Industrial Light & Magic lead animator Alex Poei’s Vancouver-based team takes on key Princess Ahmanet regeneration and rat-infested alley sequences in Universal’s newest Dark Universe horror reboot.
While director Alex Kurtzman’s horror classic reboot, The Mummy, wasn’t the box office hit Universal Pictures was banking on, the Tom Cruise action flick included some exemplary visual effects work, including two scenes worked on by ILM.
Industrial Light & Magic lead animator Alex Poei supervised the animation on two main sequences: the Mummy’s initial regeneration after escaping from its sarcophagus and a rat infested alleyway dream sequence. Poei’s responsibilities included managing the work of his five-person Vancouver-based team as well as handling a couple shots himself to keep his own animation skills sharp. Animation supervisor Glen McIntosh managed the team’s efforts from ILM’s San Francisco hub.
Initially, working from live-action plates, Poei’s team produced a postvis pass on the scenes, blocking out the animation with rough lowres assets, going through dozens of iterations to make the action creepier for director Alex Kurtzman. Poei explains, “Sofia [actress Sofia Boutella, who plays Princess Ahmanet, the Mummy] was in her mo-cap suit, and we basically tried to copy her movements. We worked to make her more interesting, more creepy. Even with our first basic CG model, we could break her, twist her and go much further than what she did on set. She was really flexible, but could only contort so much. We kept as much nuance and subtlety from her performance as possible.”
With the animation at only 50% finished, quick blocking passes were reviewed by the VFX supervisor, different producers and the director, who, according to Poei, “start chipping away at what they liked and didn’t like, providing various notes, which we used to make adjustments and new suggestions.” The process took almost two months. At that point, the team was given the OK to finalize the scenes and nail down the animation.
Poei notes that even given the initial OK, there was still a large amount of back and forth review that went into the next phase of the work. “Remember, as we’re working to finish the animation, modeling, texturing, comping and lighting are also at work. While we’re doing our inbetweening, the lighting or comping might not look quite right, so we’d have to change some movement. Overall, the general movement had been approved, but things still needed to be changed.”
As the scenes evolved, Kurtzman looked for more action, which meant rig modifications were needed. “The director wanted the Mummy to twist completely, with her chest facing one way and her pelvis facing 180 degrees the other way,” says Poei. “The rig wasn’t built for that, so after making sure the movement was doable, the rigging team modified the rig. Once we got the rig back, we began addressing the new request. Sometimes, the lighters would find something not working right with the animation, and if we couldn’t achieve what was needed, the riggers would modify the rig to help us make the needed changes. There is always quite a bit of back and forth between animation and rigging.”
As the Mummy’s transformation scene expanded from 100 to 400 frames, over the eight months it took ILM to complete the work, rig changes were continually needed. Notes Poei, “As the shot went from 100 to 400 frames, it began to look better and better. But as the sequence expanded, we realized the rig wasn’t built for what was needed in terms of the growing flesh, muscles and textures. Every week brought something new. We’d go back and forth, my team addressing something, then the texture artists, lighters, comps…we were constantly looking to make the scene look better, cooler, creepier, until the bitter end.”
Poei looked to some of his favorite horror films to help expand and refine the look of the animation. “I drew inspiration from horror movies I’ve watched in the past, especially Japanese horror films like The Grudge [Ju-On: The Grudge (2002)]. This one lady, the way she moves down the stairs, all shaky and contorted, that totally creeped me out when I was 15. I borrowed from that and other horror films,” he explains.
For the alleyway dream sequence crowd shot, Poei’s team had to deal with a lot of rat cycles and movement. “I felt bad for one of my animators,” he says. “She actually animated 70 hero rats in one shot, on top of the crowd scene. Crowd scenes usually take a long time, and this took longer because you’ve got rats and their fur, which take time to render. The turnovers for review are a lot slower because by the time you render something for the client to see, it’s a few days to a week before you can begin addressing notes.”
Poei describes how the dream sequence was particularly difficult, based on a number of factors. “There’s the sheer volume of work involved. The rats all moved slightly differently. Each rat was meticulously animated to make it look amazing. We worked long hours to make our deadlines, but always maintaining the quality. When you’re tired, that’s challenging, but certainly impressive when you pull it off.”
ILM’s Zeno software was used for the dream sequence crowd simulation, work done in a short amount of time by the creature department. According to Poei, “I don’t know the coding behind it, but they worked their magic. We had a lot of smart guys working on it. We experimented a bit, tried some new things. My animation team supported them as much as possible. They’d send us rats and if something wasn’t quite working, we’d help out.”
When it came to his work on the film, Poei was happy to jump onto the production. He concluded, “This was different than other projects I did at Rhythm & Hues and even at ILM. No chipmunks or bears. This was action oriented and fun. Very different for me.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.