By Iain Blair
If all ambitious TV shows with a ton of visual effects aspire to be cinematic, then Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy has to be the gold standard. The acclaimed sci-fi, superhero, adventure mash-up was just Emmy-nominated for its season-ending episode “The White Violin,” which showcased a full range of spectacular VFX. This included everything from the fully-CG Dr. Pogo to blowing up the moon and a mansion to the characters’ varied superpowers. Those VFX, mainly created by movie powerhouse Weta Digital in New Zealand and Spin VFX in Toronto, indeed rival anything in cinema. This is partly thanks to Netflix’s 4K pipeline.
The Umbrella Academy is based on the popular, Eisner Award-winning comics and graphic novels created and written by Gerard Way (“My Chemical Romance”), illustrated by Gabriel Bá, and published by Dark Horse Comics.
The story starts when, on the same day in 1989, 43 infants are born to unconnected women who showed no signs of pregnancy the day before. Seven are adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a billionaire industrialist, who creates The Umbrella Academy and prepares his “children” to save the world. But not everything went according to plan. In their teenage years, the family fractured and the team disbanded. Now, six of the surviving members reunite upon the news of Hargreeves’ death. Luther, Diego, Allison, Klaus, Vanya and Number Five work together to solve a mystery surrounding their father’s death. But the estranged family once again begins to come apart due to divergent personalities and abilities, not to mention the imminent threat of a global apocalypse.
The live-action series stars Ellen Page, Tom Hopper, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Robert Sheehan, David Castañeda, Aidan Gallagher, Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige. It is produced by Universal Content Productions for Netflix. Steve Blackman (Fargo, Altered Carbon) is the executive producer and showrunner, with additional executive producers Jeff F. King, Bluegrass Television, and Mike Richardson and Keith Goldberg from Dark Horse Entertainment.
I spoke with senior visual effects supervisor and co-producer Everett Burrell (Pan’s Labyrinth, Altered Carbon), who has an Emmy for his work on Babylon 5, about creating the VFX and the 4K pipeline.
Congratulations on being nominated for the first season-ending episode “The White Violin,” which showcased so many impressive visual effects.
Thanks. We’re all really proud of the work.
Have you started season two?
Yes, and we’re already knee-deep in the shooting up in Canada. We shoot in Toronto, where we’re based, as well as Hamilton, which has this great period look. So we’re up there quite a bit. We’re just back here in LA for a couple of weeks working on editorial with Steve Blackman, the executive producer and showrunner. Our offices are in Encino, in a merchant bank building. I’m a co-producer as well, so I also deal a lot with editorial — more than normal.
Have you planned out all the VFX for the new season?
To a certain extent. We’re working on the scripts and have a good jump on them. We definitely plan to blow the first season out of the water in terms of what we come up with.
What are the biggest challenges of creating all the VFX on the show?
The big one is the sheer variety of VFX, which are all over the map in terms of the various types. They go from a completely animated talking CG chimpanzee Dr. Pogo to creating a very unusual apocalyptic world, with scenes like blowing up the moon and, of course, all the superpowers. One of the hardest things we had to do — which no one will ever know just watching it — was a ton of leaf replacement on trees.
When we began shooting, it was winter and there were no leaves on the trees. When we got to editorial we realized that the story spans just eight days, so it wouldn’t make any sense if in one scene we had no leaves and in the next we had leaves. So we had to add every single leaf to the trees for all of the first five episodes, which was a huge amount of work. The way we did it was to go back to all the locations and re-shoot all the trees from the same angles once they were in bloom. Then we had to composite all that in. Folks in Montreal did all of it, and it was very complicated. Lola did a lot of great work on Hargreeves, getting his young look for the early 1900s and cleaning up the hair and wrinkles and making it all look totally realistic. That was very tricky too.
Netflix is ahead of the curve thanks to its 4K policy. Tell us about the pipeline.
For a start, we shoot with the ARRI Alexa 65, which is a very robust cinema camera that was used on The Revenant. With its 65mm sensor, it’s meant for big-scope, epic movies, and we decided to go with it to give our show that great cinema look. The depth of field is like film, and it can also emulate film grain for this fantastic look. That camera shoots natively at 5K — it won’t go any lower. That means we’re at a much higher resolution than any other show out there.
And you’re right, Netflix requires a 4K master as future-proofing for streaming and so on. Those very high standards then trickle down to us and all the VFX. We also use a very unique system developed by Deluxe and Efilm called Portal, which basically stores the entire show in the cloud on a server somewhere, and we can get background plates to the vendors within 10 minutes. It’s amazing. Back in the old days, you’d have to make a request and maybe within 24 or 48 hours, you’d get those plates. So this system makes it almost instantaneous, and that’s a lifesaver.
Method blows up the moon.
How closely do you work with Steve Blackman and the editors?
I think Steve said it best:”There’s no daylight between the two of us” We’re linked at the hip pretty much all the time. He comes to my office if he has issues, and I go to his if we have complications; we resolve all of it together in probably the best creative relationship I’ve ever had. He relies on me and counts on me, and I trust him completely. Bottom line, if we need to write ourselves out of a sticky situation, he’s also the head writer, so he’ll just go off and rewrite a scene to help us out.
How many VFX do you average for each show?
We average between 150 and 200 per episode. Last season we did nearly 2,000 in total, so it’s a huge amount for a TV show, and there’s a lot of data being pushed. Luckily, I have an amazing team, including my production manager Misato Shinohara. She’s just the best and really takes care of all the databases, and manages all the shot data, reference, slates and so on. All that stuff we take on set has to go into this massive database, and just maintaining that is a huge job.
Who are the main VFX vendors?
The VFX are mainly created by Weta in New Zealand and Spin VFX in Toronto. Weta did all the Pogo stuff. Then we have Folks, Lola, Marz, Deluxe Toronto, DigitalFilm Tree in LA… and then Method Studios in Vancouver did great work on our end-of-the-world apocalyptic sequence. They blew up the moon and had a chunk of it hitting the Earth, along with all the surrounding imagery. We started R&D on that pretty early to get a jump on it. We gave them storyboards and they did previz. We used that as a cut to get iterations of it all. There were a lot of particle simulations, which was pretty intense.
What have been the most difficult VFX sequences to create?
Just dealing with Pogo is obviously very demanding, and we had to come up with a fast shortcut to dealing with the photo-real look as we just don’t have the time or budget they have for the Planet of the Apes movies. The big thing is integrating him in the room as an actor with the live actors, and that was a huge challenge. We used just two witness cameras to capture our Pogo body performer. All the apocalyptic scenes were also very challenging because of the scale, and then those leaves were very hard to do and make look real. That alone took us a couple of months. And we might have the same problem this year, as we’re shooting in the summer through fall, and I’m praying that the leaves don’t start falling before we wrap.
What have been the main advances in technology that have really helped you pull off some of the show’s VFX?
I think the rendering and the graphics cards are the big ones, and the hardware talks together much more efficiently now. Even just a few years ago, and it might have taken weeks and weeks to render a Pogo. Now we can do it in a day. Weta developed new software for creating the texture and fabric of Pogo’s clothes. They also refined their hair programs.
I assume as co-producer that you’re very involved with the DI?
I am… and keeping track of all that and making sure we keep pushing the envelope. We do the DI at Company 3 with colorist Jill Bogdanowicz, who’s a partner in all of this. She brings so much to the show, and her work is a big part of why it looks so good. I love the DI. It’s where all the magic happens, and I get in there early with Jill and take care of the VFX tweaks. Then Steve comes in and works on contrast and color tweaks.By the time Steve gets there, we’re probably 80% of the way there already.
What can fans expect from season two?
Bigger, better visual effects. We definitely pay attention to the fans. They love the graphic novel, so we’re getting more of that into the show.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.