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‘American Gods’: How They Crafted Superhero TV for Adults

The Starz adaption of Neil Gaiman's epic fantasy novel offers a unique visual feast, with Emmy-contending costume design and cinematography.

“American Gods”

© 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC


In new television series “American Gods,” adapted by showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green from Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel about the epic battle between the Old and New Gods, we have a superhero fantasy for adults. In this Starz drama, the Old are obsessed with faith, the New with branding.

Costume designer Suttirat Larlarb and cinematographer Darran Tiernan felt they needed to ground the Gods in a believable reality before going wild with visual eye candy. That meant using protagonist Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) as an anchor. He’s a former convict with a crisis of faith, who’s recruited to protect con artist Mr. Wednesday/Odin (Ian McShane).

Dressing the Old and New Gods

“I was harboring a low level anxiety about the project because, from the outset, we’re given a host of characters who exist in reality but are supernatural,” said Larlarb. “And they have to exist among living, breathing people. ”

For Larlarb, the Old Gods, such as Mr. Wednesday, fear being forgotten. “”We turn down the volume on them until later on in the series when we have the opportunity to explode the idea of who they really are. That’s when faith in them reaches an apex,” she said.

Bruce Langley in “American Gods”

© 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC

Gaiman describes Mr. Wednesday as wearing a three-piece suit that looks like vanilla ice cream when he first encounters Shadow on a plane. But it wasn’t the right fit for Larlarb and McShane, who wanted a magnificent coat. So she constructed a visual Mr. Wednesday as a maestro, and designed a beige cashmere coat.

By contrast, Mr. World (Crispin Glover), the leader of the New Gods specializing in globalization, has a different look. “He’s on a spectrum of black and white and gray,” said Larlarb. “Any other color would weaken him. He’s unquestionably the most important man in the room. He’s unfussy and there’s an angular, sharp, crispness to him, even in the white patent leather pocket square I made him. Everything about him feels geometric and pure.”

Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), the most impulsive New God, who fears obsolescence, makes his entrance in a stretch limo. The white environment proved to be a great advantage to Larlarb. “I knew how it was going to telescope in on itself and, so I wanted to make sure all the details of that costume related to that car,” she said. “There’s a forced perspective that I was trying to reverberate in his costume. The shirt was store bought and I applied these fluorescent, red triangular patterns, so you have arrows pointing directly towards him.”

Gillian Anderson as Media

Gillian Anderson in “American Gods”

© 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC

Then there’s Media (Gillian Anderson), the public manipulator of the New Gods, who appears as such iconic figures as Lucy Ricardo, David Bowie, and Marilyn Monroe. “I found ‘I Love Lucy’ trading cards in my old bedroom that I collected as a teenager,” said Larlarb, who picked a polkadot outfit that fit perfectly fit on the black and white screen.

Back in the limo, Media has a face-off with Technical Boy, appearing as Ziggy Stardust. “I wanted it to pop and play off the androgyny,” Larlarb said. “I wanted a really sharp suit and in the Bowie lexicon this seemed liked the exact one to choose, with an electric feel to it.”

With Monroe’s “Seven Year Itch” outfit, Media was even more active. “To be able to fly that skirt in an unending wave of air was just another way of introducing an unworldly quality to it,” said Larlarb.

Casting a Magic Light

Cinematographer Tiernan shot two episodes (“Git Gone” and “Lemon Scented You”) that take a deep dive into Shadow’s relationship with his late wife, Laura (Emily Browning), who returns from the dead as a decomposing zombie. For a soft yet often visually aggressive look, he used the Alexa and a Leica Summilux-C lens with extreme edge enhancement and sharpening in post.

“The first three episodes are definitely a roller-coaster ride and they introduce you to a lot of
current story, but the big story from Shadow’s past is about Laura,” said Tiernan. “And her rescue of him is the flip side of a scene from the first episode, where Technical Boy’s gang attempt to lynch Shadow. We never knew what killed all the children, as they’re called, until now. It was actually Laura, who came out of the ground because of a magic coin.”

American Gods Season 1 2017

“American Gods”

© 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC

The cinematographer broadened the moment and the color palette, mixing gore with beauty. “To light such an extensive area and shoot in multiple frame rates, we used five cameras and had great collaborative support from special effects and VFX,” Tiernan said. ” I think the choice of shots was appropriate. There’s heavy backlit lighting and the rain looks like silver bullets falling from the sky. That was all written on the page. So it was my job to translate that.”

In the subsequent episode, Laura and Shadow reunite in a hotel and try to come to terms with her infidelity, death, and resurrection. Tiernan visualizes the way Laura sees the world as golden, flared light. “It’s shot on infrared with a modified Red camera,” he said. “When she kisses Shadow, it goes infrared again and you can literally see her heart beating.”

That’s the magical realism that propels “American Gods” and makes it visually unique.

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