A VFX oral history of ‘The Mummy’s’ coolest action scene.
When ILM delivered its visual effects for Stephen Summer’s The Mummy back in 1999 (the film is just about to celebrate its 20th anniversary), the studio had made leaps and bounds in the areas of particle effects, CG crowds, digital make-up and translating motion capture to a living, breathing (well, sort of) CG character.
It all culminated in a rollicking adventure story, where VFX helped make many of the film’s crazy sequences possible. That included one particular highlight – the fun ‘one-shot’ show-down between the main character, Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), and the mummified soldier priests controlled by Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo).
To celebrate two decades since The Mummy was released, befores & afters breaks down the priests fight with key members of ILM’s team from that time; visual effects supervisor John Berton Jr., animation director Daniel Jeannette and visual effects art director Alex Laurant.
Daniel Jeannette (animation director): My first memory of the film was John Berton saying, ‘This is not your grandfather’s or grandmother’s Mummy film…’.
John Berton Jr. (visual effects supervisor): That sequence, of course, was one of my favorites. And how that sequence came about was that we originally wanted to do something that was evocative of Ray Harryhausen. And so, we looked at a lot of the stuff on Sinbad, and Jason and the Argonauts, and all those famous fight scenes, and we tried to figure out how we could so something like that, with a lot of art direction and sketches.
Alex Laurant (visual effects art director): In one incarnation, we sketched Brendan Fraser laid out in mortal peril from one soldier mummy approaching from above, wielding a huge tombstone, and meanwhile the just-dismembered hand of another soldier mummy crawls up next to him, blindly going for the sword that is conveniently lying there; Brendan resourcefully grabs the mummy-hand-holding-the-sword, and uses it to off the first attacker.
Daniel Jeannette: It was a spooky sequence, but it was also not trying to be as serious and again, the right balance between comedy and serious stuff, like the tone of an Indiana Jones movie basically.
Alex Laurant (visual effects art director): At one point, too, Stephen had been re-conceiving the scene, and found himself wanting ideas for humorous fight gags that could inspire his stunt choreographer, in the spirit of Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Being that we’d all previously sorted out that the soldier mummies were all filled with dusty undead sand, this gave us free range to mangle them this way and that without mercy nor worry about maintaining the PG-13 rating; so, we laid into this challenge with gusto. A few of those gags ended up making it into the final sequence, either fragments thereof or in one or two cases wholesale.
Shooting the scene
John Berton Jr.: We worked with Simon Crane, the famous action director, to work out what we called the kata, which is the action sequence. And we spent weeks working that out and then training stuntmen to perform it. And once the stuntmen all had it down and they could perform that, then we brought in Brendan and taught it to him. Brendan’s a brilliant physical actor, and he knows how to do these kinds of things. And we gave him as much help as we could to have him have a real weapon that he could wield so that he had the right motions in his arms. And we had stuntmen that grabbed hold of him when necessary to give him the right kind of balance for the sorts of things he was imitating that he was doing. So we gave him every opportunity to succeed, we hoped. And of course, Brendan, you can’t say enough good things about his dedication as a performer.
Daniel Jeannette: On the day, they basically shot it with the stand-ins in the plate, and then without the stand-ins, so that Brendan could do what he had to do. And in motion capture, all of it was done in post by ILM. We got stunt people to come in, and then one by one, or maybe two by two, or three by three, depending on the need for the actions and interactions with Brendan, people were captured basically going through the paces.
John Berton Jr.: It was all surrounding Brendan’s performance. So, we set it out to be a winner from the very beginning. It ended up with a couple of cuts in it, only because cinema demanded it, but it was a winner in its concept and it was a winner the way we shot it. And it reads as a winner when you see it in the movie. And I couldn’t be more happy with the way that that all turned out, because again, the amount of preparation, that was the thing. Nobody phoned it in. We spent a lot of time making sure we knew exactly what was gonna happen in the fight scene. A lot of people spent a lot of time rehearsing it, even though they would never, ever be on the frame. They spent a lot of time rehearsing it so that Brendan’s performance would be as good as it could possibly be. And then, Brendan spent a lot of time trying to learn it to make it exactly right. Then we followed art instructions and we did it exactly the way that we planned to do it.
Daniel Jeannette: Stephen would be, like, ‘Okay, so now that we have that, then this guy is gonna get his arm lobbed off, and this guy is going to be split into two, and this guy is gonna get his head chopped, but he’s gonna be juggling with it.’ And Brendan would use his sword as a baseball bat. So for ILM it was about how to take what animation could give and add this silliness to the action – that’s the signature of the sequence.
CG soldier mummies
John Berton Jr.: When we got into post, then we had every advantage to make it good. And we took advantage of that and we did some great compositing, again, with live action elements, synthetic particle sand elements, which we knew a bit how to do now. We could get the sand to fly off of Brendan’s sword by match-moving the sword. All kinds of great stuff went in to polish that shot off, because every day we worked on it we saw how good it was gonna be, and we just kept adding more stuff onto it to make sure that it was worthy of all the effort everybody had put into it.
Daniel Jeannette: I think three or four animators worked on that shot, because it was really long and took some time. We wanted to stay grounded by using the mocap, as we had for shots with Arnold as Imhotep, and make sure we got the realism that a pure key frame approach at the time would have been hard to sustain within the timeline. The layer of physical simulation of dust and particles falling every time somebody gets hacked really helped.
John Berton Jr.: The end of the story is that, five or six years later, I went to see a presentation by Ray Harryhausen about the work that was done on Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad. And he described the process that he used to make those famous scenes where Jason fights the skeleton, and it was exactly the same process that we had used. I was so proud of the fact that we had figured that out on our own in a certain way, and that it was exactly the methodologies that had been used to do the original.
Portions of this oral history previously appeared on vfxblog.com