Pogo from The Umbrella Academy, Netflix. Image via Weta Digital.
Stories & Ideas

Mon 04 Jan 2021

Making the Umbrella Academy’s monkey butler with Weta Digital

Animation Industry Interview Pop culture Television
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that if you want a movie ape, you want the services of Weta Digital.

Although Weta Digital was founded back in 1993 by Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk to create the visual effects for Jackson’s upcoming film Heavenly Creatures (1994), the New Zealand company gained recognition on the international stage at the turn of the new century for their groundbreaking work on The Lord Of The Rings franchise (2001–03). The multi Academy Award-winning digital visual effects company are now world leaders, pushing the boundaries on what has been and can be seen on-screen with their contributions to films like the Avatar franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). In what was somewhat of a happy accident, they’re also the ape authority. So, when it came to realising the character of Pogo on-screen in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy (2019), there was really no one else to turn to.

For The Lord Of The Rings films and the creation of Gollum, Weta worked alongside performer Andy Serkis to pioneer motion capture technology (nicknamed mo-cap for short). The successful rendering of the JRR Tolkien character led to bigger things – quite literally – when Jackson and Weta tackled King Kong (2005) just a few years later. Serkis returned to play the 25-foot Kong in the blockbuster, with the mountain gorilla entirely digitally created through a blend of performance capture technology and keyframe animation. He had around four million hairs on his body rendered using simulation and modelling software, representing the advancements in what could now be portrayed digitally through a performance physically. Winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in 2006, Weta returned to monkey business with the beginning of a new trilogy: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). With the addition of the critically acclaimed Dawn of The Planet of the Apes (2014) and War For The Planet of The Apes (2017), the task required not just the faithful animation of one ape, but hundreds – many who were based on real-life apes.

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King Kong, Peter Jackson (2005), Universal Pictures. Image via Weta Digital.

“We have a great relationship with Wellington Zoo,” says Weta visual effects supervisor Chris White, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the first film in the trilogy. “So, there were many times we’d go to the zoo and speak with them and they would comment on some of the things we’d bring. The apes in the series are based on the apes that are at that zoo.”

Part of the challenge on the films was translating Serkis’s complex and emotive performance as the central character, Caesar, like never before. With much of his work in The Lord of The Rings performed against a green screen, a combination of techniques were used to make the leader of the ape revolution seem as real to audiences as he was to the characters. Weta were able to use an outdoor motion capture system for the first time, meaning Serkis could interact with actors in the physical settings of a scene to deliver a more immersive performance. Shot in British Columbia, this included challenging external conditions such as rain and snow, but it also meant new developments like wireless mo-cap cameras and HMCs (hardware management consoles) which were smaller yet higher in resolution. Fur simulation tools and detailed facial geometry saw the nuances of his portrayal captured and converted by Weta to conjure the Caesar we saw on-screen. They also laid the groundwork for what would come next.

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Caesar from Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Rupert Wyatt, 2011. Image via Weta Digital.

It’s not surprising the future of The Umbrella Academy’s Pogo ended up in Weta’s hands. “Definitely we were leveraging all the work we had done in previous years and I’m sure the client was interested in coming to us because they knew we could create digital apes that way,” says White. “We’d worked on apes for close to 10 years – with Kong as well – and with every one of those shows we learned something new… So, when we got to working on Pogo, we are able to quickly jump into making him realistic because we knew the dos and don’ts of creating those characters. But he did have an added challenge because he was more vocal and articulate than any other ape we’d done in the past.”

In the first episode of the Netflix original series Sir Reginald Hargreeves muses: “Nietzsche once said ‘Man is as a rope stretched between the animal and the superhuman.” It’s an ironic line, because the most human character in the series is not human at all, but rather a being who personifies that rope between the animal and the superhuman. To delicately walk that line Weta had to interpret the highly stylised artwork of Gabriel Bá and the complex character study of Gerard Way from the comic book source material. On the surface think Batman’s butler but, well, a chimpanzee. A few layers deeper, however, Pogo acts as the father figure that ties all of the superhuman Hargreeves children together.

“From all the discussions we had, they wanted him to feel realistic and to really be a character within the show just like the actors,” White says, with two clear phases in the design of the character as showrunners worked through iterations with Weta artist Myles Asseterso. “He did some original concept sketches and they also did a sculpted bust, so some of that design process was done beforehand. They were two different concepts and once they had that, they gave it to us to further refine and make realistic.”

One of the biggest hurdles to that heightened sense of reality was Pogo’s sartorial choices, with Weta developing technology that “allowed us to capture every little detail, basically down to the fibre of it” according to White. “We had been working on new software because clothing is always a challenge,” he says, with costumes even being sent to the Wellington offices so they could analyse the fabric under a microscope and add texture to the on-screen material. “You need to look at the finer details and take everything into account when creating his clothing.”

These were the crucial details that “gave him character” for White and the Weta team, who had to work in an episodic format rather than the usual feature film. “That’s another thing with Pogo is we didn’t know the entire season, we only got a few episodes at a time,” he says. “Unlike the script for a film, we were looking at pieces as each episode was being written.”

And unlike Serkis in the Apes trilogy, there was no true motion capture involved for Umbrella Academy: actor Ken Hall’s movements on set became a visual reference for Weta animators and also provided eyelines and someone for actors to interact with. A chimp in physicality and a refined man in mentality, the approach to animating Pogo was considerably different from the more realistic apes Weta had captured previously and their method had to adapt too. Wearing a skin-tight black suit enabled with sensors (just like that worn by Serkis), Hall’s movements in the real settings of the scene provided a visual reference point for body animators. This became the inspiration for building and manoeuvring a digital Pogo model, whose facial movements were created by a second actor in the studio: Adam Godley.

“It was Ken that was on set, so he was doing the interaction,” says White. “And it was Adam’s voice later, which was different to what we had done in the past because we had to merge two different styles. It worked out in the end, because they both did a good job: Ken was acting it out with the actors. In the voiceover with Adam, he was watching Ken’s performance to try and bring that through. Then we recaptured and reanimated and merged the two bodies with Adam’s voice and Ken’s body.” British performer Godley was entirely responsible for Pogo’s facial and vocal performance, the intricacies of which he’d honed over a 40-year career in film, television and theatre. White says it was a “multistep process”, but the finished product comes after nearly 15-years of Weta being the Hollywood leader for big screen apes, with the company honing cutting edge techniques on past projects to manifest a character like Pogo: something that can combine the best parts of all of them.

–  Maria Lewis

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