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‘American Gods’: Producing the Visceral, Visually Powerful Series

Creator/executive producer Bryan Fuller and Michael Green serve as showrunners for Starz' "American Gods." The pilot was shot by director of photography Jo Willems, ASC, SBC.

It has been 50 years since NBC aired “Who Mourns for Adonais?,” a Star Trek episode featuring a face-off between Captain Kirk and the Greek deity Apollo. At one point, the Enterprise skipper coolly announces that mankind has outgrown its need for gods. While controversial at the time—the network ordered the removal of a story point in which Apollo impregnates a crewmember—that take on supreme beings pales in comparison to noted fantasist Neil Gaiman‘s novel American Gods, which offers a much more graphic and radical take on the gods themselves.

Gaiman’s novel, winner of science fiction’s Hugo and Nebula awards, postulates that when immigrants traveled to the New World, they brought their deities with them. But with the passage of centuries, man embraced new gods—like Technical Boy (played in the Starz series by Bruce Langley) and Media (Gillian Anderson)—who espouse a more contemporary outlook. A mysterious figure calling himself Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane) recruits recent parolee Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) as part of an attempt to put the band of old divinities back together to combat the upstarts.

Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison to a life turned upside down—no wife, no job and no bearings. He is offered a job by Mr. Wednesday as a bodyguard, and as they journey across America, Shadow finds himself questioning a world where gods exist and magic is real.

Photos © 2017 FremantleMedia North America

Creator/executive producer Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (co-screenwriter for Marvel’s Logan and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049) serve as showrunners for Starz’ eight-episode first season adaptation, recruiting director David Slade to helm the initial entries. Slade brought his 30 Days of Night director of photography Jo Willems, ASC, SBC, aboard during the shooting of his first episode. (Later installments were shot by Willems, Aaron Morton and Darran Tiernan.) The main camera package—ARRI Alexa XTs with Leica lenses—was already in place when Willems arrived. “I have worked with David for almost 20 years,” he notes. “David put extensive prep into VFX sequences and had storyboards for parts of the show.”

Looks were developed on set during shooting, with each scene getting its own treatment. “I believe shooting with a too-defined or ‘artistic’ LUT doesn’t give you enough freedom on set,” Willems remarks, “so you sort of get locked in. Since there were two operators on the shoot, I could work with the DIT [Dean Georgopoulos] to create looks on set that were applied to dailies. Coloring on set has become an integral part of shooting anything for me now. It goes hand in hand with lighting. I don’t separate the two.”

Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane, at left), a crafty and endlessly charismatic con man, is full of perverse wisdom, curious magic, and grand plans to unite the Old Gods in a battle for power against the New Gods.

The series often flashes back to earlier times to give glimpses of the original gods in their heyday. Willems employed a variety of lighting tools throughout his episodes, both to augment natural light and simulate non-electric sources; his ‘new god’ of lighting seems to be LED-based. “There was a mixture of tungsten and HMI, but with the arrival of ARRI SkyPanels and LiteMats from Litegear, I have for sure embraced LED,” Willems declares. “Now that skin tones [with LED] are equal to tungsten and HMI, it gives so much flexibility with dimming and color temperature, using much less amperage, so less cable and rigging time.” He deployed large HMI packages for night exteriors, including some Vision Research Phantom-shot 1,000 fps scenes.

The cinematographer prefers to light the scene rather than the performers themselves. “I let people move around in that space,” he elaborates. “The important thing is that, when you block a scene with the actors, they get to the place where the light is the best. There has to be a synergy between where the scene takes place, where the camera ends up being and where the light comes from.”

Czernobog (Peter Stormare), a Slavic god of darkness and evil, meets with Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). Czernobog is reluctant to join the coming war and wary of Mr. Wednesday’s motivations.

Even though many scenes feature the darker-skinned Whittle (Shadow Moon), Willems felt that bringing light levels up was a secondary concern. “Skin tone is important, of course—you have to make sure to not miss needed detail—but a face can be anywhere on the illumination scale from being fully silhouetted with no detail to where the face almost blows out in strong light. It’s whatever supports the scene best.”

Willems’ most difficult scene—and one of his favorites—involves the god Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) engaged in a bizarre sexual congress that climaxes when she draws her male partner’s whole body inside her. “The room was painted deep red, which can be challenging,” Willems relates, “with just a few windows above curtains. We needed a ceiling piece for the low angles, which limited lighting from above. Part of the scene was shot with a skinny shutter, so I needed quite a bit of light. The luck I had was that it needed to be abstract, so that gave me some freedom.” The DP’s license to emphasize the fantastic element was imbued with an organic quality. “There was the idea of a ‘breathing’ light that becomes more intense and brighter, pulsing faster and faster, as if the room were lit by a flickering candle.”

Mr. Wednesday, Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen, center) and Shadow Moon. Vulcan is one of Mr. Wednesday’s oldest allies. He’s created a comfortable life for himself by harnessing his powers for the modern world.

Of course, visual effects trickery was required to “disappear” the unfortunate male. Look development had begun early, under the auspices of VFX designer Kevin Tod Haug, who was later aided by VFX supervisor David Stump, ASC, and 2nd unit VFX supervisor Jeremy Ball. “Whenever possible, we tried to work from practical elements in the live-action shoot,” says Haug. “I find this in-camera approach benefits the actors, even when there will be considerable CG embellishment. We had macro photography shots of eyeballs that captured actual reflections of projected elements, and the only VFX component there was painting out the camera’s reflection.” Most plate elements destined for VFX were shot by 2nd unit director Chris Byrne and 2nd unit DP Marc Laliberté Else, CSC.

“I got started by assigning blocks of related material to certain vendors, just to keep things sane,” Haug relates. “Cinesite were our stormtroopers, handling a lot of environments and weather. BUF, whose particular specialty is offering design service, did most of the god stuff, along with bigger supernatural events. More practical, reality-based work based on elements shot in-camera went to Mr. X and Mavericks, while Dr. Picture Studios handled character animation. That was our core team at first. But for strategic reasons owing to when the show would air, the schedule got shortened dramatically, requiring us to broaden our bandwidth.” AgraphaFX, BaseFX, capital t, Effetti Digitali Italiani, Encore Hollywood, Entity FX and FuseFX picked up the overflow. “Early on there was the usual talk about doing things in 4K, but very few vendors will do a 4K pipeline without charging you for it.”

Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), an ancient goddess of love who craves the worship she inspired in eras long ago, is eager to find that same relevance in the modern world.

Among the most arresting imagery in the first episode is the ‘Godflesh’ effect, when Technical Boy and his droog-like minions (The Children) menace Shadow Moon. “BUF did a very extensive test early on to show what could be done character-wise with volumetric capture data,” Haug reports, “and we let them run with that look.”

Stump had previously worked with Haug on Quantum of Solace‘s skydiving scenes, which also utilized a multiple-camera array to capture a cloud of data points upon which character animation would be applied. “For Gods, we used four to six Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K cameras,” Stump explains. “We called it the ‘Sladar array’ in honor of our director, who was very much responsible for the decision to do the capture on location rather than a separate [volume]. So we needed to acquire a minimum amount of data while applying a minimal amount of drag on first unit. It was a pretty low-res way to do performance capture, and the first pass actually looked more like an interesting piece of claymation than anything else, but that was by design, since we weren’t doing photoreal humans. This was all deliberately supposed to look more hallucinogenic.”

Mr. World (Crispin Glover) is the seemingly omniscient leader at the center of the New Gods coalition, sometimes more challenged by his own subordinates than his enemies.

The designers also faced the usual push-me/pull-you that goes with visual innovation. “It was a process of discovery,” elaborates Stump, “which is what happens when you’re supposed to deliver something nobody’s ever seen before. The first question you’re then asked is, What will it look like? In the main, you eliminate the looks they don’t want as the path to getting it to what they do want.”

Stump wound up also serving as a kind of unofficial color science tech, helping achieve a homogenous blend between the production Alexa imagery and the other methods of capture, which, in addition to the Blackmagic and Phantom systems, also included some RED cameras and Sony’s Alpha a7.

Zorya Vechernyaya (Cloris Leachman) is the eldest of three sisters who watch over the constellations, guarding against horrors forgotten by modern man.

Willems was shooting a feature in Budapest while the digital intermediate was underway, but he feels the material was in good hands. “David Slade worked very closely with Deluxe’s Company 3 colorist Dave Hussey,” he states. “David was probably involved with every frame colored.”

Hussey confirms Slade’s close collaboration over the first four episodes. “David had a very specific idea in mind for the look,” Hussey reveals. “He created four visual references showing his starting point—a very unusual, pushed look. I played awhile in [Blackmagic] Resolve but wasn’t achieving it, so for a month I worked with Company 3’s color science guys on a combination of technical applications to create a show node, which we continued to evolve further. It meant getting inside Resolve to affect sharpening, plus putting special emphasis on certain textures. On the Phantom high-speed files, we needed Deluxe’s EFILM‘s color science so I could use the full latitude and match the main Alexa footage.”

During the DI, which required roughly double the time of a conventional TV episode, VFX shots arrived daily from all over the world. Color space issues weren’t the only inconsistencies requiring attention. “Sometimes we’d get stuff from different artists at the same vendor, and their individual sensibilities might vary,” recalls Hussey. “It became my job to take these disparate images and meld them together. And earlier on, we needed to let VFX know where we’d be color-wise in the final so they could adjust their mattes accordingly. There were very few days on this show when I didn’t do a session with VFX. Then at the end the showrunners would come in, usually to make very particular adjustments, guiding us for the moments when it was necessary to see some character clearly or to put special visual emphasis on a specific reaction shot, and I found their story knowledge very helpful.”

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