Y: The Last Man is a post-apocalyptic drama television series developed by Eliza Clark based on the comic book series of the same name by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. Y: The Last Man takes place in a world where a mysterious cataclysmic event simultaneously killed every mammal with a Y chromosome but for one man – Yorick Brown (Ben Schnetzer) – and his pet monkey Ampersand. ILM was set the challenge of providing a fully digital capuchin monkey to play Ampersand or as ILM called him Amp!
We spoke to Michael Beaulieu and Stephen Pugh about the challenges and process of bringing Amps to the screen and his link with the TV show Friends. Michael Beaulieu was the animation supervisor at ILM. Beaulieu came to ILM with twenty years of experience including supervising animation on two VFX Academy Award-nominated films The Revenant at MPC, and more recently Star Wars: The Last Jedi with ILM. Stephen Pugh is a Visual Effects Supervisor and Producer with over 25 years of experience in television and feature film VFX. His credits include The Amazing Spiderman, Now You See Me 2, and earlier in his career: Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise. On Y: Last Man Pugh was the Visual Effects Supervisor for all 10 episodes.
fxguide: How did you approach making a Capuchin monkey – it is not ideal for motion capture, given the re-targeting compared to say a chimpanzee?
Michael Beaulieu: Indeed, we couldn’t utilize motion capture for Amp, so his performance would need to be 100% keyframed. It was a challenge for sure, to achieve a photoreal level of movement without mocap to assist, but we designed a workflow that allowed the animation team to pull as much from real life reference as possible. Before we even set down a keyframe, we’d find ref to use as a guide for Amp’s actions and make sure the animators had a clear direction of what to do in each shot. We wanted Ampersand to look and move like a real monkey, and even the best trained monkey on-set would still do unexpected things. So we approached the work from the point of view that Amp wasn’t necessarily “performing” but “behaving” as you’d expect a real monkey would. The animation team would find little odd movements or funny things Amp could do in the reference footage, that gave the scenes a more realistic aesthetic. We tried to avoid actions that a capuchin couldn’t do, and made sure he wasn’t too human or animated in a way that felt overly-directed, rather than something a monkey would naturally do. If Amp were framed too perfectly all the time, or sat too still, he wouldn’t look real. Capuchin’s are quite twitchy, so we made sure he had the appropriate level of movements and head darts in the shots. It’s the messy details that aren’t what you expect that makes the performance feel real and sit in the scenes, so that’s how we tried to approach Ampersand for Y: The Last Man.
fxguide: How detailed did the facial rig need to be, or was the main focus on full-body motion?
Michael Beaulieu: We needed the body-rig to be as robust as a real capuchin could be (they’re insanely flexible) including the tail – which was it’s own challenge. Amp’s tail was almost like another limb, as it doesn’t overlap and flow as say a cat’s tail would. A capuchin tail always has tension in it, and can curl to grip things, so we had to make sure the rig allowed us to do a wide range of actions. For the face rig, Ampersand needed all the muscle-driven shapes a real monkey could do, but nothing that could be pushed too far. He needed to have a good range of expression, but still within the realm of a real capuchin’s musculature. His brows were quite expressive and caught the light well, so we relied heavily on those to build his facial performance, even for wide shots. The twitchy brow movements really helped to sell eye direction changes or emotions.
fxguide: Did you build Ampersand for closeups? Did you fully know the range of things the story was going to require from Ampersand?
Michael Beaulieu: We knew Amp would need to climb on Yorick and sit on his shoulder at times, as was the iconic image of Amp + Yorick from the graphic novel. Overall in the series, Stephen Pugh gave us a good overview of what we could expect Ampersand to be doing.
Beyond that, we (ILM) discussed the requirements of the character’s model and rig in order to create a photoreal capuchin monkey. It would need to meet certain requirements at a baseline level regardless of additional story information. We used a lot of reference footage early on to drive Amp’s development.
fxguide: Did the animators get to see the monkey with fur during animation, or was the fur added as a fur sim after animation was done?
Michael Beaulieu: We had a proprietary tool in animation called ‘Sneakview’ to review anim passes with lighting and fur, which allowed us to make tweaks to the anim before it was sent down the pipe to lighting or comp. It was crucial to get certain subtle animation to work by seeing how Amp’s fur looked, or by how the light was hitting him. Especially his eyes, as the light changes everything with a character’s eyes. Amp’s eyes are quite dark naturally, so in the animation passes we’d be able to clearly see his pupil/iris, but it could read very differently once rendered with light and fur. Utilizing ‘Sneakview’ in animation let us iterate quickly and make adjustments that we’d previously have to wait to see in lighting or comp, and by then it might be too far down the schedule to change the animation.
fxguide: Onset how was the monkey blocked and filmed… was there just a blank space?
Stephen Pugh: During filming, our on-set supervisor Jesse Kawzenuk used a stuffed capuchin that our props department had made, to aid in setting eyelines and camera blocking. During actual shooting, we shot without any aids in frame. In the pilot teaser, we did use a green foam buck shaped and sized like Ampersand for the beat where Yorick grabs him out of the path of the crashing helicopter, so that Ben’s hands stayed accurately spaced.
fxguide: What lighting reference was used from onset?
Stephen Pugh: Panoramic photos were taken after each setup where Amp played, and every slate also included the ubiquitous chrome and grey spheres in a reference pass.
fxguide: Did the plates need any relighting to make Ampersand stand out or their action be more readable?
Stephen Pugh: Quite the opposite – rather than trying to call attention to Ampersand, it was more important to me that he feel integrated. We actually had a number of shots where we put Amp in his carrier, and only saw the hint of him through those side vent holes – not because we wanted to feature him, rather because a real monkey would have just been that same sort of incidental shadow.
fxguide: Could you outline the tech pipeline especially how Ben/Yorick interacted with the Ampersand… did this require parts of Ben to be digital?
Stephen Pugh: ILM did a great job of laying in those detailed interaction elements – wrinkles on Yorick’s shirt from Amp’s paw, or grading down his hair to replicate the light occlusion from the monkey on his shoulder.
Michael Beaulieu: We discussed this approach initially, but decided to maintain Yorick as a plate element and not augment him digitally. In animation, we were very careful to place Amp’s contacts on Yorick in a way that could be refined by Comp artists, to add some wrinkle in the cloth, or depression in the fabric from Amp’s weight. The result was something that looked integrated into the plate as it maintained what was captured in camera. Yorick’s body movements were tracked digitally (match-anim) so that animators could place Amp in the correct 3D space, but the digital version of Yorick was never intended to be rendered.
fxguide: Was the work finished in 4K? I believe it was shot anamorphically?
Stephen Pugh: Correct, the show was filmed anamorphic, Alexa Open Gate resolution. We finished at UHD resolution.
fxguide: Finally, is it true that Katie, the capuchin monkey made famous for playing the role of Marcel on Friends, had appeared in the original pilot?
Stephen Pugh: Katie appeared in the Michael Green version of the pilot, but due to scheduling conflicts with her book tour in support of “The Monkey Business Of Friends: My Time With Ross And The Gang”, we put a call out and met a tremendously talented young capuchin named…Charleston? But yes, Katie played Ampersand for that project. Once Disney became involved, though, the digital approach became the mandate and I couldn’t be happier with the result.