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Running the VFX for The Maze Runner

COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Sue Rowe : Running the VFX for The Maze Runner
CreativeCOW presents Running the VFX for The Maze Runner -- TV & Movie Appreciation Feature


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The Maze Runner | Official Trailer 2 [HD] | 20th Century FOX


The Maze Runner poster
Already a popular young adult series that has spawned a trilogy and a prequel, The Maze Runner opens with a mystery: its central character awakens with no memory, in a maze whose 100-foot walls keep rearranging themselves. The maze is also populated by Grievers, slug-like creatures with six mechanical legs and venomous scorpion tails. Unsure of why he is there, or how he can get out, Thomas meets other young people caught in the maze, known as Runners, and finds that even more mysteries are piling up far more quickly than answers are arriving.

The Maze Runner opened with a gross of $81 million worldwide in its first three days, with some of the highest critical acclaim and audience scores this side of The Hunger Games.

While YA dystopias are just now showing up in significant numbers onscreen, the literary genre has been incredibly vibrant for generations. The current wave was certainly energized in 2005 by the publication of the novel The Hunger Games, but the genre's roots go back another 50 years beyond that. As one of the most popular genres of young adult literature – even moreso than vampires in love or wizards – it's only reasonable for Hollywood to tap into sources that stretch a bit deeper and wider than comics, reboots and resurrected TV series. Films based on books! Imagine that.

Some of the strength of The Maze Runner's opening is in fact due to the intensity of its readers' enthusiasm, as it has spawned a popular trilogy, and most recently, a prequel. One of those fans is the daughter of Method VFX's Sue Rowe, a supervisor whose films include X-Men: The Last Stand, The Golden Compass (which won a VFX Oscar), Die Another Day, and John Carter. [Sue spoke to us about her work on that one, in a terrific story here.] In fact, Sue's daughter felt so strongly about it that Sue got swept up in it, and very simply, campaigned 20th Century Fox for the job until Method was awarded the contract as the exclusive VFX house for the film.



Decayed, ivy-covered walls were at the heart of the "character" of the maze. Click on any image to view larger.


Method's team of 170 worked for 10 months to create 150 character shots and 380 environment shots. Environments have been one of Method's long suits, but character animation is new. To build the company's strength in that area, they added Erik de Boer, Academy Award winner for his work with Rhythm & Hues on Life of Pi, and former WETA whiz James Jacobs, an Academy Sci-Tech Award winner for technology used for The Goblin King in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The creatures they set themselves to work on were the Grievers, who needed to be agile and threatening as they roamed the maze at night, attacking anyone they came across.




At the heart of The Maze Runner is the maze itself, whose 100-foot concrete walls were rigged to move, at some unknown point in the past when it was created. The walls have decayed over the years, and parts of it break off as the walls shift. The walls are also covered with ivy, which presented Method with some particular challenges for creating complex geometries that are also deeply organic. For both the creatures and the atmospheric elements, Method developed its own software to facilitate their experience as artists, an emphasis that shines through in work that we, frankly, think looks quite impressive.


The walls are also covered with ivy, which presented Method with some particular challenges for creating complex geometries that are also deeply organic.
The walls are also covered with ivy, which presented Method with some particular challenges for creating complex geometries that are also deeply organic.


As we spoke with Sue and Animation Director Erik de Boer, we found them both to be terrific storytellers themselves. We were happy to get out of the way, and let them fill in the details.


Left, Animation Director Erik de Boer; Right, Method VFX's Sue Rowe.
Left, Animation Director Erik de Boer; Right, Method Studios' VFX Supervisor Sue Rowe.


My daughter read The Maze Runner, and she loved it. I heard that there was a film being made by Fox, so a couple colleagues here at Method just hopped on a plane down to see Fox Vice President of Visual Effects Joe Conmy to say, "We really want to work on The Maze Runner."

Shortly after that, I met up with Wes Ball, the director. He's such an unassuming guy, but he's full of energy and incredibly articulate. The way he describes things, you just get completely engaged. Within five minutes of meeting him, he was describing the opening shot of the movie, and he's bouncing around the room, acting it out, giving me sound effects and everything. I was like, "Ah! I'm in. I so want this show." So I didn't let it go until they gave it to us.


Wes Ball (right) directs Dylan O'Brien (left) on the set of THE MAZE RUNNER. Photo by Ben Rothstein.
Wes Ball (right) directs Dylan O'Brien (left) on set.


Because Wes comes from an animation background, he was able to give us great notes. We would record the sessions with him because the noises he made and his head movements were very much in line with what he wanted the Griever character to do.

So he was pulled on board for the character, but also the environments, because he could actually do his own previs. Wes likes to work using a software called Modo, and so he would mock up preview scenes with cameras. I looked at his previews, and I thought, "Okay, so I need a camera 100 feet high, that means I need a Technocrane in an environment with a 50-foot reach."


Final comp and before shots. Click to enlarge.

We only had two days from the shoot to get the footage we needed, but because we planned really well, we got every angle that we needed. That's something that I'm asked to do more and more on feature films because the shoot times are so short.

We talked to Wes every day, which is the way to do it, because he's based in LA, down there with editorial, and we are in Vancouver. He would do his mock-ups in Modo, and then we'd talk about them the next day in the cineSync remote collaboration and review system. We also set up a Skype camera so that we could see the way he acted out the scenes.


THE MAZE AS A CHARACTER
As the VFX Supervisor, I was on location in the glade, which is sort of the safe area right in the center of the maze. We built a wall that was about 16 feet high and about 40 feet wide – just a simple facade, but we got a lot of shots for free in front of that, and lots of dialog shots.



The Maze had 100-foot concrete walls that were rigged to move to add a challenge to the game.


That was a pretty tricky shot in itself because the trees in that big field were already 100 feet high. So we had to take out those 100 feet high trees, and replace them with a 120-foot wall.

The first time that the character Thomas is in the maze, we needed to pull the camera back for a wide 360, so he's surrounded by the walls that are covered with ivy as the camera is moving. We approached it in a modular fashion. Especially with 3D, you have to be economical in how you build things. Render engines fall over and die if there's too much geometry.



The first time that the character Thomas is in the maze, Method needed to pull the camera back for a wide 360, so he's surrounded by the walls that are covered with ivy as the camera is moving


We took a lot of really of great reference photos from the set pieces, then we used a LiDAR scaner to do 3D laser imaging to help us glean as much as we could from the actual location and the actual set build. And then we went about building those. We wound up with 15 flat surface walls, and then five kind of different corners, and then some different style cracks, and so on.

But the biggest thing was the ivy on the walls, which I knew was going to be a technical challenge: thousands of tiny leaves, and building them in an organic way. I got a couple of guys on my team, effects technical director Harsh Mistry and visual effects artist Kuba Roth, to look into some software to build ivy and grow vines. In the end we ended up writing our own proprietary software. I know everyone says that but we really did!

I loved it because it was a really creative tool. We didn't have too many varieties of walls, but then each time the ivy was grown on it, it would clearly be different than on the other walls, so it was always going to look like a unique wall. We even wrote in tools so that I could vary the thickness of the base of the ivy, and how many branches it would split into.

One of the cool touches that they gave me was that we could rotate the ivy leaves to always face the sun as it moved across the scene. It allowed us to catch a nice bit of light and add some randomness to the shot.


Method could rotate the ivy leaves to always face the sun as it moved across the scene.
Method could rotate the ivy leaves to always face the sun as it moved across the scene.


GETTING THE BUGS IN
The thing that you need to think about for the computer-generated objects that you're creating is how would they really look if they were filmed. It doesn't matter now that it's digital film. It still has a certain look, and it has to do with adding motion blur, adding film grain, and matching the black and the white points on your CG to make sure it fits into your live action plates.

Of course, we had to build the floor of this giant maze as well. The floor had lots of greenery and tufts of grass, and all the little things that you add when you get your head around building a totally CG environment that feels real.

For example, when I was on the location in this field in Louisiana where they were shooting, there were bugs everywhere, snakes – the whole caboodle. It was a very uncomfortable place to shoot. When I came back to the office, and we'd be looking at the live action, there'd be all tiny bugs kind of flying around. And then when you pan over onto a completely CG wall, they were missing, right?

So we made a whole library of CG bugs, which my producer still laughs at me about because it wasn't in the original brief, but I knew it would be subtle stuff like that that just would keep it all alive. When we showed Wes, he loved it, but our joke was, at the end of every daily session he would say, "That was great, that was great, add more bugs!"


GOLDEN HOUR
One of the challenges of building a CG maze whose giant walls keep moving is that you need to be able to crash zoom into a close-up wall, and then another shot is a wide establisher, so we built a number of levels of detail for them. We call them LODs. We were then able to judge that if a shot was mid-distance, we could use a lower level of detail, and then the foreground would be high res. These are the kinds of judgments that allowed us to keep our costs as low as possible, while delivering shots that looked much more expensive.


(From left), Teresa (Kaya Scoderlario), Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), Alby (Aml Ameen) and Jeff (Jacob Latimore) react to a shocking development in the Glade.
Teresa (Kaya Scoderlario), Thomas (Dylan O'Brien), Alby (Aml Ameen) and Jeff (Jacob Latimore) react to a shocking development in the Glade.


But I think the artistry on the walls was making them feel like they had scale. The cool thing was that the story dictated that the maze doors open at dawn and close at dusk. And both those times of day, regarding lighting, are the most peaceful times. It's golden hour. So we were able to employ kind of soft, raking lights, which, in a lot of cases broke the huge scale of the wall. So wherever we could, you'll see shots where we pull wide and there's a shaft of light going down the side of the wall. It gave a shape to the scale, and caught the subtleties in the texture on the wall.

That was a good thing to do because, quite often, poor CG lacks detail and texture. I wanted to do my very best to show that off, because all the detail was in fact in the CG. It turns out that golden hour lighting is the best time to shoot, and it's the same for digital worlds as well.


THE MAZE RUNNER

Dylan O'Brien stars as Thomas in THE MAZE RUNNER.

TM and (c) 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
Dylan O'Brien stars as Thomas in THE MAZE RUNNER.


WALLS AND FLOORS
It was a 9-week shoot, but everything for the moving maze was shot in a car park over two days, which is a ridiculously short amount of time. It was an unkempt car park, so there was a dirt floor and some greenery. And then, we had about 180 feet of blue screen, which was about 40 feet high. It was held up by shipping containers, which I'd done for a previous show back in the UK, on John Carter, because the containers can stand up to all weathers, and they don't get blown about in the wind.



The very impressive final maze walls. There were actual tufts of grass in the car park concrete where some of the filming took place – the actual landscape had a deep effect on the final VFX shots.


The floor was really important, because with any CG, contact with the ground is the hardest part to make look real. If I had a real floor on location, I could put in the walls behind them, but that wasn't possible. The idea is that this maze had been around for a number of years, and when the kids are running, this floor that was rigged long ago is suddenly called to action. The kids have basically set off an alarm.


Young men, including Thomas (Dylan O'Brien, center, pointing) trapped at an undisclosed locale, investigate the mysteries of a massive maze.
Young men, including Thomas (Dylan O'Brien, center, pointing) trapped at an undisclosed locale, investigate the mysteries of a massive maze.


We needed to crack the ground, and shoot up theses sort of geysers of dust to show how the ground was crumbling under them. The soil itself was very light, then this fine powder shooting up – a very fine particulate that we rendered as Houdini particles. Then a layer of grit, and then rubble, and then large chunks of ground. By combining multiple layers, we built up the kind of complexity that you see in nature.

It was only about 15-20 shots, but we needed to sell this whole "tsunami of wall" flying behind the kids.


Minho (Ki Hong Lee, left) and Thomas (Dylan O'Brien, right) search for a way out of the maze.
Minho (Ki Hong Lee, left) and Thomas (Dylan O'Brien, right) search for a way out of the maze.


There were also repetitions in the modeling of the floor, but we were able to hide it with lots of debris. If you saw the befores and afters, it's really just a floor, blue screen, and tracking markers. We added everything else. Including the bugs! There were markers for the locations of these big, huge metal doors, but the set piece itself was something like 6 feet by 12 feet, and needed to be completely replaced in post.

We realized that in order to really give this some tension and some fear, we needed to make sure that it wasn't just a couple of doors opening and walls shifting. There are a couple of wide shots, but the shots are mostly quite close, just overhead or just over their shoulders while the kids are running. There was still enough room to frame with a lot of grit and dust to it, to add extra tension and panic.

A group of boys known as the Gladers, are shocked to discover a girl, Teresa (Kaya Scoderlario), amongst their midsts.
A group of boys known as the Gladers, are shocked to discover a girl, Teresa (Kaya Scoderlario), amongst their midsts. Click to enlarge

A-MAZE-MENT
I had such a great time on this show! It was a great team of people.

Method had actually not been known for its character work, but that was part of my plan when I joined Method, to bring together a creature team. We got Eric de Boer from Rhythm & Hues, where he'd won an Oscar for his work on Life of Pi,and also James Jacobs, who was a sci-tech winner for his work at WETA. [Ed. note: James shared a Scientific & Technical Achievement Award from the Academy "for the development of the Tissue Physically-Based Character Simulation Framework."] James did the Goblin King for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, so he was able create lots of muscle tissue and simulations for how the skin would work on top of it – perfect for something like the Grievers.


(c) New Line Cinema and MGM: Fantasy Adventure: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. A Warner Bros. Pictures Release.
WETA whiz James Jacobs, an Academy Sci-Tech Award winner for technology used for The Goblin King (above) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, recently joined Method, and played key roles in the development and creation of the Grievers.


With a team like that, that's why we wanted to go for The Maze Runner. It was perfect for us. It featured some environment work, which Method is already well-respected for, but creature work was really that thing that I wanted to pull in too. I feel great that we got the job and I think it was a success. Method has already got more creature work on the back of it.

As a company, we're kind of punching above our weight, and that's where we want to take it. Personally, I think creature work is my favorite thing. My background is in traditional animation as well as computer animation, so for me, as a VFX supervisor, this show was the culmination of so many good things.





The Grievers are the guardians of the maze
The Grievers are the guardians of the maze.



GRIEVERS: GUARDIANS OF THE MAZE
Erik de Boer, Method Animation Supervisor for The Maze Runner
The Grievers are the guardians of the maze, to make sure that these kids don't escape. They are slug-like creatures with organic bodies and six huge mechanical legs. A bunch of them also have huge scorpion tails coming out of the back of their organic bodies. There were about 150 of these shots in all.

It was exciting to have something with a sort of a robotic, mechanical feel to it, but that also needs to have the agility, and the appeal, of course, to make it an exciting character. They need the agility to be a threat to the kids, yet clunky enough to make it plausible for these kids to outrun them, or outsmart them, long enough to escape the maze at the end of the movie.

When we started to do motion tests for these guys, we looked at nature for inspiration, as we always do. We looked at insects like cockroaches and centipedes, and we definitely found a lot of interesting stuff there. But when we did our initial test of the Grievers, they were just too insectoid.

We then started to look at more mechanical machines. We found some Burning Man hexapod creations, and we just tried to borrow some of that motion language and awkwardness. Yet, at the end of the day, the Grievers still had to be obviously competent protectors of this maze that were actually designed to be inside of that environment. To accomplish this, we gave them telescopic legs so that they could partially retract them for the narrower alleys and sections in the maze.

This is less visual, but more of a back story: I liked the idea of their organic hearts controlling the hydraulic fluids into the mechanical legs. There were a lot of hoses that connected the organic heart to the mechanical parts, and their lungs would be driving the pneumatic actuators at the tip of their feet, as sort of jackhammers to find perches and traction onto the maze walls and floors.


The Grievers were hideous and threatening, but agile creatures that roamed the maze and attacked anyone they came across. Final comp on the left and before shots on the right. Click any image to enlarge.

PIPELINE
It was important to me to find a way to get animators comfortable in their sessions as quickly as possible. Get them to focus on the work and take away a lot of the housekeeping that the pipeline had when we found it. I think we were really successful in that.

That sounds trivial but to do that – but not in an environment where everybody's fighting for CPU resources. When projects go away to a render farm, they can sometimes get stuck there and never come back. We managed to keep that smooth, but we also worked on allowing the animators to have a more intuitive interaction with their rigs. Victor Barbosa designed the griever rigs, and did a great job on it.


CG AND THE REAL WORLD
There's this spectacular end sequence called the Griever Finale, where the kids run across this long bridge towards the exit of the maze, and the Grievers are there to prevent them from doing so. They end up in a close battle on this narrow bridge. Despite the fact that you would expect these Grievers to be pretty competent, I think we've found the believable way to make it a really exciting battle – back and forth a little bit until of course the kids, no surprise, defeats them.

What I always like to do is find any excuse to connect the animation to the physical world. In this case that could be a CGI environment, but also the physical world: the walls, the ground, or any prop or live action actor in the scene.

That can be done by moving a CGI character in and out of shadows that are being cast from live action creatures, but also bodies bumping into things, or tails that wrap around corners. And, of course, adding to that later in the integration phase by having dust and rock bits flying off.

Looking at what made previous CG characters successful or not is that main collision, which is of gravity yanking this weight down, and the paws hitting the ground. If that main collision is not there convincingly, then you basically lose the whole battle.

What we did on the tiger for Life of Pi was spend a lot more R&D time on just the paws. We had to sell that every time that paw collided with the ground, it was taking at least 80 or 100 pounds of weight through it. We'd always done tendons tensing up, the scapula firing up – but really getting the subtle shape changes into the paw, that was really important.


Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and a fierce Bengal tiger named Richard Parker must rely on each other to survive an epic journey. TM and (c) 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and a fierce Bengal tiger named Richard Parker must rely on each other to survive an epic journey. ™ and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Now, for the grievers on Maze Runner, we couldn't use the same tools that we had used for the tiger in Life of Pi, because the Grievers only have hard spikes that hit the ground. We used the telescopic feature of them to try and sell as much as possible that the weight was going into those legs.

Also, because they are six-legged, the weight distribution can be a little bit sloppier because finding that triangle that supports the weight. With six legs, there's always a bunch of them on the ground, so you can be a little bit sloppier in terms of which leg the weight is shifted over. Very often when you look at hexapods, the motion is a little bit clunky in the middle and these six legs are doing their fun, random, quick stuff. It was definitely a whole different challenge for the Grievers than it was on, for instance, the tiger.

And I won't deny it: that was definitely an exciting part of this job.








Maze Runner VFX Breakdown

All images from the film, The Maze Runner credit to: Ben Rothstein TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.



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