With its complex character and environmental work, The Umbrella Academy brought a long list of challenges for VFX supervisor Everett Burrell.
Based on comic books created by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, the Netflix series centers on a dysfunctional family of adopted sibling superheroes, who reunite following their father’s mysterious death to counter the threat of an impending apocalypse.
Starting out on the project, Burrell was tasked with bringing each of its characters’ powers to life in post, while supporting its portrait of an idiosyncratic, crumbling world. Then, there was Pogo, a talking chimpanzee character who needed to appear as real on screen as any of the actors with whom he shared scenes. “He’s not a dragon; he’s not a giant alien creature,” Burrell reflects. “He’s this character that lives and breathes inside the academy, along with everybody else.”
As ambitious and effects-heavy as The Umbrella Academy was, Burrell decided to seek outside assistance with Pogo, embracing the expertise of New Zealand’s Weta Digital and VFX supervisor Chris White. Well-versed in the primate world following their work on the Planet of the Apes franchise, the storied VFX outfit “leveraged all that [experience]” for its first television project, White says. At the same time, achieving maximal realism with Pogo was no simple endeavor, as he explains in the exclusive featurette above.
To White, what made Pogo a particularly complex character was the extent of his intelligence, as reflected in dialogue-heavy exchanges with the principal cast.
What excited you about the idea of working on The Umbrella Academy?
Everett Burrell: Dr. Pogo was a character that really sparked my brain, when I talked to [showrunner] Steve Blackman, because they didn’t quite know how to do it. They were thinking about maybe a guy in a suit or a prosthetic, that kind of thing, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Wow, we should talk to Weta.” Because I knew they went down a lot of avenues that are very similar to that in the early Apes films. I didn’t want us to make similar mistakes, and we certainly didn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on finding that solution. We had to find a solution quickly, and Weta was the solution to that problem.
Chris, what was the draw for you?
White: I wasn’t as familiar with the comic books, but then when I picked it up and saw the look of it, that was the initial thing, because it seemed a little bit different—just interesting characters, and different things going on. So, that was the first appeal, and I’ve also been curious to work on a television series for a while. Then, I met Everett and Steve Blackman, and after talking with those guys, I was really into it.
Up to this point, Weta has worked principally on films. What does it take to get the company interested in working on a television series?
White: We are somewhat new to it, but it doesn’t actually take that much to get people excited about it. There’s so much interesting TV work going on now that my crew was pretty into the project, just because it’s faster, it’s fun and it’s a little bit different work than you have with a film.
What did you discuss in your first meetings about The Umbrella Academy, in terms of opportunities and challenges with the series, and desirable visual qualities?
White: The first meeting we had with Steve Blackman at their facility, we were talking about the Pogo character design, and Steve just took me through the look and feel he wanted. Some of the things we discussed were his nature, his clothing and his glasses, too. It was definitely something where he wanted him to be really appealing.
Burrell: The apocalypse was certainly a challenge, as well as all the characters’ superpowers and how they manifest over time. They start off pretty subtle and kind of work their way up to 10, so that was a challenge, trying to find a happy medium of “Less is more,” in a certain way, and ramping up to the final episode. I think we started off really big, just to know the end point, and then we backed off from there. We knew that we always had Level 10 ready, but we had to figure out Levels 1 through 5, in terms of intensity.
How did you go about bringing the principal characters’ powers to life?
Burrell: The first one we R&D’d was Number 5, his ability to spatial jump, and we tried to come up with different looks on that, in terms of making it organic, and how liquidy [it should look], how much time and the world bends around him when he jumps, and how quick it should be. Is it 30 frames? Is it 10 frames? We started really big, and made this very elaborate, organic simulation effect, and then it ultimately came down to like 10 frames.
Allison’s had to be very subtle, when she whispers—her rumor effect—just a little bit of air distortion. Klaus had a little glow on his hands, and sees Ben as this kind of blueish spirit, and then it eventually just gets bigger, and he finally manifests Ben, with these giant tentacles that emerged from his chest. That was very elaborate. We hinted at it in Episode 1, that he sees some silhouettes behind the glass, and then we go all-the-way crazy berzerk in Episode 10.
To try to find that arc was interesting, and at first, we were never supposed to see him that realized. That kind of came late in the script, so when we did it in Episode 1, we said, “Oh, that’s just a one-off, we’d never see that again.” Then, Steve made the announcement: “Oh yeah, we’ve got to see him fully realized,” so we had to go back to the drawing board and rebuild those tentacles to be a little more up close and personal.
Could you talk a bit about the kinds of environmental work you did on this series? One of the most remarkable instances is one in which we’re able to see into all the different levels and rooms of The Umbrella Academy at once, as if it’s a dollhouse.
Burrell: The thought behind that was, there’s an old Jerry Lewis movie called [The Ladies Man]. Jerry Lewis, this very ingenious director, built this cutaway set where he could crane through the house; I think Wes Anderson definitely picked up on that for Life Aquatic, and Steve Blackburn really loved that sort of cutaway image of the house, to sort of show the relationship of the characters.
So, we shot each character separately in their various rooms. I put a green screen behind them, just so we could isolate them, but then I shot clean plates of the room they were in, and we mapped that onto a 3D build of the mansion. It’s not necessarily true of the relationship between rooms, but it just looked kind of pretty, and you’re right when you said dollhouse—that’s exactly what Steve wanted, this sort of cutaway dollhouse that you could see the different characters in.
Two other examples that come to mind would be scenes with Tom Hopper’s Luther on the moon, and those in the post-apocalyptic world you’d mentioned.
Burrell: The moon was definitely a challenge because it was only going to play once, and very briefly. The decision was made—“All right, let’s not build anything practical for him to walk on”—so, he was essentially in a spacesuit, on a bungee cord, with no helmet on, because we couldn’t do the reflections on the stage. We had to add the helmet on later, and we had to create the whole environment. It was all sort of based off of NASA photography from the Apollo missions, but we had to make it a little more interesting, like he lives in a crater, so that when you first see him step out, you don’t necessarily see the moon’s horizon. You’re not quite sure where he’s at until he gets up on that hill, and we had to shoot [Hopper] in high speed to give him a little bit of that one-sixth gravity vibe you have on the moon.
That was a lot of fun, but definitely, the apocalypse was a big challenge, because it played a lot in the season, and you had to understand the continuity, because there’s a couple different versions. There’s the apocalypse that is created by the chunk of moon hitting the earth, but there’s also Vanya, [who] destroys the Academy first.
We started off with Vanya breaking out of her soundproof cell, starting to whiten her skin, a little bit of glow in her eyes, and then a little bit of shaking camera. She shakes up the house, and then we started adding dust and cracks in the walls. They didn’t have enough time to build that into the set, so we always knew we were going to add some stuff, we just didn’t know quite how much. As it builds, and a big chunk falls and almost hits Klaus and Diego, and then the Ben ghost saves them, that was practical. But then we continued to enhance, and added more dust elements, and more cracks, and glass shattering, and that led all the way to Pogo, when he comes to his demise. But I had to add a lot of smoke and dust, and Pogo had to interact with it, too.
White: Yeah. When he’s flying through the air, we were running simulations [so] that some of that dust is getting pulled with him when he flies and hits the horns, and we even did some practical studies of what those horns would be like, going through him, with real horns and shirts, and practical blood and stuff.
How exactly was Pogo brought to life? What kinds of techniques were involved?
White: We had a combination of techniques because we had Ken Hall on set, working with the other actors—interacting with them, and working through the motions.
Burrell: Ken played Pogo’s body; he was like 4’6″, which was perfect.
White: Then, we had Adam Godley, who was the voice and the character of Pogo. So, he would drive all the facial movements, and then we’d take that and redo the body motion, so it worked with what Adam’s performance was. [For] those shots at the end, we had some of our stunt people here at Weta on wires, jumping and hitting against the wall, just so we got that motion just right for him being thrown against the wall. So, that was captured for those motions, along with any of the other walking motions and things like that.
How did you go about capturing Godley’s facial movements?
White: We had multiple cameras when he was doing his ADR that would give reference for all of his facial motion, and then we went ahead and interpreted directly from his reference, to that put onto Pogo. Since the facial structures are of course different, there was a bit of handwork and translating that performance over.
What was the nature of your collaboration with the costume department, in devising a look for Pogo?
Burrell: I had Miles Tevis, the artist I used to do the concepts for Pogo, sculpt a life-size Pogo head that we then had cast in silicone and painted—[with] hair punched into it, like a real prop. We brought that to Chris Hargadon, the costume designer, and he goes, “Hey, this is so cool. I want to build the lower parts of the body.” So, we had our makeup effects guy build the rest of the body from the neck down to the waist out of foam, and then Chris made a custom order of it and had it tailored—the shirt, the vest, the jacket. Chris really took it seriously, once he saw that head, and then every time we did a Pogo shot, we wheeled that in for the DP to light. We’d rehearse with it, and then we’d pull it out and shoot the scene with Ken Hall or Ellen Page. We’d shoot our clean plates, do our HDRI [High Dynamic Range Imaging,] and then we’d wheel Pogo in. It was so great to have that as a reference for the lighting. I think it really made a difference.
White: Everett had the costume department send everything he wore down here to New Zealand, and we’d been writing this new software to do really detailed cloth design, so we put those costumes under a microscope and matched the fabric and the weave exactly. We did studies to make sure that the light played off it exactly the way [it would with] the costume that was sent. So, there was quite a bit of work done to match that real, practical costume, because that’s an important aspect to the character. There were some new advancements that were done particularly for this show, and that was one of them.
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