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July 20
2017

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

THE MUMMY: BEHIND THE SCENES OF THE ZERO-GRAVITY PLANE CRASH

By IAN FAILES

In just about every Tom Cruise film, the actor steps up the level of stunt action, and The Mummy is no exception. Caught in a spiraling C-130, Cruise and co-star Annabelle Wallis are featured  in a zero-gravity sequence as the plane disintegrates around them. Wallis exits by parachute while Cruise rides the plane all the way down to the ground and to his apparent death (spoiler alert: he comes back to life).

A glimpse at the plane-crash sequence.

Although a significant portion of the plane crash stunt was filmed for real – partly on the famed ‘vomit comet’ jet to provide the apparent weightlessness imagery – many shots were enhanced with visual effects and animation.

Production and MPC Visual Effects Supervisor Erik Nash and fellow MPC Visual Effects Supervisor Greg Butler reveal how the plane crash was planned, shot and executed, including with 60-plus takes on the vomit comet itself.

“The gimbal was a pretty spectacular piece of engineering itself. It was basically the entire cargo hold of a C-130 built to be able to rotate and roll 360 degrees continuously. I think they could do up to nine consecutive revolutions at up to five seconds per revolution… “

— Erik Nash, Production & Visual Effects Supervisor

SIMULATING ZERO-GRAVITY

   The vomit comet is actually a converted Airbus plane from NoveSpace, occasionally used to train astronauts. To provide weightlessness, the plane would climb to 25,000 feet then reduce thrust and fall back towards Earth. That gives a zero-gravity feeling to passengers for 22 seconds.

“I was there for every flight,” says Nash, who happens to be an experienced sky diver. “We did 45 parabolas over two days and it was pretty special. It was a real treat and very educational just in terms of the physics of it all. It’s really a unique sensation and thankfully, I didn’t get sick, but unfortunately, a good third of our crew weren’t able to say the same thing.”

Shooting in zero gravity, in this screenshot from the film’s official b-roll.

Special Effects Supervisor Dominic Tuohy fitted out the cabin of the Airbus so that it would look like the interior of the C-130 that is part of the film’s plot. Stunt Coordinator and 2nd Unit Director Wade Eastwood then directed the scenes. Although they go by quickly in the film, Nash says they were invaluable for selling the peril the characters are in.

“There’s one shot where the camera flies out the plane and follows a digital double leaving the plane and we had to make sure we believed that that camera could be held by a cameraman who happened to be leaving the plane, too.”

— Greg Butler, Visual Effects Supervisor

“There’s no denying it, they’re in zero-g. When you see Annabelle’s hair sticking up in all directions and the way they are tumbling – that’s really it. Even if you don’t know anything about wire work and what the limitations are of that, you look at that footage and you go, ‘Okay there’s no possible way that they are on wires’ – just because the way they are tumbling in three axes and moving through the space, banging off the walls. It’s undeniably real and I think the audience gets that without even having to think about it.”

The gimbal set-up, in this b-roll screenshot.

Still, not all the required shots could be obtained inside the vomit comet. So a matching spinning gimbal, decked out by Tuohy to also look like the C-130, was built. This enabled filming, in a more controlled manner, scenes of the actors tumbling as the plane spirals out of control.

“The gimbal was a pretty spectacular piece of engineering itself,” says Nash. “It was basically the entire cargo hold of a C-130 built to be able to rotate and roll 360 degrees continuously. I think they could do up to nine consecutive revolutions at up to five seconds per revolution, and the reason they couldn’t go continuously is that all the cabling to power the lights and everything else inside the set would get wound up.”

The two sets – the actual vomit comet interior and the gimbal set – matched so precisely that there could be clean intercuts between them. However, visual effects augmentation was required to insert computer-generated floating and flying debris during the descent. This also had the effect of linking shots filmed in the two different sets.

A shot from the crash sequence.

“We’d float a box through from a zero-gravity plate into a set-based plate,” outlines MPC’s Greg Butler, “and then cut to the outside and see that same thing leave the plane. So it was all the one thing. We could connect all the shots both through the usual grading approach and camera shake, say, but more importantly, throw in CG objects that could live across cuts.”

“There’s no denying it, they’re in zero-g. When you see Annabelle’s hair sticking up in all directions and the way they are tumbling – that’s really it. Even if you don’t know anything about wire work and what the limitations are of that, you look at that footage and you go, ‘Okay there’s no possible way that they are on wires’ – just because the way they are tumbling in three axes and moving through the space, banging off the walls. It’s undeniably real and I think the audience gets that without even having to think about it.”

— Erik Nash, Production & Visual Effects Supervisor

CRASHING A PLANE

The sequence ends tight on Cruise’s character right before the plane hits the ground, but prior to this we see the plane lurching around after an unexpected bird strike, engines blowing up, a hole ripping open in the fuselage, and Wallis’s character parachuting to safety.

Filming the parachute escape section (b-roll screenshot).

These stunts were filmed as practically as possible, with aerial plates filmed over England where the action was unfolding. MPC then modeled and animated a digital plane and delivered shots showing the hair-raising moments leading up to the end of the plane and, at least it seems, Cruise.

“When it came to the exteriors,” notes Butler, “we did have some good aerial footage to use as a basis. But it really all was re-projected, repainted and built back up in CG and compositing because no aerial footage would just drop in.”

For Nash, the biggest single challenge in selling those shots of the plane in peril, especially when the gash in the side of the aircraft now means the audience sees the outside, was re-creating believable lighting. He worked closely with Director of Photography Ben Seresin on the shots.

For Nash, the biggest single challenge in selling those shots of the plane in peril, especially when the gash in the side of the aircraft now means the audience sees the outside, was re-creating believable lighting. He worked closely with Director of Photography Ben Seresin on the shots.

A final shot from the scene, as Annabelle Wallis is about to be ejected safely.

“A lot of times when this thing is attempted, one of the mistakes that gets made is people try to balance interior and the exterior so that they are both properly exposed,” says Nash. “But Ben and I both agreed that is a recipe for failure because it’s completely non-realistic and it’s basically an impossible lighting situation. Instead, when you see the outside it would be overexposed, just like it would be in real life.”

“You have to keep that looking real, because before you even notice, you’re drifting away from a realistic thing because the computer will never tell you when you’re doing that. It’s up to you to catch yourself. Erik was very good at immediately thinking about a shot and thinking about that translation, ‘Could I have done this real? No, okay, what’s wrong with it? How do we get ourselves back on the rails?’”

— Greg Butler, Visual Effects Supervisor

Another aspect of the depiction of the plane’s dive that Nash and MPC pushed to keep ‘real’ was how it would be filmed. Even though the exterior shots of the plane were essentially synthetic, the visual effects team wanted them designed so that they would look as if they could have been captured by a real camera, say, attached to the plane itself or filmed air-to-air from another plane.

A featurette on the zero-gravity sequence.

“There’s one shot where the camera flies out the plane and follows a digital double leaving the plane and we had to make sure we believed that that camera could be held by a cameraman who happened to be leaving the plane, too,” says Butler.

“But you have to keep that looking real, because before you even notice, you’re drifting away from a realistic thing because the computer will never tell you when you’re doing that. It’s up to you to catch yourself. Erik was very good at immediately thinking about a shot and thinking about that translation, ‘Could I have done this real? No, okay, what’s wrong with it? How do we get ourselves back on the rails?’”



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