April 6, 2018

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by Ian Failes, Spark CG Society
April 6, 2018

Lara Croft at Sea: Scanline’s Tomb Raider Adventures

Tomb Raider

Roar Uthaug’s recent Lara Croft video-game-to-film adaptation, Tomb Raider, features several daring action sequences. One of the most elaborate involves a violent storm, as Croft (Alicia Vikander) is sailing on the ship, the Endurance, into the ‘Devil’s Sea.’

Drawing on its long-standing expertise in water simulations, Scanline VFX, via its Vancouver and Los Angeles offices, took on the complex boat scene. Here’s how they pulled it off.

Vikander and Daniel Wu (playing Endurance captain Lu Ren) were filmed on a gimbal set-piece with wave tanks and fans helping to add in appropriate motion and water spray. The main beats had been established in previs by The Third Floor. Scanline would use this live action as a base. “Production got the material that they needed for the talent, and we more or less took over by tracking the cameras, and then reanimated the boat into the water on top of some of our wave simulations,” explains Scanline visual effects supervisor Nick Crew.

Scanline had to build a series of CG assets, too, including the Endurance and many deck-laden props, some reef rock (which the boat hits), and a few digital doubles. Those elements helped add a further sense of danger to the scene when things become very rocky, as Crew notes: “We ended up taking over a lot of the animation such as swinging the jibs a lot more violently and having barrels roll around, and basically all that stuff that really sells that the boat is out of control and really topsy-turvy.”

Tomb Raider

B-roll footage of the Endurance on the gimbal set.

One of the strengths of Scanline’s approach was the design of distinctive wave sets in its Flowline simulation toolset that matched particular story beats in the sequence. “After talking about how large the seas are,” says Scanline CG supervisor Justin Mitchell,” such as, is it a stormy ocean and what the level of visibility should be, we started working out the frequency of the waves, the scale of the waves, all of those things are the foundation upon which we built.”

“We have a mesh representation of the waves that's utilised in layout and animation,” adds Mitchell, “and that gives us the general buy-off on the timing and the framing, and the size of the waves. And then if that is all approved we start doing a FLIP simulation. We're not simulating the whole ocean, we'll simulate an area that might be 50 to 100 feet around the boat depending on the shot. Then we'll get the dynamics of that working correctly. Sometimes we'll introduce additional forces if we want the water to slam against the boat in certain moments or if the water is too violent, we might do something to calm it down. We add forces to emulate wind, and turbulence, and things of that nature.”

Tomb Raider

The final leap into the ocean.

In addition to all those different simulations, Scanline also runs spray and mist sims on top for extra levels of detail. “That gives us the splashes that shoot up into the air, mist that flows into the wind, or form structures that slush around on the surface,” says Mitchell.

A signature shot in the Endurance sequence sees Croft leap out from the boat to escape before it crashes. “They went and shot Alicia performing the stunt,” says Crew. “Just getting the framing and the layout of that shot was actually something that we went back and forth with the filmmakers on quite a bit. It's also this fun slow-mo version of our ocean, and so that was a slightly different challenge where we had a slower wave set that Justin and the team created.

“It also had the boat destruction, which was another whole aspect of our work that was fairly complicated and very intricately designed to try to get that successfully. So, you're seeing the boat going down on the left, you're seeing this rolling stormy ocean under her, and then slow motion rain and some nice lightning beats in the background.”


Ian Failes Ian Failes is a Sydney-based writer specializing in visual effects and animation. He also collects memorabilia from the film Speed. Follow him at @vfxblog.

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