Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chris White and Aidan Martin of the world-famous visual effects powerhouse Weta Digital, to talk to them about their work creating Marcus the chimpanzee for Steve Carell and Greg Daniels’ new Netflix comedy Space Force.
Chris White’s Background
Chris, a Visual Effects Supervisor, has a career that spans over two decades and began with the movie Twister. From there he moved on to such blockbusters as the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. More recently he has worked on the Planet of the Apes trilogy, The Hobbit trilogy, the Maze Runner films and the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. His work has received BAFTA and Oscar nods for visual effects. Chris is a Virginian who grew up just outside of Washington, D.C. He has been living in New Zealand and working at Weta for close to 20 years.
Don’t Forget About Aidan Martin
Aidan is an Animation Supervisor 15 years into a career that spans stage, screen and television. His CV includes Furious 7, Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, The BFG, Rampage, the Planet of the Apes, and Hobbit trilogies, and The Umbrella Academy as well. Originally from Australia, Aidan has been working at Weta Digital and living in New Zealand for the better part of the last 8 years.
I could not have had a more delightful conversation with these two, as we stayed on our Zoom call well past our hour limit.
Here is an excerpt of my interview with Chris and Aidan; an abridged version of our discussion regarding their work on the creation of Marcus, a chimpanzee living in a space capsule orbiting the Earth in the Netflix comedy Space Force.
Semi-Spoiler Alert for the Space Force episode 2 “Save Epsilon 6!”
Special Effects Supervisor and Animation Supervisor. Yeah… what is that?
BEN KLIEWER: Hey guys! Thanks so much for talking with me today. Could you start by explaining the difference between a Visual Effects (VFX) Supervisor and an Animation Supervisor?
CHRIS WHITE: The VFX Supervisor works in conjunction with the Animation Supervisor. As a VFX Supervisor I am overseeing all the different aspects of the visual effects of the [project]. Planning how we are going to do the visual effects. I do this in conjunction with Aidan, for example, who’s our Animation Supervisor.
We’ll work out how we’re going to attack the different problems, what is the artistic goal that we have for the show, and how we convey the director’s vision. His focus will be more on the animation and the characters and their movements, and my focus will be on bringing all that together with the other visual effects and creating the different characters and props and effects that would go into it. So, it’s really a collaborative relationship as we’re working to fulfill the director or the showrunner’s goal.
Let’s Get Down To Business On Marcus The Chimp!
BK: We’re here to talk specifically about your work on Episode 2 of Netflix’s Space Force, “Save Epsilon 6!” The bulk of your work surrounds a chimpanzee named Marcus. Aidan, you are known for your emotive and engaging performances with regards to animated characters. What is the process of creating emotional expressions in an animated character?
Aidan Martin: For an animated character a lot of the emotion is coming from the face and the eyes. So, we do a lot of work with our [digital] facial puppets, to try to get a highly detailed read across the face. For someone like Marcus who wasn’t… well, a lot of the apes we’d done previously like Caesar (Planet of the Apes trilogy) and Pogo (Umbrella Academy) articulate: they talk. They have lines and they’re actually delivering dialogue, which helps a lot with their emotive read.
Whereas with Marcus one of the challenges was that he wasn’t a hyper-intelligent chimp who could talk, he was just a chimp. But that was part of the brief, that he’s just an animal with no real special abilities that’s been sent off into space. The big challenge with him was just trying to make him look like he’s thinking behind the eyes. Physically one of the issues was that his brow is so deep-set, his eyes were just so shadowed that we were losing a lot of the eye-read; and he just looked like an asshole. (laughs) Which is also something we were sort of shooting for at some point.
But we had to sort of pull that back and make him look less aggressive, so we had to adjust his physicality, especially in the brow/eye area, just so we could see his eyes. You know, there is a moment where you [the viewer] should feel a little more compassionate and sad for Marcus, and that was a moment that we had to make sure it reads and builds into. So, we do a lot of little tweaks, especially around the face area.
Sort of pull and push to get the right read with the eyes, in particular, with the facial puppets. For Marcus, his physicality… he’s an anti-gravity chimp. Which was something we also had a lot of back and forth in. We didn’t have a lot of video reference of chimps in anti-gravity. So we had to take a little bit of liberty on what does a chimp look like when they’re just floating in space? Like, how do they hold themselves?
More About Marcus
AM: Because once he’s in the space suit and has the space helmet on, he could easily just look like a dude in a suit, like a man in a suit, rather than a chimp floating in space. So there was a little back and forth on that, just making sure that his pose always read “Chimp-like” and he wasn’t using a lot of energy pushing off things. It doesn’t have to be slo-mo, but when people are in space they don’t necessarily use a lot of energy to travel around the room. Because with velocity, once you’ve pushed, that’s how fast you’re going because there’s nothing slowing you down, until you hit another wall. So physicality and emotional sort of things are what we were battling with for Marcus, or researching anyway.
BK: You mentioned you had a chimpanzee puppet or a modeled puppet that you worked from. Is that something physical, in the real world, or is that entirely inside the computer?
AM: That’s more like the language we use for our digital models. In our animation department we call them puppets. Others might call them a Creature Rig maybe. But we just call them puppets. It’s our 3D model that’s got all the bones and the tissue simulations in it so that we can control it like a puppet.
BK: So you animate this down from skin to muscle to bone etc.?
AM: That is one of the things that Weta does particularly well. Our skin and tissue simulations are some of the things that we always lean really hard into with our characters. We start off with the shell, the model to the skin. Going from the skin out is more Chris’s department. So that’s more what the skin shades look like and how it reacts to light, and the fur and the coloring of the fur, and the wetness of the skin.
Everything from the skin inwards; so you have the skin layer, fat layer, muscle layer and the bones inside, that’s more the animation and creatures department. So, we’ll animate from the joints and the bones, and that will drive the muscle sim, the cloth sim, the skin sliding, which is a hugely involved process. Once we’ve animated joints and that gets published out, then that goes to the Creatures Department and they will simulate. Even tiny little shots, just a second long will take two days to produce a full [simulated] version with the fur moving under the cloth and all that fun stuff.
BK: Chris, you worked on Caesar and Pogo as we’ve mentioned – who exist on Earth – and the animation of the fur on the animal is very detailed. Can you talk a little about the challenge of working with animating fur in outer space?
Marcus Is More Than The Average CGI Chimp
CW: When you’re speaking about the fur, what might be of interest, is to talk about how much research actually goes into creating these characters. We worked with the Wellington Zoo (Newtown, Wellington, NZ). We analyzed chimps. Marcus was based off a chimp; some older references we had from the Wellington Zoo. We’re looking at the skin detail, the muscles, we looked at MRI data to make sure that the bones of the skull are all the proper proportions. Because, as Aidan mentioned, we wanted him to be a very realistic chimp.
So, from the inside out we’re making sure that everything is accurate to a real chimp. So discussing his outer surface, a lot of times we’ll be sitting in our Dailies … to look at our character and what has rendered overnight, and we’ll have long discussions about the detail of the eyelashes, or the sclera; which is the part of the eye that on humans is white but on apes is kind of a darker color, and how bright we want it to be. So, all those discussions take place. Then, with Marcus, bringing him into a zero G environment.
BK: Fortunately, Marcus is wearing a space suit the whole time.
The Space Suit, Of Course
CW: We had reference for the space suit. We spent a lot of time making sure those textures read like a true space suit. We first made it almost too silky, too shiny. So, we had to get that correct. But in a zero G environment you’d be surprised, it’s just the little things like the fur poking out of the collar. Or the actual shape of his helmet. That was a design issue. When you have an elongated ape head, how do you get a helmet on where the glass can actually fit the curvature of his extended muzzle? So Aidan and his team had to… even the way he puts on his helmet, if you watch it, requires a little bit of finessing to get it to come on just right. Those are the kind of problems that you don’t necessarily think about in the beginning.
AM: It wasn’t just that his head was a unique shape, but that chimps have such a large trapezius muscle, and they don’t have as elongated necks as we have. Their heads just sit right on their traps. So the ring that went around the helmet- once the helmet comes on- we didn’t really anticipate this until we had the first run of the first design of the helmet and the suit, that his head is down forward, and not upright like a human’s head.
So, the whole ring on the space suit had to be tilted forward and broadened out so that his trap could fit in there a little bit more. Which again, are things we just didn’t really anticipate until we had gone into actual motion studies and into shots. Particularly that shot where he puts the helmet on. Which ended up looking really cool. I really like that shot.
How To Collaborate On VFX
CW: And it goes back to your earlier question too. How do the two Animation and Visual Effects Supervisors collaborate? That’s a perfect case where Aidan’s like “Well, I need this and I need that, or I’m not going to be able to get the helmet on” and we go back and forth on those designs to get it to work.
BK: How big of a team did you have working just on this Space Force episode?
CW: I’d have to look at the final numbers. Because there are so many different departments. I think we had a core of around 50.
AM: Yeah, there are a lot of people. I think in animation we didn’t have a huge amount. I think we had maybe one or two in the motion edit department, two guys from the facial department and four animators, possibly. I guess eight people in Animation.
How’d they do that?!
BK: Did you work with Motion Capture for Marcus or was it entirely in computer?
AM: At the start of these projects we always weigh up what is the best approach, because Motion Capture is obviously great for bipedal movements and some other tricky things. But it’s also really good for things that don’t handle a lot of props or doing things that are realistic. Hand-keyed animation lends itself to unnatural movements, and stunts that are dangerous to perform on a motion capture stage or in real life. Both methods come at a cost. We talked about doing hand-keyed animation, mainly because of the anti-gravity factor, and we weren’t 100% sure how we were going to be able to do that in motion capture.
So the lead animator, Craig Young – who’s also our mo-cap performer – we did a few experiments looking at different ideas of how we could effectively hand-key anti-gravity looking motion. But we actually found a really slick little way of doing motion capture in our reference room. We shot some video of him sort of moving around, and it seemed to work really well once we sort of transposed that to an actual character. So we decided to go full mo-cap. We had a couple of mo-cap stations in the end.
Especially with the sign language that Marcus was doing. We spent a lot of time making sure the sign language was correct using ASL, which is American Sign Language. And through some art direction, especially from Greg [Daniels] we decided to change that a little bit. For comedic value some of the signs were changed to more crude and rudimentary gestures. (Laughs)
BK: I imagine it would’ve been cost-prohibitive to slap a mo-cap suit on Andy Serkis and fly him up to space in order to get the actual reference material you need. (Chuckles)
AM: Everything is considered! We consider all those options! (Laughs)
I Am Iron Man
BK: Part of Marcus’ animation involved an in-helmet “Iron Man” style camera. Were there any challenges in animating that?
CW: There were a couple. The first was deciding what the camera was, because we had discussions with Greg and Trent [Smith] the Visual Effects Supervisor of how we display this camera, because if it was really in the helmet, he would be super close to it. We kind of determined that it’s this magical camera that sits inside the glass. But this went through a couple of different design processes, because originally, we did a couple of tests with the glass visible. You could see the reflections of the room. But we thought that may be too distracting. So we put it inside the glass. But there were definitely design elements of “How do you light his face?” with the big brow that Aidan spoke about. The nice thing about it was the way Aidan and his team set it up. They were animating his body and the face-cam at the same time. His body’s moving around and you’re getting his expression and they tie into each other. For the exterior shots we were working with Zoic Studios. We were providing the picture in picture of Marcus while they were animating him outside on the capsule. So, there was a level of collaboration with them to make sure lighting and animation were in sync.
CW: Also, to that point, the thing that was interesting with Space Force was that this was the first time I’d worked on a comedy. So, it was interesting working with Greg, and he’s giving us direction on what the audience should be feeling right now. Just looking at it from a comedic perspective and how our animation was working in conjunction with that. For me personally it was just interesting to hear his notes about what the viewer is experiencing, leading up to these jokes and into these elements of comedy. I learned a lot about it from that point of view.
BK: What were your thoughts when you first read the script, and Marcus’ story?
CW: I was laughing out loud when I read the script. I was like “No this is cool, we should do it.” It was just a really good script. I didn’t have any boards at that time, but you’re just reading through the dialogue and you’re cracking up. You’re kind of imagining these characters.
BK: Is it just automatic that you two would work on a project like this together?
AM: This is our third collaboration together. We worked on Umbrella Academy season one and two together. We had this relationship of working on chimps and working with Netflix, it seemed pretty logical that we would do the next chimp for Netflix at this point. We already had the shorthand of working together and that working relationship with a similar style of character and setup.
BK: How much time between when the script hits your desk to delivering the final product to Netflix?
AM: October  to February . This was a particularly quick one. We really scrambled to get this one done in time.
We do Apes. That’s what we do!
BK: The modern audience is saturated by Computer Generated (CG) animation that often just looks too “animated.” Through Planet of the Apes, Umbrella Academy and now Space Force you’ve delivered hyper realistic, believable apes. Seems you have the market cornered on ape animation! How did you get here?
AM: We do apes. That’s what we do. We’re Weta! (laughs) I think one of the things that we focus on is that it’s much more performance driven. More emotional-driven performances. Which I think – from an audience point of view – draws you in more, and you’re thinking less about the CG if you’re thinking this is an actual character and an actual performance. I think that’s where, particularly for Weta, we focus on performance.
Yes, we have all the big ticket items; the big bells and whistles for really amazing rendering techniques and super high detailed models and lighting – and all that helps for the viewer’s eye to be less concerned about why this doesn’t sit in the scene very well. We’re getting that down pretty well, and we get to that level a lot quicker than we used to. Out of the box, our rendering is a lot better.
But I think the thing that makes you stop thinking about the CG is the performance and the character, which is what we really push into. If you don’t believe that the character is thinking and real and breathing, then you’re just going to think “Gee, this CG looks pretty CG, doesn’t it?” Unless you believe the character’s real, unless you’re having an emotional response to the character, you’re just going to look at it and think “Oh, that’s just CG.”
CW: To add to that, Aidan’s right, it’s so much based on the performance and having the audience relate to that character. People ask about it being a CG environment, but there’s also a level of practical work that’s involved in some of this as well. It may not necessarily always be on the screen, but there are people on set that are putting up rain machines and creating these great environments that the characters go into.
[SPOILER ALERT: Space Force episode 2 “Save Epsilon 6!”]
Even with Space Force, the dog tail at the end, when you see Theodore’s tale come up. We built a practical dog tail. We were working at what it looks like when it gets kind of mangled at the end because it’s been damaged. We built a practical dog tail that we painted and moved around and tried to see what it would look like in that state and used it as a guide for our CG one, so sometimes there’s a practical element behind our digital characters. That’s aiding to that realism. We’re looking at the real world as we’re creating them and then using that to put into the computer, so it doesn’t always start just in the box.
Catch more excerpts of my interview with Chris and Aidan in the coming weeks, right here at ThatHashTagShow.com!