VFX and SFX: Blending Fantasy and Reality
To create the most complex sequences in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, a seamless blend of visual and mechanical artistry would be required. With an amazing range of effects—from ancient creatures and avalanches to intricate battle sequences with massive numbers of digital characters in digital environments and practical effects—the filmmakers had an enormous task at hand.
Accomplished VFX producer Ginger Theisen headed the visual effects department. For the large number of VFX shots required, more than 800 at last count, Theisen brought on two digital houses: Digital Domain, headed by VFX supervisors MATT BUTLER and JOEL HYNEK, and Rhythm & Hues, headed by VFX producer DEREK SPEARS.
The SFX department was led by industry veteran SFX supervisor R. Bruce Steinheimer. In order to develop the large number of mechanical effects for the film, he oversaw four different SFX shops in Montreal and China. Says Steinheimer, “We had over 100 people working in effects on different continents at the same time in order to make sure all the effects would be ready for both the main and the action units.”
Steinheimer was tasked with creating mechanical effects that would blend into digital extensions of CG creatures. In the Shanghai chase sequence, for example, the chariot needed to interact with its surroundings as if it was being pulled by real horses. He explains, “We put a plow on the front of it so we could crash into things, because the Terracotta Emperor and the bronze horses are in the digital realm. As the part of the chariot, they are on separates and start to spin out of control, so we used a hydraulic spin rig that travels down a track to create that effect. It ejects the sarcophagus, which slides through the streets, causing mayhem and destruction.”
After the shots of the chariot crashing through buildings were completed, a plastic horse was attached to the front of the chariot to give reference for the performers when they filmed. “This gave our actors something to ride on,” explains VFX producer Spears. “We replaced the plastic horse with our CG bronze horse later.”
“All the horses were, originally, very heavy bronze statues built by the ancient Chinese,” explains animation director CRAIG TALMY. “When they buried their dead emperor, they adorned his burial place with regal statues of horses.” After Alex O’Connell accidentally lifts the curse, the horses “come alive.” “We had to make them look like real horses,” continues Talmy, “with their weight, structure and underlying bones and musculature. At the same time, they’re made of bronze, so they have to move in a way that suggests hollow metal about an inch thick.”