In the premiere of American Gods, a woman named Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) is out for drinks with a man she met online. They’re an odd couple. She’s young, beautiful, and exquisitely dressed. He’s a frumpy, awkward dad. As the date progresses to the bedroom, something begins to feel a little off.
American Gods has that name for a reason, and Bilquis is hardly your average woman. Shortly into their oddball sex session, it becomes clear that this unlucky man is literally losing himself in her; his entire body is sinking into her vagina like a spaghetti noodle into a slurping set of lips. As he starts to climax, Bilquis places her hand on his head and deftly stuffs him inside of her. Whew! Time for a lay down.
The scene is directly lifted from Neil Gaiman’s novel, though bringing it to life on-screen posed a very special sort of challenge. When asked about how the team brought the final version to life, visual effects designer Kevin Tod Haug begins with a single sound. “Oof.”
Haug says this was the very first scene that director-producer David Slade of Hannibal fame was worried about. “It's the only thing that we all knew what it needed to look like, and we were all scared to death that it wouldn't look like that when we were done.”
The team mapped the scene out in storyboards before testing actual shots to figure out what would — and wouldn’t — work. Haug says they focused on “the idea of her growing during the process, him shrinking, the way the room would sort of help us see her, but not see it too clearly.” It required a lot of experimentation. "Some of the shots got versioned to death,” he says. “One of those shots at the end was pushing 30 versions.”
By versions, Haug means multiple iterations of the same camera angle for the same cut. VFX supervisor Jeremy Ball said there were dozens of iterations used for this scene, as some camera angles were much harder to pull off than others. “When we're up over her left shoulder looking down at him as he's being absorbed, it was really the trickiest one,” he says.
There’s quite a bit of hip wriggling on Bilquis’ part as the scenes moves forward. On top, she commands a position of power during sex. She seems to grow in size before the viewer’s eyes. But her hip sways, which help her devour her prey, factor into how the scene works as well. “I think something we didn't take into account fully on set was the amount to which her movement was going to translate to him as he's pulling forward,” Ball says. “We thought of it as much more of a linear thing. A lot of the kind of hip movement from her is getting transferred to him in post.”
Another subtle trick that factors into how the final version gels, Ball says, is a pulse of light in the deeply red room. “I think the suggestion is that it's candlelight, but it's actually much stronger than that,” he says. “It's kind of illuminating the whole space and [Bilquis]. Editorially, I know that David [Slade] and art worked to sort of play that rhythm of that light across the cut to make it sort of a subliminal rhythm, tying it together, that I think on some level helps you through this transformational aspect.”
The finished scene is what Haug calls a visual balancing act: it uses practical, perspective trickery to make someone appear larger on-screen. “It started out being primarily practical effects that could have just been split together in 2D, so no actual CG.” The scene was then treated with visual effects to tie it all together.
According to Haug, David Slade’s “biggest, single fear” was that this scene would wind up looking cheesy or downright bad. He credits the final product — a successful, unforgettable moment — as the result of planning, experimentation, and a willingness to revise, revise, and revise some more. Oof, indeed.