One of the highlights of Nat Geo’s “Cosmos: Possible Worlds” was how stop-motion animation helped humanize the tragic career of pioneering Russian botanist/geneticist Nikolai Vavilov in Episode 4: “Vavilov.” Indeed, the way in which Josef Stalin politicized pseudo-science to debunk Vavilov’s revolutionary discoveries to end hunger (he starved to death in prison), serves as a timely reminder of how political propaganda continues to imperil scientific truth.
Showrunner Ann Druyan and executive producer Brannon Braga used lots of hand-drawn animation throughout the series as a visual change of pace, but wanted to give “Vavilov” a more distinctive look to help humanize the historical drama. And they were both admirers of stop-motion, especially the nuance and naturalism of Charlie Kaufman’s Oscar-nominated “Anomalisa,” which was co-directed by Duke Johnson and animated at Starburns Industries — so they approached Johnson to spearhead the episode.
Trouble was, Johnson was in the midst of trying to break free of animation with live action. But they persisted and wore down his resistance with an enticing pitch about his unique ability to deliver their vision. “They had seen something in ‘Anomalisa’ and wanted to capture that, and I didn’t want to copy what I had done, but I was excited to take that aesthetic to the next level,” Johnson said. But before he could wrap his head around raising the bar with the latest 3D printing capabilities, Johnson had to figure out how to make feature-level quality work on a such a low budget.
“It was a year-long process of discussions, but it was cost-prohibitive with stop-motion,” said Johnson, who served as supervising animation director of the episode. So Druyan and Braga went off and explored other animation prospects and came back and whittled down the sequences to a manageable budget. “The end process was animating only the Vavilov [segment with stop-motion: 125 individual shots] rather than the whole episode,” he continued.
After several months of R&D, Starburns designed a whole new facial structure built on magnets (which were too expensive at the time of “Anomalisa”). The result was far greater precision. Leveraging the meticulous research supplied by the “Possible Worlds” team, they modeled the faces after the actual historical figures of Vavilov (voiced by Viggo Mortensen), Stalin, and rival scientist Trofim Lysenko. But the concept remained the same with a split across the middle of the face: the tops were reserved for the expressive eyebrows and the bottoms for the mouth movements.
“You develop characteristics for posture and movement,” Johnson said. “Vavilov is passionate and enthusiastic about science and is very effusive when he talks, and he moves his hands a lot. He’s carries himself off regally. We did a lot of live-action video reference with the animators working things out.”
The overall look made use of warm, natural light surrounding Vavilov, conveying his association with nature and seeds, which are the essence of sustaining life. The cinematography of Joe Passarelli (“Anomalisa”) relied on lens flares and fogging to envelop Vavilov throughout his scientific research in several continents.
However, the most difficult sequence to animate was Vavilov’s recurring moment of cracking into Stalin in a hallway. Special care was required from lead animator Dan Mackenzie to get every nuance right. “This was important for Ann,” Johnson said. “She kept coming back to this because it was creating this sense that Vavilov was aware of his fate, and the moment he crashes into Stalin, he witnesses the fear on his face and then the anger. Stalin had a paranoia and Vavilov realized that catching him in this moment of weakness sealed his fate.”
But Stalin’s look of fear was the only occasion that Johnson had to embellish with CG to make it work. “We couldn’t get the eyebrows and eyes as wide as we would’ve liked within our range,” he added. “We animated it practically and pushed it with visual effects. I think ‘Vavilov’ is definitely some of the best animation that I have been a part of.”