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Anatomy of a scene: fleeing the undead in ‘The Mummy’

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In one incredible action scene in Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis’ characters take control of an ambulance while being pursued by several undead and Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).

The high-octane chase sees Nick Morton (Cruise) and Jenny Halsey (Wallis) out-run their attackers, but then dramatically crash the ambulance, before being confronted by Ahmanet. Staging the sequence involved a mix of practical stunts, the last-minute addition of motion capture, computer generated undead, and a bunch of other effects work, as vfxblog finds out from production and MPC visual effects supervisor Erik Nash, and fellow MPC visual effects supervisor Greg Butler.

 

Interestingly, the scene was originally envisaged with actors playing the undead in costume (to be later augmented with CG character parts, as MPC did for some other undead sequences in the film). However, due to several factors, including space constraints in the ambulance cabin, the filmmakers decided to shoot the plates clean and rely on motion captured performances to add in completely digital undead.

“They went to shoot the scene,” recalls Butler, “and the first thing Tom did on the first rehearsal was say, ‘We’re not going to do this with the stunt guys.’ They had been rehearsing it with stuntmen playing the undead so that all of that physical interaction would be real and we would do what we did for most of the movie, which was replace their heads and hands and do various things to turn the stunt guys into undead people. But Tom decided on the spur of the moment that the whole thing was going to be done virtual and that he and Annabelle would just mime the attack, which really threw us for a loop because that wasn’t the plan. It meant we had to re-conceive how even the animation would be done because we weren’t planning on animation or mocap or anything.”

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“Thankfully,” notes Nash, “our stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood, who had choreographed all the action and knew it inside and out, was able to talk Tom and Annabelle through the beats and give them eye lines and guide them through it. ‘Where is the guy? What is he trying to do? Here’s where you should grab him. Here’s how hard you should hit him.’”

MPC matchmoved the scene and inserted proxy CG characters for Nick and Jenny, before the scene was turned over to Digital Domain for motion capture of the undead. “As we did the motion capture,” explains Nash, “we were able to see live composites of the motion that we were capturing in sync with the plate, which meant I could direct the motion capture performer to behave appropriately for what Tom and Annabelle were doing.”

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“By doing the undead with motion capture,” adds Nash, “we got a number of benefits. It was really fast, you do several takes in a matter of minutes, and then you pick one. You basically have your animation. All the context had to be cleaned up and there’s a big key frame component to it, but we able to in three days capture everything we needed for sequence and then that immediately gave us temps that the editors could use to refine the cut.”

The motion capture became a foundation for MPC’s animators to deliver the CG undead characters who try and stop Nick and Jenny while the ambulance is in motion. That culminates in the vehicle crashing down a slope and ejecting Tom Cruise, who rolls down the hill and is narrowly missed by the tumbling ambulance.

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“In the end, whatever Tom’s reasons might have been, it was a great call,” suggests Butler. “Although we had to scramble and come up with a motion capture shoot in the middle of the schedule, if we had had to use stuntmen to do it, then I think we would have always been struggling with this bulky performance working in a very enclosed space with lots of things blocking other things, with very difficult paint outs. As soon as we could go fully digital with the undead, it was a lot more animation work, but it solved so many other problems because they weren’t even problems anymore. We just got to insert digital characters and invent a lot of things in post, rather than having to figure it out in the intensity of a bluescreen shoot.”

Parts of that shot were handled in a spinning gimbal rig devised by special effects supervisor Dominic Tuohy. On location, Cruise also performed the resulting tumble in the forest. “Tom was pretty remarkable doing that,” recalls Nash. “I think we only did two or three takes and Tom has this incredible ability to find the camera, and so, as he’s rolling down the hill, I think what makes the shot so special is he bounces off the ground and he rolls over and his face is there on camera and you see, as clear as day, ‘Oh that’s Tom Cruise.’ It’s not a stunt performer.”

MPC added a digital ambulance and some ground interaction effects. “But it was Tom Cruise and he’s really doing it,” re-affirms Nash. “That’s one of the huge perks you get doing a Tom Cruise movie – he does all that stuff and you get huge value out of it.”

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