‘If a real monkey cannot do it, Ampersand won’t do it’

How ILM crafted the starring capuchin monkey in ‘Y: The Last Man’.

Although an initial pilot for the FX on Hulu series Y: The Last Man relied on a real capuchin monkey to play the character Ampersand–the pet of Earth’s last surviving human male, Yorick Brown–the series moved forward with a CG approach for the primate. Meaning, no real monkeys were filmed on set.

The creature was, instead, created digitally by Industrial Light & Magic, which used, of course, footage of the original animal heavily for reference. Here, ILM associate VFX supervisor Bruno Baron and ILM animation supervisor Michael Beaulieu tell befores & afters about how they did it, ultimately causing Canada’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which oversees the filming of live animals on sets in that country, to query whether in fact Ampersand was really real.

b&a: I almost wish no one had told me Ampersand was CG because of course he just looks so real. When you come onto a task like this, what are some of the early discussions you have about the kind of work that needs to be done?

Bruno Baron (associate VFX supervisor, ILM): We had a very simple conversation with Steve Pugh, the overall VFX producer and supervisor for the show. And it was, ‘If a real monkey cannot do it, Ampersand won’t do it.’ That set the tone because we knew that well, we were going too deep into our real references. The look, as well, had to be completely realistic, which meant we didn’t have to prepare for weird facial blendshapes that every monkey wouldn’t do, but would make him feel more human. There was none of that. It was, ‘Okay, he’s a real monkey. He’s going to act as a real monkey. He’s not going to perform any tricks, any weird things.’ So that really helped us find the scope of the work, straight away.

Michael Beaulieu: Yes, on a lot of other projects that you’re a part of, you might be putting in a photo-real creature or character, but sometimes there’s a lot of things that you do with that character or creature that are a little different than what they might just do naturally. There might be some acting performance that you might layer in on top, stuff like that. But it was very clear, early on, what we needed to do here.

The way we got the animation team to really think about it was, think about it like even the best trained, real Capuchin monkey on set isn’t going to always perfectly hit their mark. It’s not always going to be perfectly framed in the shot. It might do something weird that’s unexpected that you just have to run with because it’s a monkey and that’s what they do.

b&a: Was there any kind of proof of concept or test required?

Bruno Baron: Steve shot us a test shot with a stand-in, and we used that to prepare Ampersand and make sure that the look was correct. Mike prepared for us what I would call a cycle of animation turntable. We didn’t have Ampersand in an A pose. We always had Ampersand acting as a real monkey. And we used that as our proof of concept to present to Steve and the showrunners.

b&a: How did they shoot scenes with Ampersand? What was their process for shooting plates?

Bruno Baron: Because of the pandemic and health and safety concerns, we weren’t on set. There was no use of a live animal. Ben Schnetzer, the actor who played Yorick, didn’t have anything there standing in for Ampersand on his shoulder, for example. On the plus side that meant we didn’t have to paint out anything like props that we might normally have used to aid Ben know where to act, and how to act. That said, we have to give props to Ben and to Steve, as well, for making the performance work so well. Ben’s “reactions” really helped us sell the performance of Ampersand.

Michael Beaulieu: Ben did a good job of mimicking what his body would do if you had a 10 pound monkey just kind of crawling around on your shoulder, even just the way you kind of move your head aside or your posture or something like that. So it helped us to sit Ampersand in there.

Steve asked us, ‘Hey, is there anything I can relay to them on set with that?’ What we discussed was that Ben should just aware of his body posture, even if he’s got nothing there, just to be aware that if he did have a monkey sitting on his shoulder, he’d likely adjust how he was standing or how he’d shift his weight around – little things like that, just to help us put Amp in the scene and blend them together.

b&a: Before you began on final shots, was there a postvis or layout process that you followed to really nut out the movement and placement of Ampersand?

Michael Beaulieu: Steve did a lot of draw-overs for all those initial shots, so that we weren’t just looking at a blank plate and trying to figure out like, ‘Okay, where is he supposed to be? What is he doing? How far does he get into the shot? Where is he supposed to go out of frame or come into frame?’

b&a: Let’s talk about the asset build. Where did you get started with this in terms of reference?

Bruno Baron: Well, we had probably the best reference ever, which was a real Capuchin monkey from their pilot that was shot, I think two years ago. We were matching that one for one. They had entire scenes shot with him. Then on top of that, we did our own research.

b&a: I know that every show at ILM is different, and you can’t always reuse assets, but were any previous assets made for say Aladdin or Pirates of the Caribbean about to be used?

Bruno Baron: In terms of technology, we never start from scratch. We’ve got all our tools that we’ve developed and improved upon year after year. And then we also have the amazing talent. It’s not just the tools, it’s also all the talent. Abu, the monkey in Aladdin, was a different type of monkey but it was also a Capuchin monkey. It was a darker skin tone, while Ampersand is fairer. But yes, all these experiences that we built on past shows, we obviously re-use technology where we can.

Michael Beaulieu: I was on Aladdin for several months, which means we could bring things we had learned on that project about animating the character there to Y: The Last Man.

Bruno Baron: Yeah, Mike was amazing. He had all the experience from Aladdin, so that helped a lot for all the references. He had all the knowledge for how Ampersand would be moving realistically.

b&a: How did you approach Ampersand’s eyes–they were something I really noticed felt real?

Bruno Baron: We have some eye shaders that work really well for humans. Thankfully, while Capuchin monkey eyes are different, they’re not that different. So, we were able to leverage the latest and greatest we have in there. The iris is extremely dark in those monkeys. Most of the time, they’re just black eyes, really. Some of the challenges we had first, when we rendered our first shots, was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. These are just looking like black eyes. Does it have enough life?’

We tried to add some extra things here and there, to fake it. It wasn’t really working. And Steve didn’t really have an appetite for that either. He was always like, ‘Okay, well, make it real. Make it real.’ If it’s not supposed to be there, there was no point in adding it.

So we went through a journey process of questioning what the eyes were looking like. It always comes back to the fact that sometimes we’re trying to make it a bit too much human. There’s always this drive for us, because this is the best reference we have, human eyes. And we’re always kind of like comparing any eye we do to a human eye, which is sometimes wrong. So we had to always go back to our references and realize actually, real monkey eyes are not behaving the same.

b&a: There is something amazing about the twitchiness of Ampersand, his random movements, that again just feels real. I feel like as an animator or animation sup, that must be a really exciting thing to add in because you have to very deliberately do it, but you also have to make it not look deliberate.

Michael Beaulieu: Yeah, for sure. I mean, personally, one of the things I really love about photo-real animation is finding those exact kinds of things, those little messy details that really make it look real. I think some animators have a tendency to try and make everything kind of look smooth and transition perfectly from poses. For certain types of shows and certain types of creatures, that works really well. For something that’s photo-real, sometimes that’s what lends itself to looking like it’s potentially a CG creation, because it’s just too perfect. Everything’s just too nuanced, too massaged. It just looks a little too perfect.

So with Amp, when we were looking through all the reference, we were really noticing, yeah, these monkeys are really twitchy because their natural state of behavior is that something is trying to eat them all the time. So they’re never quite calm. They’re never quite still. They’re always checking out their surroundings constantly. Even when they’re in a moment and they’re being calm, they’ll still shoot a look over their shoulder or scratch.

b&a: I wonder if there’s something you can say about the integration of Ampersand into the plates, just in terms of lighting and comp.

Bruno Baron: The lighting team did an outstanding job, just literally matching what we had on set. Again, we didn’t have to re-light many things. And that’s because that’s what Steve wanted. We were just literally trying to put him where he should be in the plate, as if he was there next to the actors. They had all this set data, HDRs, gray sphere and chrome sphere. Beyond that, there was not much creative lighting, I would say. We were just essentially trying to be extremely realistic in the lighting stage.

After that, our compositing team put in a lot of great touches to essentially add a monkey weighing 10 pounds to the scene. He’s not heavy, but every time he’s going to touch some fabric, sit on the couch, grab something or even walk on different types of surfaces, the surfaces have to react accordingly.

We also shot some of our own elements as well, specific to some shot needs, say for Ampersand sitting on Yorick’s shoulder. One of our comp leads shot his brother sitting on a sofa. He was just poking his brother to get the creases to react as if Ampersand would be doing the same thing with his fingers. Once we had that on a white shirt, we could just extract it and use it to augment the plate.

b&a: How did any sound design impact your animation? Did you ever get that opportunity to have any early sound design that helped animation? It’s not always possible, right?

Michael Beaulieu: Well, the client would give us their edits. And sometimes in their edits, they would put in little chirps or little monkey sounds. Sometimes we would go off those cues, but sometimes we would find that maybe this isn’t the right thing for the shot, for him to be chirping and making noise in there. And that became a bit of a conversation that we would have with Steve, where we would say, ‘We got into animating this shot, and there are some sounds in the edit, but what do you think about this shot, playing Amp just silent?’

There were definitely other shots where Amp was interacting with Ben or the other characters. And it helped to have those little chirps in there, because then we could animate his face. We could get his face doing a little bit more. We had also found in our research a lot of monkeys making vocalisations and some of the crazy stuff they do with their faces when they’re doing that. We never quite went that extreme with Ampersand, but it definitely allowed us to pull in some of that realism as well.

b&a: You’ve done an amazing job with the realism of Ampersand, congrats again.

Michael Beaulieu: We should mention one of our calls we had with Steve when we were presenting our work. He let us know that there was something that had been relayed to them, when they were on set in Toronto, that the SPCA in Canada has to be on set whenever a production has animals present, to sign off on their welfare and insure all the rules are being followed and the treatment of the animal is being handled correctly and all that kind of stuff.

But after previewing the episodes they actually said, ‘We can sign off on these animals’ — I think it was a horse — ‘but we can’t sign off on these other episodes because nobody was present when you were filming with the monkey.’

And we thought, well, there’s no better compliment for the work we’re doing when animal experts at the SPCA thought that there was a real monkey on set. And they were actually telling them that they weren’t going to get an approval from them for that. I thought, well, we’re doing our job then, I guess, because they bought it. They thought it was a real monkey.

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