VFX: <I>The Mummy</I>
Issue: July 1, 2017

VFX: The Mummy

In a move to reboot the Mummy film franchise, and also launch Universal’s Dark Universe monster series, Universal brought on director Alex Kurtzman and star Tom Cruise to take the helm of its 2017 film, The Mummy, released in theaters last month. 

In this iteration, the villain is the betrayed ancient princess, Ahmanet, who was wrongfully entombed under the desert for thousands of years. That is, until she’s accidentally unearthed by Nick Morton (Cruise), a soldier of fortune of sorts, who recovers timeless artifacts from ancient sites and sells them to the highest bidder. Finally freed, Ahmanet sets out on a course for vengeance, and wreaks havoc throughout the streets of London. It’s Morton’s job to stop her.

As would be expected from any modern day monster movie, there’s a good assortment of visual effects. Under the guidance of VFX supervisor Erik Nash, who worked closely with Kurtzman and DP Ben Seresin, were a number of leading VFX vendors, including Double Negative (Dneg), ILM and MPC, all contributing their talents to breathe life into the undead.

As the lead VFX house, MPC (moving-picture.com/film) completed slightly less than 1,000 VFX shots for the film, working across its London, Bangalore and Montréal locations, with Vancouver leading the efforts. 

“We were involved very early on with the design,” says MPC VFX supervisor Greg Butler, who says MPC did some “early tests for the undead. Before we even started shooting, we did a few test shots of performers doing interesting contortions, undead movements and we replaced their limbs and their heads to show that that’s how we would do the movie. It was those successful tests that lead to the approach we took in the film. We would have a performer play an undead character, and then we would remove body parts, whatever we needed, to make them look undead. That was part of the overall goal Alex had — to use visual effects only when absolutely necessary. We were always trying to find a practical approach first. Eric was a big believer in that as well.”

With a number of key scenes completed for the film, Butler points to what he calls a “zero gravity” sequence that relied first on a practical approach before moving into visual effects work. “There is a scene in the film where [one of the characters, Jenny Halsey] is in zero gravity — she is in a plane with Nick, he gives her the last parachute, pulls the rip cord and the parachute pulls her out of the plane. Originally, we were going to do a very complex, digital parachute opening shot, but Eric managed to put together a shoot with a stunt woman and a real parachute and got the camera angles on it, so we were able to do the real actress on the set being yanked out as a stunt. Then we comp’d a real parachute behind her from another element and then connected with digital [elements], so we used digital to make the shot possible, but the most important element of the chute opening ended up being practical. It was those kinds of things, where on another movie, we would just do it digital. Here, they really went to extra lengths to try and get us a plate element instead so that we could anchor the shot as much as possible.”

According to Butler, a great deal of MPC’s work on the film consisted of scenes involving Ahmanet. In her earliest stages, “she’s fully CG,” he says. “That work was done by ILM, based on our designs. It’s a brief sequence in the beginning when she can’t really walk upright and she’s pretty broken and barely human. Once we do a transition shot where, after feeding on a couple of people, she regenerates and becomes human enough that she’s played by Sofia [Boutella] for the rest of the movie. So, stage three is the bulk of her scenes in the movie and those were all done by MPC as digital augmentation. She had custom hair and makeup but we would always replace her shoulders, parts of her face, her eyes and lots of her hair. So, for example, practical makeup can add to an actor, but it isn’t something that you can easily take away. If you want to put a hole in somebody’s face, then you would need visual effects work to do it.” Later in the film, MPC completed “a lot of digital stunt work, set extensions and finally the remumification of Ahmanet back into what we call the ‘husk.’”

One of Butler’s favorite scenes is an underwater sequence involving Jenny, who gets pulled down by Ahmanet, and Nick chases after her, swimming through a mass of undead creatures. “This involved replacing the heads and limbs of all the undead, creating an underwater environment and making it murky and creepy in the underwater pool they shot in,” Butler explains. 

“It wasn’t necessarily our biggest scene, but the methodology and the creative result I was really happy with. We got some great Alexa 65 underwater footage (though most of the movie was shot on film, on Panavision Panaflex Millenium XL2 cameras with Panavision anamorphic lenses) — it was really well shot and then we created an underwater environment and scene while taking some great photography and just pushing it into a deeper, darker look. The trickiest part for us was, throughout the whole film, stepping back for just a minute. Alex, Eric and Wade Eastwood, the stunt coordinator, wanted to ground all of the undead. Visual effects would do things to their limbs and heads to show they were clearly not human and do impossibly skinny arms and things like that, but when it came to their torsos, it would come from the plate. They could be completely believable and real and as long as we matched our CG to the scene, it would connect to a real torso.

“One of the invisible things we did, is the painstaking painting out of all the air bubbles underwater of all the people who were supposed to be dead and couldn’t be breathing. So there’s a lot of heavy work that went into these underwater shots, but when you watch them, it just looks like a cold, dark underwater scene. When I first got to see the cut, before we had even done any visual effects, it really had the impact that Alex was looking for. Putting together the photography and the look we gave it and all the undead, underwater tracking, I thought it was a really nice sequence.”

The visual effects elements for the film were completed through the studio’s main VFX pipeline — Maya, Renderman, Nuke, Houdini, as well as some internal, proprietary, Maya-based effects that the studio still uses “where it makes sense.” 

“I think what is great about this movie is that it was a real mixed bag of visual effects — it’s not an animation-heavy movie, it’s not a effects-heavy movie. We have lots of projects where you know a certain department or a certain discipline is going to get hit hard. Our roto-animation and technical animation departments were hit hard because of the huge number of shots that involved tracking digital things onto real characters. That was the heaviest amount of work for us, but when it comes to other visual effects work, it really was just a great spread across our whole crew. Every department had a chance to do some cool stuff.”