Unwrapping the Mummy
Linda Romanello
September 7, 2017

Unwrapping the Mummy

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

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 seeks vengeance, wreaking havoc throughout the streets of London, while Morton tries to stop her.

The film contains an assortment of visual effects by Double Negative (Dneg), Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), and Moving Picture Company (MPC), which was the lead VFX house and created slightly less than 1,000 VFX shots. Erik Nash was the film’s VFX supervisor. 

According to MPC VFX Supervisor Greg Butler, the studio was involved very early on with the design of the undead, whereby a performer would play an undead character and then artists would remove body parts. “Alex’s overall goal was to use visual effects only when absolutely necessary,” he says. “We were always trying to find a practical approach first.”

A case in point is when one of the characters, Jenny Halsey, is in a plane with Nick; he gives her the last parachute and pulls the rip cord, and she is pulled out of the plane. “Originally, we were going to do a very complex, digital parachute opening shot, but Erik did a shoot with a stunt woman and a real parachute,” explains Butler. “Then we comp’d a real parachute behind her and connected with digital [elements]. We used digital to make the shot possible, but the most important element of the chute opening was practical.” 

According to Butler, a great deal of MPC’s work consisted of scenes involving Ahmanet. In her earliest stages, she’s fully CG – a brief sequence in the beginning by ILM based on MPC designs when she is pretty broken, barely human. In a transition shot, she regenerates, and then is played by Sofia Boutella for the rest of the movie, often with digital augmentation by MPC. “She had custom hair and makeup, but we would always replace her shoulders, parts of her face, her eyes, and lots of her hair,” he says. 

To simplify the facial tracking in the film, MPC created custom software that enables the artists to use the smart vector-tracking capability within Foundry’s Nuke as part of the studio’s facial-tracking system. Butler explains how it works. “On previous shows, an artist would have to sit and use a facial rig to track facial movements in a very painstaking way. On this show, we did what we call ‘Skull Track,’ whereby we track the movement of the skull itself, and most of the time we’re able to have Nuke do the heavy lifting of facial movements to be able to track digital applications,” he says. “We’re able to get Nuke to give us a 3D version of a face to go straight into the render pipeline. It was 2D-based tracking technology, but it was able to convert to 3D and become part of our pipeline. That saved us so much work.”

Butler notes this is the first show where the studio had really moved away from manual methods and avoided having to go into true facial motion capture. “We found a good hybrid solution that had enough tracking accuracy just working off the film plates themselves,” he says. (This solution was the subject of a SIGGRAPH 2017 Talk.)

Water Work

One of Butler’s favorite scenes is an underwater sequence during which Ahmanet pulls Jenny down, 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,” he explains. “It wasn’t necessarily our biggest scene, but I was really happy with the methodology and the creative result.”

To ground the undead, visual effects manipulated their limbs and heads to show they were clearly not human by making impossibly skinny arms and so forth, but their torsos came from plates. 

Alas, the undead do not breathe underwater, requiring digital artists to painstakingly painting out all the air bubbles of those characters. “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,” says Butler. 

Butler notes that when he first saw the cut, even before the visual effects, “it had the impact that Alex was looking for. Putting together the photography, the look we gave it, all the undead, and the underwater tracking, it was a really nice sequence.”

While The Mummy is not an effects-heavy film, “it is a real mixed bag of visual effects,” spread across the whole crew, says Butler. However, the roto-animation and technical animation departments were hit particularly hard due to the huge number of shots that involved tracking digital elements onto real characters. “Every department had a chance to do some cool stuff,” he adds.