Cinesite Unveils Emmy Nomination VFX Breakdown For American Gods
An Exclusive Interview with vfx Supervisor Aymeric Perceval
American Gods which has been Emmy nominated in the Outstanding Special Effect category. Led by VFX Supervisor Aymeric Perceval, Cinesite Montreal completed over 160 shots for the critically acclaimed series American Gods based on the book by Neil Gaiman.
We’re here today with VFX Supervisor of Cinesite for American Gods. Thank you, Aymeric for taking the time to answer Direct 10.
Hi Aymeric, can you give your little intro. Can you tell us how did you become interested in Arts and specially VFX?
As a kid, I wanted to draw super-heroes for Marvel, but went on to study graphic design and ended up as an Art Director in advertising. I finally heard of compositing and discovered I could have a go at playing with super-powers using moving images, so I went to London to follow a course at Escape Studios, then started working at Cinesite’s Soho studio before eventually moving to Cinesite Montreal.
How did Cinesite get involved on this show?
Kevin Tod Haug, the client VFX Supervisor, contacted Cinesite Montreal initially in early 2016 to talk about ‘out of this world’ environments and ‘epic’ set extensions for an afterlife sequence which was going to be imminently filmed in Toronto and in Oklahoma.
Very quickly, we also got involved in the look development of the storm, which is a character in itself, alongside other sequences. In total, we worked on 18 different sequences split over 5 episodes (1, 2, 3, 4 and 8). Although Cinesite’s work covered a good range of visual effects, they were predominantly driven by environment work.
How was the collaboration with VFX designer Kevin Haug?
It was my first time working with Kevin but he had already worked with Cinesite Montreal’s managing director Chloe Grysole and VFX Supervisor Christian Irles. We went to meet with him in Toronto a couple of times during production before he moved back to LA to supervise the post from there. Initially, we organized the work around two deliveries per week and a weekly Cinesync but once the showrunners became more involved, we took the opportunity to feed their daily reviews in order to get fast feedback and turnaround.
American Gods was a very interesting creative challenge for the crew. Fuller pitched it as “a cinematically aggressive show with tonal wonkiness” Aymeric
What was his approach and expectations about the visual effects?
American Gods was a very interesting creative challenge for the crew. Fuller pitched it as “a cinematically aggressive show with tonal wonkiness”. The challenge was finding the balance between developing realistic effects to support the narrative whilst inviting the audience to believe in other visual possibilities and to be taken on a fantastical journey.
From the set extensions and constellations of the land of the dead to the evolution of the storms, Kevin allowed us the immense freedom to invent, create and interpret concepts for which there was not always specific references we could draw from. Hopefully, the end result is both rooted in realism and rife with otherworldly activity!
How did you recreate the extensive weather and environment effects?
The storm is an essential element of the first season of American Gods. From the very beginning, Kevin and the showrunners wanted us to give it a sense of character that observes first from the distance, but then follows MrWednesday and Shadow Moon on their road trip, looming over them. In the third episode, the storm finally catches up with them and breaks apart we do not see it again until it reappears in the confrontation between the old and new gods in the series finale.
At first, we pitched mood boards, concepts and even devised a 2D proof of concept with rain, blowing grass and a supercell with rotating thunderstorm elements based on a still photograph director David Slade had given us.
Once the storm was awarded, we initially kept developing it as a full 2D solution.Philippe Langlois’s (our DMP lead) and his team had to build a certain language of what actually makes a supercell, shaping a library of flanking lines, wall clouds, and anvils. We were able to find enough reference material to get started, however, they were generally captured from a ‘safe enough’ distance from an actual supercell which meant the VFX team needed to interpret and adapt the angles and perspective in order to make the supercell composition work within the frame.
In order to allow our comp department to build internal movements, 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.For the series finale, we really wanted to push the storm further in 3D. With Mr.World and Odin both controlling the weather, the supercell arrives fast behind the gods and ends up fully covering the sky.To construct this, we looked at time-lapse references of clouds forming and disappearing, rolling like waves. FX artist Masaya Sugimura explains the construction:“We created a custom volume deformer on top of the layers of simulation in Houdini. This allowed flexible art direction of the fix, giving us time and options to adjust the effect in multiple shots whilst keeping an eye out for visual inconsistencies created by the holes in the 3D noise”. These layers were then balanced by comp to complete the animated matte painting without concealing it. Small lightning bolts and flashes were finally comped in before the result was shared with the other vendors who were using our comps as a backplate. Once this overall storm setup 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.
What is your favorite shot or sequence and why?
The afterlife sequence from episode 3 ended up being a fun for the whole team because we could incorporate our own style into the environment shots. David Slade filmed the sequence with real photographic intention in the Oklahoma desert and although there was very little to keep from the set, it helped us to understand his intention for each shot.
The added benefit was the detail the team could spend on each frame, focusing their efforts on creating the elements for the sky replacements whilst adding their own artistic touch. It’s not every day that we get the chance to do this type of stylized work so it felt very refreshing, especially for the comp team.
How long have you worked on this show? and What was the size of your team?
There have been different stages in the project with various numbers of artists. From briefing to delivery, I would say Cinesite worked on the series for nearly a year and 80 of our artists contributed to the shots.
What are the movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
MATRIX, MAGNOLIA, LEON and THE FIFTH ELEMENT.
Who is your mentor or you inspired by, or want to work in future and why any specific reason?
I’m going all fanboy here but he already knows the level of respect I have for him. Simon Stanley-Clamp was my supervisor when I was working in Cinesite London, I love his direct but respectful way of working. He’s brilliant at getting the best out of every artist within his team and he always manages to keep his cool and be the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter what!
What is the most important lesson you have learned since you started working in the VFX industry that you share with students and junior artists trying to secure their first job?
You can read as much as you want about VFX but in the end, the best learning curve is practice.Every shot, sequence, and project is different and comes with its own set of challenges. What you considered to be the right way of working previously could prove ineffective in a different context or pipeline. You have to be flexible and experiment a lot at first, so be ready to work hard and to redo your work.The more kilometers on your counter, the more problems you’ve seen and learnt from and the faster you’ll evolve out of a junior position. If you know you can do better, don’t talk about it, do it. Lastly, understand the logic behind the tools, not just how to use them, this will come in handy the day you want to use them out of context.
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