of the most hallowed pieces of Trek legacy. In Picard the enormous cube spacecraft--one of the most formidable technologies known to the Federation--was first encountered by the U.S.S. Enterprise. “The cube is very challenging to create. It’s massive, two kilometers or more. Showing something that large in space can pose a challenge. You have to give it a sense of scale relative to other objects around it, giving those shots a bit of style and composition.

Scale and scope are also inherent in the multiple effects studio vendors around the world--spanning Los Angeles, Denmark, Germany and Canada, among other locales--that help bring Star Trek: Picard to full creative fruition. The partnership with these vendors needs to be close knit, Zimmerman affirmed, citing such lead studios as DNEG in Los Angeles and Ghosts in Denmark, the latter deeply involved in the Borg cube sequences. He estimated that collectively 400 to 500 VFX artists have contributed to the show, with the season one finale (episode 10) containing more than 500 VFX shots.

Yet while continuing the Star Trek legacy in Picard on a sci-fi level, the biggest challenge is to focus on the humanity, specifically Picard himself, one of the most treasured Trek characters of all time as portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart. “With Discovery we were building a new canon, creating new characters,” observed Zimmerman. “The difference with this (Star Trek: Picard) is that we’re dealing with the established, centered on a beyond beloved character and actor....No matter how many times I get a new asset, it’s such an incredible honor to work on something so meaningful, with such a history and a lineage in entertainment, television, story and visual effects.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in SHOOT’s 16-part weekly series of The Road To Emmy feature stories. The features explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 12 and 13, and the Primetime Emmy Awards on September 20.

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