Lensing in China
From the beginning, it was important to the production that period authenticity be maintained. Explains Ducsay, “Even though these movies are great fantasies that take creative liberties, there is honesty to them because we actually shoot them in the locations where they are supposed to take place.”
Fortunately, the move from Montreal to China was quite smooth. Cohen recollects: “Our executive producer Chris Brigham, Chinese producers CHIU WAH LEE and DORIS TSE KARWAI and the China production supervisors MITCH DAUTERIVE and ER DONG LIU actually performed a miracle. To move 200 westerners on a Friday to shoot on Tuesday seemed virtually impossible, but they did it.”
The decision to shoot this much of the movie in China was both a practical one and a creative one. Explains Brigham: “The location at Shanghai Studios, the setting for the incredible chase sequence, doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Once we made the decision to come here, we also needed to build sets as cover. The Tian Mo location was then added, by default, as we were already going to be here.”
Now in China, the cast and crew required to complete the epic scenes grew substantially. At one point, there were more than 2,000 people working on it. The group was comprised of 200 Americans and Quebecois, 1,700 from Mainland China and 100 from Hong Kong, as well as crew from Malaysia, Croatia, Slovenia and Taiwan. Though many languages were spoken on set, the director didn’t worry about what could get lost in translation. “I have always felt a brotherhood among international film people,” says Cohen. “Everyone’s problems seem to be the same: money, time, vision.
My C-camera operator in China, TONY CHEUNG, has been the cinematographer of many films. When he, Simon and I talk T-stops, filters and lens ratios, the words may be different, but the meaning is crystal clear.”
The Asian portion of the shoot began in the desert of Tian Mo. “We have made the move to China. Hundreds of our Chinese art department have labored for months to prepare the site for this day,” marveled Cohen on his production blog. “The dawn is breaking over the Great Wall, the original wall made of tamped earth that towers over the horizon. The sun is real; I had the wall built. The Dragon Emperor himself will mount a 50-foot-high colossus to wake his 5,000 Terracotta Warriors from 20 centuries underground and lead them in one final battle against the O’Connells and the mystical forces of his ancient enemy, Ming Guo, who has been raised by Zi Yuan. Armies will clash. Good vs. Evil. The Living vs. the Undead. In other words, it’s Monday on the set of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”
The Tian Mo locale hosted multiple scenes, including the stunning sword fight between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh and the film’s climactic, epic battle sequence between the armies of the undead. “To create the battlefield, it was necessary to design something graphically recognizable, so you would instantly know which side the Terracotta Army was coming from and which were the Foundation Warriors,” explains Phelps. “Basically, it was just a big empty space; we created the ruins to add interest.”
The Great Wall could not have been constructed without the instruction of Chinese art director MR. YI, both a historical and technical advisor to the production. This marked the sixth time the artist supervised a build of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Other scenes shot in Tian Mo were of General Yang’s camp, constructed in a Ming Dynasty village located in a complex of caves close to Tian Mo, and the interior of the black tent in which the Emperor meets with his generals.
While at Tian Mo, the crew was housed approximately an hour’s drive away in the city of Yanqing. The area roads were heavily congested with transportation trucks, so the production and transportation teams devised a support system of staff stationed along the way—directing vehicles along the best route for the particular time of day.
Save an occasional sandstorm, the production was fortunate with the weather. Toward the end of the shoot, however, temperatures dropped rapidly and the team retreated south to Shanghai. Shooting continued at the famous Shanghai Film Studios, which lie approximately an hour’s drive outside the city.
The studio has an enormous set devoted to the streets of Shanghai in the 1940s, filled with full-size churches, bars, clubs and restaurants, as well as houses and a trolley bus. These streets provided the backdrop for the chase sequence between the O’Connells and the Emperor Mummy set during the Chinese New Year. Between the main unit and action unit work, the night shoot took three weeks to complete. While the main unit filmed in inner Mongolia, action unit director Vic Armstrong and team shot the bulk of the SFX work, plus some of the stunts, before the main unit arrived.
The chase through the streets of Shanghai offered a complicated sequence that married physical action for the actors and stunt team with CG. Bronze horses pulled a chariot with the Terracotta Emperor at the reins (as Alex and Lin hung on underneath). Hundreds of extras in period costume ducked around art deco buildings as Rick, Evy and Jonathan maneuvered a truck loaded with fireworks to stop the Emperor.
Cohen recalls filming a section of the chase with no less than eight cameras: “Vic Armstrong blew up a trolley on the main street in the Shanghai Bund section. Rick and Jonathan took the mother of all rockets and aimed it right at the fleeing chariot. Jonathan lit the fuse with his Dunhill lighter; the rocket ripped down the boulevard, and the mummy deflected the rocket straight into the trolley. The trolley blew 10 feet straight up into the air, with a fireworks display that could be seen from outer space.
“R. Bruce Steinheimer had designed the event with an extensive team of American and Chinese fireworks experts,” Cohen continues. “The concussion was so intense that it broke every window in the street and the rocket’s red glare set the third story of the set on fire. It was glorious!”
Shanghai Studios also housed several other sets, including the Emperor’s Throne Room, a testament to craftsmanship. A team of Chinese cultural advisors aided Cohen in understanding the complex Qin Dynasty language, ceremonies and behaviors. He relates, “This film has been packed with new knowledge: art and intellect people would stand at the Emperor’s left, military at his right; musicians were not allowed swords; no one was allowed to turn their back to the Emperor. The film gods dwell in the details; even if it’s a world that you are not familiar with, it feels true.”
The final scenes of the shoot took place in Jonathan’s fantastic 1940s Egyptian-style nightclub (in a nod to the first two films, it was named Imhotep’s) on the Bund run. It was created to be a believable hot spot one might expect of Shanghai in the era—glamorous and larger than life.
While the main unit finished its work at Shanghai Studios, the action unit took a four-hour drive south of Shanghai to shoot a dramatic battle sequence at Hengdian World Studios. One of the largest studios in Asia, Hengdian offers complex environments that showcase different periods from Chinese dynasties. These include life-size replicas of Emperor Qin’s palace, Qing Ming Shang He Tu, the palaces of the Ming and Qing dynasties and the Grand Hall of Dazhi Temple—complete with a figure of Sakyamuni 28.8 meters high, the tallest indoor figure of Buddha in China.
The filmmakers were duly impressed by propmasters such as Chueng Kim Wai, who managed a crew that replicated the mystical world in which the Emperor lived. For example, it wasn’t unusual to find a master craftsman carving an intricately-detailed altar for the temple square on a massive block of polystyrene—with only a small, out-of-focus, black-and-white photo of the altar as reference material.
The production designer was stunned to find that many of the Hendigan props were actually real. Remembers Phelps: “The weapons for the 500 figures in the Terracotta Army were all made of bronze, and all the crossbows had working mechanisms. A lot of things get lost in translation, but no one expected bronze weapons, because it would be crazy in a budgetary sense. However, the way they do it here…it is actually cheaper to do it for real than to make it out of fiberglass. It adds another level of believability when the actors touch the swords and they are cold.”