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Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

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Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is the third installment of the successful 20th Century Fox franchise to hit theatres. The 19th December release date was timed perfectly for holiday cinema-goers and also ties in nicely with the Academy Awards announcement that the film is being considered for a VFX Oscar nomination.

6 CREATURES AND A CONTRAPTION


Chad Wiebe, Method’s VFX Supervisor (based in Vancouver), worked alongside Animation Director Erik de Boer and a 75 strong crew over eight months to produce a stunning set of effects work. Key sequences include the animation of hero characters that are brought to life with the magic of VFX. These include:  the Trafalgar Lions, four lion statues which to life and frolic like kittens; Xianglium a nine-headed snake creature which battles with characters Larry, Lancelot and Nicky; and Garuda, a quirky golden bird-man statue which tries to stop Larry from entering Xiangliu's lair.  Method also created The Contraption, a miniature mechanical vehicle used by a miniaturized Jed and Octavius to type on a life-sized keyboard.

SNAKE CHARMING


Chad notes “The snake-like ‘Xiangliu’ was a challenging creature to create due to the need to go from a static sculpture to a dynamic being with scales that expanded and contracted akin to a real world snake, despite the fact it is made of rigid substance. From an animation standpoint, as well as a visual standpoint, we wanted to ensure we created a creature that both stayed true to its statue-esque origin, but also fully reflected the real world attributes that make snakes amazing creatures to study and emulate.”

A physical model of the main snake coiled in a sleeping pose on set was scanned and used as the basis for our CG build and it was also used in shot which proved to be extremely useful lighting reference. In order to make sure the surface didn’t stretch or compress too much, a follicle system for the scales was developed which distributed the scales along the snake’s body and allowed them to shift around depending on the underlying mesh deformations. Method also needed to be able to curve and procedurally offset each scale to avoid a repetitive pattern, which was achieved in Houdini.

“Planning for this sequence was extremely well thought out, and we were provided post viz which was very close to what the director wanted from a blocking standpoint” says Chad. “Using this as reference, our animators were able to move full steam ahead and push out some amazing animation in a very short amount of time. From there our lighting team was able to get a very clear indication of where our creatures would be in the context of the environment. This was a big plus due to the challenges associated with trying to light 9 reflective, tubular shapes competing for screen space, as the movements of the heads could easily throw out the lighting of the others in frame.”

LION TAMING


The bronze lion statures (famous residents of London’s Trafalgar Square) presented the animation team with similar challenges to the Xiangliu. During the London shoot Chad photographed the statues in many different lighting and weather conditions for texture and modeling reference which proved immensely helpful. Their sculpted manes needed to deform and move in a way that looked like fur might despite being made from rigid metal. This was done by driving the mane mesh with a system of underlying strips that acted similar to a muscle system, but with a focus on having the strips slide over the top of one another while adding a slight amount of dynamic motion as well. Despite the technical sounding process, the director was very pleased with the kitten like movements and playful nature of the animation.

MINIATURE MECHANICALS


The Method team also created a CG miniature mechanical contraption built out of tape dispensers, pencils, erasers and string, all to the appropriate size for a four inch character to interact with.  On set, a rig was used against green screen which was then placed by super sized CG elements in post. The contraption was manually controlled by a series of pulley systems, all which had dynamically simulated strings.

Because of the challenges associated with shooting macro photography with traditional camera's,  a new technique called ‘focus stacking’ was used to control and match the 2 opposing elements, i.e. the real sized actors with the macro style plates. “This meant the compositors could actually make the backgrounds look as though they had been shot through tiny camera's the size of our miniature characters” notes Chad. “This also allowed us to preserve all the great detail you get from shooting real life objects instead of building giant size props, which can also create visual challenges.”


Keywords

  • Characters
  • Hard surface
  • Compositing
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