By IAN FAILES
By IAN FAILES
When it hit small screens earlier this year, the Starz series American Gods caused waves with its impressive adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel about a war raging between Old and New Gods.
Receiving equal praise was the television show’s approach to its startling and often confronting imagery – made possible with 3,000 visual effects shots across eight episodes. Cinesite was one of the show’s key contributors, delivering effects ranging from an ongoing storm, to views of the afterlife, and even the addition of a cat into key scenes.
“Small lightning bolts and flashes were finally composited in before the result was shared with the other vendors who were using our comps as a backplate. Once this overall storm set-up was in place, it allowed us to deliver two complete, full CG shots where the audience travels within the storm clouds and discovers the rolling from the inside.” —Aymeric Perceval, Visual Effects Supervisor, Cinesite
THE ENDLESS STORM
American Gods concentrates on two main characters, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) and Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), as they take a road trip across the U.S. A storm front consistently looms over them, making a particularly dramatic appearance in the series finale during a confrontation between the Old and New Gods.
Cinesite’s digital matte painting (DMP) team, led by Philippe Langlois, initially tackled the storm as a full 2D solution, building up elements to form a supercell and shaping a library of flanking lines, wall clouds and anvils. “In order to allow our compositing department to build internal movements,” explains Cinesite Visual Effects Supervisor Aymeric Perceval, “we divided our matte paintings into multiple layers and used various 2D and 2.5D distortion maps we created to fine-tune on a per shot basis.”
The storm featured in the series finale, where the Gods seem to control the weather, was fleshed out in 3D. Artists referenced time- lapse photography of clouds forming and disappearing, as if rolling in like waves, and then replicated that look in CG. “We created a custom volume deformer on top of the layers of simulation in Houdini,” outlines FX artist Masaya Sugimura. “This allowed flexible art direction of the FX, giving us time and options to adjust the effect in multiple shots while keeping an eye out for visual inconsistencies created by the holes in the 3D noise.”
These layers were then balanced by compositing to complete the animated matte painting without concealing it,” says Perceval. “Small lightning bolts and flashes were finally composited in before the result was shared with the other vendors who were using our comps as a backplate. Once this overall storm set-up was in place, it allowed us to deliver two complete, full CG shots where the audience travels within the storm clouds and discovers the rolling from the inside.”
INTO THE AFTERLIFE
For a scene featuring the entry of Mrs. Fadil (Jacqueline Antaramian) into Anubis’s kingdom – half-way between Earth and another dimension – Cinesite worked on visual effects for scenes right before the character’s death, and as she ascends into the afterlife.
One of the first – and surprising – challenges Cinesite faced in the sequence was inserting Mrs. Fadil’s sphynx cat into the shots. Initial efforts to film a real cat on-set were not successful, and a CG cat was deemed too expensive. So instead, two trained cats from GreenScreen Animals were captured performing specific actions on bluescreen, which were then composited into the plates.
Mrs Fadil and Anubis (Chris Obi) exit her two story apartment, which was built on a stage, and then climb an infinite wall made possible via a Cinesite set extension. Lead modeling and texture artist Celestin Salomon says, “It was a very interesting job to first match the original building floor, then to build the transition to different construction styles: bricks, old damaged bricks, medieval rock wall, big rock blocks and finally a sculpted cliff. We created finely detailed displacement maps which gave the multiple walls a richer and more realistic look.”
For Mrs. Fadil’s arrival into the afterlife, Cinesite augmented plate photography captured on a sandy location in Oklahoma. “We replaced the sand dunes since they were not as pristine as the showrunners wanted them to be,” says Perceval. “We completed the pristine dune environment with blowing FX sand passes to give the shots a bit more life. For the sky, our Lead Compositor Remy Martin played with multiple layers of constellations and stars, using space and long exposure night photography as reference. FX passes and other 2D elements were added to avoid it looking too familiar. Since there was no sun in this universe, we used the constellations as light sources matching the lighting on the actors.”
Shadow Moon’s wife, Laura (Emily Browning), is also shown entering the afterlife after she dies in a car crash. Cinesite crafted a darker and murkier version of the universe here, starting this time with only bluescreen stage footage of the actors and some black dunes. “The entire dialogue sequence was shot on a bluescreen,” says Compositing Supervisor Benjamin Ribière, “so the challenge was to keep the viewer in the story by having perfect continuity between the 42 shots in terms of grading and integration between the 2D foreground and the CG background. To achieve this, we neutralized each shot and developed a strong Nuke template script which extracted the characters from the blue screen while ensuring the despill color and regrading remained consistent.”
“One key reason we were able to generate and work in Maya with that number of polygons was because of Cinesite’s in house Meshcache/ particleProxy object. It allowed us to have millions of polygons in our scene and still work with all that information in the viewport. We also used a visual trick in the shot, the further away the trees were from the camera path, the more we decreased the number of leaves and scaled up the leaf instances.” —Eric Senécal, Layout/FX Artist
Mr. Wednesday and Shadow Moon eventually visit the Old God Easter (Kristin Chenoweth), who turns the spring-time into a winter state. Cinesite worked on shots here that involved hundreds of petals revolving around Easter and a massive pull-back revealing the landscape turning wintery white.
“This big pull out is most certainly the biggest shot we got to do this season,” notes Perceval. “A few array plates had been captured with a Red camera attached to a drone which allowed us to get enough information for our tracking/layout lead, Mehdi Tadlaoui, to recreate the actual topography around the house and give the showrunners the movement, speed and framing they needed. From the trees in the woods to the flowers around the house, all of the lush vegetation had to go, and we knew the parallax would not allow us to take shortcuts. The low and rampant vegetation could certainly go 2D but the trees had to go CG.”
DMP artist JaeHee Jung recreated multiple tiles of an empty ground, leaving only dirt and low grass which would later get withered by grading in compositing. During that time, Cinesite employed Speedtree to generate six types of trees with five different shape variations, each and laid out up to 2,200 of them.
Eric Senécal, the layout/fx artist on the sequence, explains, “One key reason we were able to generate and work in Maya with that number of polygons was because of Cinesite’s in-house Mesh cache/particle Proxy object. It allowed us to have millions of polygons in our scene and still work with all that information in the viewport. We also used a visual trick in the shot, the further away the trees were from the camera path, the more we decreased the number of leaves and scaled up the leaf instances.”
“We streamlined the process even further by only adding the wind to the foreground trees, leaving in ones in the background static,” adds Perceval. “This way, the branches and trunks were imported in Maya while only the leaf points were imported in Houdini for the simulation. Once the points cache was brought back into Maya, we had all the information needed to shrink them down and move them with the wind. This offered us an efficient broadcast turnover of six hours and consequently enough time to run multiple tests on how to best convey the story point of the shot.”
“It was amazing to have a lot of freedom to invent, create and interpret concepts for which there was not always specific references we could draw from. The challenge was finding the balance between producing high-end realistic effects to support the narrative within the fast-moving production schedule.” —Aymeric Perceval, Visual Effects Supervisor, Cinesite
Reflecting on Cinesite’s contributions to American Gods, Perceval remarks that the showrunners and the show’s visual effects supervisors were both “brave and daring” with the visuals. “Between the scripts and the actual plates, there was often such a creative jump that we were not fully aware what would be coming our way until we’d seen it; this had advantages and drawbacks. It was amazing to have a lot of freedom to invent, create and interpret concepts for which there was not always specific references we could draw from. The challenge was finding the balance between producing high-end realistic effects to support the narrative within the fast-moving production schedule.”