Grantland Conversation With Neil deGrasse Tyson About Cosmos, Race, and Celebrity
Adam Rifkin stashed this in @neiltyson
The whole interview was great but I particularly liked this part:
That same week, by the way, Obama — the White House — released its budget, which included a reduction in the science spending in NASA. So if you look at it politically, rather than gesturally, it’s easy to think of that as a way for him to try to gain points back in the science community, immediately after dropping the science budget for NASA.
There were some things I thought were quite risky, particularly the animations. Why did you want to take that approach as your way of shedding light on unsung heroes of science past versus reenactments or other ways?
There’s a half-dozen reasons. I can list them, but they’re not in order. One of them is, Fox was apprehensive about what it would mean in prime time to have actors with glued-on mutton chops and fake British accents reenacting historical moments. They were concerned that would come flat. Another concern was that if we want to get talent to perform, it would require that the talent that we sought out be available when we would be shooting in the location where we’d be shooting it. The location would’ve likely been Europe, so that you have access to older buildings and streets that are timeless.
That giant green pasture, was that in Europe?
It was this very big green field that you were always in when you were doing monologues, was that in Europe?
Green? I was in a lot of places. I couldn’t characterize a green field as being more representative than others.
I can’t think of another distinguishing factor of that green field.
I’d say the biggest green field that I was in was in Monterey, California. That’s where there was a green field in every direction.
No worries. Back to the animations.
If you have live action, it restricts what you can do with the story. If you want to get inside someone’s head and show what they’re thinking or dreaming, you can’t really do that. With animation you can; if I put you on a set, it has to be real. But if it’s real, it’s harder to focus the viewer on what I want them to pay attention to. It’s not impossible, just harder. With animation, you can suppress the background — at will — and then focus on an animated character and what they’re saying. And also, it would be vastly cheaper to do so than hauling in an entire production crew. So there’s probably only four or five — I think there’s another reason in there I’m trying to remember.
The suggestion was made by Seth. He already had an animation team — it’s what he does. He decided to create a look and feel specific for Cosmos. The animations, with one or two exceptions, are photorealistically texture-mapped roads and buildings and sky and trees. And so the only things that are specifically animated are the characters within it. Almost in a graphic-novel feel. So if you look carefully at the animation, the stone, it’s real stone. It’s real ground, it’s real clouds. Texture mapped. So we were hoping it would form a look and a feel for Cosmos.
Oh, here’s the sixth reason — it also provided another kind of storytelling element. So Cosmos is not just one note, one set of vocabulary words — there are others introduced. So I’m on the ship, looking into the past, looking into the future — wherever we need to be visually, we’ve got animation, and we reserve certain types of storytelling for each of those storytelling elements. This creates a visual and intellectual variation in how the material is presented. I was originally on the fence about the animation. Not knowing where it would go, how it would land. By the second episode, I was longing for them. For me, they work magnificently. And you knew the moment you go to animation there’d be some historical story told. You’re going to learn about somebody. For example, last night’s episode, I don’t know if you saw it — were we going to actually put someone in a balloon? No. We’re not. Animation, you put him in a balloon.
No one’s going to get hurt — it’s animation.
And it allowed us to get prime voicing for many of the characters. We had Patrick Stewart as William Herschel. Richard Gere. Kirsten Dunst. So that was good, we felt.
Perhaps the most interesting constant of the show was the notion of shedding light on the unsung heroes of the science community. It brought me back to being a child and learning of the lesser-known black-history figures that weren’t the main five or six civil rights leaders. Was discussing these people something you knew going in you wanted to do?
Yes, one of the angles of Cosmos is to celebrate the efforts of people who have struggled to bring scientific truths into public awareness. It’s usually some kind of dogma that interferes. Religious dogma, sexual dogma, social dogma, cultural dogma — there’s often some force operating against a person becoming successful. And in some cases it was poverty. If you were poor, you had no hope at all. And these are people whose contributions have transformed not only science but our understanding of our place in the universe. Many have science discoveries that don’t accomplish that, so we leave those for some other documentary that someone else might make if you’re only focusing on science. But for discoveries that change our outlook, those are the ones that have high priority. By the way, there might be discoveries that change our outlook, but the person doesn’t have an interesting story. When you’re doing television, it’s got to be visually interesting. The story has to be interesting. The science has to be good. And for Cosmos, it has to matter to the human condition.