'Mummy' breaks FX barriers

Special effects aim to add tension and emotional subtext

Hard to believe a dead man can learn new tricks. But given the fact that Universal's "Mummy" franchise is built on a foundation of computer-driven special effects that get better every day, that's just what audiences should expect from a sequel that opens today - two years almost to the day after the first.

"The Mummy Returns" doesn't disappoint. From the opening sequence in which the ancient city of Thebes is sacked in a mere 45 seconds (a scene which took four months to create), to the tiny details of Imhotep's love life, the film is jammed with the newest technical bells and whistles from Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).

The piece de resistance of the movie involves Imhotep, in his desiccated, computer-driven mummy form, gently lifting and caressing the hair of his ancient love, Anck-Su-Namun, played by a live actress.

"Two years ago, we could never have put his fingers in her hair," says director Stephen Sommers. But for the romance to be believable, "It has to be interactive," he says. The process of pushing the technical effects to new levels was interactive as well, he adds. As each new idea would come to the director, Sommers (who also penned the script) says he would call visual-effects supervisor John Berton.

"I'd call John twice a week and say something like, 'John, pygmy mummies!' and he'd say, 'Oh, cool!' " Then, says the director, he'd tell me that he couldn't do it now, but by the time the movie was ready, he would have it mastered. "Most of the special effects came in in the last two months," Sommers adds.

Believable interaction between the flesh-and-blood characters and computerized effects is always a big challenge for a special effects movie.

"The goal is to create a real moment between real life and simulated life," says ILM computer graphics whiz Berton, who also supervised the effects in "Men in Black." He says the simple gesture of Imhotep lifting his lover's hair is critical to the emotional center of the film.

"That's the moment. Now, you understand the relationship between both the characters for the rest of the movie."

The big crowd scene moments have their challenges as well. The 32,000 Anubis warriors who swarm and destroy Thebes are nine feet tall and must battle the mere mortals who, even on horseback, are considerably shorter. The trick was to get the real-life warriors striking the computerized dog warriors at the right height. To do this, 200 Moroccan Army regulars pounded across the desert on horseback, aiming their swords at a forest of nine foot antennas held up by a crew of what Berton describes as "terrified stunt men."

Despite very real physical dangers, all the performers rose to the occasion, Berton says. "It takes a real understanding across the board of what it takes to create special effects." He describes the film's star, Brendan Fraser, wrestling a mummy that didn't yet exist. "He's holding onto [the mummy's] arms as if they're there," Berton says in describing the first step in the filming, which involved putting Fraser in the scene. After that, Berton says, "we had to match the mummy to what Brendan did."

Acting aids occasionally just make the work harder, says Patricia Velaszquez, who plays Anck-Su-Namun. She describes kissing an apple, a stand-in for the character of Imhotep that would later be added digitally. "I finally [said], 'Listen, this is not working. Let me just think of somebody.' "

Actor John Hannah, who returns as Fraser's dissolute brother-in-law, jokingly says: "I've worked with some bad actors at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company], and they actually help prepare you to work with CGI [computer-generated imagery]."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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