The first time I sat down with visual effects magicians Chris White and Aidan Martin, it was to talk about their work on the Netflix comedy Space Force, creating Marcus the Chimp. Chris and Aidan, a Visual Effects Supervisor and Animation Supervisor (respectively) at Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand, have a laundry list of credits to their names including work on Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, The Hobbit trilogy and the still-in-production Avatar sequels.
I rather enjoyed my first Zoom chat with these two delightfully nerdy artists, so I was thrilled when I was asked to interview them again, this time about their work on season two of The Umbrella Academy.
Their Work On The Umbrella Academy Is Fantastic
If you haven’t watched season two of The Umbrella Academy yet, I ask you, what have you been doing with your quarantine? If you have, then you know that it deserves a second, third and even fourth binge before moving on to your Halloween flicks. Maybe even another run through both seasons…
The last time we talked, we briefly covered their work on Pogo, the anthropomorphized chimpanzee butler to the Hargreeves family. A memorable interview which saw Aidan jokingly exclaim “We do apes! That’s what we do! We’re Weta!”
This time we discussed the moment they learned of Baby Yoda’s existence and exactly what it takes to create a hyper realistic Shubunkin goldfish, who lives in a tank atop a cyborg body. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you…
We Meet Again For the Second Time
Ben Kliewer: Last time we talked we were discussing your work on Space Force and Marcus the space chimp, and we briefly touched on Pogo. Which came first, Marcus the Chimp or Baby Pogo?
Chris White: Pogo.
Aidan Martin: We were working on Pogo longer. We were working on season two Pogo and Marcus side by side at one point.
BK: Okay, basically you’re working on two non-speaking chimps in space suits at the same time. Anything ever get confusing about that?
AM: Yeah, during the client calls, our production manager would write the name of the character and which client we were talking to on the white board above the conference camera because we would be like “which space chimp are we talking about today?”
BK: Was there a lot of cross-referencing back and forth? Like, “we did this on Baby Pogo so let’s apply that to Marcus?”
CW: The only thing I can really think of is the material for space suits. We were doing a lot of research on the material, and that applied to both. But, in terms of what they were doing, the lighting, the feel and the mood were very different between the two.
Similar Themes, Similar Chimps
AM: You’re totally right. While they had similar themes; you know, space suits and chimps; they were wildly different characters that were doing wildly different things. Baby Pogo is doing training in the 60s for the Space Race and Marcus is a chimp sent up in a modern space station. They had such a different feel about them. Even working on the production, it was like Marcus is a chimp who’s in space with all the tablets and the modern technology that doesn’t even exist yet.
With Baby Pogo things had levers and big buttons that you had to press, and everything felt more rudimentary even while we were working on it. So, as Chris was saying, they had totally different problems to solve. Marcus was in zero gravity the whole time whereas Pogo may have just hit the point of weightlessness in the capsule and then disaster struck. So we didn’t really have a lot of performance crossover from our point of view. They were really different beasts.
Without Music, Life Would Be A Mistake – Nietzsche (and Steve Blackman)
CW: Even in that scene with Pogo, we’re listening to the soundtrack and matching beats and feelings. It’s such a different discussion between the two.
BK: [Showrunner] Steve Blackman puts such and emphasis on music as part of the structure of the storytelling. Was there more of a storytelling arc that you guys were able to take, trying to match the emotion to the music?
CW: For that sequence, yes. Even from a lighting point of view, we constantly had the audio going. The mood and feel, the lights that would come on, the color of those lights; they were all timed in. The red one blinks with the beat. The music is a big part of it. It was interesting to read, in the small part of the script that we were allowed to get for our scenes, the music was written into the script. It would say “this song kicks in” and so you’re hearing it as you’re reading it. It’s not an afterthought.
AM: Even on season one, we would read the script and it was like “this song is playing” and it would give you this big description of the emotion. We would get the sequences and the song was there the whole time. From the moment we got it. We knew that whole scene was based around that particular piece of music. And there were all these movie references. He would have footnotes saying “If you don’t get that reference, then what are you doing reading this script?” (Laughs)
The Curious Case of De-Aging Pogo
BK: You guys designed a younger version of a character you already created for season one. What were some of the challenges? Did you have to reverse engineer some of Pogo’s traits from season one back to Baby Pogo?
CW: We actually did! We looked at his older textures. He had all these little spots and moles and things like that. So if you look at Baby Pogo, he’s a younger version where you can see that some of those spots and areas are starting to form. He has a certain kind of shape to his head, and even his hair starts to elude to the little wings that he had in his hair. We kept going back and forth so it would feel like him. That was a little bit of a concern, just making sure it felt like a younger version of him. Steve had given us a sculpt that his VFX team had done. So they had worked that into it, and then we took it and did some additional art direction work on it.
BK: So they had done a sculpture of Baby Pogo for you to work off of?
CW: Yeah, they always do. It’s part of their design process. They’ll do a sculpt and they’ll put hair and everything in it and paint it up. When we get it, we do the additional detail to make it look more realistic, and to bring in all those textures. We’ll compare it to the anatomy of a real chimp skill scan, to make sure it’s anatomically correct. There’s a bit of reworking that we did for his eyes, because we wanted him to be super-cute. And his eyes transition in the scene when he gets the serum. If you look at Baby Pogo’s eyes before he gets the serum, then after, they look a lot more like older Pogo’s eyes. The sclera’s are a little whiter, and the shape and texture is closer to season one, older Pogo. So that’s his transition.
Cuteness Showdown of the Decade
BK: Should Baby Pogo be trending as much as Baby Yoda?
CW: I think so! I’ve been watching some of the surveys and stuff like that, and he is! There’s one online cuteness survey where people are ranking Baby Pogo higher than Baby Yoda.
AM: We were in the midst of working on Baby Pogo when The Mandalorian came out and Baby Yoda just sprung up. The next client call we had with Everett [Burrell, Visual Effects Supervisor, Netflix], we were just like “Awe, f**k! We need to make Baby Pogo cuter! He’s gotta beat Baby Yoda!” So we went through a few iterations of making him really cute. We made his eyes super huge and his pupils massively dilated and popped his ears out. He was like this, sort of Bambi version of Baby Pogo. The next time Everett looked at it he was like “Oh, okay! We’ve gone a little bit too far now. We need to dial it back.” Because we had turned him into a cartoon character at some point.
BK: Steve Blackman heaped praise on you guys when I interviewed him. Here’s a quote about the new character for season two, A.J. Carmichael. “I don’t think people have any idea that they [Weta Digital] modeled fish scales and they looked at water dynamics and flow to get that right.” Tell me about the moment when the Gabriel Bá comic cell lands on your desk and they say “this is the character that we want for season two! What goes through your mind?
AM: First off, when we did season one, we read the comics and we had seen this fish dude with a cyborg body. And we were like “uh, that’s awesome! Why aren’t we doing that?!” We were a bit disappointed. So when they came in with season two and said “We’re doing the fish” it’s like “Yes! Yes! Thank God! Yes, we need the fish guy!” So, I was really pumped to bring that guy to life.
BK: I understand your department got two pet goldfish to use as reference for Carmichael.
AM: We adopted two fish. Gino [Acevedo, Art Director, Weta Digital] is the caretaker of the fish. We named them “AJ” and “Carmichael.” They were the basis of our look reference and our motion reference. We set up a three-camera reference shoot, using a RED camera and some other hi-def cameras and a green screen.
We shot 20 minutes of them just swimming around, doing stuff. That was our motion basis for all our shots. We synced all that footage up and we could take a slice of footage that we liked, that seemed to match the onset performance, or the voice performance, and so we could use that as a direct reference to animate from. To make sure that our fish looked like a real fish when he was moving.
BK: You did your due diligence, you didn’t just scan a fish and plop it in, this was a scale by scale animation?
AM: Oh yeah, a scale by scale buildup, even to the point that there is a slick layer of… what would you call it? Like a gel, or a slime? Goldfish have this thin layer of…
CW: It’s like a mucus layer.
AM: Yeah, a mucus layer. So he even has that, all over his body.
CW: He’s pretty detailed. He’s got bones inside. Flesh, scales, like Aidan said, a mucus layer. There are so many layers to him. It was an insane amount of detail. I remember Aidan showing us the shot where he falls onto the floor and the camera is pushing way, way into his eye. The guy who was working on it was like “Oooh, that’s pretty close.” And we ended up going even closer than that!
AM: Yeah, it was only supposed to go in and it sort of made it so that his whole body was full screen. But the idea that they wanted was the reflection in his eye with the umbrella in it. And we had only pushed in to his eye taking up maybe 10% of the screen, but the umbrella would’ve been a tiny little thing. So we had to push in so that the eye filled the whole screen.
Which may not seem like much, but when you’re a Look Development artist and you’ve gotta paint textures that need to hold up at 4K, at that size… they tend to freak out. We just kept pushing it in, and we were sitting in a review, and we had a few options of different camera push-ins for that shot. And Chris was like “f**k it, we’ll send it. See what happens. They’ll pick what they want and we’ll just deal with it.”
CW: Yeah, and the amazing thing was that we didn’t have to do that much touchup on him. They had put so much detail into him, that the first time we rendered him it was like “Oh, he actually holds up pretty well!” We just had to tweak the eye a little bit. But we had that with Baby Pogo too. This was one of the things with season two. At two points in time, we were going to be super tight, full screen on these characters. Because Pogo is on the table and it’s cropped in on his eyes and his nose.
AM: One of the things about being pushed in on Baby Pogo so far, is that he has eyelashes. Real scale eyelashes. So, from a moderate distance away, you wouldn’t see that the eyelashes intersected his eyelids, but when his eyes are filling up the frame and he’s blinking you’ll notice every single little fur and eyelash. So we had to make sure we sculpted those correctly, so they’re not poking through his upper lids or anything like that.
Layers On Layers
BK: So, with Carmichael: Not only are you animating a fish, but that fish is inside a domed tank with an air pocket, which is on top of a body that’s moving around. Can you expand on the challenges of animating all those layers?
AM: The dome had its own odyssey. When we first made the dome… maybe we had the specs slightly wrong… so the dome was ginormously huge, which was hilarious. But as soon as we put it into a shot, we were like… huh… that doesn’t quite look right.
CW: When we discussed it with the client, we were both like “Why is it so big?”
AM: But we went through a lot of iterations trying to find the right height and width. So we just shrunk it down a bit, and it just seemed like it was too wide at one point. Then we’d bring it in, and all of a sudden it was too narrow, and it looks like a lightbulb or something. We spent weeks just going back and forth trying to find the right size of dome. Where it seemed like it wasn’t cruel to have a fish in such a space. Like he had enough room to move around. But it also didn’t look like it weighed 300 pounds of glass and water.
We also had this issue of what does the dome do? Is it mechanical? Is it passive? How does it actually move? Is it responsive to the performance? So we had a few issues, like does it just sit there and when he moves it moves, and it’s static and the water just sloshes around? Or does it try to stay upright when the body moves around, sort of counter-animating like a chicken head? Or the third option was to have it a little loose, and it would kind of lean the direction the body moved, which would’ve been a bit more performance driven. In the end we did go more of the performance driven route, but we explored all these other options first.
Then the next level is the glass refraction, what you can see through the glass. The glass is a lens, the water is a lens and you’ve got two layers of glass to look through so you’re essentially looking through three lenses. So what you’re seeing through the back can get really distorted and weird looking. So at times if AJ [the fish himself] was too far forward in the dome he would look too big, and if he was too far back, he would sort of disappear with the refraction. Or if he was off to the side, he would totally disappear, with how the light works with the glass and the water at the same time. So, there was a lot of dialing in refraction per shot to make sure he seemed like he was the right size in the glass, and that things behind it didn’t seem too warped.
On top of that, you’ll notice the glass is really dirty. It’s smudged and there are fingerprints and things all over the glass. So if you see it in a closeup with the light shining in from the side, you’ll see in the reflection that there are streaks and there’s, like, a handprint and that’s from this idea that he’d take his hand and sort of wipe it, or wipe it with a cloth to sort of clean it up a little bit. So there are wiping streaks and things all over it. So the glass itself is super detailed.
BK: Was there any kind of backstory behind those marks on the glass? Like, which streaks came from what?
CW: We had thought that some of it was nicotine streaks. There was a lot of discussion about the whole smoking thing. A lot of people don’t really think about the dome. They think about the fish. But the dome was a huge part of it. It really made a difference. And then running the dynamics on the water, and the bubbles. He’s got a little aeration thing where the bubbles go up. It’s subtle, but we even tried to increase the amount of bubbles that come up when he’s running down the hallway from Five [played by Aidan Gallagher]. Like the body is pushing more oxygen into the water. And the waterline at the top of the dome, we used some new features in our water software to get the waterline just right. We’d even change the animation of the viscosity sometimes, if it was just getting too sloshy, or if it was drawing your eye too much.
AM: Yeah, it would get too turbulent at times.
CW: It’s very subtle things. He’s very small in frame, he’s delivering lines, but his proportion to the screen size is not very big, and there’s a lot of stuff going on. So all of it was to try to make sure that the audience could still look at him while he’s delivering these lines, and still remember the body that he’s in.
AM: And the water itself had a lot of particulates in it that sort of whoosh around.
CW: And you guys looked at that, didn’t you?
AM: Yeah, the effects department would do a sim with the water, and they would have these particles in it. Then we would take the particle simulation so that we could see these little dots in the water and figure out how much his fins should be affected by the water. So we’d do a pass, give it to FX and then FX would give us back… what did we call it?
CW: Marine Snow.
AM: Yes, that’s what we got back. So then we’d do a little adjustment back onto AJ’s fins, so that he would move and the water would move and affect the really soft extremities on his fins.
BK: Thinking about the amount of detail that goes into something like this gives me anxiety. It’s mind-blowing! It looks fantastic in the show! Did you say something about new water software?
CW: We’ve been working on writing our physics software from the ground up. It has everything in it. It’s got all the correct surface tension, it has the ability to do this very thin film which is down to fractions of centimeters. All these incredible fine water details. So we were trying that out for the first time on some of these shots. Regarding the detail and the minutia; I think that’s the part that makes it so interesting, because you’re not doing the same thing every day. I didn’t know anything about goldfish! I didn’t know anything about their bone structure or about how they swim. And I never would’ve, but I learned so much from studying it for this show. That’s what so cool about going into all that detail.
BK: And beyond animating a hyper realistic fish, Carmichael is smoking a cigarette through… I guess it’s a robotic stoma, and smoke is bubbling up in the fish tank where the goldfish gobbles it up.
CW: Well, one thing we said is “Let’s just look at this practically.” We bought a dome, Gino sealed it up, we filled it with water, we had some pipes running into it, blew some smoke into it, watched the bubbles rise to see what they did. So some of the fun we had with it was just building this thing just to see how it was going to work, and to give a good guide to the FX guys to do it. Aidan can talk more about the animation of it, but it was just kind of a cool idea, so we wanted to see what it would look like in real life.
AM: We didn’t have a clear idea on how it would work. As he’s smoking, the cigarette comes up to the neck area and he smokes through that. But as a fish, does he go down to some area where the bubbles come up and he just sucks it up, or do the bubbles come up and he chomps them up as they go past him? We looked at a few ideas for, performance-wise, how he would get the smoke in him. The idea that the bubbles would come up around him and he would pick a few off as they were going past was definitely the winner. Because otherwise it was taking too much time for him to dive down and it was taking away from the performance. Because if you were just sitting there and smoking, it’s a lot more relaxing… uh oh… relaxing…
That sounds like an ad. I don’t condone! (Laughs) But smoking for the character would be a much more casual thing, it’s not such a ferocious “Ah! I’m going to dive down and get the bubbles!” sort of action. And once he would suck a bubble in, then his gills would open and the smoke bubbles would come out of his gills as well. And it’s pretty subtle, but the smoke bubbles that he doesn’t catch would float to the top and burst, so there was a tiny bit of a smoke haze in the top air pocket of the dome. But it’s pretty subtle, I’m not sure it really comes through. But it’s all there.
BK: Those are the details that the viewer probably subconsciously picks up on, adding to the realism.
CW: And you’ve got to have that level of detail in there. His scales, for example: It’s not easy to light a super thin creature facing camera. There’s like a silver-ish material in their scales, the way they pick up light, so when he turns and moves away from camera, light flickers across the scales. If you don’t have that, even though the audience isn’t thinking about it, they know what a goldfish looks like, they’ll think “oh, it doesn’t look real.” So you have to have that stuff in there for the audience to believe it.
BK: When I first saw it, I wasn’t sure if the fish was animated, or if they had just filmed a goldfish in front of a green screen and super-imposed it in. Then when I found out it was you guys, I was like “Oh, yes!”
CW: (Laughs) That’s great! That means it’s believable. The other thing I was going to add: There are whole things with lighting people or lighting apes, all that goes back to the old masters, and where does the key-light hit and where does it fall on the face, and what’s the sculpt of the eyes… all that stuff is out the window when you have to light a fish. They don’t have cheekbones, they don’t have eyes right in the front, the key-fill ratio, all that stuff is out. So we just had to think of new ways to approach this. Even with Aidan’s framing, he’s slightly off axis.
AM: Yeah, we didn’t want him to be direct to camera, he always had to be a little bit off. Otherwise he would just disappear and be a gaping mouth with a couple of domed eyeballs on the side. Also, fish don’t have tongues. So when he was saying things like Ds and Ns and Ss, we wanted him to be facing slightly away from camera so you couldn’t see right down his throat when he’s talking so you couldn’t tell that he didn’t have a tongue. So we cheated him away from camera a little bit, at times.
You Never Know What’s Coming!
CW: The other interesting thing to point out about television is that we don’t have the whole season sitting in front of us. We get different episodes at different times. So in preproduction we don’t know how close we’re going to get to him, what’s going to happen to him. We might have some hints of certain things. So we’ve got that time in the beginning to prepare him, and we try to prepare our characters to hold up to those super close-ups and different things that might come up later in the season. And that affects viewing too, because we just had our little sections of season two, so watching it on Netflix later, that was all new to me. I just knew about our little part.
AM: We worked on pretty small sections and had no idea what the broader story was, at all. Even just watching episode one and seeing that first scene with the nuclear explosion at the end, we were just like “Oh my god! What just happened!”
BK: That’s fun that you got to experience so much of the season as a fresh viewer.
CW: Yeah, it was fun!
BK: Is there anything that you are working on right now that you can talk about?
CW: Not really no (Laughs)
AM: The general rule is that if it’s on the company website under upcoming productions, then we can. But I haven’t checked it recently, so I’m not sure what we can talk about (Laughs) I’m currently working on Suicide Squad, and Chris is working on… everything (Laughs)
CW: Yeah! (Laughs)
BK: Well, it hasn’t been announced, but I’m sure you guys will be involved with Umbrella Academy season three, so I look forward to talking to you about that, as well as other projects!
CW: Thank you!
We parted ways, but I’m sure I’ll see plenty of these two in the future. It sounds like their plates are full with a lot of future work, and as the planet slowly crawls towards opening back up, I’m sure we’ll all be able to see plenty more of their art on our screens big and small!
Umbrella Academy season two is on Netflix now!