Night at the Museum: The Secret of the Tomb is the third in director Shawn Levy’s Museum franchise. In this newest film, Museum of Natural History night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) and his band of museum exhibits find that the Tablet of Ahkmenrah that brings the exhibits to life is losing its power. The characters look to an ancient power - at the British Museum - to find a solution. “What struck me when I read the script was the surprising variety of effects,” describes overall visual effects supervisor Erik Nash, who tackled miniature characters, a wealth of CG creatures, split screens and even an Escher painting for the film. In the end, Nash and visual effects producer Monette Dubin would oversee work by several vendors, led by MPC, Digital Domain, Method Studios, Cinesite, Zoic and Proof. fxguide looks at just some of the main sequences, starting with two of the technical approaches from Nash.

Gaining perspective

A final shot by Method Studios.
A final shot by Method Studios.

Two of the key and recurring characters in the Night at the Museum films are Octavius (Steve Coogan) and Owen Wilson (Jebediah) - mini-figures from museum dioramas. In the previous films, their scenes had largely been accomplished with a macro-photography look, but this time around Nash sought out a different approach. “The characters are three inches tall and so they treated them photographically as three inches tall and the background plates were shot with that limited macro style depth of field,” says Nash. “My approach this time was to treat it as though it was shot by a miniature camera crew. Rather than a 24mm film back, we treated the depth of field as if it was a 1mm film back, which is 1/24th which is their scale relationship. The end result of treating it that way is that they photograph as if they’re normal size but the world they’re in photographs as if it was 24 times bigger than it actually is.”

Watch Method's breakdown for the YouTube sequence.

To achieve that, Digital Domain’s on-set supervisor Swen Gillberg considered software that allowed for focus stacking. “This is where we rack through the full range of focus,” explains Nash, “and then in post take every 10th or fifth frame and the software takes the sharp pixels in each of these differently focused images and compiles them into a single image where every part of the frame is sharp. That gave us a totally infinitely depth of field background plate where we could control depth of field in compositing and apply the math to what the depth of field should be at this 24x overscaled world.”

“The end result was pretty remarkable and cool looking,” adds Nash, “particularly the sequence where they’re watching the YouTube video on the desk with the keyboard and monitor. There’s all your typical desktop stuff - lamps and cups and pencil. It’s all real, but photographically we’re presenting it in a way that you couldn’t photograph with normal cameras. It takes on this this sort of land of the giants oversized feel that is a new fresh take on these miniaturized worlds.”

Greenscreen plate for the comment contraption used by Octavius.
Greenscreen plate for the comment contraption used by Octavius.
Final shot. Method relied on focus stacking for backgrounds in the shots. “It allows you to shoot running photography with RED cameras,” says Method’s Chad Wiebe. “For background plates we shot a lock off where we’d rack focus from extreme foreground to extreme background. We would run it through software that would compile the sharp parts of that image. We get upwards of 100 to 500 fames and compile them into a single sharp image which gives you unlimited depth of field. You can use that in NUKE and project it onto geometry, where you can then re-introduce any amount of depth of field.
Final shot. Method relied on focus stacking for backgrounds in the shots. “It allows you to shoot running photography with RED cameras,” says Method’s visual effects supervisor Chad Wiebe. “For background plates we shot a lock off where we’d rack focus from extreme foreground to extreme background. We would run it through software that would compile the sharp parts of that image. We get upwards of 100 to 500 frames and compile them into a single sharp image which gives you unlimited depth of field. You can use that in NUKE and project it onto geometry, where you can then re-introduce any amount of depth of field.

Meet Laa

Watch behind the scenes of shooting Laa, including with director Levy as a stand-in.

Split screen work is not always the most ‘sexy’ kind in visual effects, but here it was used for seamless compositing of Larry Daley and Laa, a Neanderthal who resembles Larry (and also played by Ben Stiller in make-up). Several sequences made use of motion control to film A and B sides with Stiller, often with Levy playing the stand-in.

The scenes were complicated by the four hour make-up session required for Laa, so had to be shot on separate days. “More than once in a while when we were doing the second piece,” relates Nash, “Ben would come up with something for the second character to do that we hadn’t anticipated with the first character. Then more than that we had to go back a third time and redo the first character to get an appropriate reaction.”

During the split screen shots, multiple monitors would be placed around the set for reference from the A or B take. One of the most complicated scenes took place in a breakroom where Larry and Laa are locked up. “In cutting room,” says Nash, “the editor realized he needed to speed up or slow down one side or the other of the two performances, which throws the moco camera move out of sync. So now we’re trying to create this split screen where the two backgrounds don’t line up. DD was tasked with this sequence, and I can only imagine the amount of roto and extraction of character from background plate to put that character re-timed differently from other character back into the shot. But when the pain subsides there’s no clue anything was done at all!”

Opening in Egypt

Before and after scenery showing Zoic's dust effects.
Before and after scenery showing Zoic's dust effects.

The film opens in Egypt where a young boy stumbles into an ancient tomb housing the Tablet of Ahkmenrah. For outdoor shots of an archaeological dig, Zoic augmented plate photography with CG environments, including of footage captured from a drone. Visual effects supervisor Ralph Maiers also delivered significant dust and debris from an approaching sandstorm. “Most of the work was a mix of photography and two and a half D for some of the mid-ground, but the rock structures and pyramids themselves were all 3D,” says Maiers. “The dust had to match the practical on-set work, “so we created effects dynamics that matched the feel and depth of that really fine-grained sand in RealFlow, and rendered in Krakatoa.”

Trashing the planetarium

Final shot by MPC.
Final shot by MPC.

During a gala dinner, the weakening tablet causes the alive creatures to wreak havoc on the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History. MPC worked on star constellation characters, various animals and the Dexter silk routine.

For the constellation formations appearing above the dinner-goers, reference was made to nebulas from Hubble space telescope imagery. “We modeled five characters including Orion,” says MPC visual effects supervisor Seth Maury. “But we only took rigging and texturing so far, so that we could have a surface that was deforming so that we could then start to generate effects passes for. We would bring those into comp and finish it there. The surface was made up of different densities of stars.”

Greenscreen plate.
Greenscreen plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

Dexter’s routine was realized with a CG Capuchin created by the MPC team in what turned out to be an iterative effort to and fro with the film’s editor and the other filmmakers. “Chrystal is the name of the performing animal,” says Maury, “so they shot her doing various scenes including a go at an ‘Iron Cross’ routine. What Shawn wanted us to think was this was the hardest thing Dexter’s had to do in his whole life, and for the monkey it was hard to create that tension and strain and real struggle.”

“We took a ton of hi-res photos of Chrystal and video reference,” adds Maury, “always asking, ‘How do we keep the animalistic quality and not just a perfect dance routine?’ At some point I didn’t think it would look spectacular enough, and I had the idea to put in some heavy spotlights and filled up the room and the air to give this a theatrical kick.”

Welcome to the British Museum

Final shot by MPC.
Final shot by MPC.

In a sweeping view of the pieces held inside the British Museum, the characters walk through a massive atrium, encountering ceramic elephants, statutes and other artifacts.

Postvis by Proof.
Postvis by Proof.

Production had access to many of these both for photo reference and laser scanning. Sometimes small pieces of artwork were made much larger for dramatic effect. “Probably close to two dozen actual British Museum artifacts that were laser scanned or hi res photographed or both,” says Nash. “A high security operation in a locked down back room where our scanning vendor did the work. Those scans became the basis for the CG models.”

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

Based on initial previs and then postvis by Proof, MPC produced the effects. “In those shots,” says MPC’s Maury, “we had to give all the animals and creatures a personality - it was something like 20 characters. What kind of fun and interesting things could we do here? What characters would get along, what characters would ignore each other.”

Marble statues

Behind the scenes of the statues shoot.

Walking through the British Museum, the characters move past a horde of Greek marble statues. Since they are coming to life for the first time, and are often missing limbs, the statues' movements are awkward and unusual. Digital Domain crafted the shots.

“It was initially described as a little horrifying and creepy but also comical,” says DD’s Lou Pecora. “But then that was deemed too scary for kids, so we made it a little more comical, but still odd.”

The scene was filmed with stand-in actors in natural color tracking suits for reference - a large paint out and clean up job for the visual effects team. “Then we had practical reference for the statues,” states Pecora. “They’re in museum lighting which is not cinematic. A lot of rim lighting and directional light to give them more of a harsh look - we had to put in a lot of model detail - say where a piece had been snapped off. We couldn’t get away with displacement or texture.”

Tricksy the triceratops

MPC's Tricksy.
MPC's Tricksy.

Inside the British Museum, the characters encounter a triceratops skeleton. After initially believing they can lure him like a dog, the dinosaur pounces on them until Sir Lancelot comes to the rescue. Proof previs’d the triceratops sequences, with MPC handling the effects. On set, the actors interacted with a full-sized skeleton head and followed detailed stuntvis’d choreography, often with wire work.

Postvis by Proof.
Postvis by Proof.

“It was an interesting animation challenge because all ’Tricksy’ can do in terms of facial animation is open and close his lower jaw,” says Nash. “We had to give him personality and it has to change. The initial instance is you think he’s going to be behave like a puppy dog but he turns like a dinosaur would! He’s almost demonic and aggressive. All done with body language and posture. MPC did terrific job giving Tricksy a huge amount of personality.”

Tricksy in action.

“It’s a creature made out of rigid parts,” adds MPC’s vfx supe Seth Maury. “He can’t wink, he can’t smile - he can’t do any of those kind of things. So it was all about being expressive with his head and body motion. Part of the trick was that the head was so big that we had to pay attention to how we framed him in camera. If you look at him head on which you end up seeing this big head with lollipop legs coming out - that was difficult to get body performance coming out.”

Tricksy’s CG bones were devised from the on-set piece but also given specific weathering by MPC. “We tried to put it in places that helped define its form a little more,” says Maury, “whether in the spines along the top or elsewhere.”

Filming Tricksy scenes.

At one point, Sir Lancelot parkours onto Tricksy’s back and slides off. “There was one big wire work gag that I thought we could improve upon with a digi double,” outlines Nash. “Proof mocked up postvis action beat. Three or four shots that are purely digital Lancelot.”

Ventilation shaft

The ventilation shoot.

Jed and Octavius fall through a ventilation shaft - their journey was previs’d by Proof and completed by Method Studios.

“When we started the previs, everything, including the characters, was built in Maya to scale,” says Proof’s previsualization supervisor Eric Benedict. “We animated Jed and Octavius on their rough and tumble ride, and then found as many cool shots as we could. This was one sequence in which the techvis was really helpful. We could take the motion of the characters flying through the air, and the motion of the camera following them, and then calculate the relative movement between them. In this way, when the production crew got on set, they knew how far the camera had to move around stationary actors on wires. This way, the characters and camera could be moved together through a digital space for our postvis shots.”

Attack of the Xiangliu

Previs by Proof.
Previs by Proof.

In this Xiangliu sequence, the main characters are unsuccessfully warned by a small Garuda statue about the dangers that lie ahead and end up in battle with a giant nine headed snake demon statue. Proof delivered animation for the Garuda statue, as well as the Xiangliu. Method Studios then created the final shots.

Watch Method's breakdown of the scene.

Production built a life size sculpture of the coiled snake for reference on set, which Method used to start building its own CG serpents. The fight scenes were carefully staged, with actors performing against eyeline sticks or interacting with stand-ins. There was also a physical set-piece in colored cloth on set providing shadow and lighting interaction. Method then studied significant large snake video reference and delivered a CG creature that had a bronzed but oxidized look

Visiting Pompeii

Final shot by Digital Domain.
Final shot by Digital Domain.

Jed and Octavius stumble upon a diorama of the city of Pompeii as Mt Vesuvius erupts. They are rescued by Dexter, whose approach is initially more like a scene from a Godzilla flick. Final shots were carried out by Digital Domain, with Proof delivering previs.

Proof’s Eric Benedict discusses how they approached the previs footage: “We used a scale model of a section of Pompeii and Vesuvius to figure out the path our characters would be taking, and where they might get stuck for the big rescue at the end of the sequence. Dexter, the museum Capuchin, uses his bladder in a way fans of the series have come to be familiar, to eliminate the threat of the oncoming lava. It was as much puerile fun to animate as it was to watch. Dexter was lifesize, Jed and Octavius were approx. 1/24th life size, And the Pompeii model had to be a much larger than life size diorama to fit both these disparate creatures. The technical challenge was to minimize the amount of shots that these differently scaled characters interact in while still making the sequence believable.”

Previs by Proof.
Previs by Proof.

Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan were filmed in an entirely greenscreen set, with the help of the simulcam system. Digital Domain then placed them in a CG Pompeii environment. “It had to look like a miniature diorama,” says DD visual effects supervisor Lou Pecora. “So it had to be a photoreal version of something that doesn’t look real. If we made it look too real it would look like they’re just walking around Roman streets. So we’d make things look more deliberately out of plastic say, or the cobblestones - like vacuformed plastic model kits.”

Final shot by Digital Domain.
Final shot by Digital Domain.

For shots of Dexter appearing - in slow motion - Digital Domain made that into a monster-like scene. “He comes out of the smoke on the roof in slow motion,” says Pecora. “We had Phantom footage of Dexter walking in extreme slow motion. They don’t know what it is, they think it’s a big giant monster, but of course it’s Dexter with a helpful stream of urine. Dexter in real life walks around very stabilized at the waist so his entire upper body stays very stable, which is not what you want for a Godzilla-type look. So we manually animated that to get the right look and shaking the camera for the footsteps. And we obscured the silhouette and added volumetric lighting.”

In that sequence, too, Jed and Octavius fail to heed warning from a bust of Augustus behind glass. Digital Domain animated the face with new direct drive technology - something they plan to discuss in future projects.

Through Escher

A final shot by Digital Domain.
A final shot by Digital Domain.

The characters leap into an Escher lithograph - Relativity - and resemble the line drawing form of that world. They also must battle the three ‘gravity directions’ of the optical illusion-like imagery.

To aid in filming the complicated sequence, Nash elected to previs the environment with simple shaders and then use motion control and simulcam technology while shooting on greenscreen. “There were well over 100 setups we had to shoot in three days,” he says. “So even though the actors were on greenscreen we were rendering a live environment so Shawn and everyone could see the characters in the world. We used the Technodolly for moco and the encoders for the simulcam. So we could move the camera, have the encoded data from the Technodolly into Motion Builder, render that environment live and mix together while we were shooting. It was hugely successful given the complicated and abstract nature of that world.

Behind the scenes of the Escher shoot.

The sequence was filmed with a 90 degree shutter that provided low motion blur - an artifact added in post by Digital Domain. The studio also artfully rotoscoped the actors and devised imagery with the signature Escher line patterns. “We had to ask the question, did the pattern move with the actors or always stay in place?” recalls Digital Domain’s Lou Pecora. “Well, we had to track those patterns too otherwise it looked like they were moving through a static field, and would look wrong. So we had to track patterns with the body parts. It was a separate process outside of the comp. Also, the lines could only applied in one direction, so a lot of times we had to rotate an image on 10 or 15 or 90 degree iterations. We had four 90 degree rotations stepped along the way through 360 and run each one of those through and grab the lines for the face from this one, and the arm for this one, and then Frankenstein it altogether.”

Trafalgar Square lions

Final shot by Method Studios.
Final shot by Method Studios.

Sir Lancelot takes to the outside world, riding through Trafalgar Square and past some bronze lions now come to life. They set upon the heroes who end up using torches to distract the animals.

Method Studios created the lions, referencing on-set photography of the real things, LIDAR scans and hi-res photos. “It was a very large bronze statue and a real-world lion - what stage should we go after?” asked Method’s visual effects supervisor Chad Wiebe when contemplating the lion work. “How much skin sliding and muscle? We aimed more towards a rigid statue. It would deform and bend in a way, but we still tried to retain the bronze statue feel - there were no fat layers for example.”

Watch Method's breakdown.

The plates were filmed at night and after rain, so that characteristic was also added to the lions. “They have this semi-reflective surface,” says Wiebe. “It’s bronze but coated with a dark glaze on top of them, basically dark from where tourists had climbed on them. On the real sculptures you could actually see the real detail on it - carving and brush strokes. We took all that and put in night and lit environment and you have an active amount of traffic and lights to reflect in there which also added a lot of complexity and cool attributes like traffic lights changing. It’s subtle but without it you wouldn’t feel like they’ve been integrated properly.”

The tablet

Final shot by Cinesite.
Final shot by Cinesite.

In order to demonstrate that the powers of the Tablet of Ahkmenrah are diminishing, it was shown to be corroding. Proof previs’d the look for these tablet shots, with Cinesite completing the finals. “The clients supplied an initial static concept which we used as a start point for the look of the green corroded surface,” says Cinesite visual effects supervisor Zave Jackson. “We sourced additional images of interesting rust textures as well as other weathered and tarnished metals and built these into our corrosion texture in MARI. These textures where also used to drive displacement in Mudbox. The animating leading edge was look developed taking reference from time lapse photography of metals being corroded by acid and other corrosive substances, we used NUKE’s particle system and a more straight forward 2d noise generation tool that we built in NUKE.”

VFX by Cinesite.
VFX by Cinesite.

“The clients preferred the look of the animation and the random activity created by the 2d noise tool,” adds Jackson, “so we went with this approach and created an animating mask the could be used to reveal on the corrosion texture. This sounds simple enough, the tricky part to this was accurately texture mapping this with sufficient resolution onto the somewhat unusual geometry of the tablet with its multiple parts, rotating sections and 32 tile UV set. The look of the green glow to the edge was created in the comp.”

All images and clips © 2014 20th Century Fox.


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