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From Sensei to Biker: Wētā FX Takes Pogo for a Ride in ‘Umbrella Academy’

The leading visual effects company, led by VFX Supervisor Chris White, revisits one of the Netflix series most compelling – and fully CG – characters in Season 3’s ‘Marigold’ episode, nominated for an Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Single Episode Emmy.

From Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy to Caesar – and other primates – in three Planet of the Apes movies, Wētā FX has created some of the most extraordinarily believable, fully digital character performances ever. And, starting with the 2019 debut of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, they’ve done it once again, applying more than a decade of research and production experience into the compelling animated digital chimpanzee named Dr. Phinneus Pogo. Or Pogo for short. Wētā FX’s Pogo work on the Season 3 episode “Marigold,” led by VFX supervisor Chris White, recently garnered an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Single Episode.

The popular live-action series, about a dysfunctional family of adopted sibling superheroes attempting to thwart an impending global apocalypse while figuring out the mystery of their father’s death, is based on Eisner award-winning comics and graphic novels of the same name created and written by Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance), illustrated by Gabriel Bá and published by Dark Horse Comics. The show, created for TV by Steve Blackman, is produced by UCP, a division of Universal Studio Group, for Netflix.

The series debuted on Netflix in 2019; a fourth and final season has been greenlit, with filming finishing prior to the WGA strike. In the most recent Season 3, Pogo returns, though his professorial manner changed considerably in the most recent alternative version of the future, altered by the superhero family’s rather roughshod, ragged, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to save humanity. His three-season arc has taken him from Dr. Reginald Hargreeves’ (the father) assistant to martial arts teacher and tattoo artist. Who rides a chopper.


AWN spoke to White back in 2019 about the creation of Pogo; he’s continued to lead the studio’s work on the chimpanzee in the new season. Asked how much the character has changed, or hasn’t, since first introduced to audiences, White says, “This season's Pogo has seen significant changes, including introducing life in an alternate timeline with the Sparrow Academy. As a result, the character himself becomes quite different to his previous iterations. Bringing this new version of Pogo to life was exciting as we were heavily involved in the design process. From the Academy Sensei to outcast biker, it was fun to help sculpt these new personas.”

“Adam Godley did perform for Pogo again,” White shares. “He was the voice and inspiration for the facial expressions. On set, Ken Hall did the bodywork and interaction with the other actors. We started with the previous season's Pogo for the scenes in the Academy. Once he quit the Academy and became a biker, he was heavily modified for his new look.” 

The studio’s Season 3 work breaks down into three areas: creating Pogo in the dojo, designing Biker Pogo, and the shot-work for those scenes. “The look of Pogo in the dojo was all about his outfit – we created a slick tracksuit inspired by his clothing in the graphic novel,” White explains. “Getting the material simulation and rendering right was essential to matching that classic look. Biker Pogo, on the other hand, needed to be tougher and more muscular. We bulked out his physique, added scars, jewelry, leather riding clothes, and a new hair groom. Carrying that attitude through his performance was also crucial. These personas came together in a series of shots throughout the episode, many of which he was interacting directly with an actor, so he needed to be seamlessly integrated.” 

In continuing to refine and improve the studio’s digital character creation process, including keyframe animation on captured performances, White reveals, “This season, we gathered effects and light reference during motion-capture. Normally we would only collect motion, but we decided to use this process to gather more information about the scene. For example, since Pogo held a glass of whisky in one scene, we needed to simulate the liquid later. We had our motion actor hold a glass of whisky during the capture and set up lights to mimic the scene as well. This video of the capture became an excellent reference for how the whisky should slosh around in his hand and even form caustic patterns on the table. We still used keyframe animation on his face, as it gave us the best control when translating Adam’s performance to Pogo.”

As far as Season 3 production challenges, White notes, “The most difficult and enjoyable challenge was creating a digital character that is sitting across from a human actor, having a conversation. There are no sweeping cameras or explosive effects — just subtle animation, lighting, and compositing to sell the moment.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.