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Exclusive interview: Greg King and Jonathan Greasley on crafting the sound of Cosmos: Possible Worlds

Greg King, Jonathan Greasley
Supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Greg King and sound designer/re-recording mixer Jonathan Greasley stitched together the sound for Cosmos. Pic credit: NGC

On the National Geographic Channel series, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, host Neil deGrasse Tyson took us on a time-traveling journey.

State-of-the-art visual and sound effects, stylized animation, and dramatic reenactments propel this 13-episode adventure through space and time. It is storytelling with history and scale.

What is the new Cosmos series about?

The series sets out to show the interconnectivity between all life forms on planet Earth. The illuminating presentation was enhanced by the work of Supervising Sound Editor Greg King and Sound Designer Jonathan Greasley.

The two collaborated with the late Carl Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan to layer in organic, realistic sounds solely based on their collective script notes and imagination.

Greg King is also the founder of sound house King Soundworks, and together with Jonathan Greasley, the two created a swath of audio that spanned 14 billion years ago to 14 billion years into the future.

The veil of sound combined with the stunning imagery set Nat Geo’s Cosmos: Possible Worlds apart from other docuseries.

Executive Producer/Creator Ann Druyan was at the last Winter 2020 Television Critics’ Association panel for this series. She was passionate about the interconnection of all matter and the importance of this web of life and energy.

Of this iteration of Cosmos, she said:

“This season of Cosmos is filled with hope because it imagines the future; not the dystopian ruin future that we’ve seen so many times but, instead, basing this idea on the courage of our ancestors, on the courage of the searchers who’ve given us a picture of the universe that we now have.

We say we can do this. We can do this. We are capable. As Carl said in the promo, we are capable of greatness. At this moment of very low self-esteem, Cosmos is asking you to reach for the stars.

Druyan wanted a living connection in the sound design, connected flow of effects, music, and dialogue that both King and Greasley were responsible for, using a familiar sound palette to dress the score and dialogue, bringing us along for the ride in this ambitious expanse of time.

The series credits include award-winning talent

Associated with the series are Emmy-nominated cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, Academy Award-winning and Emmy-nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter, Emmy-winning and Academy Award-nominated composer Alan Silvestri, visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun and supervising animation directors Lucas Gray, Emmy-nominated Brent Woods and Academy Award-nominated Duke Johnson.

Many notable award-winning celebrities took part in the series voiceovers, including Seth MacFarlane as President Truman; Patrick Stewart as German, British-born astronomer William Herschel; Viggo Mortensen as Soviet plant geneticist Nikolai Vavilov; and Judd Hirsch as Robert Oppenheimer, famously known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.”

Druyan and Sagan’s daughter, author Sasha Sagan, appears in a recurring live-action role as Sagan’s mother, Rachel Gruber Sagan.

We spoke to King Soundworks’ supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer Greg King and sound designer/re-recording mixer Jonathan Greasley about their artistic approach to sound for space, time, and nature.

Monsters & Critics: The majority of people reading this feature interview will not be industry insiders. Please explain the subtleties and the main differences between your positions, a sound editor, and a sound designer, on the very same project.

Jonathan Greasley: Greg and I actually both wore multiple hats on this show. Greg is one of the two sound supervisors, and he also mixes the dialogue and the music.

I mix the sound effects and sound design side, but I also wear a sound designer hat too, which means I create and edit together some of the sounds that I’m mixing before and during the mix.

Greg obviously edits before the mix and during the mix as well, but in a slightly different way. He’s kind of more creatively in charge of the direction of the whole thing. there’s a lot of nuance in there if you’re not familiar with what those terms are. Definitely.

Greg King: The best analogy is like the sound supervisor/sound designer are kind of like the director of photography but on the sound side. So the director of photography will kind of decide, ‘Oh, well the shot should be set a frame like this, the shot should be lit like this, and the camera should maybe move like that.’

We make those kind of similar decisions on the sound side.

M&C: How do you find all of these sounds for the sound library? I know you have a vast recorded library in your company and as many sound companies too. Where do you have to go to record something for a project?

King: Yes, all the time. That’s actually where our sound library comes from. Before King Soundworks, we were called SoundDogs, and there’s a sounddogs.com still currently out there, which is the largest sound effects library in the world.

That all started with myself and my assistant, who ended up becoming my business partner, Rob Nokes. We just went out and recorded, it first started out as us recording sounds for this TV show or this movie, because we always like to record fresh new sounds rather than hearing canned stuff that someone might hear in a package published library somewhere.

And then we decided, well, let’s put this stuff online and try and sell it. And not for the reason to make profit for the sake of profit. We literally did that. So we could maybe raise enough money so we could afford to rent a Ferrari, or rent a jet, or rent these cool things or finance these recording expeditions.

We’ve been very big into recording custom sounds for movies and TV shows from the very beginning. Since we started back in 1991, it’s one of our favorite things to do.

M&C: Please tell me about your first meeting with Ann Druyan and how that went and how the decision was made for this iteration of Cosmos to have a more organic, earthy, woven sound, too, along with the instrumentals and the orchestration?

King: Yes, Ann Druyan is the executive producer-writer-director. Anne wears a lot of hats on the show.

She is Carl Sagan’s widow, and she has been involved with a lot of Cosmos projects. This is a family affair. This is just not another TV show she’s producing. This is the whole family business and entity and the legacy of Carl Sagan.

So this is huge for her. it’s a very personal project. So everything she does with the project is obviously the scientific side, trying to pass on this information about the cosmos in a very entertaining way, but it’s also very emotional for her.

She makes a lot of the decisions on the writing and the direction of the show from another very emotional spot. So, when we first met with her, she never came to the place of like, ‘Oh, I want this to sound like this. Or I want that to sound like that and gave examples.’

She told us what she was trying to put across, from an intellectual and emotional level. And based on those discussions, whether in seeing how near and dear was to her and like how real this is, we wanted to take it from that same emotional place and do it from an organic place because starting from an organic place, we all have emotional resonance to the things we hear and see on a daily basis.

We wanted to tap into that, to tie into the emotionality she has in the storytelling and the relaying of information in the show.

Greasley: Well, obviously, Greg talked about the creative and the emotional and the more of the poetic aspect of it. But from a practical standpoint, we were previously introduced to her, we’ve done a number of projects for [Seth Macfarlane’s] Fuzzy Door and [executive producer] Jason Clark in particular.

Greg’s been working with him on and off for 20 years or so. And we did a couple of projects for him, such as National Geographic’s The Long Road Home, which was an Iraq war drama reenactment. And The Orville, season two. So that’s how that happened.

M&C: The visual effects 99.9% of the time are usually done in post. You’ve got the notes of what’s happening in this shot, but you don’t really see all of the visual elements. How does that inform your work, and how do you work around it?

King: That’s a great question because what we were faced with constantly on the show was the fact that for the majority of the time, we were just working with green screen or our storyboard animatics.

And very often, if not most of the time, we really didn’t get to see the final visual effect of the completed shot until we were actually mixing the show.

We were on the dub stage. That’s where it was kind of really handy that — aside from being the re-recording mixers — John and I are also sound editors and sound designers.

So we do that last-minute stuff on the stage, which was a lot of improvisation, which made it a lot of fun because you know how the visual effect turned out would influence, or maybe how the scene played in and how the story arc was going.

Very often we would think, maybe a second or two earlier or later, wouldn’t it be cool as the music just started a hair later? And we led with this and then went into the sound design for that because there was a lot of that kind of improvised action.

Initially, when we just had the green screen or the animatics to work with, we would just go with the description and Ann or EP Brandon [Braga] about how it felt or did it fit into the storyline and what they were trying to get out of that moment.

We’d start from there in a very general way and just sort of fine-tune it as we got the more finished VFX.

M&C: So, your work really never ended. From start to finish, you were there until the bitter end with the project?

King: To the very last minute!  Yes, very often we’d actually even have episodes completed and in the can, and then we’d get a call going, well, a couple of more of these VFX came in, and we’d have to go and reopen it up and revisit it, just before a final delivery.

Greasley: And it’s funny. National Geographic did an event for the release of the show, and they showed one of the episodes, and there was actually a really big VFX sequence where at the very end of it, they changed it after we finished the mix.

And so it didn’t actually line up with how we had kind of designed it to be, it still works, but it was just really funny to sit there and watch it and be like, ‘Oh, that’s different.’

M&C: How do you work with someone who’s doing the musical score of a film or television project? Are they directly involved with you? How close or how remote is your work with someone like Alan Silvestri?

Greasley: I’d say in a feature film, you probably would find it was easy to kind of go backward and forwards between sound design and music composition, just because there’s more time, the schedules are longer.

There’s more versions of the project as it goes through the cut changes and can pass things backward.

But on TV, that turn-times are typically so fast that we might not even necessarily hear the score until we hit the mix stage. And so then it really becomes a dance during the mix for us to figure out which things should lead or whether it’s a music-driven moment or more of a sound design-driven moment.

Obviously, the voiceover, what Neil was saying, is almost always the most important thing, but the whole thing just becomes kind of a dance during the mix. And it’s kind of a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, they can be really kind of intriguing to make those snap decisions over the course of three days.

But then, on the other hand, you might think, ‘Oh, if I hadn’t known the score was doing this, then maybe I would have done this’ with the sound design kind of a thing.

So it has its drawbacks and its benefits. it’s interesting too because there’s so many moments in the design of the show that we made very musical.

There’s certain times when you could have harmony between the sound design and the score, and then certain times when you could have dissonance between the sound design and the score.

Sometimes those things could work together or counter in a way that’s actually really interesting.

M&C: Back in the day, people watched films on screens with great sound systems and home theaters, but now people are watching these things on phones and iPads that have inferior speakers. How does that inform your sound design?

King: Oh, in a big way, because we have to be completely conscious of that. One of the ways we do that, particularly when we come down to the mix, and we’ve been doing this for quite a number of years, it’s a trick that I kind of learned when we first started doing video versions of movies.

Where you had to take a big giant movie and fold it down so it would play on broadcast TV and stuff.

And one of the tricks is to exactly play it on really teeny crappy speakers and see if it’s translating and you’ll get that idea of what’s working through and what’s not, and make adjustments based on that.

And after you’ve done that a bunch, you sort of have an idea of what you need to do ahead of time. So you don’t have to check every little thing,

We have a really tiny set of speakers on the stage, and we’ll play it back to make sure we can hear the dialogue, the sound effects, and all the music clearly. That is how we do it.

Greasley: Yes. And the way technology is these days too, these are the kinds of things, and obviously, everything is digital now. But you have the opportunity to be like, okay, well we’ve recorded the show.

It’s all laid back and printed now if you really want to, I can say, ‘Oh, let me marry the audio to the video and like check it out on my iPad real quick, just to make sure it all plays.’

Whereas before, you would have to send off all the tapes to the labs, get viewable copies runoff, and now these days, I can just do that right in my laptop at the end of the mix if I want to.

M&C: Cosmos is all about the connectivity of humanity to the natural world, past, present, and future. It’s a retelling of our human history. It’s the forecasting of our human history. There’s a lot of science-denying going on now. What has working on Cosmos meant to the both of you? And what do you hope that your collected work and contributions to it will offer the viewer?

King: Yes. This was very important. It was hard not to really get emotionally invested in this show for all the reasons you just mentioned, with the current geopolitical climate and science-denying and all that kind of stuff, but also the infectiousness of Ann and Brandon and Jason, and just how much enthusiasm everyone had.

From the creators, writers, directors, producers, composers, the picture editors, the VFX people, it was really astounding how everybody was really emotionally involved in this project.

I think they understood that there’s so much information in here that we need to know to understand that we’re not islands living on this planet.

It’s like what we do as humans affect every little thing from a quantum level to a completely macro level on this planet that we just kind of live in isolation and pretend that what we’re doing is not affecting everything.

And, and one of the ways they did that in Cosmos was just by showing you how microorganisms in the ground are connected to the trees, which are connected to us, which are connected to animals, which are connected to the clouds in the sky and then which is connected to the planet, connected to the solar system on and on and on to the universe.

You just can’t even pretend that earth is alone. And then what we do on earth doesn’t affect the universe.

It’s all interconnected like a giant nervous system. It really made you emotionally involved in the project. Just on that level, making on me on a personal level, just really much more aware of.

I thought I was aware, pretty aware beforehand, but this really made me a lot more enlightened, a lot more aware, and just having such pride in and doing whatever we could to help tell the story and help be entertaining information that’s on screen.

And the information that Neil deGrasse Tyson is speaking about is just done in an entertaining way that engages the audience. It felt important to us. Like it was very important to do this in a very clear way.

That is what it did for me.

Greasley: Yes. And for me, everything Greg just said, we talked about that and while we were working on the show.

But another big takeaway, and I think this is something that everybody would do both to remember which is really amazing, what we don’t know as individuals or as a society. And the things that you mentioned with respect to science-denying right now.

People have this attitude of like, ‘Oh, well, they’re telling me I should be wearing a mask because for COVID 19 now, but a few months ago they were saying, I shouldn’t be wearing a mask.’

And a lot of people forget is that what defines science is you have to be open to new information coming in and being able to draw new, new conclusions based on the new information that you get. Right?

So there were a couple of instances during the show where there were scientific discoveries that actually alters some of the information that they had written into the show, and they were like, we need to get Neil in to change one line of dialogue.

That the thing that he said was accurate when we wrote and filmed this six months ago. It is now no longer completely 100% accurate because of this new discovery, the whole thing remains accurate, but the details change.

And we have to keep up with that just to stay on top of it. To me, that’s just a great illustration of, ‘Well, you may think you know all this stuff about the way the world works and how things are and how the human race integrates with the planet or anything, but you have to remain open-minded constantly and always to new information.’

Otherwise, you’re just going to stagnate and spin your wheels and get complacent and perhaps even arrogant with how you think you fit into the world. And I think that’s a good lesson for everybody.

Cosmos: Possible Worlds aired from March 9-April 20, 2020, on Nat Geo Channel, and this interview is part of a series to celebrate the FYC campaign with National Geographic Channel.

Cosmos: Possible Worlds can be viewed on Hulu, and episodes will air again this summer on your local Fox with Hulu.

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