There aren’t many pitch sessions to which you can bring an image of a spaceman pinned to a crucifix and expect to get a positive response. But that didn’t stop the title-design maestros at Elastic from making it the cornerstone of their pitch for the show open to Starz’ American Gods, premiering this Sunday at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.
“I have great respect for people of faith, but I wanted to do something that was a bit supercharged,” said Elastic’s director on the project, Patrick Clair, who is no stranger to the crafting of titles that beguile and titillate in equal doses. Still, even this bold veteran of the form expressed some trepidation about mashing together the honorable institution that is the American space program with the sacred (to many) symbol of the cross.
“When we walked in there and said we’d like to crucify an astronaut, I honestly thought they would tell us to leave the building,” he continued.
On the contrary, American Gods co-showrunners Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Logan) were delighted with the risky visual. Tasked with adapting author Neil Gaiman’s novel, the duo was looking for a lead-in that sufficiently captured the essence of its tale of a war on earth between the ancient gods of yore and today’s modern divinities, which represent our collective fixations on media, celebrity, technology, drugs and other pursuits.
“Any pitch session, whether it’s story, main titles, music, etc., you want people to bring an idea that makes you view your own show differently,” Green said. “The first image that really startled us was of the crucified astronaut… After that, we were beholden to working with [Elastic] because we wanted that level of sophistication and that originality.”
From there, Elastic had free reign to “take symbols of ancient faiths from across the spectrum and mash that up with stuff we found iconic to the contemporary era,” Clair said. “It’s about trying to unlock the power that lies inside these really sacred symbols.”
Working entirely in CGI, Elastic spent months modeling and constructing what Fuller aptly called “strange extrapolations of pop culture boiled into religious iconography.”
The resulting on-screen creations are exquisitely detailed, bathed in high-contrast lighting and garish, intense colors, and layered with “a lot of dirt and texture” Clair said, “to make them feel somewhat real and authentic.”
Aiming to “take the old classical forms and make them feel sleazy and sexy,” Clair’s team looked at photos of strip-club interiors for background inspiration, filling the spaces behind their godly mash-ups with shiny vinyl and faux leather textures, and grimy, oily, industrial concrete surfaces. The goal was to channel the aesthetic of Gaiman’s book, which “feels like a cheap motel off Route 66 somewhere more than it feels like a cathedral,” said Clair.
The uniting force behind this bizarrely beautiful barrage is a totem pole, which works as both a needed representation of the country’s original faith system, Native American spirituality, and “as something that gave a cohesive quality to all these disparate ideas,” Fuller said.
As the titles work their way up the totem, Brian Reitzell’s nerve-jangling score conjures up a special flourish for each new image, infusing each level with carefully selected ethnic instrumentation and a stirring vocal give-and-take between Garbage’s Shirley Manson and Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age. “[Reitzell] had this idea of male and female energy coming in at different places as part of representations of divinity,” Green said. “It’s really inspired.”
The sequence is so dense with meaning and moves so swiftly, it’s hard to process all of its treasures even after repeat viewings, which is just how the showrunners like it.
“Even when we’re watching these episodes ourselves for the 10,000th time, I will always notice something different and I will always appreciate just the detail in it and the thoughts behind it,” Green said. “It becomes a tuning fork for my own experience of the show.”
What follows is a primer for your own journey up the American Gods totem pole, with key stops along the way described in Clair’s own words:
It all kicks off with “the tree of life, prehistoric to the series itself.”
From there, we dive into a “screaming stone medusa with fiber optics coming from her hair and effectively lancing her with these twisting glowing cables.”
Then it’s on to a trio of “media nymphs… Nymphs of classical mythology, but instead of eyes they have camera phone, Cyclops views of the world—The Selfie Nymphs.”
After that, we swoop over a menorah “twisted with audio and digital plugs in place of the sacred candles…” which leads into a “Lady Madonna with a veil, which is actually a piece of wearable technology, where you’ve got silicon threads woven through the fabric itself.”
Then, “Buddha turns up, sampling some pharmaceuticals and seeming to be enjoying himself.”
We then make our way through some calling out of “reproductive technology and modern medicine and engineering before launching into a multi-armed god with too many smart phones.”
“Sony’s Aibo in a Sphinx-like position” comes next in the sequence. The defunct robo-dog is “fascinating at the moment because… to the small community of people that did buy Aibos, they became a really important part of their lives. They formed in some cases very genuine emotional connections to these mechanical companions. What’s interesting is that Sony has stopped offering tech support for Aibo, so there are some slightly tragic things in the world where people are losing their friends and they’re unable to get them fixed. I thought it was a very interesting symbol of how technology plays a role in our lives.”
We then come to a figure composed of neon light, a “broken cowboy who’s got a prosthetic limb similar to so many of our veterans who have faced tragic events in warzones overseas. And he’s accompanied by a centaur instead of a horse, and the centaur is made out of Big Dog, the robotic pack horse that the military is developing.”
Next up: The “angel of death who’s decked out in special forces gear” followed by one of the sequence’s tour de forces, “Aries the God of Virtual War, with a chariot pulled by two customized American muscle cars, holding a crossbow with a nuclear ICBM loaded into it.”
From there, a “space shuttle spewing smoke and fire” leads us fittingly into the image that started it all, the crucified astronaut. Finally, we reach the top of the totem where an eagle perches, the ultimate symbol of America.
“What I love most about my job is I get to play with icons, because icons have this weight to them,” Clair said. “If you get to work with stuff that’s got meaning in people’s lives than hopefully you get a stronger response from it.”
Design Studio: Elastic
Director: Patrick Clair
Lead Compositor and Animator: Raoul Marks
Composite and Animation: Yongsub Song, Sam Sparks
Editor: Devin Mauer
Designers: Jeff Han, Felix Soletic
Storyboard Artist: Lance Slaton
Producer: Paul Makowski
Head of Production: Carol Salek
Executive Producer: Jennifer Sofio Hall
Managing Director: Linda Carlson
Music by: Brian Rietzell
Sound Design: Echolab