If you ask visual effects designer Kevin Tod Haug and visual effects supervisor David Stump—who also works in a related craft, as a visual effects cinematographer—visual effects in TV tend to be serviceable, at best, due to the simple economics and complex logistics of television production. But as the collaborators will tell you, American Gods is far from your average television series.
Featuring more than 3,000 VFX shots put together over the course of 18 months, the series is wildly ambitious and incredibly imaginative, stemming from the fertile mind of Neil Gaiman, who wrote the novel on which the series is based. Speaking with Deadline, the VFX duo discuss the process of creature creation, the challenges of developing photoreal effects, and what went into realizing one of Season 1’s most stunning sequences.
There’s a great line in American Gods—“What a beautiful thing, to be able to dream when you’re not asleep.” It must be an exciting opportunity to work on a series of such visual imagination, bringing Neil Gaiman’s vision to the screen.
Kevin Tod Haug: It is, indeed, an amazing project. This is sort of magical realism, so it’s got that beautiful kind of thing going for it. It’s based in the book, it’s in the scripts. From a visual effects point of view, it is absolutely the most fun, because it’s not always the same gag. You can work on big, beautiful shows where the gag is essentially the same one, over and over again—On Iron Man, you just do Iron Man, over and over. Really well, probably, but that’s all you get to do. This is every kind of crazy thing, from outright dreams to invisible, little special effects-y kinds of things.
But then there’s the other side of it, is how to do it in a TV show. Typically, TV effects are very simple and cheap, and not particularly great. With any luck, they’re effective—that they serve the show—but not necessarily look up to the quality that you expect of a feature, let’s say.
Dave and I have worked together off and on for years, and I brought Dave in because we had a special project on this, based on a technique that ultimately got called ‘Godflesh,’ and [director] David Slade started talking about this the day he told me about the show. He wanted to do that thing where you could see what the gods really looked like, or at least a hallucination he was having when he met them.
So Dave, being the quintessential visual effects cinematographer, needed to come in and work with the cinematographer on the show, to be able to build a system that could even start to do that, under the circumstances that we were in. There’s lots of ways to do that that exist; we needed to do one that worked for a television show.
We only had 12 weeks of R&D, but we cranked out a whole bunch of ideas that usually you’d get weeks or months, even a year to play with for a feature.
There’s a broad range of applications for visual effects on display in the series. Can you give a sense of your early conversations with the series’ creators, as to what they wanted to achieve with the effects?
David Stump: By and large, the challenge was to do the wide variety of effects that would be plausible, and play as real, in a completely implausible world. I like to think that we were doing something akin to a David Blaine magic show for almost every scene in the series.
Was there an extensive storyboarding process prior to designing the effects for the series?
Haug: When David Slade was still involved, he’s a big believer in storyboards, which he does pretty much himself. He did storyboard extensively, but that pretty much broke down after Episode 3. I think that after, we started getting in directors who only had a certain amount of time to prep, really didn’t have a lot of time to storyboard. It depends on the director.
Stump: Once we got started, it moved forward very, very quickly on every episode, so there was a modicum of time for storyboarding, and then we just jumped right in and started shooting.
Haug: Basically, everything happened in big production meetings. Often, the showrunners weren’t actually there, so we would end up, every department head sitting around a table, with speakerphone in the middle of the table, walking through the script, and then we’d all go and talk to each other about how the hell to do what we just said we could do. Next thing you know, you were on set doing it.
Stump: It was a classic example of ‘CGI’ becoming a verb. [Laughs]
There was a certain amount of sleight of hand in the series achieved through the camera—how would you describe the integration of visual effects with those achieved on set?
Haug: David and I are kind of old school. We both predate digital, so to some extent, there is an aesthetic that one should not do as a visual effect that which does not need to be done as a visual effect. It’s almost all a discussion with the other departments as to whether or not they can do it. If a stunt or a special effect, or even a makeup effect can get you through, that’s where you probably should start.
Part of the aesthetic, we were told from the beginning, was that everything had to look photographically real. It needed to look like it had been photographed—it had to have a dynamic range that matched the camera, it had to have depth of field that matched the lenses. Everything had to fit within a paradigm, as if there had been a camera there, and not as if things were simply animation.
Can you explain the process of creature creation you went through in American Gods?
Stump: It’s another one of the things that’s special about the show is photoreal, believable CG characters. It’s not something you ever try to do on TV, because it takes time and it’s kind of expensive. We basically did as little of it as we could get away with. You know, a giant white buffalo with flames coming out of his eyes is pretty hard to do any other way.
Most of the ravens in the show are likewise CG, for a couple of practical reasons, one of which is that we mostly needed them at night, and nobody in their right mind is going to let you take their bird out at night, and let them go.
We had a number of those issues, but we did use real animals when we could; like, the little Egyptian cat is a real cat, which we shot on a green screen later. Even though the show was all shot in Toronto, we worked with a company in LA called GreenScreen Animals, that sort of specializes in that.
Principally, when we got started, all of the character animation was going to be done by a company in Moscow called Dr. PICTURE; he’s got a really interesting pipeline and some incredibly great animators that he works with, but it didn’t turn out to be enough. The scale of this is beyond anything I’ve ever worked on. We have over 3,000 shots that we did in the course of eight shows.
Also, given the time frame that we did it all in—usually for a 12 or 1,500-shot Marvel movie, you get three years to make it, and we’ve done all of this in 18 months.
How did you go about designing the effects for the mind-blowing sequence with Technical Boy, where Shadow Moon is confronted by men emerging with colorfully pixelated faces, as well as men with no faces at all?
Haug: That’s a whole combination of things. The space, we always called it “the limo”—that’s what it was called in the script.
The faceless guys were frequently referred to as “Toe Heads,” because it kind of looked like they had a toe for a head. The name in the script was, let’s say, “Tech Boy’s children,” and you just can’t go around talking about killing children for very long. [Laughs]
That thing’s one of the bigger, extensive sequences. It started out with one vendor, with a thing that we called “the Face Grabber,” and the Face Grabber drags him into the limo. The limo was actually a practical set, up to a point, an actual telescoping set.
[Tech Boy’s children], they were actually a post idea of Bryan [Fuller] and Michael [Green]’s, once we got into post. They said, “We can’t just have them be there. It’s kind of cheap. We should do something else,” and so we gave it to [French VFX company] BUF, and BUF sort of roted them out, and rebuilt them back on. The smoke in the space is all CG, because we couldn’t really shoot it with smoke in it.
And then Tech Boy becomes Godflesh at that point. That’s where the R & D went to work. We had to shoot him in a special mo-cap sort of way in order to be able to do all that. In the case of Tech Boy, you see that we played with these flat, cubic kind of things that are attached to his performance. We called that the “chiclet skin.” It’s sort of what came out of all the R & D. We had probably 50 different ways to go. That turned out to be the way everybody liked Tech Boy to look.
How do you approach environmental factors in VFX—heavy storm clouds, for example, or daffodils twirling up through the air?
Haug: A lot of the environmental stuff is done by Cinesite in Montreal—they were sort of our stormtroopers. The storm is sort of a character, so the storm had to be thought about as an asset that could be used and reused. The storm you see at the beginning of the show comes back at the end of the show, and fades off.
The big environments like Laura’s afterlife, were based on very different kinds of elements, but ended up with a creative coherence to them. They were both sandy places. One was a real place out in Oklahoma, which we shot with drones and a big crew in the middle of a desert. The other one was shot with a 12-by-12 patch of black sand on a stage in Toronto with a really badly lit blue screen around it.
Stump: There were other environmental things that we had to do. For example, the conclusion for the season heads toward an Easter episode, which had to happen in springtime, but unfortunately, by virtue of scheduling, ended up being shot in autumn in Toronto.
As you can imagine, the trees, the leaves start to change color and fall off, so there was a lot of manipulation of real environments to make a different time of year for a couple of the episodes.
Haug: I would say probably half of what we did on the show were things that are essentially invisible; there’s even stuff that we did that, contractually, we can’t even talk about.
There’s a lot of stuff like changing the season, like changing performances, if I may put it that way, but there was just a lot of invisible work to keep the whole thing feeling like one piece, which is interesting, because it’s all over the map.
Stump: While it seems pretty wild to say that there were 3,000-plus effects shots, I can’t imagine any way that this show could ever have gotten made without visual effects. And I further find it really hard to imagine any way that it could have gotten done with less than 3,000 visual effects shots.