Remember last week when American Gods opened with a gorgeously animated story about the very first settlers in America? Wanna know how it was made? Good, because the studio that made the dang thing has given Nerdist an exclusive behind the scenes look at how this story was brought to life, and today we’re sharing it all with you.
Inspired by a similar passage in the book, this particular "Coming To America" scene recounts the journey of America's oldest ancestors, who crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia. Over the course of the short five minute sequence, Atsula leads her people to America and communes with their god, Nunyunnini, to aid them in staving off starvation. He shows her a glimpse of the future, where she is mauled by a white bison (the same one Shadow sees in his dreams in the first episode) and her people are taken in by another tribe who appears to worship the beast; in the process, their god is forgotten.
It's radically different than the way Atsula's story plays out in Neil Gaiman’s original text (in the book, Nunyunnini warns them not to go to America and she defies his wishes, causing her tribe to be cursed), but this scene serves an important purpose nonetheless; it demonstrates the intensely co-dependent relationship between people and their Gods, who depend on them for survival. As Mr. Ibis explains in his voiceover, "The Gods are great, but people are greater, for it is in their hearts that Gods are born, and to their hearts that they return."
The short five minute sequence was created by Tendril, a design and animation studio which happens to be close by to where American Gods' production studios were located while filming in Toronto, Canada — yep, turns out the show isn't so American after all. Anyway, the team immediately offered the production their services (because who wouldn’t), and was tasked with creating concept art for the characters and environments that would eventually appear at the beginning of director Vincenco Natali’s episode, which landed them the gig.
Looking at the final product, it’s easy to see why Tendril was the right team for the job; despite the obviously stylized frames, Atsula's tribe feel oddly grounded in reality.
"We wanted it to feel very tangible and real, like a stop motion film that could have been made by these ancient people, using whatever materials and tools they would have had access to," Tendril director Chris Bahry said; for this reason, their bodies and clothes incorporate raw textures of twigs, clay, bone, and shells. Cloth, fur, and hair simulations were also added to make the characters seem more alive and real.
While Atsula's people do not belong to any identifiable ancient culture, the design team was loosely inspired by imagery and archeological artifacts associated with Paleo-Indian explorers (like the Clovis tribe), as well as fine art sculptures that featured raw clay materials. Nunyunnini's look also changed during the development process; originally his totem was conceived of as a baby mammoth skull adorned with jewels and ornamental engravings, but over time the design was changed to look more low-tech and organic, just like the people who worship him.
According to Bahry, the film ended up being the most challenging project Tendril’s ever faced, and took six months to complete from start to finish (although most of that was in concept and design — the actual production process took about twelve weeks).
In addition to animating the bodies of each tribe member and God, the team also had to create snow and atmosphere layers for the storm that opens the sequence, as well as hallucinogenic smoke, fire, ember, and other background effects that add texture to the world. For much of the FX rendering they used software called Houdini, which is used all across the film, television, and gaming industries in projects like Zootopia, Ant-Man, and Horizon Zero Dawn.
Most importantly, however, was finding a way to capture the central conceit of American Gods in such a short space of time. "The challenge was in finding the most powerful way to communicate the central theme of the sequence: faith vs survival and adaptation," Bahry said.
Although this version of Atsula's version is a fresh, new story, the sequence still connects to the rest of the show. For example, in the original script the tribe was meant to encounter "Raven People," which was changed to a bison-worshipping so that the White Bison from Shadow's dreams would be featured. The close-up of Atsula's pierced heart also foreshadows a similar event happening to Laura's heart in the same episode, after she kisses Shadow. And, of course, Neil Gaiman definitely approves of the changes — he's the one who wrote the voiceover that appears in the final product. "That was a wonderful surprise for us," Bahry admitted.
Below, check out the rest of our gallery full of other BTS images and concept art of the sequence. Now that you've seen how much work went into building Nunyunnini's people, what do you think of the end result? Let us know about all your American Gods thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
Images: Courtesy of Tendril