About Graham Edwards

I'm senior staff writer at Cinefex magazine. I also write novels. In a former life, I produced animated films for theme park rides and science centres. If you offer me a cold beer, I won't say no.

Cinefex YouTube Channel

If you like the visual effects breakdown reels we’ve been featuring on this blog, you’re going to love the Cinefex YouTube channel. There you’ll find a whole heap of videos like this amazing reel from Method Studios, showcasing their recent work on Into The Storm:

As well as VFX breakdowns, you’ll also find exclusive Cinefex content, such as this special recording of the live Celebrating Cinefex 35th anniversary event that took place in Los Angeles earlier this year:

The Cinefex YouTube channel will continue to grow steadily as we add more videos to the collection. To keep up with all the latest additions, just log in and click the subscribe button.

The Hybrid World of “The Boxtrolls”

Eggs and the Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is the third feature to come out of Oregon-based animation studio LAIKA, both of whose previous productions Coraline and Paranorman were Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature Film. Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, and adapted from the book Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow, it tells the story of Eggs, a human boy raised by Boxtrolls — strange cavern-dwelling creatures who live in hiding beneath the cobbled streets of Cheesebridge. When Eggs meets Winnie, feisty daughter of Cheesebridge dignitary Lord Portley-Rind, the upper and lower worlds collide and the sinister truth behind the dastardly Archibald Snatcher’s mission to exterminate the Boxtrolls is revealed.

Like its predecessors, The Boxtrolls is at heart a stop-motion feature. However, thanks to developments in both methodology and filmmaking technique, it is described by LAIKA as a “hybrid” film integrating the traditions of stop-motion with the latest advances in visual effects.

Coraline was almost entirely shot in camera,” explained LAIKA visual effects co-supervisor Steve Emerson. “There is some CG in that film, but for the most part the director, Henry Selick, was after something entirely practical and in-camera. The big shift for us came with Paranorman. That’s when our producer and lead animator, Travis Knight, started talking about this vision of creating hybrid films.”

In the LAIKA lexicon, hybrid filmmaking means taking a stop-motion film and expanding it visually beyond the confines of the animation stage. “As a genre, stop-motion is typically confined to smaller environments and a limited number of characters,” said Emerson. “With hybrid, the idea is to use technology to open up these worlds, and do things that you wouldn’t typically do in stop-motion, like have large crowds, or big effects, or wide vistas.”

"The Boxtrolls" crowd scene

CG “extras” were used to swell the ranks of stop-motion characters in crowd scenes.

Detailed planning was key to the successful combination of stop-motion and CG, with decisions being made early in the preproduction process. “The department heads huddled up in a conference room and went through the film shot by shot,” Emerson recalled. “We figured out who would build what: what was going to be practical and what was going to be CG. Typically in those meetings, I would let them try and figure it out practically first. When they hit walls, that’s when the room would turn to me.”

While CG was frequently employed to realise shots that were not technically possible using practical techniques, it was also essential in covering resource gaps. “At the full height of production we have about 50 active stop-motion animation stages,” commented Emerson. “The weekly quota for each animator ranges from two to four seconds. But there are only so many puppets and so many sets to go around … and a lot of work that needs to get done. That’s where we step in.”

Watch a video breakdown of a composite shot from The Boxtrolls:

The in-house visual effects department benefited from close integration with the rest of the production. “I came out of live-action visual effects,” Emerson reflected, “and I was used to angry effects artists who got a whole bunch of footage that was shot months ago, with greenscreens that you couldn’t do anything with. The great thing about LAIKA is I get to sit in a theatre with the other department heads and be critical of things before they can even start launching. I can ask them to adjust lighting on greenscreens, or do multiple exposure passes. In can ask them to use invisible UV paint in order to get mattes off characters. It’s a big, big advantage, and it allows us to move through a lot of inventory with a relatively small team.”

“Because we have controlled sets and the sets are up for so long, we can go in there and get pretty much perfect stereo HDR data,” added CG look-dev lead Eric Wachtman. “We basically survey every set, so we can get all the information we need. That makes lighting on the CG set pretty painless.”

For the most part, the LAIKA visual effects team uses off-the-shelf software. “For shading and lighting, it’s all RenderMan,” said Wachtman. “We use Katana for our lighting pipeline, and Maya is our main modelling software. We use Nuke for compositing. We have some other special stuff, too, and we write a lot of our own tools and shaders.”

Despite the close parallels with live-action visual effects, the stop-motion aesthetic poses its own unique challenges. “On a traditional VFX film you’re matching reality,” Wachtman remarked. “On ours, we’re matching something that’s miniature, but not really supposed to look miniature. Cloth isn’t really cloth. Hair isn’t really hair.”

“If they’re creating hair from hemp, it’s not just about us creating photoreal hemp,” Emerson elaborated. “It’s also about figuring out exactly how that hair is being layered. Also, everything is intensely art-directed. For the skies in The Boxtrolls, they built practical sky rigs out on the set using cheesecloth, and so on our side it’s not just about painting and creating clouds, it’s about creating cheesecloth clouds. We’re doing photoreal visual effects, but they’re heavily stylised. They’re never just out of the box.”

Eggs and Winnie, the animated stars of "The Boxtrolls"

As well as looking identical to their practical counterparts, the CG characters of The Boxtrolls also had to perform in the same way. “We report to the animation director,” Emerson asserted, “the same as the animators on the stages. So we’re all showing it to the same guy to make sure that everything is uniform. When we do facial animation, we work with the head of the facial animation team.”

In order to give its stop-motion characters the widest possible range of emotions, LAIKA employed face replacement. Using a rapid prototyping system, thousands of face parts were printed for each character — more than 53,000 in total for The Boxtrolls, 15,000 of which belonged to Eggs. In combination, these gave the film’s hero over 1.4 million possible facial expressions.

Stop-motion face replacement brings a discernible granular texture to close-up shots. Matching this in CG proved challenging. “The texture of the face changes, but not every frame,” commented Wachtman. “Sometimes the animators will hold it for two or three frames before they switch to a new face, and you definitely feel that when you watch the film. We wanted to incorporate that granular feel into our CG puppets, so we wrote scripts to deal with it.”

"The Boxtrolls" composite shot

It was critical that the CG characters in “The Boxtrolls” be indistinguishable from their stop-motion counterparts.

The majority of the faces were made in two parts, so that every frame in which they appear required digitally fixing to conceal the joins — a task requiring considerable manpower. “We have a team of about 20 artists, and we’ll expand to a team of 60-70 when we’re fully ramped,” said Emerson. “About half those artists are doing purely cosmetic work on the plates. That includes seam removal on the puppets’ faces and also rig removal, because obviously the animators can’t defy gravity out there.”

Additional cosmetic fixes were needed to repair the environments. “The animators have to physically tie down those puppets, which means drilling into the sets and screwing down their feet. By the time they’re done animating a shot, you end up with a set that looks like somebody’s gone in with a Tommy gun and shot the place up!”

The time-consuming nature of stop-motion brought further need for digital repair work. “The shots take weeks and weeks to animate,” commented Emerson. “Over the course of those weeks, the temperature of the set is changing, so even though we’re doing motion control, the plates don’t always line up. The guys in our paint department are really the unsung heroes — if they’re doing their job well, nobody knows they’ve done anything.”

"The Boxtrolls" - ballroom sequence

The hybrid approach taken by LAIKA for The Boxtrolls is exemplified by the ballroom scene, in which Eggs accompanies Winnie to a grand society ball hosted by her father, Lord Portley-Rind. During the sequence, the camera sweeps past stop-motion puppets dancing in the same frame as their CG counterparts, all within the opulent ballroom surroundings.

To realise the sequence, the hero puppets were animated by hand in the miniature ballroom environment, in front of a motion-controlled camera. For each frame, a beauty pass was shot, after which a greenscreen was lowered into the set behind the puppets, the lighting was adjusted to create a strong silhouette and a second frame was shot as a matte pass. For some shots, additional frames were photographed at the same time to capture interactive lighting effects. The greenscreen was then removed and the lighting restored to its beauty configuration, allowing the animators to move the puppets ready for the next frame.

“The plates ended up being hero characters in hero lighting, with greenscreen frames chasing them through the environments,” said Emerson. “Then we went in and populated the rest of the frame with additional CG dancers.”

Eggs, Fish and Shoes leap across the Cheesebridge rooftops.A similar approach was used for broad action scenes, such as the chase sequence in which Archibald Snatcher drives frantically through the streets of Cheesebridge, while Eggs and his Boxtroll friends slide perilously across the town’s rooftops. “Where the characters are landing on roofs and kicking up tiles, all that is hand-animated and in-camera,” revealed Emerson. “The rest of those environments — the hundreds of other buildings, the landscapes, the skies and the fog — all of that is computer generated.”

Eggs slides down the Cheesebridge rooftopsAtmospheric effects contribute significantly to the film’s Victorian ambience, and were largely provided by the visual effects department. “Fog is a tough thing to get in camera, so it makes the most sense for us to deal with it,” Emerson commented. “We had a long look-dev cycle working hand in hand with the art department and the rigging and camera teams, looking at how they would approach it in camera. It’s about creating a fog that represents this very distinct artistic language. We use a CG fog system, but there’s a lot of animated cheesecloth blended in there too!”

Watch a video breakdown of the rooftop chase from The Boxtrolls:

One way or another, the LAIKA visual effects department touched every frame of The Boxtrolls — some 1,200 shots — ranging from simple dead pixel clean-up through to elaborate character and environment work. Reflecting on his department’s contribution, Emerson said, “I feel that most people look at LAIKA’s films as animation; and when they think animation, they don’t always think live-action visual effects. That’s one thing I want to put out there for the visual effects community: that the people working on these shots are all people with live action visual effects backgrounds who are working in a live-action photoreal effect environment. And it’s very, very difficult stuff to do!”

Read our in-depth article on the making of Coraline in Cinefex 117, available as a back-issue from our online store. Also available for the iPad as part of the Cinefex Classic Collection.

Photographs and video copyright © LAIKA, Inc. and Focus Features, LLC. Special thanks to Fumi Kitahara.

VFX and the Rise of Animated Features

Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Animated features are on the up. What’s more, the bonds between animation and visual effects are growing ever stronger.

Today, the British Film Institute announced a new partnership with Aardman Animations, the UK studio that created Wallace and Gromit and The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Under the scheme, three filmmakers or filmmaking teams will be funded for up to two years to encourage development of new animated projects, with dedicated support from the The BFI Aardman Animation Development Lab.

Ben Roberts, BFI Film Fund director, said:

“The beauty of animated features lies in their ability to combine great artistry with commercial ambition. This all comes at a cost, and so the development opportunities are limited. Tapping into that Aardman brain to work in depth on a small number of carefully chosen projects from promising filmmakers, is a great opportunity for us to move some exciting and commercially appealing work closer to a reality.”

According to Peter Lord, co-founder of Aardman Animations:

“Feature animation is the ideal medium for filmmakers. It allows us to reach the widest possible cinema audience, in terms of age and demographic, without compromising our standards or patronising our viewers. It offers magnificent scope for the fundamental film skills of cinematography, design, editing and performance. And as filmmakers we can win over audiences not only through humour, but also through deep emotion and visceral excitement.”

The news comes hot on the heels of Cinesite’s recent announcement of its move into animated features. Comic Animations is the new animation arm of the visual effects facility, which has branches in London and Montreal. Cinesite’s first animated short Beans picked up a gold award at the AEAF animation awards, and was awarded the opening slot in the 2014 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theatre.

The first feature to come out of the Cinesite/Comic Animations stable will be the comedy fairy tale Charming, directed by Ross Venokur and produced in association with 3QU Media, a new CG-animated feature film production company headed by John H. Williams (producer of Shrek and CEO of Vanguard Films and Animation) and Henry F. Skelsey (Managing Partner of Fulton Capital Management LLC).

"Charming" one-sheetCinesite Managing Director Antony Hunt commented:

“The deal with 3QU Media is the perfect fit for our overall animation strategy. They are wonderful partners and their slate of films are ideal projects for us.  Feature animation is a natural extension of our talent and infrastructure.  This deal is an important step in Cinesite’s overall strategy to create world class animated feature films and to develop our own creative intellectual property via Comic Animations, which we established to develop a slate of original animated films.”

John Williams added:

“We are thrilled to be part of Cinesite’s major commitment to getting into the animation feature space. We believe Charming can be a big commercial success and we hope this will be the beginning of a long time feature animation association between 3QU and Cinesite’s super talented artists, technicians, and production team.”

Nor is Cinesite the only visual effects company to flex its animation muscles. In April this year, Double Negative and Elizabeth Murdoch launched Locksmith Animation, the UK’s first dedicated high-end CG feature animation studio. At the same time, Dneg’s Feature Animation Division was opened, led by ex-Dreamworks Associate Producer, Tom Jacomb.

Matt Holben, Double Negative co-founder and CEO, said:

“Animated feature films are an exciting next step in the development of Double Negative. We recognise that whilst there are synergies with VFX it requires a different approach. We are thrilled that Tom Jacomb has joined us to develop our new division. We are excited by the long-term potential of feature animation and are determined to build a sustainable pipeline of work.”

The Boxtrolls

As far back as 2011, Industrial Light & Magic  were applying their VFX skills to animated features, with the critically acclaimed Rango. Last year, Disney proved itself on top form with the popular Frozen. And LAIKA’s current release The Boxtrolls – a hybrid animated film driven by stop motion and heavily augmented by CG and visual effects – is riding high at the box office.

Has there ever been a better time for animated features?

Watch out for the new Cinefex blog article on The Boxtrolls – out next Tuesday.

One Year Bloggin’

First Anniversary of the Cinefex Blog

Yes, it’s true! Today we’re celebrating the 1st birthday of the Cinefex Blog!

After one year bloggin’, we’ve served up no less than 90 articles – that’s around 100,000 words devoted exclusively to the past, present and future of visual effects. If you were with us at the beginning, thanks for sticking around.

If you’re new here, it’s time for a little orientation.

Cinefex is a quarterly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it’s been the bible for VFX professionals and enthusiasts. This blog – together with our Facebook page and Twitter feed – is its online arm.

Think of it like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If Cinefex magazine is the big, sparkly mothership cruising benevolently through the night sky, this blog is one those feisty little UFOs that gets its kicks out of buzzing onlookers. Yet both are on the same mission: to inform and inspire you about the constantly evolving and frequently amazing world of visual effects.

Looking back to the blog’s opening week in October 2013, I see that Cinefex publisher Don Shay and I made you a few promises. I guess it’s time to find out if we made good on them.

In my first blog post – Warning! May Contain Monsters – I had this to say:

Warning - May Contain MonstersMy plan is simply to ramble on (as only a good geek can ramble) about whatever’s caught my fancy in the VFX universe. It’s a big universe, one that not only boasts a rich, romantic past, but also holds the promise of some quite astounding miracles still to come. As for what’s happening here in the present, well, that can get pretty exciting, too.

It’s a fair bet some of the articles will feature robots. Others will undoubtedly contain monsters. From time to time, I may even throw in a little subsurface scattering. If you get tired of all that, we’ll take a flight over a dizzying cityscape or two.

Very occasionally, something might explode.

Well, I daresay I’ve done my share of rambling after the last twelve months. As for that “past, present and future” thing, here are three articles that check those particular boxes:

King Kong - Life After Pi - VFX Nation

Now, what else was on my list? Robots? Monsters? Dizzying cityscapes? Try these on for size:

The Machine - The Strain - The Giver

That just leaves the explosions. I’m sorry to say I’ve let you down in the pyrotechnics department. Leave it with me, though. I’m working on it.

Beyond this promised content, my Cinefex colleagues and I have also brought you articles covering a vast range of VFX-related topics, from news reports and interviews, to VFX Q&As looking at the visual effects of the very latest releases, opinion pieces, and our popular “panel of experts” posts, in which industry leaders wade in on a variety of subjects close to their hearts. Sometimes, we’ve just kicked back, poured ourselves a fresh pot of coffee and had some fun.

All 90 articles are safely tucked away in the blog archive, ready for you to discover. To browse back through individual months, just use the links on the right. To search for a specific film or subject, there’s a search box at the top of the page.

As for the next 90 articles, well, we’re hard at work on those already.

Before signing off, I want to remind you what Don said about our online agenda in his inaugural post – Cinefex Unchained:

Read our blog. Enjoy it. Share it. And by all means, tell us what you think about it. Our future content will be informed by your comments.

It’s in this spirit that I now hand things over to you, dear reader. We’re one year in, and just beginning to hit our stride, but we couldn’t do this without you. So now’s your chance to tell us what you think of the blog so far … and what you’d like to read here in the future.

Cast your vote in the poll below (you can vote for more than one topic) or fill up the comments box with your suggestions. We’d love to hear from you!

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” – Cinefex 139 Extract

X-Men: Days of Future Past - Cinefex 139

We’re wrapping up our week of previews of Cinefex issue 139 with Mutant Destiny, Joe Fordham’s 21-page article about the visual effects of X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) plunges back through time to save the world of the future, with the help of earlier incarnations of his familiar mutant allies.

In this extract, Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Lou Pecora explains how his team developed an organic approach to the skin-shifting abilities of the mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), avoiding visible wipes or dissolves.

“We thought about what would happen if a creature like this existed,” said Pecora. “We hit on the idea of how a magician flips a line of playing cards — he spreads them out in a line, flips the first one, and others follow suit, revealing patterns on their reverse. Each Mystique transformation began with the texture of the first actor in the plate projected onto geometry of Mystique’s ‘feathers,’ with blue skin textures on the reverse. When the feathers flipped, revealing the blue, we dissolved to Jennifer’s human texture on the hidden side, which is then revealed when the feathers flipped again. That gave us three sides to a two-sided card, with blue in between, and disguised the dissolve when the feathers were oriented away from camera.”

Digital Domain lead rigging developer David Corral created the Mystique transformation technique – dubbed the ‘potato chip rig’ – in Autodesk Maya, and CG Supervisor Hanzhi Tang and animation lead Jack Kasprzak propelled feather-flipping motions by moving Boolean shapes across the model surface. Feathers were scalable, which allowed more detail in closeups. Compositing supervisor Michael Maloney then integrated blends between feather flips.

Cinefex 139Read the complete article in Cinefex 139, which also features Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy.

All content copyright © 2014 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

“Dawn of Apes” – Cinefex 139 Extract

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Cinefex 139

Our third taster from Cinefex 139 is Ape Apocalypse, Joe Fordham’s 22-page article on the visual effects of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the latest film in the rebooted franchise, which delivers not only spectacle but also high emotion, thanks to astonishing ape performances created by a cutting-edge blend of motion capture and animation.

In this extract, motion capture supervisor Dejan Momcilovic details the complexities of capturing multiple actors’ performances on location.

“We were often capturing performances in rain,” said Momcilovic. “We used underwater camera bags to protect every piece of gear, and applied hot packs. When we went to New Orleans, it was so hot and humid we had to keep the gear cool with ice packs.”

The compact nature of Standard Deviation’s camera housings allowed Weta to dress motion capture cameras discreetly into sets, using both wireless and cabled systems, depending on the terrain. Each ape scene required an average of 20 motion capture cameras positioned around groups of eight ape performers. To assist image tracking, Weta affixed additional LEDs to trees and sticks driven into the ground, and triangulated the terrain geometry to help integrate animated characters.

In addition to motion capture cameras, Weta surrounded ape scenes with Sony F3 witness cameras, which served as calibration devices. “We used a calibration wand with visible light and infrared markers that could be seen by the F3s, the motion picture camera, and our mocap cameras,” Momcilovic explained. “Synchronizing all those systems in one go greatly reduced our setup times on set.” The F3s gave Weta the option to optically generate motion data by tracking checkerboard markers on performers’ bodies.

Cinefex 139Read the complete article in Cinefex 139, which also features Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

All content copyright © 2014 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

“Edge of Tomorrow” – Cinefex 139 Extract

Edge of Tomorrow - Cinefex 139

All this week, we’re serving up appetisers from issue 139 of Cinefex magazine. In The Longest Day, Jody Duncan’s 21-page article on the making of Edge of Tomorrow, in which Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of life and death as he tries to unravel the mystery behind a devastating alien invasion.

In this extract, production visual effects supervisor Nick Davis discusses the futuristic exo-suits worn by Cage and his battle-weary comrades.

Early on, the filmmakers had considered putting performers in minimal armor pieces, and then tracking the majority of the suit as a digital construct; but they soon dismissed the idea.

“We knew that the suits would be able to do a lot more if they were mostly CG,” said Davis, “but both Tom Cruise and Doug Liman wanted to do as much as they could practically. Tom was absolutely adamant that he be in the suit, because he felt that it would help him as an actor.”

Suit modeler Pierre Bohanna built the practical exo-suits from art department designs, which the actors then trained in for several months. “The actors worked really hard to learn to perform in these very heavy suits,” said Davis. “Pierre and his team made them as lightweight as possible, but they still weighed many, many pounds, and it was very hard work for the actors to wear them.”

The sheer weight of the suit required that some digital parts be tracked to Emily Blunt, whose small size precluded her from being able to carry the full load for extended periods of time. The one digital feature tracked to all of the suits were the ‘angel wing’ guns mounted on the back of the arms. “They built practical ones for us to scan and photograph, but they never got used in the movie. They were always digital.”

Cinefex_139_Apes_CoverRead the complete article in Cinefex 139, which also features X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy.

All content copyright © 2014 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” – Cinefex 139 Extract

Guardians of the Galaxy - Cinefex 139

Issue 139 of Cinefex magazine contains in-depth articles on the visual effects of four of this summer’s biggest movies. Through this week, we’re giving you daily tasters from each article in this, our latest issue.

First up is Guardians of the Galaxy, the smash hit space movie starring the funkiest fellowship of interstellar misfits ever to take to the heavens. In this extract from The Rocket Files, Jody Duncan’s 21-page article on the film’s VFX, Framestore visual effects supervisor Jonathan Fawkner talks about everybody’s favourite genetically-enhanced raccoon.

Framestore animators based Rocket animation on Sean Gunn’s on-set performance, as well as on Bradley Cooper’s vocal performance, captured with a six-camera system at a recording studio in London. “We were able to film Bradley Cooper as he performed Rocket’s lines,” said Fawkner. “Using the six-camera system was great for us because we had all the angles covered. We typically used that for our first pass at the animation, and then we’d show it to James and Stephane, with reference of Bradley doing the voice in the corner of the screen.

Only in the final stages of animation did the animators incorporate raccoon behaviors into Rocket’s performance. “James wanted an actor more than he wanted a raccoon,” said Fawkner. “We had done some early animation studies with more raccoon behaviors, but Marvel and James never responded well to those tests. Later on, though, we started introducing the odd nose twitch and ear scratch. The one character trait James did emphasize was that he wanted Rocket to be very nimble with his hands. He often said, ‘If Rocket has a super-power, it is his super hands.’ And so we found moments in our sequences to highlight Rocket’s hand movements.”

Cinefex 139Read the complete article in Cinefex 139, which also features Edge of Tomorrow, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

All content copyright © 2014 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

“The Maze Runner” – Visual Effects

The Maze Runner - Cinefex VFX Q&A

In recent years, filmmakers have found fertile ground – and enjoyed impressive box office returns – in adapting young adult novels. First came Harry Potter, then Twilight and The Hunger Games. Now the latest fantasy adventure has hit the screens in the form of The Maze Runner.

Adapted from the best-selling novel by James Dashner and directed by Wes Ball, The Maze Runner begins when a boy called Thomas awakes mysteriously in a glade set at the heart of a giant labyrinth. Thomas has no memory of how he got there, but by exploring the maze along with the other people trapped there, he gradually pieces together the puzzle of his past … and begins to believe in the possibility of escape.

Method Studios was the major visual effects vendor for The Maze Runner, delivering around 530 shots for the film. VFX supervisor duties were shared by Sue Rowe and Eric Brevig. Rowe led the studio team, visiting the set in Baton Rouge for crucial VFX sequence photography, while Brevig remained on set for the duration of the shoot.

Watch a montage of clips from The Maze Runner:

“My daughter had read the book and loved it,” said Sue Rowe, recalling the early days of the project. “When we heard there was talk of a film, the Method Studios team hopped on a plane and met with Joe Conmy at Fox. Later we met Wes Ball, the director. Within minutes of our meeting him, he was describing the first scene from the movie – he was so full of energy, describing the elevator rising up, using sound effects and jumping around the room. I thought, “If he can do that on our first meeting, then wow! Dailies are going to be fun!”

“Eric and I have worked in a similar way in the past,” said Rowe. “We have a great mutual respect and a shorthand that makes the split easy. Eric has a wealth of knowledge on set, having supervised many shows and directed his own feature. I come from an animation background. I’ve done a number of creature shows in the past, most notably The Golden Compass.”

Having been awarded the work, Rowe and Brevig grew the team by bringing in lead animator Eric de Boer – a Life of Pi veteran – and creature supervisor James Jacobs, formerly of Weta Digital. “With a kicking team like that,” said Rowe, “you know you have a great show on your hands!”

The Maze Runner

The Grievers

One of the key challenges for Rowe and Brevig was bringing to life the Grievers: menacing, part-mechanical creatures that emerge at night to patrol the labyrinth.

“We had some very cool concept designs from Wes illustrating how the Griever should look,” said Rowe. “We started developing it by looking at macro photos of bed bugs and fleas – I always find that whatever crazy creature you want to create, nature has already done it for you somewhere. We studied how ants move, and looked at slugs for the organic soft parts of the body. We used whatever grossed me out for the textures, like a slug’s skin with warts from a frog. An image that struck a chord with us was one of crabs crawling over each other in the sea; we kept this in mind for the finale when multiple Grievers attack the Gladers.”


Real-world research informed not only the way the Grievers looked, but also how they moved.

“The Griever concept had metal legs – like a purpose-built freak of nature – and we wanted to make these move in an unusual way,” remarked Rowe. “While we were researching, there was some major construction going on outside our office window. One morning, Eric and I laughed that the pneumatic crane and drills outside looked like the Griever’s legs. We realised we were on to something, so we took video reference and introduced percussive drills and hammers into the design. We liked the idea that the Griever’s metal legs could hyper-extend and contract like a crane arm. It added physical truth to the model, and allowed the character to reduce or extend his leg dimensions for added dramatic effect.”

Design development took the Griever concept through a number of stages. “At one point the Griever had red flickering eyes and a glowing chest cavity,” Rowe recalled. “These looked great, but with movement and motion blur they lost the demonic feel and began to look like a Halloween lantern. We dropped the glow and instead designed extra folds and cracks in his reptilian upper jaw. We also created an empty eye cavity with a demented scowl. The last iteration added nasty, compacted teeth replicated multiple times inside the mouth.”

Paulo Welter and Kyeyong Peck created the final Griever models using Zbrush, Mudbox and Mari. The creatures were rendered in V-Ray, which proved efficient at handling the many sub-dermal surfaces.

“We started the Griever build in May and had a working model nine weeks later, because Fox wanted to showcase the Griever on the last day of the shoot as a milestone,” said Rowe. “We showed it to the actors on set, and they were stoked to see the character come to life. Especially Dylan O’Brien – he spent much of the movie running from a guy in a blue suit, so he loved to see our works in progress.”

Watch Method Studios’ visual effects breakdown reel from The Maze Runner:

Digital Gardening

The Maze itself comprises a complex labyrinth built from 100-foot walls. Sets were constructed to include the first 16 feet, with Method filling in the rest with a range of digital extensions.

“Wes set the visual tone of the story, showing how important the lighting was on the walls,” said Rowe. “The Maze doors opened early in the morning and at night, so we worked on dawn and dusk colour palettes. My CG supervisor Andrew McPhillips and lead lighter Larry Weiss created long shafts of raking light across the walls. Not only did this look stunning, but it also it added to the feeling of confinement as the kids are imprisoned each night. Building walls sounds simple, but creating photo-real scale and texture takes a good eye. I was really happy with the end result.”

Once the walls were built, they had to be covered with acres of ivy. “In Houdini, we created a custom procedural growth system for the thousands of tiny ivy leaves, which allowed the artists to draw on the walls where we wanted the ivy to grow. To make it look organic, it needed to wrap around the walls and find crevices to attach itself to. For this we wrote a script which could determine how many seeds the ivy branches would split into, and how thick the stems would be. Lastly, we added a really neat variable which allowed us to determine the direction of the sun, adding a random factor to the directions in which the leaves grew. Koen Vroeijenstijn, Harsh Mistry and Kuba Roth were fearsome digital gardeners!”

Griever Attack

Towards the end of the film, the maze runners confront the Grievers in their lair, in an attempt to escape the prison. Like the rest of the interior scenes, the sequence was shot in a Sam’s Warehouse, on a partial stage floor with a 360° bluescreen backing.

“The ceiling was only 24 feet high, so it was hard to fly in blues,” commented Rowe. “We had stunt guys dressed in blue suits, with poles to represent where the Grievers’ metal legs would be. The shoot was full of crazy energy. At one point Wes Ball jumped in there and was performing as the Griever, thrashing around with these huge blue legs. The actors really threw themselves into the fight.”

Griever attack - bluescreen shoot

The Griever attack was shot on a blue screen stage, with environments and creatures added digitally by Method Studios.

Rowe’s team replaced the bluescreen with the cathedral-like environment of the Griever’s lair, and the blue-suited performers with Griever animation.

“The ceiling was cathedral-high, with light bleeding in from overhead vents,” said Rowe. “We added dripping water and wall decay, steam coming out of the ventilation shafts … all the tricks in the book to keep the environment looking edgy and real. We removed the men in blue suits and choreographed a wicked fight sequence out of a tight cut. For the first half of the movie, you only see glimpses of the Grievers –- but by the end they are out in the open fighting the kids, so there was nowhere to hide. We were able to enhance the cut by making a number of shots full 3D – like the shot where a Griever is hit in the face by Thomas, where you see a full mouth interior with multiple teeth. It wasn’t something we’d planned for, but it was so cool we did it anyway.”

Destroying the Maze

In a spectacular destruction sequence, the vertiginous walls of the Maze collapse around the fleeing characters. “The destruction was a big data challenge but visually a great success,” Rowe asserted. “Wes had done  some of his own previz using Modo.The basic concept of “Maze Rearrange” is that large concrete slabs were rigged to move when the Maze was originally designed. In the intervening years, they have accumulated layers of soil and dust, and the concrete itself has begun to degrade. When they finally begin their predetermined sequence of movements, they begin to crack and disintegrate.

“Lisa Nolan and Niall Finn made an awesome destruction team. Our weapon of choice was Houdini. Our Maya model supervisor Ian Sorensen spent ten weeks building walls, floors and rusted doors, then the Houdini team spent the next three months destroying them!”

The Maze - aerial view

Aerial view of the extensive digital Maze environment.

As the film progressed, the destruction sequence grew bigger and more elaborate. “At one point Thomas and Minho are running for their lives with a wave of concrete destruction just a few feet behind them. We tested for this with Houdini’s DOPs integration of the Bullet RBD solver, but found that for the kind of densely-packed fragments we needed for close-up destruction work, we couldn’t keep the sum stable.

“For that reason Niall switched to Houdini’s own, slower, higher quality RBD solver. For this application, we felt this produced consistently better-looking results. Layered on top was the finer rigid body debris, point particle sand and soil, and multiple layers of volumetric dust, generated with our in-house Studio Pyro toolset. We exported geometry with Alembic so we could render in V-Ray, but the dust we kept in Mantra.”

To assemble the complex shots, the Method team used deep compositing throughout. It was particularly valuable in the destruction sequence, which features characters running through of clouds of falling dust and debris.

“Deep compositing put a strain on our data management, for sure,” Rowe admitted. “I’d like to research further, as we reached the limits when it came to disc space and render power. Arek Komorowski and Abel Milanes were our 2D supervisors, leading a team of 30 Nuke artists – very strong visual and technical guys. Combining the talents of the digital matte painting team into our Nuke pipeline allowed us to complete some great 2½D work in comp rather than full 3D build. Rasoul Shafeazadeh was key in some of the early concept work for this. Often I would have his team do ‘love stills’ or paint-overs to indicate to Wes where we were taking the shots. This visual shorthand saved us many wasted days.”

Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?

One unexpected issue with the Baton Rouge location was the preponderance of hostile wildlife. “We had a snake handler on location to clear all dangerous snakes and creepy crawlies away from the set,” said Rowe. “We all bought snake-proof boots. On the last day of the shoot, I put a plastic snake in the briefcase of my producer, Scott Puckett. He didn’t find it until he was back in his hotel. He freaked! He’ll get me back some day, but it was worth it!”

The ubiquitous clouds of insects did however provide some creative inspiration. “We saw flying bugs everywhere on location, so we added digital bugs to the final shots to add movement.”

Reflecting on the demands of the work, Rowe concluded, “Our on-set data and production team were awesome, and the whole team at Method never lost the fighting spirit make every shot the best we could. Our team of artists may have had to work to a challenging budget, but we never let that appear on the screen. I hear Fox are very happy with the result, and I’m looking forward to the next collaboration with them!”

The Maze Runner - blue screen shoot

Thanks to Rita Cahill and Ellen Pasternack. “The Maze Runner” photographs TM & © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

Visions of Mars

NASA's MAVEN probe approaches Mars

Image courtesy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

MAVEN has reached Mars!

“Hold up!” I hear you cry. “What the heck is MAVEN?” Well, I’ll tell you. It’s the latest in a long line of spacecraft sent to gather data on the Red Planet. Its full title is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission, and it’s the first of its kind, dedicated as it is to exploring in detail the upper atmosphere of Mars.

But all that’s a bit of a mouthful, so MAVEN it is.

One of the puzzles the MAVEN mission controllers are hoping to solve is the mystery of how the sun may have stripped Mars of its early atmosphere, creating a barren desert out of a world that may once have supported microbial life.

What they’re unlikely to find are the irradiated survivors of a doomed Martian race, a bat-headed spider, an abandoned atmosphere processing plant or a race of green, six-armed warriors.

All of the above have graced our cinema screens over the years, and little wonder. As one of Earth’s closest celestial neighbours, Mars has long fascinated filmmakers …

The Re-making of a Rocketship

One of the earliest movies to explore Mars was Rocketship X-M, in which a botched attempt to fix an engine glitch sends the crew of a moon rocket spinning so far off course that they eventually land on the Red Planet. Released in 1950, the film was shot in black and white, with the Martian sequences tinted red to evoke a suitably otherworldly atmosphere.

Bizarrely, the film was revisited – and to some extent remade – in the late 1970s, when lifelong fan Wade Williams acquired the rights, and set out to shoot new visual effects sequences. His aim? To introduce Rocketship X-M to a new audience hungry for interplanetary thrills to match the recently released Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Williams managed to assemble a team comprising some of the top VFX experts of the day, including Dennis Muren, Bob Burns, Tom Scherman, Robert Skotak and Harry Walton. Between them, they re-created the original spaceship in the form of a two-foot-tall miniature.

The "Rocketship X-M" reshoot visual effects crew.

The “Rocketship X-M” reshoot visual effects crew. Image from Cinemagic Issue 1.

In this extract from David Hutchison’s article Re-making “Rocketship X-M”, published in 1979 in the first issue of Starlog spinoff magazine Cinemagic, Mike Minor describes the process of building and shooting a foreground miniature of the rocket on location at Trona Pinnacle, near Death Valley:

“It took about three hours to complete the miniature. We had just barely enough time to get the takes. It was a constant battle, because as the day went on, the shadows got longer and the colors changed, so there was constant repainting. The 40-mph winds moved the rocket ever so slightly, even with the brace Tom had built. The takes in which the rocket moved, of course, will not be used – it looks like an earthquake had started!”

More Mars

Ever since Rocketship X-M was first released, like a planet trapped in endless orbit Mars has periodically circled back into movie theatres. After Conquest of Space came the dubious thrills of The Angry Red Planet. In 1964, Mars even got a visit from Robinson Crusoe. Later, the planet’s desolate deserts popped up on the small screen, when Rock Hudson starred in a 1980 TV mini-series adapted from Ray Bradbury’s classic The Martian Chronicles.

In 1990, Arnold Schwarzenegger visited an especially lurid Martian landscape in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. A decade later, a slew of less-than-successful Martian movies arrived – and swiftly departed. Among them were Mission to Mars, Red Planet and John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.

Simmering beneath all these was the rumoured adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s definitive science fiction trilogy – Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars – a project originally pursued by James Cameron and now, by all accounts, mired somewhere in Hollywood development hell*.


In 2012, Disney released John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs “Barsoom” books, the first of which was A Princess of Mars. As with previous Martian movies, depicting the Red Planet’s barren landscape was a fundamental requirement.

Just as with the reshoot of Rocketship X-M, a  location in North America was chosen for key exteriors. In this extract from Joe Fordham’s in-depth article Under the Moons of Mars, published in Cinefex 129, Stanton describes why Utah was the perfect analogue of Mars for location shooting on Earth:

“There’s something about the northern part of the Grand Canyon going into Utah. You can just tell that the whole landscape was once underwater. That is pretty much the topography of Mars, and that is how it was described from a romantic standpoint in the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs.”

Sue Rowe, who shared visual effects supervisor duties on John Carter with Peter Chiang, overseeing VFX vendors Double Negative, Cinesite, MPC and Nvizible, goes on to describe the peculiarly alien quality of the Utah light:

“Utah was a wonderful resource, with vast plains of red and ochre. And the light there was amazing. Back in the UK, I spent quite a lot of time explaining to my crew how the light was in Utah. Everything was so sharp and bright and highly contrasted, with huge over-exposures but still retaining details.”

Visions of Mars

Now that the MAVEN spacecraft has slipped smoothly into orbit – and with the Curiosity rover still romping across the Red Planet’s rocky terrain – Martian conditions no longer need to be simulated. Instead they can observed at close quarters. Still, I hope the mission controllers take a moment or two to train their cameras on some of the forgotten corners of that dry, desert realm.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll spot the long shadow of a sleek silver rocketship caressing the side of a remote sand dune. Perhaps they’ll see Arnie tumbling down the mountain slopes of Olympus Mons, with his eyes bulging and his hands clamped to his throat. They might even spy the long trail of the walking city of Zodanga as it marches relentlessly across the dusty plains.

Watch the NASA MAVEN video Targeting Mars:

Whatever new visions MAVEN does bring us, few words can be more appropriate to celebrate its arrival at Mars than those spoken by science fiction author Ray Bradbury in his address The Search for Life in Our Solar System, which he delivered at JPL, Pasadena, California on 8 October 1976:

“Today we have touched Mars. There is life on Mars, and it is us — extensions of our eyes in all directions, extensions of our mind, extensions of our heart and soul have touched Mars today. That’s the message to look for there: ‘We are on Mars. We are the Martians!’”

*Within days of this blog post first appearing, Variety reported that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars novels have just been snapped up for development by Spike TV and Vince Gerardis, co-executive producer of HBO’s popular Game of Thrones … Read the Variety report here

“Total Recall” photograph copyright © 1990 by Tri-Star Pictures, Inc. “John Carter” photographs copyright © 2011 by Walt Disney Pictures. John Carter ERB, Inc. All rights reserved.