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April 09
2018

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Tomb Raider: Transforming the Waterfall Scene with Frame-by-Frame VFX

By IAN FAILES

Visual effects artists are regularly tasked with taking disparate pieces of live-action footage and transforming them into dynamic final shots. That’s exactly what Scanline VFX was called upon to do for a daring sequence in Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider, the latest film adaptation of the Lara Croft-starring video game.

In the sequence, Croft (Alicia Vikander) is being swept along a river towards a waterfall but manages to grab onto the wing of the last remnants of a rusting plane on the waterfall’s edge. Almost to safety on the plane, she ultimately falls through its aging hull towards the jungle below, but not before grabbing a parachute and crashing through a canopy of trees.

It was a scene that required several pieces of on-location and set-piece photography to be combined with Scanline-built digital environments, water simulations and other CG elements. Here’s how the visual effects studio crafted the shots.

Watch part of the sequence in this clip.

The action unfolds first in the rapids towards the waterfall. For this, Vikander was filmed in a waterpark at Lee Valley outside of London at a venue that had been built for the 2012 Olympic Games. Shots of the actress then on the plane wing and the plane fuselage were plates from South Africa filmed on a set-piece against bluescreen. Previs from The Third Floor drove the shoot, as did beats from one of the latest incarnations of the Lara Croft video game also involving a waterfall and a plane (which in fact inspired the sequence).

Further live action came from plates of real waterfalls. “Our location was a derivative of Karkloof Falls which is also in South Africa,” says Scanline Visual Effects Supervisor Nick Crew. “They went out and shot a bunch of different reference and scanned the waterfall and mountains there. It gave us a lot of pieces, and with the road map of the previs, we just got going from there.”

Lara Croft holds onto the plane wing after narrowly escaping death from the waterfall drop.

“The falling of the wing wasn’t quite what they wanted. Also, for the jump, [Alicia Vikander] was in a harness so they couldn’t quite get exactly the motion they wanted, so we ended up re-animating the wing falling and also re-animating Lara – the last half of that shot is really a CG take-over, of the legs specifically.”

―Nick Crew, Visual Effects Supervisor, Scanline

Scanline’s proprietary water-simulation tool set, Flowline, was relied upon for the river. Often the software is used for roiling waves – as it was in a separate ocean sequence in the film – but here the studio used Flowline to deliver something that had to appear like rapids. “You tend to use a lot more particles in order to do something like a river or a waterfall,” explains Scanline CG Supervisor Justin Mitchell. “It’s much deeper than when we’re doing an ocean, because in an ocean simulation we’re actually only simulating a foot or two of depth on top of the ocean. But in a river we have more depth.”

“We were taking what they shot in Lee Valley and then we created a solver that emulated the behavior,” adds Mitchell. “The underlying topography of our riverbed was based upon Lidar data that we had from the valley. And because the original plate was a white-water rafting course, it was very man-made in nature, so we augmented it with rocks and more organic structures for the water to interact with.”

The plane wing holds hope for only a short time. For this shot, a wing set-piece served as a background plate, with Scanline developing the entire environment, water and plane in CG.

“You tend to use a lot more particles in order to do something like a river or a waterfall. It’s much deeper than when we’re doing an ocean, because in an ocean simulation we’re actually only simulating a foot or two of depth on top of the ocean. But in a river we have more depth.”

―Justin Mitchell, CG Supervisor, Scanline

Croft escapes certain death – at first – by clinging onto the wing of the airplane. But it soon starts to crumble and she must make a running leap onto the fuselage. Vikander and stunt performers carried out a jump on the set-piece, but it was soon determined that the shot needed some further CG enhancement. “The falling of the wing wasn’t quite what they wanted,” says Crew. “Also, for the jump, she was in a harness so they couldn’t quite get exactly the motion they wanted, so we ended up re-animating the wing falling and also re-animating Lara – the last half of that shot is really a CG take-over, of the legs specifically. We tried to incorporate the plate for the upper half of her body as much as we could, but some of that is CG as well.”

One of Scanline’s big challenges was animating the falling wing in a naturalistic way. “The effects guys did a great job of having pieces of the wing fall and start tearing as it’s falling against the rock and away from the actual fuselage,” states Crew. “Getting that feeling of Lara as if she’s in this completely digital environment with the digital plane and waterfall in the river above and the footage was really quite tricky. It was very handy having the reference photography that they did shoot at Karkloof in doing that.”

Alicia Vikander is filmed against bluescreen for the parachute portion of the scene.

“The compositor on that shot [in the parachute scene] really went frame by frame and grafted detail into every frame to make it as believable as it was in the film.”

―Nick Crew, Visual Effects Supervisor, Scanline

But it’s not long until Croft realizes the whole plane fuselage is also set to give way, sending her crashing through it. Luckily, she grabs a parachute and sails down towards the jungle canopy before finishing with a dramatic roll onto the ground. Again, Vikander and a stunt performer were filmed performing the stunt against bluescreen, with Scanline orchestrating shots that made use of those plates, along with a digital double and a digital environment.

“We basically brought her through some of the effects trees that were fully simulated to her action and rolled her forward with multiple levels of simulation on top of her animation,” says Crew. “Then we ended up to some degree stealing some of the texturing from the stunt plate just to make it as photoreal as possible during some of the roll. And then the compositor on that shot really went frame by frame and grafted detail into every frame to make it as believable as it was in the film.”


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