London, Montreal, Vancouver and Bangalore facilities deliver more than 1,000 VFX shots for the first installment of Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ monster movie franchise.
The West has been fascinated by the mystery and folklore of ancient Egyptian mummies since Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition surveyed the Valley of the Kings in the late-1700s and started bringing back mummies to France. Universal Studios first introduced film audiences to the “curse of the mummy’s tomb” with its 1932 film The Mummy, which went on to spawn at least 14 major feature films over the years, and countless pop-culture references.
Universal’s new reboot of The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman and staring Tom Cruise, is meant as the first installment of what the company calls its Dark Universe – the shared universe of the rebooted versions of the original Universal Monsters -- hence, the introduction of Russel Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll. Other creatures in the Dark Universe include Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man and the Invisible Man.
“Universes” seem to be all the rage these days with the studios producing crossover films tying together storylines for franchises like the DC Universe, the Marvel Universe and even the Alien/Predator crossovers. And then, of course, there’s the ever-expanding Star Wars universe.
Of course, visual effects technology has kept pace with each new remake and reboot. For the latest The Mummy installment, the filmmakers tapped London-based visual effects house MPC as the lead facility, with roughly a year to deliver almost 1,000 shots.
According to Oscar-nominated MPC VFX supervisor Greg Butler, over 500 MPC artists worked on the film, in addition to artists at ILM, Double Negative and several other facilities. “We had crews in Vancouver and Montreal each working on shot production. We had the London office overseeing all of the asset building. And then our Bangalore facility was doing asset building, camera tracking, roto animation, rotoscope and paint prep.”
In Vancouver, visual effects producer Doug Oddy helped oversee the whole process from start to finish.
In the film, Queen Ahmanet (played by Sofia Boutella), the resurrected mummy unleashed on modern-day London, appears in four distinct stages. The first two stages were fully CG, but the later two (as she begins to look more human) were a combination of CG and the real actress, created by MPC.
“There's a brief appearance of her early in the film when she had to be fully CG'ed because she's so emaciated and broken with her hips reversed, that there's no way they could use a real person,” explains Butler. “But as soon as she generates into stage three, we did a transition shot where you see her in a broken form generate into stage three. It's at that stage the actress could provide basically the performance basis for most of the shots – over 200 shots of stage three digital augmentation. So, it was the actress’s performance. We basically replaced her shoulders, her hands, pieces of her face, her eyes, and we added digital hair as well, so an enhancement of her body, tracking in new pieces.”
There were also a few shots that called for a full digital stunt double.
Butler explained that Ahmanet was created using intensive roto animation. “The body and skull were animation, and then when it came to tracking her face, we avoided having to ever use facial-capture technology by using plate-based image tracking in Nuke, which we then converted into a 3D form,” Butler notes. “So, we were able to derive her facial movement off of the plate, and use that with occasional animation assistance. But since we almost never had to take over her actual facial performance in terms of dialogue or anything else, we were able to work with plates and not have to go into the motion-capture world with her.”
He described how the sheer volume of roto animation tracking was one of the biggest challenges, particularly in terms of the film’s tight schedule. “Plus, making sure that with any of the makeup augmentations we were doing, both for Ahmanet and lots of other undead characters – where we had a real actor and the foundation for their body – you could never tell where the real person ended and the CG started was a real challenge,” he adds.
Butler credits the technical animation team, led by Francesco Pinto, with handling a huge volume of roto animation work under a tight deadline.
MPC also created all of the other undead characters, including the character Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), who falls under the Ahmanet’s spell, and even the underwater undead minions. “Basically, there are two forms – there's the recently undead who then become Ahmanet’s servants, and then there are people that are long dead that she brings out of the earth or wherever they happen to be,” Butler notes. “Most of the time, those are played by stunt performers, but we're replacing their heads, hands, all their limbs while still keeping their torsos and their primary performance.”
One of the film’s key sequences is a scene where Ahmanet’s sarcophagus is being transported back to the U.S. on a military C-130 Hercules cargo plane, when it collides with a flock of ravens over England and crashes. As the plane goes into freefall, the actors experience zero gravity.
According to Butler, much of the scene was shot practically, using a real “vomit comet” aircraft, designed to climb to high altitudes and then simulate zero gravity for a few minutes in a steep descent, before climbing again. “There were two aspects to the interior,” he says. “There was the zero gravity, or vomit comet footage itself, which ended up being used for a handful of critical shots where the actors were truly weightless. What we did for those shots is, because they had to rebuild the cargo hold interior inside the vomit comet plane, which is different, smaller plane than a real C-130, we had to do extensions down at one end, obviously work with removals, but also add a bunch of fully CG props. It's not just the actors that are weightless, but the props look weightless as well. Given the risk of injury, they couldn't have a bunch of props floating around while shooting.”
“The other aspect of the weightless scene, a lot of it was shot on what they call a rotisserie set,” Butler adds. “It's a 360-degree rotating set that was accurate to the interior of a C-130 cargo hold, so the actors were able to run around in a circle and look like they're going upside down. They shot a lot more on that set because it was a major shooting situation and they could do a lot of the action that didn't require true weightlessness.”
For those scenes, MPC created an opening in the side of the plane, the CG exterior and more floating props.
Butler praised the on-set visual effects crew who went up on the plane for four shoots over the course of two days. “I've never seen people go to greater lengths to get us all of the lighting references we could need – whether it was underwater, on the 360-degree set, weightless, even when conditions were difficult to shoot. We managed to get all the reference you'd ever want for doing this kind of stuff.”
The Mummy was primarily shot on 35mm Kodak film. But the vomit comet footage was one of the few sequences that called for an ARRI Alexa 65. In the end, MPC also treated the Alexa footage to give it an anamorphic film look. Compositing supervisor Jan Dubberke was responsible for evening out the look of the digital parts and the film parts, so that they blended together seamlessly.
In addition, the company did extensive set extensions for scenes set in the London Underground subway tunnels, as well as a CG train, and the CG undead that appear.
VFX supervisor Asregadoo Arundi led the company’s Montreal team on the underground scenes as well as the forest fight scene where Nick and Jenny are driving an ambulance trying to escape and find themselves attacked by two undead characters.
“When Ahmanet gets her powers back, she controls a spider, which we did digitally,” Butler explains. “It attacks a technician and helps break her out of her prison. And one of the things she can do is turn glass to sand and then use that sand to create a sandstorm. So, we did the first part of that work indoors, and then, when it finishes outside in the streets of London, Double Negative took over and did the exterior work.”
Butler mentioned that MPC primarily relies on Autodesk Maya for 3D work, with The Foundry’s Nuke for 2D and Renderman for rendering. “We use Houdini for a lot of our effects, though we're still using a bunch of Maya-based proprietary tools for certain types of effects,” he notes.
Butler said that CG supervisor, Bryan Litson, was key to all of the 3D in the film and making sure all the departments always had their marching orders. He also credits environment supervisor, Sepp Sonntag, with creating environment extensions and CG buildings. “His department also handled a lot of concepts and design on the fly, redesigning or inventing props and coming up with the final Vail undead designs, so he had a small team. But, they handled a lot of varied stuff effectively.”
“I really I think it was great for us because it was a show that covered an even spread of disciplines,” Butler concludes. “I wouldn't call it an animation show or an effects show or a compositing show. It was a little bit of everything for almost 1,000 shots, so every department had their moment to shine.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.