Y: The Last Man is a new FX on Hulu drama based on the DC Comics series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. After a cataclysmic event decimates nearly every mammal with a Y chromosome, one man and his pet monkey survive. The series follows those who are left and their efforts to restore what was lost.
Produced by FX Productions, the show stars an ensemble cast that includes Diane Lane, a politician who now assumes the role of President, along with Ashley Romans, Ben Schnetzer, Olivia Thirlby, Amber Tamblyn, Marin Ireland, Diana Bang, Elliot Fletcher, Juliana Canfield and Missi Pyle.
Muse VFX (musevfx.com) in Hollywood is one of the studios contributing visual effects to the series. Others include Switch, FuseFX and ILM.
In Muse VFX’s case, the studio has collaborated with visual effects supervisor Stephen W. Pugh on a number of projects over the past 20 years, and once again partnered with him on this series.
“When he landed the job, he gave us a call and said, ‘Look, I’ve got this new gig and I want you guys to be a part of it,’” explains Muse VFX co-founder/creative director/VFX supervisor, John Gross.
The studio got to work on the show in earnest last August, after delays due to COVID. At press time, Episodes 7, 8 and 9 were all in post production, with as many as 18 artists touching the show at different times. In addition to clean up, matte paintings and set extensions, Muse VFX also handles creature work, shots involving explosions and other forms of destruction — all with an emphasis on photorealism.
Fred Pienkos, co-founder and VFX supervisor at Muse VFX, says the studio contributes between 35 and 45 shots for each episode.
"I think Y: The Last Man is sort of the ‘bridging of TV and film’, because they’re running it more like a TV pipeline, but they’re shooting it more like a film,” notes Pienkos. “For example, the whole show is shot anamorphic, which is a decision they made for the look of the show. But that requires a little more effort in the visual effects world to deal with those lenses. It’s sort of coming together, like TV and film are colliding. It’s been going on for a while, but this show really feels like that.”
Much of the show is shot in Canada, but made to look like different areas of the United States, including Washington, DC, Boston and Oklahoma.
“Everything’s based in reality,” says Gross. “The explosions — if there’s something exploding — it’s because somebody blew it up. Things fall and crash, and then (there’s) a lot of just making people look dead or making props look better. A lot of invisible effects, making things look dead and destitute.”
Muse VFX had a remote pipeline set up before the pandemic, but COVID really pushed the studio to take advantage of it.
“We were doing a little remote work before the pandemic,” says Gross, “but the pandemic really pushed us, and pushed Fred and the IT team, to make it happen, where it can just be like we’re in the office.”
"Pipeline wise, our studio is basically a private cloud, and all of the content is secured in a private network,” explains Pienkos. “People use VPN and cloud-access software to remote into (the studio) from their house. All of the work is being done in our private network, but from people around the country.”
Muse VFX relies heavily on SideFX’s Houdini for its effects work, along with Autodesk Maya for modeling, Pixologic’s ZBrush digital sculpting software and Foundry’s Mari digital paint tool.
“It’s sort of unique that we we’re doing much more of our work in Houdini than Maya these days,” notes Pienkos. “Modeling and character animation still exist in Maya for now.”
Blackmagic Design’s Fusion Studio serves as the backbone of Muse VFX’s 2D/compositing pipeline.
“We used it exclusively for all of our compositing work on Y: The Last Man, including prep, de-graining, rotoscoping, keying, tracking, particle effects and final composite,” says Pienkos. “We find it more reliable and reasonable than other compositing solutions.”
Pienkos points to a particular scene in which Fusion Studio proved useful. The studio was tasked with creating an explosion of a house using LIDAR scans and photo references that were taken on-set.
“No practical effects were shot on the day, and there was significant layering required to integrate the explosion of the house with the environment, as there were multiple layers of trees and bushes between the camera and the house,” Pienkos recalls. “We also needed to replace several practical trees with CG. For this sequence, camera tracking, rotoscoping, digital pyro, digital debris and digital foliage were all comp’ed together in Fusion Studio, including a simulation to blow out a nearby car’s windows as part of the explosion.”
Muse VFX’s pipeline also includes PFTrack from The Pixel Farm and SynthEyes from Andersson Technologies for tracking, and Maxon’s Redshift for rendering.
“In the pilot, there are definitely some signature shots that that I think we’re all very proud of,” adds Gross. “The way they look — they look absolutely real!”
Toronto’s Switch (www.switchent.com) worked on more than 100 shots for the series, creating matte paintings, set extensions, gun battles and green-screen composites. The VFX supervisor Stephen Pugh tasked the studio with creating matte paintings and set extensions for the series’ opening apocalyptic sequence, which appears in Episode 1.
The in-house creative team of VFX supervisors Jon Campfens and Beau Parsons worked with Pugh and senior CG artists David Alexander and Brandon Rogers, along with senior compositors Mike Suta and Amanda Hollingworth, to create the sequence with the rest of the Switch crew.
In one shot, abandoned cars clutter an LA highway, while debris from a plane crash covers a nearby hillside, all marking the sudden and violent halt to normalcy. Hundreds of 3D assets — including cars, trucks and the airliner — were created using Maya, with textures created in Mari, and modeling performed in ZBrush. Redshift was used for rendering.
Each asset was then referenced into the scene and hand placed to design the crash to create a natural and realistic look. Referencing the assets into the scene allowed the artists working on the vehicle models to continue to update them, as other artists continued laying out the crash.
Foundry’s NukeX was used to obtain a 3D camera track, along with a point cloud and guide geometry as a representation for the landscape of the shot. In Photoshop, multiple frames from the plate were used to create a matte painting for the highway without any cars. From there, the matte painting, along with other debris and smoke elements, were projected onto 3D cards in Nuke and placed where needed in the scene.
Elements and plates were ultimately combined in NukeX.
VFX supervisor Stephen Pugh called on ILM’s Vancouver studio to bring Ampersand to life. The work on the digital character supports Disney’s long-standing mandate that prohibits the filming with real primates.
“By the end of the season, the team — myself, associate VFX supervisor Jesse Kawzenuk, VFX coordinator Malorie Moriana, and VFX editor Avi Winkler — had crashed two helicopters, blown up a house full of domestic terrorists and a subway tunnel, destroyed the medical campus at Harvard University, burned down a Pricemax big-box warehouse, and killed off every mammal on the planet with a Y chromosome,” Pugh recalls. “We also provided set extensions for the Pentagon's Grand Hallway and Rotundas, as well as a CG Pentagon exterior location.”
‘Amp’, however, was the show’s biggest VFX challenge. The small monkey is Yorick Brown’s constant companion, traveling with him in a small crate most of the time, and occasionally riding on Yorick’s shoulder or exploring new settings on his own.
“His integration into the footage and his performances would need to be completely convincing or they would pull the viewer right out of the show,” explains Pugh. “I talked a lot with Eli and MJ (Eliza Clark, our showrunner/EP, and Mari-Jo Winkler-Ioffreda, our EP) about keeping his performance grounded and organic. We never wanted him to do anything flashy or intentionally cute — nothing ‘character-y’. That became my mantra, and the team at ILM embraced it.”
Actor Ben Schnetzer, who portrays Yorick, helped sell the visual effect through his interaction with the monkey.
“The first time we got them into the iconic ‘monkey on his shoulder’ pose from the graphic novels was a neat thing to see,” recalls Pugh.
According to ILM’s senior VFX producer, Karen Clarke, the studio contributed a total of 125 shots to the series, with Ampersand appearing in every shot, except one — an aerial POV, where the camera gains altitude to reveal a stylized ‘Y’ made out of the city streets. That shot appears in Episode 101.
“Our primary commercial tools included Maya, Mari, Katana, Renderman (and) Nuke,” notes Bruno Baron, ILM’s associate visual effects supervisor. “And then some proprietary magic created by ILM for the fur and other parts of the pipeline. But the main ingredient is the amazing artistry of the ILM peeps.
“One of the great things at ILM is the impressive skill set of the artists working here,” Baron continues. “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.”
Amp was challenging on three particular levels: his fur, eyes and tail.
“In all these cases, we could pick someone’s brain who’s literally an expert in their respective area,” says Baron.
ILM was able to get access to video reference of a real capuchin monkey that was the exact match for what the showrunners were after. This greatly facilitated all of the asset creation steps, with each department cable to match the reference footage.
Amp appears in a number of environments — outdoors, inside, in an abandoned taxi — but Baron says the shots where he climbs on Yorick were the most challenging.
“Ben did an amazing job on-set, because he had nothing to interact with on the day, yet his performance really meshed well with Ampersand,” Baron notes. “There was no placeholder on-set for our monkey, so Ben was always pretending to make eye contact with Ampersand and move as if a 10-pound monkey was climbing on him.”
The animation was careful with the positioning and timing of Ampersand, and how he might react to any small movements Ben might have made.
“That was the toughest part of the work, and the animation team crushed it,” says Baron. “They created some fantastic performances.”
While Amp is suggested to weigh only 10 pounds, Yorick’s garments had to deform and shift beneath him.
“We studied and shot references of real garments deforming, and being grabbed like a monkey would do,” notes Baron. “Our compositing team enjoyed the challenge, and surprised all of us with some very cool and clever integrations that really grounded Ampersand in the shots.”
“Most sequences were challenging in their own right, but certain shots across the episodes were quite long and had Ampersand front and center in-camera,” adds ILM animation supervisor Michael Beaulieu. “Those are the ‘nowhere to hide shots’ for VFX artists. In the animation, we had to be sure that everything Amp did was photoreal and based heavily on reference of real capuchin’s. For the closer shots, it meant a micro-level of detail in his eyes, brows, finger and toes. Even breathing was layered in. From a complexity standpoint, whenever Amp interacted with an actor or a part of the practical set, the challenge fell to lighting and compositing artists to manipulate what Amp was touching or sitting on, to sell his weight pushing into an object and deforming it. We’d animate the action first, to drive the interaction and get the timing down. The shots where Amp is climbing on Yorick were by far the most difficult for all departments at ILM and required a lot of ingredients to come together.”
For colorist Dave Hussey at Company 3 in Santa Monica, it was his past work with cinematographer Kira Kelly that led to his involvement on Y: The Last Man. The two worked together on The Red Line, and more recently on HBO’s Insecure. Kelly shot the pilot for Y: The Last Man and asked Hussey to be a part of it.
“Kira and I had a working relationship, so we created the LUT for the show, with some help from (DP) Catherine (Lutes), and we went from there.”
The pilot episode, Hussey explains, is a little different than what viewers will be exposed to as the show develops.
“In the pilot, you have life the way it was before things go bad,” he explains. “Everybody’s looking good. The people look the way you would expect them to look, with full makeup and hair and wardrobe. But then as things break down, once the virus comes along, and starts killing men — then things start to shut down. There [are] little lighting changes. The people aren’t wearing so much makeup or doing their hair because it’s chaos. So between Episode 1 and the rest of the series, you have kind of a change in the overall feel of the show.”
On the front end, Hussey met with Kelly and Lutes to discuss how they wanted the show to feel.
“We definitely wanted it to have a cinematic quality,” he recalls, “so we designed a film emulation LUT that kind of gave us the richness we were looking for in color. But also, we wanted it to be able to go fairly gritty as well, because once things start going bad, it has quite a dark, gritty look to it, so we wanted a LUT that could give us both.”
This involved some experimentation and collaboration with the color science experts at Company 3.
“We came up with something that would work for the beginning of the show, that needed the richness, but then could also be adapted to look gritty as well.”
The show was shot on Arri’s Alexa and the LUT was applied so the show’s editorial team would have a fair representation of what the series would ultimately look like.
“The LUT that I’m using to do the final color correction is basically the same LUT that they used as a shooting LUT in production,” Hussey explains. “When you look at the dailies, they’re very close to what we end up with in the actual final (deliverable). That was our goal. We didn’t we didn’t want the dailies to look one way and then have our final show look like something else. Also, because the show was very dark in general, for the DPs, we wanted to have a LUT that they could trust, that they knew where they were exposure wise and just felt comfortable with.”
In addition to Kelly and Lutes, Claudine Sauve also served as DP on the series.
“The LUT that we came up with, I think all three DPs were pretty happy with,” says Hussey. “They were able to tweak on-set with their DIT a little bit, depending on the situation.”
Y: The Last Man spans 10 one-hour episodes, and debuted on September 13th. When Post spoke with Hussey, he was working on Episode 7.
“How we work is, I do a pass of color myself, and then we’ll either send it to whoever the DP is that shot it and get color notes. Or, if they happened to be available for an afternoon, we’ll do a virtual (meeting) wherever they are. Once we’ve gone through the show again and done all the tweaks the DPs are happy with, then we screen it for the showrunner. They’ve been working very closely with the DP, so they don’t have a lot of color tweaks, really.”
The showrunner, instead, uses the color grade as an opportunity to call out story points.
“The showrunner has been really good about story points that I may have missed,” Hussey recalls. “Something like, ‘bring out this book’ or ‘bring out that phone’ — points that the showrunner would know more than I would.”
Hussey works on a Linux-based system running Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, a tool he’s been using since its infancy in the 1980s.
“I started working on DaVinci back in 1986, so I’m pretty much a Resolve guy,” he notes. “I’m much faster on Resolve than any other system. I think for colorists, they pick the system they enjoy.
“It’s hard to believe, really,” he says of DaVinci’s evolution. “I started my career in Toronto in the early ‘80s. When we first started using DaVinci, it was all analog. Things drifted and we were working off of film. Is a completely different world! We had no power windows, no noise reduction. We had very little to work with. There was basically just three joysticks.”
Today, he praises the system’s unlimited power windows as well as Blackmagic’s business plan that allows even casual users to download a free version of the application.
“Because Resolve is so popular and people can download the basic [features] of Resolve, people have a little more knowledge of what I can do. And they can speak my language a little bit easier because a lot of people have played with the software and know how to ask me for something.”
Hussey is often working with incomplete episodes, where visual effects shots are coming in later in the cycle as the deadline approaches. He can get through a general color pass in about 12 to 14 hours before showing it to the DP for feedback. An episode will ultimately take 30 hours of his time once feedback has been implemented.
“I may color a VFX shot and, a week later, I’ll get an update of that VFX shot,” he explains. “You may end up coloring the same shot several times because it’s constantly being updated and changed.”
All of his work on the show took place this past spring in his suite in Santa Monica.
"We’re in a very big facility, so it was easy to social distance,” he states.
Beyond Y: The Last Man, Hussey has a number of projects forthcoming, including
The Afterparty, from writer/director Christopher Miller. The upcoming Apple TV+ series retells the story of a high-school reunion through the eyes of a number of different characters.
“The color is completely different, depending on who the character is,” says Hussey excitedly. “And in the final episode, you have a mixture of all eight points of view — all mixed together.”