Trevor Hogg chats with Sue Rowe about Method Studios bringing the world of The Maze Runner to the big screen…
Outside of a 100 shots being outsourced for wire removals and clean-ups, Method Studios was given the sole responsibility of bringing the world of The Maze Runner (2014) to the big screen. “We did 530 shots on Maze and 150 were creature shots,” states Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Sue Rowe who did not have to deal with an intermediary. “It made communication a lot faster and sharper as I was speaking to the director every day.” Despite of making his feature directorial debut Wes Ball is familiar with visual effects. “With Wes’ background in animation we had a quick shorthand in how we wanted to describe things. Wes knows a lot about filmmaking and if he didn’t know about something he’d read up about it. The great thing about Wes is that he has so much energy. We used to do cineSync with him every day and also had Skype going. Especially, for the creatures stuff Wes would stand up and act out how he wanted the Griever to move, the head movements and roars.” A repeat performance occurred during principle photography for the Griever Finale. “The kids walk out into 360 degrees of blue screen and we had guys in blue suits. The first couple of takes were missing something. Wes grabbed a small blue model we had of the Grievers’ legs and went amongst the kids hitting them with the Grievers’ legs; they kept screaming and fighting back. It was a great energy.”
A key collaborator for Sue Rowe was Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Brevig. “Eric and I worked on John Carter  together. We have a great shorthand. Fox had tasked us with creating an animated model of the Griever by the end of the shoot. The shoot was only 10 weeks long so we knew that we had to come up with the goods quickly. What we did was to have Eric on-set the whole time in Louisiana and I would go down for the important sections of where we had some tricky character or Griever interaction. I spent every other week in Louisiana while Eric was down there with the spiders and bugs.” Rowe notes, “Eric Brevig has also directed his own movies; he did Yogi Bear , for example, a couple of years ago. Eric was also a good resource for Wes. Wes was what’s termed nowadays as a first time director. They were able to support each other and come up with several options which were useful for Wes.”
“Wes had employed a concept artist named Ken Barthelmey who did four or five designs for the Griever but they were just stills,” explains Sue Rowe. “A fair amount was left for interpretation but they were brilliant; that was one of the reasons I wanted to get involved with the project.” Two Academy Award winners were hired to assist with the creation of the pivotal adversary which is a hybrid of mechanic and organic parts. “Method is not traditionally known as a creature animation company and so when we got a hint of this project coming in the Method team above me said, ‘It’s time to go shopping for some of the best guys in the industry.’ I had met James Jacobs at a VES [Visual Effects Society] event and contacted him. Erik-Jan de Boer was also in town so we got him to come in to have a look at the Griever concept. James was at Weta for a number of years so we have a shortcut into some of the great creature work that Weta has been doing. Erik, who won an Oscar for Life of Pi , is an incredibly articulate and inspiring animation director.”
“The book [written by James Dashner] described the Griever as being organic and slug-like with metal appendages,” states Sue Rowe. “I just imagined something horrific. But when I started to think, ‘What are we going to make this thing look like?’ He’s big and runs fast. What we did with the metal legs was to give them pneumatic drills. They also have the ability to collapse and extend. We took that mechanical side of things and added that into how our creature moves. Our creature can shrink down to 8 feet and extend to 15. The main part of the body was organic and slug-like.” The rigging for the creature was complex. “We were able to write in some predesign ideas like these knives that run down the Griever’s back to the three pronged spear at the end of the tail. In order to add extra motion when the Griever is about to raise its tail for the kill, the knives would spring into action and give it that extra definition.” Rowe remarks, “The pipeline was influenced by the people we employ here. James coming in from Weta, Erik’s influences from Rhythm & Hues, and I come from Cinesite after doing a number of creature shows there. We brought with us all of the things we had learned from past shows and were able to have a quick read into what we needed and wanted to get out of the project. It was good timing and a lot of experience made a daunting task come together faster.”
“You have to light the wall as best you can so it looks amazing,” states Sue Rowe. “The doors would open at dawn and dusk. Those were key points for us. Early in the morning and at the golden hour when the sun is at its lowest you get this beautiful radiant angle across this 100 foot wall. We played up to that and it helped in so many ways to give the wall scale. The wall lighting was one of the things underestimated for this project. Andrew McPhillips was my CG Supervisor and our Lead Lighter was Larry Weiss. We spent far too long looking at walls and concrete.” High Dynamic Range Imagery (HDRI) was taken of the set pieces enabling the creation of exact digital replicas. “When the kids are running down the maze there are certain sections which are open and have light flooding into them. We shot on a stage with a ceiling that was 20 x 40 so we could only build the set pieces up to 16 feet and that includes putting lights in and hanging blue screen. It was tricky for the DOP [Enrique Chediak] to light and for us because any shadows cast on the walls were only 16 feet high.” Rowe adds, “On the set we’d wet the floor down to get a nice reflections off the ground and played up some of the bounce light; that’s another reason why the Griever evolved to be such a soft organic surface because we wanted to get those nice sharp highlights coming off of it as well.”
“Growing ivy on the wall was another big deal as well because it needed to feel organic,” notes Sue Rowe. We got them to dress the set as much as they could and that gave us a good indication of how Wes wanted it to go.” Software modifications were needed to avoid a sense of repetition with the vegetation. My Houdini lead was Niall Flinn who worked with Harsh Mistry and Kuba Roth. I gave those guys such a headache because I wanted it to feel organic and natural. We showed them pictures of real ivy and the ivy on the set. They ended up writing something that would allow me to draw on the wall where I wanted the ivy to go and how many branches it would grow into. We would go off and grow the ivy from seed. It was a procedural way of doing it but in actual fact was quite organic. I used to call them my digital gardeners and in the daily literature we would say you will have to prune that, put some weed killer on that and put some fertilizer on that bit.”
“With the Maze Rearrange Sequence it was almost like that the floor was pre-rigged,” remarks Sue Rowe. “You see these giant slabs which have been dormant for years and they start to rise up. We looked at a lot of reference of buildings collapsing and natural disasters. It’s a lot more visually complex than you think. We had these large areas that cracked but then we combined it with soil, roots, sand, and a pyroclastic cement dust that comes up. All of those things together made it look realistic.” The live-action actors had to be integrated with the CG environment. “Wes had done some previs himself and I did some techvis. One of the shots was so high that I knew I was going to need a 100 foot Technocrane and then you have the challenge for how far does the camera follow the kids. We broke it all down in an organized way and Eric Brevig was on-set for that. It was shot at an abandoned car park in Louisiana. We put some shipment containers which were 30 feet high and 120 feet long and covered them in blue.” Two days were spent trying to get the sequence right. “If you see the before and afters the kids are running with blue behind them and we’re shouting, ‘There’s a wall raising and the floor is cracking beneath you.’ There is some great acting and energy. That’s a sequence I’m proud of because it evolved in a great way. There are a lot of over-the-shoulder shots of the kids running where you can start to see the destruction behind them. Instead of going for walls falling around them we decided to crack the floor and have things collapse just in front and behind them. It turned out to be a bigger dynamic sequence than what was first storyboarded.”
“When you get out in the middle of a field where we shot The Glade and look at the scope of it a 40 by 20 blue screen disappears in no time at all,” notes Sue Rowe. “When Thomas [Dylan O’Brien] first arrives the camera rotates at 360 degrees. We literally had a team of guys standing holding a blue screen and travelling behind him as the camera rotates around. We did a few things with brute force like that. We had a section that was built on-set which was 20 feet high and 40 feet long where a lot of the dialogue takes place so that didn’t need to be visual effects. But when you step 15 feet away from that set you know that everything else is going to be a topper. It was a huge amount of work and a lot of roto work as well.” The Elevator Lift Sequence was originally meant to be a practical effect. We analysed the lighting in the previs and then setup a bank of LED lights which were timed and setup to match it. It goes slowly and speeds up to a red light at the end. The lights were on one side because if you try to have real interactive lighting on the green or blue screen it makes any keys you’re trying to pull void. With the light source off to one side and the green screen perfectly exposed we modelled the lights in Maya and created them in V-Ray.”
“Getting the creatures’ pipeline going wasn’t the most difficult thing in the end because we planned for it,” notes Sue Rowe. “The biggest challenge for Maze Runner was the budgetary constraints and the time we had to do it. One of the things I was most worried about was getting good quality effects on the screen in the time that we had.” Back lighting and silhouettes are important in producing dramatic imagery. “There’s a great shot in the movie where Thomas steps back in a corridor and there’s a Griever above him and the blue screen located five feet from his head was poorly lit. What we were able to do was to extend the wall another 25 feet behind Thomas and place our Griever like a spider just behind him. It’s spooky moment. We played with the moonlight to get a nice silhouette and rim light around him.” The Griever Finale was a concern. “I knew that was going to be one of the hardest sequences to pull off. You can get too close to things and when I saw it in the theatre all I remember is that it went by too fast and looked great!” Rowe observes, “There are few women in our industry who get mentioned but Lisa Nolan is a kick-ass effects guru and did the shot where you see the Griever on fire. The Griever gives an almighty scream to the camera. It was a powerful shot.”
The Maze Runner images and videos © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Method Studios.
Many thanks to Sue Rowe for taking the time for this interview.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.