VFX supervisor Stephen Pugh, ILM animation supervisor Michael Beaulieu and ILM VFX supervisor Bruno Baron explain how they created a photoreal capuchin monkey

Y: The Last Man (FX on Hulu) is a post-apocalyptic drama series in which an unknown event causes all mammals with a Y chromosome to suddenly die except for a single man called Yorick and his monkey Ampersand. Industrial Light & Magic was brought onboard to create a believable CG monkey and they were so successful it created an unusual hitch: the animal rights organisation tasked with approving the treatment of animal actors initially refused to sign off the show until it was explained that Ampersand was CG-only.

Stephen Pugh (Hellboy, The Day of the Jackal, The Amazing Spider-Man) was overall VFX supervisor for the show, and he worked with ILM’s team helmed by Michael Beaulieu (The Revenant, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Bruno Baron (Thor: Ragnarok, Skyscraper). Here they explain how they worked to make Ampersand look as real as possible.

What do you see as the pros and cons of CG vs real animals on a film set?

Michael Beaulieu: Using CG for certain scenarios makes sense, as we would never want to put animals (or people) into hazardous situations. Directors can also experiment with different performances more easily with CG, and maybe get something in the performance that would have been impossible on set.

From an animation standpoint, we always use reference from real life to inform creature movement, whether it’s from nature or on location. For Ampersand, we relied heavily on reference of capuchins in the wild to build his performance for Y: The Last Man, finding the messy details and unexpected moments that you’d get from a real monkey and layering it into Ampersand’s scenes. So we approached Amp with that same mindset to make him behave as a real monkey would, rather than art direct his performance too much or get him to do things a capuchin would never do. In visual effects it is possible to achieve a photoreal look with most animals now, but the movement of those creatures is up to the animators and still relies largely on traditional keyframing techniques. Motion capture tech is improving all the time, especially with humans or biped characters, but for creatures it’s not quite there. That was the biggest challenge facing our animation team on the show, making Amp’s movement as real as possible. If the movement isn’t photoreal, then even the most realistic looking CG capuchin won’t be believable for the audience. We wanted to make sure that the animation complimented the amazing look our CG Ampersand had. But that’s the challenge when going CG vs a real animal – we still want the randomness and unexpected moments that you get in real life.

As for live animals on set, we had an interesting experience with the SPCA. After reviewing the show, we heard they initially weren’t going to sign off on the series because they didn’t have a representative on set when we “filmed” with the monkey. We couldn’t think of a better compliment for the work we were delivering on Y: The Last Man, than to have the SPCA believe that what they saw was a real monkey, as Ampersand is 100% CG. We knew then that the work was going in the right direction.

Why did the filmmaker decide to use a CG monkey in place of a real one in this case?

Michael Beaulieu: The ethical implications of using primates in entertainment aside, a digital capuchin gave us a lot more freedom to explore Ampersand’s performance.

How did you come to be working on this project?

Michael Beaulieu: I’ve been a part of a number of projects that had the objective of achieving photo-realism. Most specifically to Y: The Last Man, I was one of the animation supervisors on another similar monkey in Disney’s Aladdin. So joining a show like Y and creating a capuchin monkey that was intended to look as if it was real and on set with the actors sounded like a good fit and a fun challenge.

How did this work fit into the filmmaking process? How much were you present on set? What technologies were used – did you use virtual production techniques?

Stephen Pugh: We were immersed in Production from the jump, working closely with our Production Designer Alex Schaller and DPs Kira Kelly, Catherine Lutes, and Claudine Sauvé. I was in Toronto for the filming of the first episode and prep for the second, after which I returned to L.A. and left the set in the hands of the inimitable Jesse Kawzenuk (our on-set/associate VFX Supervisor). They had a lot of questions about the best way to shoot our VFX sequences, and I think everyone was a little apprehensive about visual effects in general and this CG monkey in particular. Very happy to say that we won them over by the time we were done with the pilot.

We worked with Mavericks VFX’s virtual production arm to do some pre-vis work for episode 101’s teaser (Yorick and Amp scavenging and avoiding death by falling chopper) and for our Pentagon barricade scenes. It was extremely helpful for our directors and DPs to be able to design shots with accurately-sized lenses and make rapid adjustments, and it gave them the confidence to focus on what they needed to on the day. We didn’t use any LED stage or panel work, as we had no driving composites where a panel might be appropriate. We did carry our own Leica BLK360 Lidar scanner, which we used religiously to grab scans of the sets for aid in camera tracking and in prepping set extensions. Otherwise, the techniques we used on the show were fairly traditional – loads of HDRI photography, witness cameras for scenes where Ampersand needed to interact with someone, etc.

Tell us about the previs work for the Ampersand scenes.

Michael Beaulieu: We didn’t have previs really, but what we did get were drawovers from Stephen Pugh (overall VFX supervisor and VFX producer) for each scene that Amp was meant to appear. That way we’d have a rough idea of where he was in the shot, and what his actions might be.

Stephen was fantastic to work with, and he allowed our team at ILM to come up with ideas and pitch things for what Amp could do, even if it wasn’t exactly the idea we started with. It was a really great collaboration and gave the animators a broad range to work within, so we could make Amp’s movement as real as possible.

Bruno Baron: We developed a system that allowed the animation team to render higher quality slap comps. This system spits out a slap comp with the plate as a background, proper lighting and fur rendering. That required a lighting setup done early on, just after our layout step was completed. It proved really useful to review the animation work in context.

What was your process for creating this creature?

Bruno Baron: One of the great things at ILM is the impressive skill set of the artists working here. A lot of them had already worked on primates, so they knew what worked. We could always tap into their vast experience pool to find solutions to all the challenges we faced.

I’d say the three most challenging aspects of Ampersand creation were its fur, the look development for the eyes, and the tail rigging. In all these cases we could pick someone’s brain who’s literally an expert in their respective areas.

Last but not least, we were lucky to get access to some video reference of a real capuchin monkey that was the exact match that the showrunners were after. It greatly facilitated all the asset creation steps: each department could literally match this great ref.

To what extent was this work informed by previous CG monkeys created at ILM?

Michael Beaulieu: Having the experience of being on Aladdin, we already had a good reference library of monkey footage to use for Amp’s performance. Early on Y, we added more to that library given the needs of our show and the different kind of monkey that Amp would be. We also had a good idea of what could work well, and maybe not so well, when we approached the animation.

What were the main challenges in this project?

Michael Beaulieu: For the animation team, the challenge was to make Amp’s movement as real as possible. To achieve that, we had to think of him as a real monkey and ask ourselves “What would a monkey do if they were actually on set?” Even the best trained capuchin would still miss their mark, or do unexpected things. We wanted to approach Amp the same way, to not necessarily make him perform, but to behave. If his movement looked too polished, too perfect or thought out, he wouldn’t look real. Realism is in the randomness, the messy details that you don’t expect. Maybe Amp could be slightly out of frame or behind something, where the tendency in VFX might be to frame him more clearly or to overlight him. Letting him sit in the shadows a bit, or hide behind Ben’s shoulder, is what helps to make him sit into the scene.

It was also a challenge to give Amp realistic movement, but not to upstage the needs of the scene. Capuchin’s are very twitchy and spastic, almost bird-like at times. Amp definitely has that, but we toned it down a bit so it wouldn’t bring too much attention to himself, and away from the actors. But the fun of this challenge was for the animators to find little random or quirky moments in the reference footage that they could work into their scenes. In one scene, Amp rubs his hands together as he’s cleaning them, but all we started with was ‘Amp is sitting off screen-right’. We could have just sat him there and did something more subtle, but adding that little odd action is what makes him seem real, because it doesn’t feel staged or expected. The animators really grabbed onto this characterization after a while and put a lot of cool stuff into Amp’s performance that really sat him into the shots.

Bruno Baron (ILM VFX supervisor) made sure that Amp looked as real as possible in the final comps, so we wanted to make sure our animation lived up to that standard. When we first saw the final comp images of Amp inside a taxi cab curiously batting a hula-girl on the dash, we knew this was going to be a fun project to be a part of.

Bruno Baron: As Mike mentioned, some of the cool actions Ampersand performs had to be augmented by other departments. Since we didn’t have any placeholder for Ampersand on set, we had to create a reaction for anything he interacts with. With every episode there was a new thing he was grabbing or stepping on, and we were always scratching our heads wondering how we’d do this new one. There were a variety of objects and materials such as papers lying on the ground, leaves, grass, and garment fabric to name a few. That proved challenging, and our comp team did some subtle yet really cool work. The addition of this material reaction really embedded Ampersand in the plate.

Did you build any special tools or workflows for this?

Bruno Baron: The main new thing we developed was the early render and slap comp system that were automated and triggered by the animation team (see above). It made the presentation and review of our work a lot easier. That really helped to increase the quality of the final shots since we could spot problems very early on.

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.