Robot arms, wires and VFX helped Tom Holland’s character leap across those cargo crates in ‘Uncharted’

Behind the scenes of the mid-air C-17 fight scene with visual effects studio DNEG.

We’ve all been there. You’re in the back of a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, some baddies are shooting at you, you end up falling out the back of the plane, manage to–in mid-air–leap along some tied-together cargo crates back into the plane, but fall out again. Oh, and you also get hit right in the face by a red Mercedes 300SL coupe along the way.

Well, it’s all just a day of the life of Tom Holland’s Nathan Drake character in Ruben Fleischer’s Uncharted, based on the popular Naughty Dog video game. To make that C-17 sequence happen–which is a homage to a similar scene in the game–an extensive stunt sequence filmed on bluescreen with wire rigs, robot arms and stand-in set pieces lay the foundation for the final shots, which featured visual effects from DNEG.

DNEG visual effects supervisors Sebastian von Overheidt and Benoit de Longlee collaborated with production visual effects supervisor Chas Jarrett to deliver a CG plane, crates, the car, a vast environment and a range of digital doubles.

befores & afters goes step by step on the process with von Overheidt.

The KUKA arms on set.

Shooting the scene

Following extensive previs, the filmmakers orchestrated the shooting of live-action elements for the plane sequence in a backlot area at Studio Babelsberg. Second unit director Scott Rogers, who was also the film’s stunt coordinator, oversaw the shoot, which incorporated bluescreen backing, wire rigs, wind machines, full-sized crate props and stand-in bluescreen props.

“I think they were after getting the right behavior of those crates moving in non-predictable ways that would throw your body weight around as you’re trying to climb over them,” advises von Overheidt. “The stunt guys were really amazing at it. They jumped from those crates mounted on three robot arms, one each, and those crates were all moving around on a full gimbal.

Bluescreen plate.
Final shot.

Those robot arms von Overheidt mentions were KUKA arms, commonly used in car factories. They could be pre-programmed to perform certain moves while holding crates, and even actors. The DNEG visual effects supervisor praises the flexibility these arms offered, in tandem with the choreographed wire stunts.

“It looked so natural, the way they were doing it. And the performers had surprisingly little effect from the wires as well. There were scenes where the stunt guy who’s playing Nate was really holding onto the bags, pulling himself up there with almost no visible help from the wires at all. And then Tom Holland shot a lot of scenes as well where he’s dangling off one of the crates or holding onto something, and they’d throw him around with the robot arm. It just looked really good, right from the shoot.”

Wire rig and final shot.

This practical shoot was also mostly filmed ‘exterior’, meaning it had natural sunlight, for the most part. “It sets you up for a much more natural looking light to shadow ratio,” says von Overheidt. “Basically, you get soft shadows or hard shadows from sunlight that is very intricate to replicate on a soundstage or in a studio environment. You would normally need a ton of light, and it needs to be the perfect light, to really replicate that. But on the exterior, you get it for free. It comes with a trade-off of being time limited, obviously, and you get a certain amount of inconsistency each day as the shoot schedule progresses, but the end result is much better.”

Early VFX tasks

Before DNEG got down into the main construction of its visual effects for the sequence, the film’s editorial department pieced together the scene based on the previs, the live-action shoot, and further postvis carried out by RISE FX. Meanwhile, DNEG did begin on asset builds, such as what von Overheidt describes as the ‘daisy-chain’ of cargo crates based on LIDAR scans from the set.

A final shot from the sequence.

The crates consisted of both rigid objects but also looser cloth-like materials and the netting. This meant DNEG had to carry out cloth simulations for those moving parts, as well as develop an approach to have the tied together crates act in a snake-like movement. “We would simulate those nets bespoke from shot to shot, and then also have identified shots where we saw that a generic setup would work just fine,” says von Overheidt. “The tether connections between the crates were all fully rigged, down to the carabiners holding them.”

“We also worked on the environment in parallel,” notes von Overheidt. “For that they had shot a six camera array with RED cameras from an aerial shoot in Thailand. They flew around through the islands for the third act and also at different heights, as far as they could go, as high as they could go. They couldn’t quite reach the altitude of the C-17, but it was fine. We ended up using that material as a 360 degree stitch and worked on top of that, augmenting some of the island structures, making some of them a bit smaller.”

The KUKA arms again in action.

The C-17 was another asset DNEG needed to create. Interestingly, the visual effects studio happens to have worked on several cargoplane assets in recent times, such as for the film Infinite. But that did not mean the studio could simply re-purpose an existing asset for Uncharted. “Ruben actually wanted a custom one,” discusses von Overheidt, “which made sense because this was for Moncada’s fleet and he’s this super-billionaire. So Ruben wanted to have a C-17 that looked kind of modified. We had to build the asset so that it held up very close-up, including for the interior. There’s a lot of action that takes place cutting between plate and full CG shots of the interior.”

Then there was the gull-wing Mercedes 300SL coupe, which at first is positioned in the interior of the C-17, before it smashes into Drake and flings him outside again. “The big thing there,” reveals von Overheidt, “was that you saw the bottom of the car. We realized the shot that needed to be pulled off and we were like, ‘Oh’. You never really have to model the underside of cars to that high detail. But we actually found great reference of a true restored bottom of one of those, which we were able to use.”

Final shot by DNEG.

To shoot that car moment, a blue car ‘stuffy’ was actually employed to hit Drake. The scene was filmed with this stand-in piece and Tom Holland on wires. Ultimately, DNEG retained the actor’s face for much of the shot, but replaced his body with a fully rigged digital-double. “The performance gave us a good reference for how his body and the cloth and costume and his facial expression–how everything worked,” states von Overheidt. “Step by step, we basically took over. So at the beginning, he’s standing there, that’s him, at least his torso and head. And then when he gets hit, that motion blur moment is a transition into a fully digi asset.”

The art of digi-doubles

Certainly, achieving the range of action in this plane sequence, such as take-overs of the actors and stunt doubles, was always going to be necessary. That work began with 3D scanning the actors in photogrammetry rigs carried out by Clear Angle Studios.

The car ‘stuffy’.

“We would receive a package for each character from Clear Angle, which was a 3D scan of their model with reference textures, and polarized and un-polarized lighting references from that studio setting,” outlines von Overheidt. “Then you’ve got different tiers of characters for their use across the show. Nathan Drake, for example, was a full screen character. Although the digi-double did not need to deliver dialogue, we would still have intricate facial blend shapes and muscle structure and hair and eyebrows all matching Tom Holland. Then all the characters also needed bespoke, animation-driven cloths sims, too.”

How much the digi-double would be used was ‘performance-driven’, according to von Overheidt. “If Tom Holland is shooting a scene and that’s the scene that Ruben shot with him and he liked that and was invested in it, then obviously we will try to keep that plate by all means.”

Original plate.
Final shot.

“But throughout the shot, you also ask, what is the priority of the shot? Is it about being still on Tom Holland’s facial expression? Is that the story he wants to tell in that shot? Or is he switching to focusing on the camera move? If everything is going to shake around and be violent and you want to see Tom Holland holding onto crates, it might not be that important anymore to have his full performance. Or you actually want to make it look even harder for him to hold onto, or change the beat of it a little bit. That’s where the digital doubles can come in handy.”

The importance (and non-importance) of real-world physics

The cargo-crate scene has some show-stopper moments, particularly when Drake is able to somehow jump between crates mid-air all the way back onto the plane. These kind of impossible stunts fit the action scene well, with DNEG not having to worry too much about completely accurately representing what being dragged behind a plane at that height would really do to human beings. However, von Overheidt says VFX artists still needed to consider physics for certain aspects of the sequence.

“We needed to resort to physics to figure out things like, what does the parallax look like when you fly at this height? How do you get cameras to behave correctly when you move them around? What does the exhaust of a C-17 look like? What does the heat haze look like? How do shaders react? A ton of real-world physics still apply. It’s just for the action where you take a lot of creative license.”

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