A version of this story on the effects in “The Umbrella Academy” first appeared in the Comedy/Drama/Actors issue of TheWrap’s Emmy Magazine.
“We barely made it,” said visual effects supervisor Everett Burrell with a laugh, remembering the rush to finish postproduction on the first season of Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy.” “Episode 10, especially, was huge. It had so much going on.”
For the unfamiliar, the 10th and final episode of the comic-book adaptation’s first season features one character ending a climactic battle by shooting a laser from her chest and destroying the moon, raining a spectacular apocalypse down on Earth in the process. But according to Burrell, showrunner Steve Blackman’s mandate for visual effects was consistent from the jump: Keep it simple. The goal was to rein in some of the more dramatic elements of the widely beloved source material and create the show’s own unique visual language.
“My initial instinct was to go really big and fantastic,” he said. “But Steve was a really great governor on that. He said, ‘No, let’s save our ammunition for the last episode.’ So we really learned to pace ourselves and filter it in over time.”
That especially came into play with Ellen Page’s character, Vanya, whose superpowers are revealed slowly. At one point in the design process, the character had many more visual clues hinting at her full potential — sparks emitting from her body and the like — but the final product hews much closer to Page’s quiet, unflashy performance, leveraging things like wind and light ripple effects to “let nature and sound effects do the work for us,” Burrell said.
Creating the character of Pogo, on the other hand, was anything but simple. He’s a walking, talking ape with nuanced and detailed facial expressions who had to believably interact with the show’s human actors. “The more subtle stuff, to me, is the hardest stuff to take on,” Burrell said. “He just has to be there and be subtle and react and emote, just like Vanya and Luther and the other characters on the show.”
To fill the role, the show enlisted two performers. The 4-foot-9-inch actor Ken Hall stood in for the physical Pogo on set, while Adam Godley provided the character’s “robust English accent” and lent his facial expressions for the CGI work done by Weta Digital.
Marrying the two performances introduced added challenges and required careful planning, but Burrell said the final product was worth the effort. “There’s no doubt that Ellen Page was able to give a better performance because Ken was there (on set),” he said. “Ken’s a very gentle soul as a human being and as an actor, and I think it comes across.”
In this case, Burrell said, simple solutions for the actors to find sight lines were not the best option.”I will always do whatever it takes to help them give the best performance,” he said. “I don’t want to just put a tennis ball on a stick.”
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