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!”
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:
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.”
The Glade – original plate photography
The Glade – final composite
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!”
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.”
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.”
Original plate photography.
Original plate photography.
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!”
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.”
For the elevator sequence, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) was shot in a wire mesh cage with interactive lights.
Method Studios added CG elevator walls with striplights, adding flare at the edges of the frame to add to the disorientating feel.
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!”
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.