Visual Effects for American Gods

Images courtesy of Starz Entertainment

“The visual effects had to follow the philosophy of the show,” David Slade tells David Stump, ASC in the September American Cinematographer cover story about the Starz series American Gods. Slade was an executive producer on the first season and directed the first three episodes, while Stump served as a co-visual-effects supervisor alongside Kevin Tod Haug and Jeremy Ball. The team collaborated with a number of visual-effects vendors over the course of the first season's eight episodes, and their efforts were rewarded with an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects, for episode 101, “The Bone Orchard.”

Haug recently visited the AC editorial offices to offer the following insights into a number of the effects created for the first season.

Episode 101, “The Bone Orchard,” opens with Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) writing the story “Coming to America 813 C.E.” As he narrates this tale of the Vikings, the scene transitions from his writing to a Viking ship sailing through rough waters caused by a rainstorm. 

The portion of the scene showing just the Viking ship sailing the sea is entirely computer-generated and was created by Mr. X, a Toronto-based vendor and the same company that works on the television series Vikings. For the scenes with the actors, a practical longboat was built, which the team from Mr. X came out and scanned for reference. There was a fear of actually putting up the sails, so they had to be simulated. Director David Slade's mantra was to make it as real as possible.

Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) receives an early prison release due to his wife’s death, and a storm brews overhead as he boards the transfer bus — another scene in episode 101, “The Bone Orchard.” The prison scenes were shot in a disused, rundown portion of an actual prison in Oklahoma. Real guards had to escort the cast and crew in and out of the prison. 

The effects here were done by Cinesite Montreal. They created the big supercell as an asset that could be used over and over again throughout the show. With a nod to Monty Python's Flying Circus, Haug dubbed this effect the “Spiny Norman,” an oversized entity poking over buildings to remind you that it’s coming. This same effect is used at Easter’s party in episode 108, “Come to Jesus.”

The wrong prop coin was used while shooting the scene in which Shadow tossed Mad Sweeney’s lucky coin onto Laura Moon's grave (in episode 101, “The Bone Orchard”). The photographed coin was therefore replaced with a shiny CG coin. The shot of it lying in the dirt also had to be zoomed-in so the coin would appear larger in the frame; the original shot was wider, with the coin appearing smaller. All effects at Laura Moon's grave were done by Cinesite Montreal.

In-camera special effects and computer-generated visual effects were combined for the scene in which Laura (Emily Browning) slaughters Technical Boy’s faceless goons. Inspired by anime stylistics, Slade envisioned this image from the beginning.

The two halves of the goon and some of the special-effects blood were done for real, as a practical gag realized by prosthetic- and makeup-effects designer Christien Tinsley. The skeleton was added via CG, along with a lot of extra blood. Visual-effects company Buf created this effect.  

For the opening of episode 103, “Head Full of Snow,” Mrs. Fadil (Jacqueline Antaramian) dies and Anubis (Chris Obi) appears, to take her up to the heavens for judgement. The scenes where they ascend the stairs were shot on the backlot in Toronto, and the scenes where they arrive in the Egyptian desert were shot on-location in the Little Sahara State Park in Waynoka, Okla. All images were placed into 3D matte paintings. 

The first shot was intended to be anamorphic, but it was shot with a spherical lens to achieve a wider scale. The shot therefore had to be un-warped and placed into a wider image that in turn had to be made to look like it had been shot with an anamorphic lens. This work was performed by Cinesite. 

In episode 103, “Head Full of Snow,” Shadow finds Zorya Polunochnaya (Erika Kaar) on the rooftop of a Chicago apartment building, looking up at the stars through a telescope. For this scene, the production shot on an actual rooftop in Toronto with a skyline that had to be made to look like the skyline in Chicago. To do this, the visual-effects team had to take out some of the lighting and names on buildings, and add-in Chicago landmarks such as the John Hancock Center. They also added clouds, stars and the moon. 

Zorya reaches for the moon, plucks it from the sky, and it turns into a coin that she gives to Shadow. On set, a practical coin was placed on a C-stand arm for Kaar to take. Cinesite replaced the coin with a CG moon for the portion of the shot when it's still in the sky.

In episode 103, “Head Full of Snow,” the Jinn (Mousa Kraish) picks up Salim (Omid Abtahi) in the latter’s New York taxi cab. The interior of the cab was shot on stage in Toronto by Aaron Morton, NZCS, while the backgrounds were all shot by David Stump, who worked with Stargate as a production service in Manhattan. The foregrounds and backgrounds were composited by Mavericks VFX in Toronto. 

The cab interiors were shot with a shift-tilt lens, and so the backgrounds had to be made to match. Mavericks therefore used a Z-depth function in Foundry’s Nuke compositing software that allowed them to shift focus and create depth of field where it did not already exist.

When Laura dies in episode 104, “Git Gone,” she must face Anubis for judgement. Cinesite created a digital matte painting that was meant to evoke the scene between Anubis and Mrs. Fadil in episode 103, “Head Full of Snow” — except Laura's experience with Anubis is decidedly darker. 

The bluescreen was uncomfortably close to the actors, so the scene could only be lit from the top. To help it feel like an exterior, visual effects added atmosphere as well as what Haug calls “Ridleys” — floating seed pods that provide a sense of movement.

In another “coming to America” tale — this one from episode 106, “A Murder of Gods” — the Coyote (Marilyn Camacho) leads a group of immigrants to the Rio Grande. This scene was staged at a quarry in Southern Ontario. It was late summer, and the scenery was still green — but it was supposed to look brown and desert-like to stand in for the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Capital T, a matte-painting company based in Hawaii, extended and enhanced the real background, placing matte-painting elements into the real environment.

Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) and Shadow Moon drive into the town of Vulcan in episode 106, “A Murder of Gods.” The scene was shot in Brantford, a small town in Southern Ontario. Matte-painted backgrounds and extensions were added into the scene by Mr. X, leaving the street and a few signature buildings untouched.

Salim stops to pray on the side of the road at the end of episode 106, “A Murder of Gods.” Stump shot sunrises and sunsets over the span of a few days near Hamilton, Ontario. Working with Stargate, Stump employed Sony A7s and Blackmagic cameras — 13 cameras in total — that were running in sync, allowing the environment to stitch together perfectly. The selected sunrise was then taken to the stage and played back through a Previzion system operated by Stargate. Morton and director Adam Kane, ASC were able to see the sunrise on the monitor and view the in-camera composite while shooting. Stargate also provided the final comps.

During the “coming to America” tale of Essie MacGowan (Emily Browning) at the beginning of episode 107, “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” an aerial shot of Essie’s childhood village in Ireland is shown. The helicopter footage for this scene was shot in Newfoundland, the production's stand-in location for Ireland. The lighthouse and buildings were added into the scene by Captial T.

Also during Essie MacGowan’s “coming to America” tale in episode 107, “A Prayer For Mad Sweeney,” a tobacco field is shown. For this scene, the crops were cloned by Mr. X. This scene was shot during the peak time for fall colors, so Mr. X also had to perform some color correction. 

Mr. Wednesday and Shadow drive up to Easter’s house in episode 108, “Come to Jesus.” This was shot at Eaton Hall in Ontario, a couple hours north of Toronto in “cottage country.” Shot in the fall but meant to look like spring, the scene required some “weather fixing” that was done by Capital T.

During the party at Easter’s House in episode 108, “Come to Jesus,” the new gods Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), Media (Gillian Anderson) and Mr. World (Crispin Glover) stand together against the old gods. The “Spiny Norman” was put into place and the “faceless Freds” behind Mr. World were cleaned out, all by Cinesite. Pacific Title and Art performed cosmetic effects, and Buf Montreal gave the faceless Freds “putty” visages. Buf Paris, meanwhile, tackled Mr. World. Glover was not available on the shoot day, so his portion was shot on stage with the production’s custom “Sladar” array, which slaved four or six Blackmagic Design Ursa Mini 4.6K cameras to a central Arri Alexa.

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