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October 01
2019

ISSUE

Fall 2019

The Psychedelic VFX Journey of AMERICAN GODS

By TREVOR HOGG

Originally published as a novel in 2001 by Neil Gaiman, American Gods has been adapted for the small screen by Starz and Amazon Prime Video. The fantasy tale, which has been renewed for a third season, chronicles the relationship between ex-convict Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) and his employer Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) as they travel through America visiting various business associates who may or may not be deities disguised in a human form.

A signature sequence for American Gods occurs during the opening episode of Season 2 when Shadow Moon and Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) embark on a psychedelic journey into the mind of Mr. Wednesday. MR. X handled the visual effects for House on the Rock, the exploding carousel, Asgardian beach and the exterior of the Hall of the Gods, while Tendril was responsible for the interior of the Viking longhouse and deity effects.

Obscuring vegetation was painted out of the drone plate photography to provide a clear view of the House on the Rock. (Images courtesy of Starz, Fremantle, Amazon Studios and MR. X).

Trees were modeled, textured and instanced to match the surrounding real-world vegetation.

A pristine exterior for the House on the Rock, the iconic Wisconsin tourist attraction, needed to be created because, at the time of the drone photography, it was covered by trees. “Using the existing structures and crazy architecture as reference, modelers and lookdev artists took to creating the new layout for the asset,” states MR. X Visual Effects Supervisor Chris MacLean. “Trees were modeled, textured and instanced to match the surrounding real-world vegetation. The assets were then lit and rendered in Redshift. To maintain realism, the comps used portions of the drone footage so our 3D assets matched the real-world photography.”

Every inch of the Carousel Room was LiDAR scanned and photographed. “The asset teams went to work building the pieces of the Carousel room that would eventually make it into the explosion,” explains MacLean. “The assets were then handed off to the animators who hero-animated Carousel animals, Valkyries and debris. The VFX artists were given a different set of assets which were then fractured and RBD simulated. The giant fireball was generated in Houdini using Pyro. The compositor for the shot then started the daunting task of putting everything together.”

Plates of the riders were cleaned up, keyed and given a time echo or tracer effect to add an extra element of psychedelia. “With the CG explosion elements as the backdrop, we then added elements and a nebula background for our heroes to fly through,” explains MacLean. “This is just the beginning, though, as we fly into Wednesday’s eye which carries us on a slit scan defocused prism ride on the Bifrost to the Valhalla beach. This was all done with elements generated in Nuke by the compositor. With the nebula idea, we took extra care to make sure that every frame of this transition was interesting and fun.

“When we reach the beaches of Valhalla we are greeted by a confused Shadow Moon and smartly-dressed Bilquis,” continues MacLean. “The interactive portion of the beach was practically shot, but CG mountains based on the Giant’s Causeway, whale bones, Viking ship and the Aurora Borealis were all built in 3D and added to the sequence. For the epic and super-wide establishing shot before we enter the Hall of the Gods, we added a fully CG building exterior and our CG Ravens.”

Entering the Hall of the Gods, the viewer is taken backstage where the gods are shown in their true form. “We witness a conclave of ancient celestial beings, including Mama-Ji (Sakina Jaffrey), Anansi (Orlando Jones), Bilquis, Czernobog (Peter Stormare) and others, each fully manifested in god form,” states Tendril founder and director Chris Bahry. “It is here that Mr. Wednesday/Odin urges the old gods to take action [against the new gods] before it’s too late.”

Executive producer and episode director Christopher Byrne wanted the sequence to have an artful quality but be grounded in optical effects, like an acid trip filmed through the lens of a real camera. “Collectively, we all wanted the sequence to evoke the unsettling, hallucinogenic feel of the original material,” notes Bahry. “We needed to create a thick, almost liquid atmosphere that the various god manifestations could phase in and out of. Live-action plates of the actors for this sequence were filmed in a partial interior set that would be extended later with a CG interior.”

A greyscale model is produced utilizing LiDAR scans and photogrammetry taken from the actual carousel at the House on the Rock.

The final shot of the exploding carousel which concludes with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) flying towards the camera.

A wide plate shot of Cherry Beach in Toronto that features Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) and Bilquis (Yetide Badaki).

A greyscale model showcasing the digital augmentation of the mountains and Viking ship.

The CG mountains are based on the Giant’s Causeway and overshadow the massive whale bones.

The live-action plate was shot at Cherry Beach in Toronto of Shadow Moon and Bilquis. The sky was digitally replaced with the Aurora Borealis.

Anansi (Orlando Jones) stands before the carousel situated at the House on the Rock.

“We wanted to pack each of the characters with Easter eggs and little touches that we hope fans will pick up on and love.”

—Chris Bahry, Founder and Director, Tendril

God Mode – The Technique

Tendril Founder and Director Chris Bahry goes through a step-by-step guide for what became known as the “God mode.”

In essence the effect is a form of Rotomation, but with a few added tricks. The effect will be one that we can dial up and down in intensity over the underlying footage.

1. First, we track and roto the plates to isolate our characters from the background.

2. Then we project and warp the characters to exaggerate their scale and make them feel massive.

3. We object track and rotomate select 3D elements to key characters in order to have added control over their god forms (i.e., Mama-ji’s many arms).

4. We apply our look and optical flow/vector blur to the frames. This gives us the stylized colours and the ‘phasing’ effect on the background.

5. Additional layers of practical fluids and particles blended with the above completes the effect and adds power and movement – an LSD god aura.

Shadow Moon and Bilquis on the beaches of Valhalla.

The final composite of Ame-No Uzume (Uni Park), the Japanese goddess of dawn, mirth and revelry, with the fiery aura of the God Wind as well as the God Mane, which is a denser layer of particles.

Concept art was developed for each of the gods by utilizing a selection of shots taken from the rough cut of the sequence. “In parallel with the concept art, we began R&D on what we eventually dubbed the ‘God Wind’ effect,” explains Bahry. “To achieve the effect, each shot went through a preparatory stage that included 2D roto, 3D matchmove, 3D object tracking and 3D rotomation using rigged proxy geometry of each of the characters. We used this geometry as our input for a custom-built tool in Houdini to advect particles along magnetic-field vectors generated on the surfaces. These particles were rendered to look like aurora borealis plasma, and the motion of the particles was used to distort and smear the pixels in the underlying footage. The eyes were created with a secondary system that included fluid simulation.

“Several of the characters additionally required fully CG elements and props,” Bahry explains, “for example, Mamaji’s multiple arms and weapons, Zorya’s [Cloris Leachman] heads, Anansi’s spider legs, and Bilquis’ crown, to name a few. Other characters included both CG and extensive compositing enhancements. Czernobog, for example is surrounded by a cloud of cancerous smoke, and ethereal wisps of blood trail from his hammer. These were combined with blood stains that spread like ink-blotches on his suit and various tattoos tracked to his face. We wanted to pack each of the characters with Easter eggs and little touches that we hope fans will pick up on and love.”

The final look was crafted inside of Nuke. “We separated each scene into layers, applying varying degrees of liquid distortion, embers and optical effects to each,” remarks Bahry. “The compositing team built each effect around a custom gizmo, which allowed for consistency and sharing of the ‘recipe’ for each character look among several compositors. The studio was also tasked with creating a CG miniature map that would help set a geographic context for the journey from Kentucky to Wisconsin. The idea here was to make the map look like something you might find at a roadside attraction or covered in dust in a museum basement. We started by matchmoving both the crane shot and an aerial drone element, aligned them to our CG miniature map, and created a third master camera that interpolated and stitched to the live-action elements.”


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