One of Netflix and UCP’s most dynamic 2019 series had a number of notable stars — but honestly, one of “The Umbrella Academy’s” most important figures was the hyper-intelligent Pogo, a CGI chimpanzee whose not-so-human status didn’t keep him from being a beloved figure.
“I love Pogo,” showrunner Steve Blackman told IndieWire. “He’s fabulous in so many different ways. It’s just a wonderful thing to think that a whole bunch of people brought this character to life, and people loved him. It’s just a great feeling.”
Pogo, a father figure to the super-powered children at the heart of the Netflix series, was a definite figure of sympathy. He was also, according to visual effects supervisor Everett Burrell, “a really scary point for production” — which was why, of all the production entities involved with the show, Weta Digital was brought on first.
Weta Digital, of course, is the legendary VFX company which brought to life Middle Earth for Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Since its founding, it has been instrumental to countless films, including the “Planet of the Apes” saga — but doing TV is a quite rare thing for the company to take on. Initially, Blackman heard suggestions that Pogo be performed by an actor in a prosthetic suit, but then he considered “Planet of the Apes” and the great work that Weta had done for those films. “But people said, ‘Well, Weta doesn’t really do TV,'” he said. “I’m like, ‘Well, why not?'”
So Blackman called Weta and made his sales pitch: “‘Guys. We don’t need you to do 100 apes and monkeys coming on horseback over a hill. I need you just to do one monkey really, really well for me.’ They laughed, and they said, ‘Well, we can do that.'”
It helped that Weta had ape experience — and that it represented a unique challenge, because Pogo would be a supporting character, and would have to be integrated into the scenes with the other actors.
As Burrell said, “I think it really intrigued them because in the ‘Apes’ films, those are lead characters. And they’re really in your face a lot. They do a lot of big things and shoot machine guns and jump around, “Pogo is not that. Pogo’s just more of a, you know, a fatherly figure to these kids, and there’s a lot of secrets behind those eyes.”
Burrell’s role in the production, as visual effects supervisor and associate producer, was coordinating everything between the DPs and showrunner and the various post-production entities, including the eight different production houses working on various elements, including the visual effects. Because Burrell made things work, Blackman said, “we never got to a point where there was something that was way off course. We just did minor course corrections along the way.”
From the perspective of Chris White, Weta’s Visual Effects Supervisor, “anything that’s interesting and new — which this show definitely was — is something that the producers and artists are going to gravitate towards. Everyone had so much fun on this show, just because they were new and interesting problems, and the character from the early days, something about his design, everyone just immediately liked him. I can see why he was appealing.”
Blackman didn’t actually know how many Weta artists worked to make Pogo come to life — when IndieWire told him it was 220 people, focusing on various aspects of the character, he was amazed. “I knew it was a lot, but that put a big smile on my face,” he said. “I can’t believe that many people made this character. That’s why it was so perfect. They just put so much love and team effort into it. They birthed this character with us.”
Never once, Blackman said, did Weta tell the writers that something they scripted for Pogo would be impossible. “They never came back to us once. Whatever we wrote, Weta accomplished. They never used the word can’t ever in the process. Whatever I asked, whatever I put in the script or the writers put in the script, they delivered on. They were that good,” he said.
For the record, that’s not all that common. “I’ve worked on other shows where vendors come back to you and say, ‘You know, we just can’t do this.’ More typically, ‘I don’t think we have enough money based on the budget.’ Weta didn’t do that. Weta said, ‘We just want this to be great.’ They took so much pride in this character,” Blackman said.
One unique facet of making Pogo happen was the fact that two separate actors can technically be credited for the character. While on screen, the voice and facial expressions of the character are based on Adam Godley’s work, and his performance was all captured in post-production. On set, it was an actor named Ken Hall who actually interacted with the cast.
While Hall isn’t ever seen on screen as Pogo, he did get a small role as another character — the role of Herb in Episode 6 — because according to Blackman, “It wasn’t fair. I mean, imagine from his point of view, all his good acting gets removed from what he did with all the characters and he sort of disappears. I thought, ‘That’s not fair.’ So, we gave Ken a great part and he was just so wonderful in it because he’s a really good actor.”
Blending the two performances led to plenty of nuances in the actors’ work, as Burrell said: “Like, Ken blinked more, but Adam didn’t. So, the first passes of Pogo, he had a lot of blinks ’cause they were kind of matching Ken.”
Having two actors essentially play the same character was new for the Weta team, but, White said, “it worked well for us. Ken did a great job and that allowed the actors and everyone to have someone on set to work with. With Adam’s voiceover coming in later, we used Adam’s expressions and his facial movements and features and to drive the look of Pogo. But what we had to do was readjust the body animation after we received his facial and his acting so that the body was in sync with what Adam was performing.”
Blackman said that he directed Godley’s voice performance sessions, alongside his post producers. “Adam would be somewhere in L.A. or London on a stage. We would be linked in via the internet, and we’d give him some ideas, some thoughts,” he said. “We did all of his stuff in about three sittings, three different days.”
He also praised Hall for being there to interact with the cast. “Ken came knowing that he was going to be removed, and gave a 150 percent emotional performance every day. Ellen Page and the other actors had this wonderful person to act against and with. So, it made a huge difference,” Blackman said.
The subtleties of how Pogo’s face moved proved to be a key part of making Godley’s performance work for the CGI character, all rooted in today’s fun anatomy fact: chimpanzees have more facial muscles than humans. Blackman said that “they can move their lips and their snouts in ways that were different. Weta had told me a little bit about this. They said, ‘We’ve done a lot of research, more than anyone probably in the world, about how these animations should look.’ They said, he’d be more expressive.”
What was key to making Pogo work in Season 1 was something the production team created called the Director’s Welcome pack. “It had concept art and storyboards and R&D. One of the videos we sent was a scene of Pogo talking to Ellen Page, and we put price tags at the bottom of the screen: If you want to real tight close-up, it’s going to be X amount. If you want over-the-shoulder, out-of-focus, it’s going to be this,” Burrell said. “We were giving these guidelines, like, ‘Unfortunately, because he’s a very unique character, we kind of have to keep things very traditional. I suggest you don’t run around with a Steadicam when Pogo’s in the room.'”
This was key because while every director who worked on Season 1 had VFX experience, none of them had directed a CGI character like Pogo. Said Blackman, “They were sort of gobsmacked on how much it cost to do a single scene. That was the warning — don’t shoot any more than we planned and budgeted. If you just turn the camera and do a third shot when we budgeted for two, this is how much more it will push your budget off.”
It was an idea that worked so well that during the pre-production period for Season 2, Burrell was already building the Welcome Pack for the season’s new directors. Of course, he couldn’t confirm or deny that they’d be able to reuse the Pogo portion, because after the events of Season 1, there’s no guarantee that Pogo will be coming back. But if he does, it’ll be the return of a fan favorite — and when Weta does come into the TV world, good things happen.
“The Umbrella Academy” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix. The show has been renewed for a Season 2.