MPC Effecting a Mummy
The Mummy is once again risen, in the latest Tom Cruise film, released next month for download. The film’s visual effects included scenes by MPC, ILM and Double Negative. The film was directed by Alex Kurtzman with Senior VFX Sup. Erik Nash supervising the visual effects of bringing Princess Ahmanet to life and nearly destroying the world.
The Mummy’s visual effects by MPC started from when the plane took off in Egypt. The MPC team had to do a huge range of visual effects, from replacing almost every shot of the Mummy’s eyes (as they have double pupils), to the dramatic plane crash that leads to the Mummy being re-animated.
The key sequence of the plane crash included plate photography filmed in the NASA ‘Vomit comet’. The scenes inside the cockpit, the raven attack, the weightless and crash were all produced by MPC. The plate photography encompassed a gimbel rig for the cockpit, a rotating 360 degree cargo hold set and some fully digital exterior shots of the C130 plane on fire going down.
In the final cut of the film there are not many shots from the Vomit comet, but they are critical to the narrative. The actual weightless shots pivot around our heroes trying to get the one parachute on. This is on the opposite side of the plane to the damaged hull, as clearly the real plane would not fly with an open door. This makes the audience completely believe they are weightless, because they are, which then helps sell the subsequent shots filmed in the rotating set, in much the same way that any wide establishing shot can sell closeups that might follow it. MPC’s work on the Vomit comet shots consisted of converting the shots to an anamorphic look (as it was shot on a spherical lensed Alexa 65), and adding some floating CG props that could not be safely filmed in the real weightless environment. MPC VFX Supervisor Greg Butler, comments, “the treatment of those handful of weightless shots was not that tough for us, but it was critical to having the audience buy the weightlessness so the rest of the sequence – where it was shot on a traditional set… could be believed, and you could use a more traditional set and effect approach.” MPC also did some work when looking down the interior of the Vomit comet set to make the plane look bigger as the Vomit comet is smaller than the C130 cargo plane.
The rotating set had a hole for the exterior damage to the plane, that was supported visually by having a huge light flooding in for sunlight. In the script, Jenny Halsey ( Annabelle Wallis ) exits the plane with her parachute deploying. MPC, knowing this, started building a full parachute asset as they assumed it would be a fully CG shot. But Erik Nash, the Production Supervisor, did a second unit shoot with a stunt woman to play Annabelle’s role. They could not get permission to have her jump out of a plane for real, but they could get permission for the stunt woman to jump out of a helicopter instead. “I don’t know why one was safer than the other,” comments Bulter,”but we did get usable footage out of it.” Both for a shot in the trailer and for a shot in the actual film, there was a cameraman trying to match the angle from the plane plate photography. From this MPC could isolate the actual parachute element of the shot and use this in a complex composite. The shot starts with the actual Annabelle being pulled out of the rotating set on a wire rig, which hands off to a CG body double, but with the real exterior parachute element, all composited into a CG world exterior environment.
MPC did many other sequences, including the glass turning to ‘sand storm’ in combination with Double Negative. As a rule of thumb, MPC did the interiors, and DNeg did the exteriors of London as Ahmanet turns glass into a sand storm weapon. Butler credits the actors as ‘selling’ many of these shots with just good acting. Running through the Natural History Museum for example, there were no practical elements – the actors just ‘mimed’ their reactions and all the glass elements were roto-ed and then replaced with CG elements in post.
ILM Making a Mummy
Alex Poei, Lead Animator at Industrial Light & Magic (Vancouver), headed the animation team at ILM tasked with bringing the Mummy to life, after the fateful plane crash. This was one of the two primary sequences that ILM undertook. The other sequence was the ‘dream sequence’ with the rats in the alleyway.
The Mummy or Ahmanet, played by Sofia Boutella, comes to life and forms up by expanding and reforming muscles. This posed various creative difficulties and required many iterations to get the right look and correct feel for the story.
ILM had to work out what a Mummy coming to life would look like. Going into the process, the last thing the team wanted to do was have it appear as if she was being blown up like a balloon being inflated with air. The original idea for the shots of her reforming was originally much shorter and only a few seconds long. “But then Alex Kurtzman (Director) decided he wanted something cooler and creepier, so from that point on, we rebuilt the entire environment. It used to be a live action plate shot, but we rebuilt it completely in CG, – background, – camera – everything.” What ILM built was based on where actress Sofia Boutella had been shot on location. “I actually animated that shot, so I used references like some large Japanese films that had creeped me out, I referenced The Grudge (2004)… where the woman is walking down the stairs – very jittery. That had creeped me out, so I worked from there,” explains Poei.
The process was very iterative and collaborative with the Director over a period of several months to get the final animation that is in the film. The problem was complex since the muscles that would normally drive a creature were being added as the creature moved. Poei started with the basic movement of the bones snapping in place and position of the arms and head as a basic template. ILM’s riggers then built an ‘inflation system’ that Poei could control within the model, to hand animate when and how muscle grew back. “I would pick points and decide where I wanted things to grow… it got to the point where it did start to look a bit like a water balloon filling up, and so we went back to the drawing board. We got one of our modellers, Chulev Marko to go back and sculpt the muscles forming based on where I had indicated I wanted that to happen.” On top of that, the creature sim team added more muscle simulation and flesh jiggle and as a final step of animation, the bandages were added on top of everything. In the terms of models, there was one rig and one asset for Ahmanet, but within that rig there were actually two versions of Ahmanet. Stage 1 was the skeleton and stage 2 had a more complete form and during the sequence Poei could blend between the two in the rig.
In the main finished shot, the team actually cut away some of the bandages so the audience could see more of what was happening with the muscles. While it works on camera and in the context of the film, she actually has more bandages on her at the end of the entire sequence than at the beginning. The texture artist then painted and animated the textures of her veins changing during the process. For Poei, it was a very rewarding and collaborative team process, “it took a lot of time, but I feel it was worth the effort”, he comments reflecting back on the work.
On set, Sofia Boutella wore a MoCap suit but this was only used as reference, since her motion was made more jittery and less human. The team had to also avoid going too far the other way, “we had to avoid her looking to Gollum-ese” comments Poei referring to Gollum from LOTR. “Because we have our own MoCap stage, we were able to shoot a lot of our own MoCap reference in a lot of different ways and then insert them into the scene and allow the director to flag aspects that he liked”. In reality, while the performance is true to Sofia Boutella – there is a lot of animation supervisor Glen McIntosh’s MoCap samples used in the sequence. “He loves jumping in the MoCap suit and he just went all out, he just became the Mummy – he became Sofia”, Poei remarks.
When Ahmanet exits at the end of the sequence, even as she is running away, the Mummy is fully CG. The actress had been scanned but at this point of reconstruction the Mummy is actually thinner than the actress, and the CG character had to step in CG water, so it was all easier done as one full CG render.
“It is always complex with crowd simulations”, explained Poei when discussing the Alley sequence and the vast amount of rats that were required to attack Tom Cruise’s character Nick Morton. “Crowd sims take a lot of computing power and a lot of time, The alleyway was quite difficult in terms of the amount of power we needed to bring to solve the problem”.
One unusual problem with the flow of the rats was avoiding them looking over animated. “Rats move in kind of weird ways, their tails don’t flow nicely, as they are fairly rigid, and with a hundred or two hundred in a sequence you want to make sure they all flow in a proper way”. Their movement therefore became difficult, not in terms of a single walk or run cycle, but in terms of where they were going and how the mass of rats evolved and swarmed.
The team started with a lot of reference and key framed a set of 3 or 4 walk, run and jogging cycles. “In addition to the giant library of rat animation, we also had specific hero hand animated rats” Poei points out. These libraries included running up walls, falling and collapsing back. All of the library rats were then brought into Zeno, ILM’s in-house application framework and animation pipeline.
The Mummy is being released to download in August.