Emmys: How the 'American Gods' Visual Effects Designer Brought Neil Gaiman's Vision to the Screen

9:45 AM 6/5/2017

by Carolyn Giardina

And the pros behind three other series employing VFX — 'The Expanse,' 'When We Rise' and 'Sherlock' — share the secrets of their craft.

From left: 'American Gods,' 'Sherlock,' 'The Expanse' and 'When We Rise'
From left: 'American Gods,' 'Sherlock,' 'The Expanse' and 'When We Rise'
Courtesy of Starz; BBC America; SyFy; ABC

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • American Gods


    Courtesy of Starz

    For this shot from the fantasy series based on Neil Gaiman's best-selling novel about mythological gods roaming around current-day America, actors Emily Browning and Chris Obi (as the Egyptian god of the afterlife, Anubis) performed on a 12-by-20-foot bluescreen stage in Toronto. Everything, including the sand on which they stood, was replaced digitally by Cinesite's visual effects team in postproduction.

    "We had been to this environment before [in a previous episode], but this time it's not as beautiful," explains Kevin Haug, the series' visual effects designer. "It's stunning, but it's kind of dark and toxic." To evoke that feeling, says Haug, the team made the sand black. "The biggest challenge with sand is scale," he adds. "We know how it works, but it's fine, with so much detail" — a tough visual to get right in CG. The effects team also altered the sky, making it green with nebulas in the distance. Haug says they added particles in the foreground and background ("Ridley Scott floaters," as he calls them) to give the landscape a sense of depth.

  • The Expanse


    Courtesy of Syfy

    As a general rule, the effects team on the sci-fi drama, set in a future in which humans colonize the solar system, aims to apply "real science" (for example, the principle of gravity) to its work, according to VFX supervisor Bob Munroe. But among the most challenging scenes was the one in which an alien entity called the Protomolecule takes over a hotel. "The environment was so active, it had to be fully CG," says Munroe, explaining that the actors were first shot on a bluescreen.

    In addition to a constantly moving setting, he says, "the challenge was giving great scope and depth and emotion to the scene. This is the first time Joe Miller [Thomas Jane] has seen Julie Mao [Florence Faivre] 'alive' — but it's in an environment transformed by the Protomolecule." The team's skills also were tested by the end of the shot, in which the tendrils surrounding Faivre had to lock on to her.

  • Sherlock


    Courtesy of BBC America

    In a sequence from "The Lying Detective" that was designed to illustrate Sherlock Holmes' (Benedict Cumberbatch) wandering mind, the detective paces up the walls at 221B Baker St. The actor was shot walking on a specially built rotating-room rig. In postproduction, London-based VFX house Milk created a digital set extension, including a door in the foreground and back wall, to complete the shot. "The challenge was re-creating the same lighting and shadow interaction from the set onto the digital background so the shot felt seamless," says 2D supervisor Sara Bennett, who in 2016 won a supporting VFX Emmy for her work on Sherlock and an Oscar for Ex Machina.

  • When We Rise


    Courtesy of ABC

    The miniseries chronicling the gay rights movement in the U.S. features this scene, set on a World War II destroyer off the coast of Vietnam in 1971. The episode was shot primarily in Vancouver, where, using original Navy plans, the art department built a portion of the destroyer on which the actors were filmed in front of a greenscreen. Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Mark Stetson of Zoic Studios says that his team added ocean plates (from footage filmed on the British Columbia Ferry). The sky and mountainous coastline are a digital matte painting. CG was used to create the F-4 Phantom fighters, explosions, flames and smoke in the background battle scene.