The Umbrella Academy Pogo
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Credit: Netflix

How The Umbrella Academy brought Pogo the monkey butler to life

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Feb 20, 2019

If weird is your thing, there's plenty of weirdness to go around in The Umbrella Academy, the new Netflix show based on former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way and artist Gabriel Bá's graphic novel series of the same name. We're talking miraculous pregnancies, a family of adopted children-turned-superheroes, time-traveling assassins in cotton candy-colored cartoon masks, '80s dance parties, and, of course, Pogo, aka the family's British-accented butler.

Which actually wouldn't be all that strange, save for the fact that Pogo is a super-intelligent talking chimpanzee voiced by Adam Godley. (He's also the closest thing any of the damaged Hargreeves kids have to a loving father figure.)

A key character in Way and Bá's comics, Pogo was understandably one of the trickiest elements to translate from the page to the screen for Umbrella Academy showrunner Steve Blackman. It's also one that would've been nearly impossible to do only a few short years ago. "Pogo would have been a man in a suit 16 years ago, eight years ago, even five years ago," Blackman told SYFY WIRE last week in Toronto. As is, there was early talk of making the character an actor supplemented with CGI, an approach he quickly ruled out.

The Umbrella Academy, Pogo and Vanya

Credit: Netflix

Instead, the showrunner turned to the Oscar-winning team at Weta Digital. "I phoned them up and I said, 'Come do one amazing chimpanzee for me. Why not? You do the best in the world,'" he recalls. It helped that Weta wouldn't be starting from scratch, already having developed the necessary software for the recently rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise. Even so, that kind of complicated CG work takes time.

Creating the finished product — a perfect CG render with Adam Godley's face turned into a chimpanzee's — was tedious, to say the least. "That alone took us 12 weeks a shot just to do that," according to Blackman. It was worth the wait though, he says. "I think he's pretty flawless.

"They were able to do a really beautiful job," he gushes. "Still, it was challenging to do it on our budget – and we had a good budget, but not like a Game of Thrones budget." (The show's visual effects wizardry didn't stop at Pogo, either. "The last episode just in itself had 500 VFX shots, which is an extreme amount of VFX shots," Blackman says, laughing. "It's pretty wild.")

While Godley provided the voice (and face) of Pogo, on set, the character was realized by Canadian actor Ken Hall, an addition that the cast says was essential to making the experience feel as close to normal as possible. "Between Ken and Adam Godley, Pogo is brought to life so well," promises Tom Hopper, who plays Luther on the show.

Out of the main cast, Hopper has probably the most experience sharing scenes with CG characters — including Game of Thrones' fire-breathing dragons (RIP Dickon Tarly, valar morghulis) — and he says it was a far different, and more rewarding, experience trading lines with a CG creation, instead of trading blows. "Usually it's a dragon or a dude in a suit that's playing some kind of mythical creature that you're fighting," he says with a laugh. "It's not really the same."

"What is great is that we had the amazing Ken acting with us. And he's such a good actor in his own right, that Ken was Pogo to us," he continues. "We were very fortunate that it didn't really feel like we were acting with a mo-cap character, with a CGI character. We were acting with Ken, who was Pogo."

"He's unreal," agrees Emmy Raver-Lampman, saying Hall gave them "everything" on set, including the ability to go off script and improvise. "He was very much in the scenes with us."

That was crucial, says Robert Sheehan, because, while it might feel awkward sharing scenes with a co-star covered in motion-capture dots, you have to try to approach it like any other scene. "You can't play a waistcoat-wearing chimp, you know? You just have to play the reality of the scene," Sheehan explains. "It's the same as if those things weren't there." By the end, it became like second nature, says David Castañeda. "The audience is going to see Pogo, but for us, it's just like talking to you."

Still, that made for something of a surreal experience when the cast finally saw the fully-realized Pogo on screen. "It was a weird moment that screening where we were all watching the pilot, and we saw Pogo for the first time. I was like, 'Oh! Right!' I had completely forgotten, and then I just started crying because I was like, 'Oh my God, that looks so good!'" says Raver-Lampman. "Because we'd spent seven months acting with Ken."

"When I screened the first episode for a few close friends in London, when Pogo comes on with Ellen [Page] in that scene, everybody went, 'Oh! What the f**k is going on here?'" Sheehan laughs. "And I didn't even see the strangeness of Pogo because I was so used to it at that point."

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