By IAN FAILES
If you’ve been watching the Starz series American Gods, then you’ve already seen the unique approach that Visual Effects Designer Kevin Tod Haug brings to each project he works on.
With credits on projects such as Fight Club, The Cell, Panic Room, Stay and Quantum of Solace, Haug tends to push things artistically – a feat clearly visible in American Gods’ bloody fights, sex scenes and supernatural sequences.
Haug recently reflected on some key moments in his career.
The trailer for American Gods.
Ian Failes: There’s some pretty way-out imagery in American Gods, but what was your visual effects philosophy going into it?
Kevin Tod Haug: There was just a sense that no matter what we did, it had to have a photographic reality to it, even if it’s not necessarily realism in the general sense, but something that looked like it – however supernatural it may be – it had to look like it had been photographed.
“I do feel like visual effects has this obligation to push the envelope. There’s the thing about visual effects, it is constantly changing. I feel that I have an obligation to make progress. You can never do the same technique over and over again. … That’s part of why I did American Gods; that idea that every week there are different challenges and different ways to approach things.”
—Kevin Tod Haug
Failes: The CG ‘Godflesh’ shots in particular, especially those for Technical Boy, are astounding, but even they began with real photography and used photogrammetry, didn’t they?
Haug: Yes, the idea originally came from one of the producers, David Slade, who’s also one of the directors. He wanted to do something that was fully CG but somehow different in the way we captured it. We actually called that process ‘Sladar’ after him, and BUF did the work.
Failes: You’d worked with BUF before, of course, on films like Fight Club and Panic Room, and a photogrammetry approach was used to have these impossible camera moves. Can you talk about how that came about, beginning on Fight Club?
Haug: Honestly, the reason photogrammetry worked for BUF at that time was because it was a very ‘guerrilla’ way of getting photoreal results right from the start using the built-in texture maps. Then you just refined it from there. You have to remember, at that time most of the renderers weren’t super sophisticated. Frequently, you could never get to photoreal. So starting out with photo-textures was a smart thing to do. It still took a ton of work to fix things like reflections, and the way color shifts move through space, of course, but they started out ahead of the pack.
A reel of Haug’s visual effects for Fight Club
(Above) A reel of Haug’s visual effects for Fight Club, where photogrammetry approaches were a major way of accomplishing the impossible camera shots.
Failes: Panic Room also used that virtual camera movement and photogrammetry solution, but when the film came out, one of the interesting stories was the use of previs.
Haug: Well, previs wasn’t necessarily new, but most of what people had done so far was for very specific shots. It wasn’t really used as a director’s tool very much. When we did it, the purpose from [director] David Fincher’s point of view was to work it all out in advance. There was a precision to it that he valued. You’re really on the same lens angle as you will be later, as opposed to storyboards which are always some sort of pseudo thing that might be something like a lens, someday, maybe.
An interesting thing about the previs for Panic Room is the film was originally meant to star Nicole Kidman, but she got injured and then Jodie Foster came in. But Jodie’s almost a foot shorter than Nicole, right? So the previs didn’t work anymore! We actually had a thing that we called ‘the Jodie box’ that was like an apple box that was exactly the same difference in height between her and Nicole. She would stand on it for certain angles that had to be precisely how they’d been previs’d.
A clip of visual effects shots from Panic Room.
“John Dykstra started doing that at some stage (crediting his work as visual effects designer rather than visual effects supervisor), which is where I picked it up. This was a decision, through taking this title, to do something that clarified our role.”
—Kevin Tod Haug
Failes: Another film that had what you might describe as ‘photographic’ visual effects imagery was Marc Forster’s Stay, with the rolling car crash that’s seen from the point of view of Ryan Gosling’s character. But it doesn’t feel like a standalone visual effects shot at all. Can you talk about that?
Haug: I remember Marc saying he wanted it to be something that nobody had seen before. He wanted the camera to be in places it couldn’t be. We wanted the interior to be as practical as we could because there would be people in there. That sets the bar for the look of everything else. Then we shot the Brooklyn Bridge all over so we could reproduce it for the actual crash scenes. The inside, as you’re rolling around, that was a rotisserie rig.
The most fun I had with that, though, was that it’s almost the only time that I’ve been able to collaborate with sound effects. Because we were going to be inside the car as it was flying around, and because we were in weird little places very close to the car, it was going to be hard to know what was really going on, and what it ought to sound like. So we did a previs of the car accident from an orthographic point of view, so they could do the sound for it. They could see, ‘Oh, that window’s breaking out even though we’re not looking at it’ and ‘Oh, they’re sliding across on the top.’
Haug’s collection of visual effects sequences, including the car crash, in Stay.
Failes: You tend to be credited as the visual effects designer on projects. How does that differ, say, from a visual effects supervisor?
Haug: John Dykstra started doing that at some stage, which is where I picked it up. This was a decision, through taking this title, to do something that clarified our role. It’s really easy to end up with seven, or eight, or even 12 VFX supervisors on a show. I would say on American Gods, I think we must have at least 30 supervisors. So, the theory is, as VFX Designer, I’m the guy who actually works for Production, who is responsible for breaking everything down, responsible for casting the vendors, ultimately responsible for delivering the work…
Failes: But do you also feel that it might suit your approach to the projects you work on, which perhaps tend to be more artistic-driven?
Haug: I like to think that’s true. I do feel like visual effects has this obligation to push the envelope. There’s the thing about visual effects, it is constantly changing. I feel that I have an obligation to make progress. You can never do the same technique over and over again.
The very first thing I ever did where I was a supervisor was Eerie, Indiana, a little television show in the early ’90s. It was like The Twilight Zone for kids. Every week it was different. There’s something about that that’s really fun. That’s part of why I did American Gods; that idea that every week there are different challenges and different ways to approach things.
“There was just a sense that no matter what we did (on American Gods), it had to have a photographic reality to it, even if it’s not necessarily realism in the general sense, but something that looked like it – however supernatural it may be – it had to look like it had been photographed.”
—Kevin Tod Haug