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Creating The Breathtaking Sound Of ‘COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey’

• By Asbjoern Andersen • posted in SFX interview, Television sound 1 Comment

‘COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey’ is an absolutely stunning science show hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the National Geographic Channel / FOX. It’s the follow-up to Carl Sagan’s legendary television show from 1980, a show watched by at least 400 million people across 60 different countries.

I got the opportunity to talk with Joel D. Catalan, re-recording mixer on the new COSMOS series – and here, he gives an exclusive look behind the scenes on how the show’s stellar soundscape was crafted.

UPDATE: Joel has been nominated for a 2014 Emmy award for Outstanding Sound Mixing For Nonfiction Programming, for his work on COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey

 

Hi Joel, how did you get involved with COSMOS, and what was your role on the sound team?

I first got involved with Cosmos last summer. The producers have a good relationship with our sound facility and it was time for them to mix the COSMOS Comic-Con Promo. It was kind of a big deal. So, my mix partner Mark Hensley handled Dialog and Music while I was tasked with mixing the FX, sound design and Foley. I guess you can kind of say we were fortunate to be at the right time at the right place.
 

The original series is heralded as a milestone in science television. With the sound for the new series, what did you do to capture spirit of the original show, yet still bring something fresh to the table?

Great question! I must first say that I was fortunate to be part of an excellent sound crew over here at Smart Post Sound for this project. Our sound supervisor Chris Harvengt and Lead Sound Designer Rick Steele met early on with the producing team to make sure we were all on the same page. There was a deal of designing to do. One that sticks out right away was the sounds of SOTI (Spaceship of the Imagination). SOTI had to have a unique and not overpowering sound. I believe we did a good job with creating an environment that left room for imagination.

As far as capturing the spirit of the original series, we could not have a better person to defer to than Ann Druyan. Ann is not only the creator/producer/writer for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, but she was also a co-writer for the 1980 COSMOS series. On top of that, she is also the late Carl Sagan’s widow. So talk about being able to “capture the spirit of the original show” we had it in her. From original dialog used in the series to specific music cues that were recycled for the reboot, Ann was our authority and not a bad one to have!
 

What was the workflow like on an episode?
Joel and the team

Joel and the team

Our sound supervisor and sound designer would attend a spotting session with the video editors and producing team. Here they would discuss all aspects of sound for a particular episode. If there was ADR that had to be shot, lines that needed to be changed, specific sound design needed, this was where it was talked about. The notes would be taken and then it was off to work. Our dialog editor, Lisa Varetakis, would cut dialog while sound effects editors Rick Steele and Bob Costanza would creatively cut sound fx. After any ADR or VO recording took place, it’s time to mix.

At this point my mix partner and I would have a day and a half to mix an episode. And given the amount of sound design in every episode, we had to fly through it!
Our associate producer would then come for playback midway of day two and we would play down the episode and make all the appropriate fixes to any notes she and our sound supervisor had. Think of it kind of like a first run.

The third day of the mix would be set aside for our executive producers Ann Druyan, Mitchell Cannold, Jason Clark and Seth MacFarlane. After presenting them the sound mix we would then address the notes they had as a team and then we would print the show. And like that, we have a tv show.
 

How did you and the team come up with sounds for the series (especially the more exotic/alien ones)? And how did you source sounds for it?

We could not do what we do without the brilliance of our lead sound designer Rick Steele. Rick has something like 9 or 10 Emmys for his creative genius. He really was the creative driving force for the most exotic sounds in the show.

I would often tweak the sound design on the stage in order to make things “pop” or standout. So it became a very collaborative process. I’d tell him what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes you would not really know how a particular sound designed moment would feel until you got it on the mix stage with music and dialog. Rick has an incredible library of sounds but an even more crucial ability to “hear” it.
 

Rick Steele on creating the sound of a black hole
Award-winning sound designer Rick Steele was kind enough to share a sound that really stood out:

“Cosmos has been, by far, the most challenging show of my career. But, perhaps the most challenging sound design sequence I had to come up with was the in episode 5, “A Sky Full Of Ghosts”. In this episode, Neil drove the Ship Of The Imagination into, and through, a black whole in space.

The entire thing came together in an unusual burst of creative energy. Approaching the black whole was sourced with everything from arrow whooshing by overhead (taken from a western I worked on nearly 20 years ago) to the screaming metal of a train braking, in combination with a jet engine from an F-18 taking off from a carrier deck.

For the interior of the black whole I was able to create some incredibly bizarre rise rising tones (based on the sounds from a formula one racer and magnetic tape degausser) that, thanks to my friends at Sound Toys and their wonderful plug-ins PitchAccumulator, Phase Mistress, and Tremelator, shaped a sonic experience that would rival anything from any A-List feature films to date.

The entire sequence came together in about 4 hours! Everything just fell right into place, I felt like a hero presenting this completed sequence to the stage!”

 

Working on the mix

Working on the mix

Joel, any tools or plugins that were particularly helpful working on the series?

When it comes to plugins and tools, I am a fairly simple mixer. I use the standard 7 band EQ on all my tracks, I have an internal, external and 5.0 verb (ReVibe) and I utilize L1 limiters on my sends.
The one plugin that I definitely used more often than any other was Waves LoAir. You may not have noticed it much on tv, but if you listen to the Blu-Ray which has just been released, you will definitely “feel” it! The producers really enjoyed the low end on many of the flashier, sound intensive scenes. We had a blast!
 

How much involvement and input on the sound were there from the director, Neil deGrasse Tyson and others outside the sound team?

We got most of our sound direction and notes from our producing team. Neil was not really involved in the direction of sound. He did have a good deal of input while recording his VO and ADR, but he really left it in the hands of our sound supervisor Chris Harvengt.

In the beginning Brannon Bragga, Executive Producer/Co-Director, did have some specific ideas about how SOTI should sound, but overall they all let us be as creative as we could. If anything bumped them we would make adjustments as we mixed. They were all a very trusting group and that meant a lot!
 

The show features a mixture of live footage, animation and CGI. How did you handle this in terms of sound, and what did you do to create a coherent soundscape?

This was a big task. When we would make jumps from live production to animation, there had to be a very distinct difference. For instance, I relied heavily on what our Foley team provided during the animation scenes.

Those were some of my favorite to mix because we had to create some unique environments

Those were some of my favorite to mix because we had to create some unique environments. We looked back quite a bit in history and to get an opportunity to re-create some of those very important moments was straight up fun.

To touch briefly on some of the CGI, there were often times we did not get final visual effects shot until the day of the mix. I always kept markers in my session of sounds that might work. It wasn’t until I saw the final that I knew I could grab this or that. There was never a dull moment on this show.
 

What were the most challenging sounds to get right? And are there any episodes or segments that particularly stand out to you in terms of sound?

I felt like our team did a very good job getting some of the more challenging sounds right the first time around. When something did not feel right we were generally close enough that all it took was a bit of tweaking.
For instance, with some of the CGI sequences where stars exploded, we used firework explosions for the initial impacts. Playing them straight up did not work, but once I rolled a good amount of high end off and boosted the sub we were there.

One episode/segment that pops to the forefront of my mind when thinking of memorable moments comes from episode 5 “A Sky Full of Ghost.” In this episode we explore The Event Horizon. Talk about fun, this was awesome!
There is a moment when Neil is riding SOTI to the very edge of an Event Horizon all while explaining that, “Something with the mass of 4 million Suns lies at the center.” We pushed and pushed the level to the act break and then BAM, we came back in with only FX’s.

No music or dialog, just a moment to really imagine what it would feel like passing through an event horizon. That was one of those moments you live for as an FX mixer.

That was one of those moments you live for as an FX mixer

There you are exposed and to be able to deliver something that impactful was such a great feeling.

 

What’s next for you?

This summer is going to be a busy one. I am back on two shows I previously worked on, Being Mary Jane for BET and Chasing Life which premiers June 10th on ABC family. It’s been a fun ride with Cosmos. This project was a huge part of my life for many months and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity. The whole Cosmos team did a remarkable job and I am just so honored to be a small part of something that is bigger than life.

About Joel D. Catalan
Joel D. Catalan works at Smart Post Sound where he’s been on the sound team for shows like Modern Family, Bones and Salem. He’s also worked on all 13 episodes of COSMOS: A Spacetime Odysey, along with the rest of the sound team.

 

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1 comment

  1. Clamanda - July 9, 2014 17:17

    Excellent sound design work! Your environments are very well done. And great interview. On the flip side, I have noticed that Neil, not really being a trained actor or voiceover artist, swallows a lot of his words. The ends of his phrases are often unintelligible. It must be quite a job dealing with that, trying to pull out so much of what he says– and even then, the result on the air is that the viewers still lose a lot of what he’s saying. And without a verbal explanation, the visuals lose meaning as well.

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