A few months ago, Chris White and Aidan Martin told us about Weta Digital‘s work on SPACE FORCE. Today they are introducing two new characters for THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY:

How did it feel to be back on THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY?
Chris White // It was great to be back working on THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY. We were lucky enough to get the same team as Season One. With new quirky characters like AJ Carmichael, we knew that it would be another fun project from the beginning.

Aidan Martin // It was a real pleasure to be back with the Umbrella Academy team. We had such a great time working on Season One and were thrilled with its success. It’s always great to work with the same creative teams so you can build on your collective experiences. We had a lot of the original crew from Season One back on-board, so it felt like we were « getting the band back together », which is a bit of a rarity when working in VFX.

Pogo is back too, a younger and cuter version. How did you approach him?
Chris White // Similar to Season One, we received a design bust of baby Pogo. From this, we made additional modifications to match our references for baby chimp anatomy. We also introduced a younger version of the skin patterning seen in older Pogo from Season One. It was essential to carry those details through; we wanted the audience to recognize the older Pogo in this much younger version.

Aidan Martin // For Baby Pogo’s performance, we followed a similar approach to Season One. Everett Burrell, the shows overall VFX supervisor, shot a stand-in performer onset for eye-lines, timing and spatial cues. Then we recreated that performance on our motion capture stage using Craig Young as our ape performer. This time around we didn’t have Adam Godley for facial reference, so we looked at actual baby chimps instead.

How does his younger aspect affect your work?
Chris White // Even with fewer character lines and age spots, we wanted to maintain variation and detail in his skin. Skin texture, pores, and fine fur would be crucial for doing this. His eyes would also be a strong focus and add to his cuteness, so we paid particular attention to his iris textures and modeling in this region. Baby chimps also have a cute pucker that they can do with the middle area of their muzzle. To achieve this effect, we created additional shapes in the facial animation rig to produce this look. 

Aidan Martin // In the Motion department, the most significant difference was his size and weight. Pogo is much smaller, more agile and much more chimp-like. On the mocap stage, we scaled up all the digital elements, so that Craig’s performance was relative to Baby Pogo’s scene size. On top of the scale, Craig’s performance needed to be more youthful, energetic, and much more ape-like than before on Season One.

How did you enhance his fur and eyes?
Chris White // If you watch carefully, Pogo’s eyes change after he is given the serum from Hargreeves. Before receiving the serum, we designed his eyes to match baby chimps. The iris fibres are flatter. The sclera (the white part of the eyes in humans) is darker in chimps. After he receives the serum, his scleras go whiter, and his irises become a more human-like texture. His eyes transform to the older Pogo eyes you know from Season One.

His fur groom is young and smooth like that of a true baby chimp. The hair around his ears starts to form the little swoops you see in older Pogo. When captured, small pieces of leaves and dirt litter his fur. Under Grace’s care, his fur becomes clean and well maintained. 

This new season bring also a new great character AJ Carmichael. How did you work with the art department for his design?
Chris White // We quickly determined it would be helpful to have some real-world shubunkin goldfish reference during his design phase. It was important that AJ looked and moved like a real fish. We didn’t want him to feel cartoonish or stylized. After photographing some local pet store fish, we decided to adopt them. There were two fish, one named AJ, the other Carmichael. They became our reference for shape, motion, textures, and shaders. Because fish have limited expression, we positioned skin markings to enhance his features. Dark pigmentation served like eyebrows above each eye, around the upper lip to feel like a moustache, and a spot on the head’s top resembled a hair patch. The only anatomical cheat we made was to give him eyelids, which fish don’t have. These were necessary to hit some of his expressions for the scene.

How did you manage the animation of AJ Carmichael?
Aidan Martin // For AJ’s motion, we weren’t able to motion capture a goldfish. Instead, we set up a reference shoot of our two adopted goldfish. We set up three cameras, including a Red camera so that we were able to get a front, side and top view for reference. We had all the footage synced up so we could use it as a guide for our shots. From this, we created a ‘layer stack’ of pre-made motion which we could blend in and out of. Combining real-life reference with our layer stack streamlined our ability to maintain consistent performances for AJ from shot to shot. We also developed an overlap tool to use in our Maya scenes, which was to give us some nice overlap in the fins that we could see without having to wait for the full simulation process. The simulation was run on top to add the final touches.

Can you tell us more about his tiny face animation?
Aidan Martin // AJ’s face was all hand keyed. The challenge was to maintain the correct anatomy of a goldfish while making it talk and perform. We started with a couple of facial tests using dialogue from Alec Baldwin in « Glengarry Glen Ross ». These were hilarious and very successful. We didn’t need to make any changes to the original anatomy other than adding some eyelids for a bit more readability. Goldfish don’t have a tongue and are therefore unable to reproduce many of the phonemes required of AJ Carmichael – carefully selected head angles went a long way in helping this issue.

Can you explain in detail about the creation of AJ Carmichael?
Chris White // AJ was built from the inside out. We started with an internal skeleton paying particular attention to the skull and fin bones. He has multiple layers, including skin, scales, absorption, metallic sheen, and mucus layers. All these add up to give him a realistic fish appearance, both in and out of the water. Subtle dynamics were added to his fins to flow naturally in the water. 

How did you handle the lighting challenges for AJ Carmichael?
Chris White // AJ was difficult to light if he looked straight at camera because fish are so thin; to effectively place him inside of his glass dome habitat, the lighting needed to be consistent. To achieve this, we tried to position him slightly off centre to catch more light of the scene, and then utilize the reflective qualities of his scales to pick up key-light highlights. 

Can you tell us more about the water simulation?
Chris White // We used our newly developed water simulation software for AJ’s dome. The simulation made the water splash naturally as he moved, and smoke and air bubbles could be released to flow up to the surface. If the water became too active and distracting from the dome’s movement, we would subtly cheat the viscosity to settle it down.

The natural refraction of both the water and glass would sometimes magnify AJ in various positions. We solved this by cheating the refraction index to keep his visual size consistent between shots. 

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
Chris White // The smash of AJ’s dome was the most challenging. It required a combination of glass and water simulation in slow motion and an extreme close-up on AJ’s eyes featuring a reflection of an umbrella.

Aidan Martin // The shot when the Handler swallows AJ was challenging. It was a lengthy shot, and there were some tricky logistics getting AJ in the right spot. Maybe the reference footage I shot of me wriggling around on the couch might reach the internet one day.

Is there something specific that gave you some really short nights?
Chris White // At first, we were concerned about how close we’d get to AJ’s eye in the extreme close-up shot. Would it hold up to filling the screen at 4k? Once we did our first render test we found it worked quite well—only some small adjustments were needed.

What is your favourite shot or sequence?
Chris White // I like the sequence of Pogo in the capsule; it was fun to work on such a dynamic sequence cut to a great track.  

Aidan Martin // I love the Pogo space training scene. It was fun to work on and revealed some cool insights into Pogo, Grace and Hargreeve’s backstories.

What is your best memory on this show?
Chris White // Since AJ is a smoker, we made a practical test dome of water to show how the smoke bubbles would react. We attached a rubber tube and blew smoke into the water-filled dome – it’s always fun to create real-world references along with digital effects.

Aidan Martin // My best memory of the show happened just after THE MANDALORIAN came out. We were already working on Season Two and Everett called us to say « Have you seen baby Yoda? We need to make Baby Pogo cuter than that.” That was when I really understood the full potential of just how adorable our new version of Pogo could be.

A big thanks for your time.

Weta Digital: Dedicated page about THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY on Weta Digital website.
Everett Burrell: Here is my interview of Everett Burrell, Senior VFX Supervisor, Co-Producer and 2nd Unit Director.
Netflix: You can watch THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY on Netflix now.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020


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