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Supporting Role: Paul Linden Talks ‘Tomb Raider’

Visual effects supervisor Paul Linden helps orchestrate a successful marriage between stunts, special effects and visual effects for the new Lara Croft film.

‘Tomb Raider’ ©2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Comedy is big part of the resume for visual effects supervisor Paul Linden who has worked on Zombieland, This Is the End, and The Interview. “Sometimes comedies are harder because things can be so subjective. There are certain people, like Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, I gravitate towards because of their take on things. When you work with different artists you have to adapt to their way of storytelling and get to the heart of what they want to build and say.”

Linden has branched out beyond the quick-witted one liners into the action genre with John Wick: Chapter 2 and Tomb Raider where there is a specificity to the physical actions of Keanu Reeves and Alicia Vikander. “They’re mastering that world on their terms and we come into it looking after those details. It’s a beautiful job to have. One thing that I liked about both movies was the want for the physical action to be what it was. It puts more of a challenge on the animators because of all of the nuance. The harder things always to build are any kind of aberrant or deviant action.”

Physical fitness and preparation for the role was not an issue for Vikander. “I’ve never worked with someone more physically fit,” Linden notes. “When somebody is so that on point it can be intimidating but also exciting to watch. We came into it wanting to dress everything around whatever she was doing and I know that was important to Roar Uthaug as well.”

Critical was having a successful marriage between stunts, special effects and visual effects. “If that becomes lopsided you feel it.” Practical gunfire was utilized four times in Tomb Raider out in the jungle rather than relying solely on CG augmentation for muzzle flashes and bullet hits. “We were fortunate in South Africa that we could pack the guns and have proper muzzle flashes. In certain cases, I like it because the actors can feel it. It resonates with the action because you can see micromovements with their hands and knuckles.”

A balance needed to be maintained with the gunfire for what felt proper to the moment and what was believable. “There were many situations where we always defer to [director] Roar Uthaug and editors in terms of what was wanted for any given moment but would also do test screenings,” says Linden. “You’re always finessing specifically with violence because it’s so bombastic that you have to let it breathe.” Plenty of experts in various fields were part of the production crew for Tomb Raider. “What I might lack in understanding for guns there are people who can teach you how it’s properly dealt with.”

Touchstone moments from the 2013 video game were the sinking of The Endurance and Lara Croft hanging onto a decrepit World War II bomber situated above a waterfall. “You’ll start with storyboards, get into animatics which were a big part of prep for Roar to get things to play out the way he wanted, and the next steps were looking at the challenges of dealing with the ship and the water,” Linden details. “We built a large ship on a gimbal in South Africa. I wanted something smaller so to be able pitch and yaw with more aggression but they wanted something bigger to be able to play out the scene as more of an oner as they run around the deck. Every single aspect of problem-solving comes into play when it comes to putting all of those pieces together. My primary concern going into anything like this is looking at what the performer can do. Once Alicia leaves the ship we were in the tanks at Leavesden so a lot of it was trying to deal with whatever water movement we could get out of that tank for her.”

The bigger issue was the river run. “We found an Olympic park outside of London called Lea Valley White Water Centre,” Linden recounts. “It was exactly what we needed in order to get her into white water which was safe for her as an actress and were able to build everything virtually around that.” Water simulations were massive for Tomb Raider. “I went to the top of a couple of waterfalls in South Africa to shoot our physical plates and had water canons constantly running.” Blue screen sets were utilized. “We couldn’t take Alicia to those locations. We were on the backlot in Cape Town for the wing and worked backwards. Gary Freeman, our production designer, gave me his specifics on the plane and how he wanted that to work.”

Before falling from the bomber, Lara Croft grabs and opens a parachute which causes her to go crashing through the jungle. “The majority of that was digital doubles because we couldn’t physically do that to someone,” Linden notes. “I would shoot all day with a stunt person if somebody was game to do that; however, time doesn’t afford that usually on a shoot. Anytime a wire shows up it’s always trouble in my world because it invites an artificiality that I’ll be fighting all the way through the movie. Wirework is the most unpleasant thing that an actor can go through. Everything has to be on point to solve it as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

Data wrangling was fundamental in producing visual effects that integrated with the live-action photography. “You embrace the problems as they show up,” Linden observes. “You have to know where everything is. You’re constantly surveying and doing HDRIs. You’re always getting light references and every single measurement so that you never have to worry about it on the other side. For me, the most important person on this film was my data wrangler. Once I know that we’re covered then I can work with the director to make sure that the actor is physically doing what feels appropriate. I advise as we go along.”

“With the puzzle room I spent a lot of time worrying about floor continuity,” Linden reveals. “I don’t want actors worrying about which tile is going where. It isn’t about that. You have to be conscious of what is and isn’t working. I try to be as peripheral to that process as I can be. With the puzzle room a lot of that was letting them rehearsed the scene with the director, figure out who goes where, if something isn’t right we’ll speak up, we ran sequences on the floor to see how Roar wanted it to fall, and we marked up tiles in order to talk and walk through it with everyone beforehand; that one was easier for us than some of these other sequences.”

Hong Kong and the uncharted Japanese island were actually shot in South Africa. “I’m constantly researching to help visualize something with the director and production designer so that I know how to lead our side of it,” Linden remarks. “Quite a few of the islands in the South Pacific near Japan are flat. I started to look at other places. I ran the helicopter unit so I was doing a lot of plating in South Africa for our landscape builds. It became clear as we got into post that the island had to be our landscape [in South Africa]. If you put different ecosystems into the one that you shot in it starts to look dodgy.”

“For me the biggest challenge was dealing with the physicality of the world around the actor,” Linden continues. “Everything has to be grounded and real. I had to make sure that things felt desperate and difficult. The adversarial aspect of the conditions had to meet the action. When Lara Croft is doing her tomb run that everything we’re building is married to her action in way that either doesn’t feel too convenient or ridiculous in it’s resolve. That is the hardest thing about finessing the animation and prepping all of the pieces. Once again it starts with the actor. Alicia leads. We chase.”

“The shots and sequences that I like are the ones that aren’t showy,” Linden notes. “It’s always these weird little miracles where I’m, ‘Wow. That worked.’ There are shots that you fall in love with usually because they’re accidents. There is a shot where the plane is tipping over that was some of the prettiest CG I’ve ever produced. I pretend that I did that. Scanline made that beautiful. It wasn’t just them but also Iloura and Rising Sun Pictures. It’s astonishing to be in the company of such phenomenal artists and be able to build something like this.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.