In 2018, Chris White explained the work of Weta Digital on MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE. He talks to us today about his work on the Netflix serie, THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY.

Aidan Martin began his career in visual effects as an animator in 2005. He joined Weta Digital in 2013 to work on THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. He then works on many films like THE HOBBIT: BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, THE BFG, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES and RAMPAGE.

Chris White – VFX Supervisor

How did you and Weta Digital get involved on this show?
We were approached by Show Runner Steve Blackman. He was familiar with our work on the PLANET OF THE APES trilogy and he knew we could deliver a performance for Pogo that could really enhance the storytelling possibilities.

How was the collaboration with the various directors and VFX Supervisor Everett Burrell?
Collaborating with both Everett Burrell and Steve Blackman, the Show Runner, was one of the reasons this project was so enjoyable. From our first meeting in Toronto, we brainstormed on how to bring Pogo to life including the different aspects of his look and attire, his mannerisms and personality.

What was their expectations and approach about the visual effects?
It was important to them that Pogo was an equally important member of the Umbrella Academy and needed to be real to the audience. He needed to be a charismatic, sympathetic voice which had to come through in his animation as well as his design.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
Due to the multiple stages of animation involved, it was important that we developed a workflow that conformed to the schedule. At the beginning of the project I worked with Libby Hazel, Producer, and Aidan Martin, Animation Supervisor, to come up with plan from onset to final composite. We used this plan throughout the project, assigning explicit days and workflows to each step. It worked well and added a consistency to each episode.

What are the sequences made by Weta Digital?
Any of the sequences where Pogo is present were made by Weta.

Can you tell us more about the previs and postvis process?
We would first receive plates and a turnover containing Ken Hall acting as Pogo. Adam Godley’s voice over and performance would come shortly after. During the time in between, we would begin match-moving Ken’s rough action onto our digital Pogo. This allowed us to begin lighting him in the scene, while animation was still in progress. Once we received Adam’s performance, we would recapture the body motion so that it synchronized with how Adam performed the dialog. It was important that the body movement was in line with the head performance. This was done by our animation department on our motion capture stage. We would then marry the body capture with the animation that referenced Adam’s facial performance.

How did you used your Apes experience for this show?
We learned so much on the PLANET OF THE APES trilogies about the anatomy and movement of chimpanzees. While Pogo was more human than the characters on PLANET OF THE APES, it was still invaluable to incorporate that decade of experience into him. This can be seen in his facial modeling and simulation, movement, and rendering of hair and skin. We also developed a new technique for rendering clothing, which was used for the first time on THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY. Our new fabric model allowed us to simulate every strand of thread procedurally. This gave a very realistic look to his dress shirt and pants, and his signature jacket.

How did you adapt your pipeline and methodology to fit into the schedule of a TV series?
As mentioned earlier, we developed a pipeline that would keep each department busy at all times. By providing simple match-moved animation to lighting, while animation was in progress, the lighter could be working in parallel. Paint, roto, and compositing could also begin in parallel. As each department finished their task, they could begin on the next, without any down time.

How did you manage his interactions on-set with the casting and for the framing?
Ken Hall’s performance with the other actors was crucial for this. He played Pogo in the scenes, allowing the other actors and director to work with one another in scene. He was also good reference for lighting. We added a digital Ken to our lighting tests, to validate we were matching the onset lighting accurately.

Can you elaborate about his eyes and fur?
We wanted to make sure Pogo had very soulful eyes, so a lot of attention was given to the particular shape of his lids and eyes. We reshaped the tear meniscus to catch tears pooling in his bottom lid, adding a sense of sadness when needed. His fur used a new render model developed on PLANET OF THE APES to properly render the medulla inside each hair like real apes. This contributed realistic backlighting in our spectral renderer, Manuka.

Pogo is seen through various lighting conditions. How did you manage this aspect?
As we were developing the look of Pogo, we would render him in different environments to make sure he worked in each. This would be important later in the schedule as he needed to work everywhere and in different environments whenever the need arose.

Can you tell us more about the various colors of his fur?
The older Pogo, who you see in the majority of the episodes, had a salt and pepper look to his fur. This extended through his hair and beard. We did a photoshoot of Weta artists with this look and sent them to Everett and Steve as reference. They picked a look they liked, and we applied these principles to Pogo’s fur. For younger Pogo we brought back more of his natural colour and reduced the aging of his skin. We also restored some of his hairline, to give him a fuller look.

How did you created the various FX elements for his eyes and mouth?
Our creatures department simulated his muzzle to added extra subtle movement when he spoke. His eye meniscus was built into our creature rig to pick up all the subtle movement from his animation.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
One of the most challenging sequences was when Vanya hugs Pogo in the first episode. The close interaction of the two took a fair amount of work to integrate.

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Luckily enough there wasn’t on this project. With each challenge we were able to develop a solution. It was a fun project to work on, with lots of great encouragement from the client.

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I personally like Pogo running down the hall in one of the later episodes. I love the lighting and it is the first time you see him run.

What is your best memory on this show?
It hard to identify one particular memory, but I remember Dailies being a lot of fun as a whole. Lots of laughs and contributions from the artists.

How long have you worked on this show?
Almost a year. 

What’s the VFX shots count?
150 shots over 10 episodes .

What was the size of your team?
Approximately 220 artists

Aidan Martin – Animation Supervisor

Can you explain in details about the design and creation of Pogo?
Using art work that was provided by the production, including a clay sculpt which I believe was done by Frank Ippolito, it was obvious that Pogo’s proportions weren’t entirely accurate to a real chimp – his torso is a little shorter and his femurs are longer. Pogo’s hands are also a little bit bigger and his head is somewhat larger. Also given Pogo’s advanced age, he’s less muscular than a lot of our digital chimps from the past. This meant we needed to do quite a bit of tweaking to our existing skeleton, making it almost unrecognizable from our starting point. Pogo’s exaggerated proportions gave his posture much more character. For Pogo’s facial puppet, we were very fortunate when Adam Godley was cast to voice him. Adam was one of the giants from BFG which meant we already had an existing reference library for Adam’s face shapes. We were able to leverage that when creating Pogo’s facial poses, particularly around the eyes.

How did you handle his rigging and animation?
I think it’s safe to say when it comes to CG apes, we have a lot of depth and experience. So when we began to create Pogo’s animation and tissue puppet, we were able to start with an existing ape skeleton that roughly matched Pogo’s desired height. We were also able to leverage our own Koru Puppet system which we first used in production on WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES. Koru Puppets run much faster and in the case of Pogo, the animation team were able to have real-time playback in Maya, which means less waiting around for play-blasts.

What kind of references and indications did you received for the animation?
For Pogo’s performance, we received onset video reference for the body motion and face reference from the ADR sessions with Adam Godley, along with the voice track which we had to integrate.
Ken Hall played Pogo onset during the filming of the series which was great because it gave the other actors a real life performer to interact with and we knew exactly where Pogo should be in space.

A typical shot package would include a Plate with Ken and a couple of witness camera angles so we could see what was happening in the scene. We also had re-timed face reference of Adam from two angles to make sure we were getting good coverage of him. Quite often there was a mismatch in timing and intensity between Ken and Adam’s performance. We integrated the two performances on our motion capture stage using our lead animator, Craig Young, as our mocap performer. Craig and I would study the scene and examine Ken’s body motion, then Craig would perform the scene with Adam’s voice track. This worked pretty well overall.

Can you tell us more about the face animation?
Early on we decided that Pogo’s facial performance would be animated with keyframe animation using video reference rather than our facial tracking pipeline. We knew from previous experience we could get the high-end results needed for the show this way and it meant that there was less hardware and technical setup needed for ADR sessions with Adam.

Pogo is seen through various lighting conditions. How did you manage this aspect?
Lighting in animation has come a long way in a short time here at Weta. We have our own viewport renderer called Gazebo which gives the lighting team the ability to share light rigs with the animation team. This gives animation direct feedback with how the shot is looking under the correct lighting conditions. This is incredibly helpful in getting the right tone and feeling in your shot. Plus it gives the client a much better feel for the shots when we send them for animation review.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
(Possible Spoiler Alert) For animation, the most challenging sequence was Pogo’s final scene for season 1. It involved the most visual effects techniques and physics-defying motion. We knew it was going to be a challenge even before we had the plates and edit in house. Pogo had to move through the environment and interact with the set while being caught-up in a mini tornado inside the Umbrella Academy Mansion – all while looking believable and not silly. We were able to spend a good amount of time previsualizing the sequence before we headed to the mocap stage with our veteran stunt performer for the scene. In the end, the sequence looks great and is a powerful moment for Pogo and the series.

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
During Episode 2, we had a major facial puppet update which changed a lot of Pogo’s lip interactions. This meant we had a hectic week where we had to re-animate 10 shots that were sent for blocking the previous week so we could go with the 10 shots that were scheduled for blocking in the same week. And to top it all off we were 1 animator down. It was always going to be a hectic week even without the unexpected spanner in the works.

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
My favourite scene is in episode 6 when Pogo walks in on Luther looking through Hargreeves’ bedroom. There’s a great contrast in Pogo’s performance when he tries to misdirect Luther by pretending to be ignorant and then Luther confronting him which forces him to reveal the truth. It’s such a great moment in the show and it feels like a real turning point for Pogo too.

What is your best memory on this show?
One of my favourite moments from working on this show was after we had delivered our first fully rendered test shot of Pogo speaking a line of dialogue. There was a screening for the show creators at Netflix including Gerard Way and apparently he was so blown away by what we had done with Pogo that he got emotional. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I’ll keep believing it is.

How long have you worked on this show?
I think animation worked on THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY for around 6 months.

What was the size of your team?
The animation team fluctuated in size over the duration of the project. Including me, there were four animators and one motion editor at the start and by the end we had seven animators and three motion editors.

What is your next project?
I can’t quite talk about my next project yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for an THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY Season 2 at some point!


THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY: You can watch it now on Netflix.
Weta Digital: Dedicated page about THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY on Weta Digital website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019


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