How astronaut Chris Hadfield, two British animators and a pug created a science show

Chris Hadfield, DC Turner and Tracy King tell us about turning the Bowie-singing astronaut – and his pug – into animated stars of a fun and informative science show.

L-R: Tracy King, Chris Hadfield and DC Turner. Photo by The Foundry

"If you've had the experience of flying in space,” says astronaut Chris Hadfield, "what do you do with that experience? How do you explain it to yourself and how do you explain it to everyone else in way that means something, and how do you give back on the incredible privilege that you've had?"

For Chris, the answer was to co-create an animated YouTube show with his son Evan – who wrote the script – animator and director DC Turner and producer Tracy King. The show aims to explains key science-related issues that have a worldwide impact such as climate change and vaccination using a mixture of humour, engaging and informative animated graphics and a voiceover with the scientific authority of someone who’s actually been to space. (You can watch the teaser trailer above.)

Chris has flown into space three times, for a total of six months – and spent time on both the ISS (International Space Station) and Russia’s MIR station. He commanded the ISS, but is probably best known for a recording of himself singing Bowie’s Space Oddity while floating in the station’s zero gravity – which has been watched more than 30 million times on YouTube.

I spoke to Chris, DC and Tracy about the project at the London offices of The Foundry, whose Mischief drawing software was used by DC to sketch the show’s character design. Read on for the interview.

Rather than pitching itself specifically at children – as you might expect from an animated show – or adults with an active interest in science and space – Chris’ core fan base – the show is aimed at the broadest base of viewers. Chris describes their ideal viewer as “everyone”.

"We wanted to make it easy to understand for the young adolescent in everyone.” he says. He wanted the show to "work for someone who’s eight, 25 or 80. "I want a 10-year-old kid who's heard about vaccines to watch and feel educated and go off and learn more."

"The show is a jumping-off point,” says Tracy. "We expect viewers to go off and Google stuff after they've finished watching."

However, like many programmes that children like to watch – calling them children’s programmes doesn’t fit with the full audience demographics – the show offers additional layers to older viewers to engage them at a higher level.

Tracy says that the show will be "a bit Adventure Time-y – with references only grown-ups will get and a good dose of nerd references."

After Chris and Evan conceived the show, Chris put out an open call on Twitter for animators to pitch for the project. Tracy saw the post and thought that her and DC would be perfect for the job as “we’re huge geeks”. More importantly, the two had created an award-winning animated version of Tim Minchin’s beat poem Storm, about his reaction to pseudo-scientific twaddle like homeopathy – as well as more soberly-phrased science animation.

Tracy and DC created a lengthy pitch document, and were one of a few studios selected for the next round of the pitch process – for which they needed to provide character designs. This lead DC to spend a week researching how Chris looked, moved and talked – which DC described as “stalking Chris for a week”.

The character isn’t a copy of Chris thought – it’s an exaggerated version that’s not quite a caricature but somewhere between Chris and Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. Part of the exaggeration included giving Chris’s best known feature – his moustache – a personality of its own. DC points out that in the final animated model of Chris, the moustache has a many points of animation as his eyes, making it just as expressive.

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What DC and Tracy think won them the pitch was the inclusion of Chris’ real-life pet pug Albert as his sidekick. Albert is where a lot of the show’s humour will come from – so as not to disrupt Chris’s authority that needs to be maintained so that the serious message is kept intact.

"He's so stupid the laws of physics don't apply to him,” says Tracy. "Occasionally he'll act like he's not in zero gravity. The rest of the time he'll just doggie-paddle around."

As you can see here, Albert was the recipient of just as much character development as Chris himself.

DC says that the overall visual style was inspired by the Golden Age of Animation and animators like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery – and less so by traditional infographics.

"We didn't want it to feel like a lesson at school,” he says.

The sketches were created in The Foundry’s Mischief, then developed in Krita and Photoshop. The 2D animation was created in Toon Boom Harmony, with some 3D elements created in Modo.

Chris, DC and Tracy expect the first episode to be released on YouTube in March. They’re inviting people to fund the project through Patreon. You can watch a stream of the three being interviewed by The Foundry after our interview here.