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Wes Ball is incredibly knowledgeable for a ‘first-time’ feature director. Being a CG artist and animator himself, he knows what can be done and strives for the results he wants using real-world industry knowledge. The Maze Runner is a story brimming with visual opportunities for Ball to stretch the pixels.
Sue Rowe was brought onboard as VFX Supervisor for The Maze Runner at the very beginning of production, after leaving Cinesite about two years ago. Her history spans thorough some great work on The Golden Compass, John Carter, Troy and X-Men 3. Part of her job was to pull in some of the other key leads for the work at that stage being considered for Method as the sole vendor for The Maze Runner. There was another company that Method outsourced a number of cleanup shots but Method created the 530-odd shots that were in the movie.
“I was able to get onboard very early and meet Wes Ball the director, and to gain his confidence,” says Rowe from Vancouver. “FOX was keen for us to evolve the main protagonist creature called The Griever.” Remaining faithful to the descriptions from James Dashner’s novel, Method enhanced the character design to make it more dynamic and powerful so it would work on the movie screen as an immensely fearsome character. “In the book it was scary, but on the screen it has to move, first,” she adds. All up, there were 150 character shots of the Griever, and 380 environment shots, which included the ivy-covered maze walls.
Under Wes Ball’s direction, the creature developed into even more of a beast as its character became realized. The Griever’s domain is the Maze and Method took the sets, which were built up to only 16 feet and extended them, covering them in vines, ivy and moss.
Wes introduced the crew to an artist he’d collaborated with previously, so there were concepts of what the creature was going to look like. “The Griever is a sort of large slug with a soft body,” explains Rowe. “Then it has eight metal legs, which could extend and contract. The leg span is about 16 feet and is six feet tall. Its tail can reach up to 12 feet high and stretch out over its back. We definitely expanded on our brief but it was good fun.”
The Griever was modeled in ZBrush and Mudbox, imported to Maya and texture painted in MARI. The reference for the texture ranged from slugs, frogs and that mix of creature. “When I spoke to Wes about this creature, he mentioned the sub-dermal translucency in its skin, so you can see veins and under-skin features as it moves. The face is a little more reptile-like, rather like a crocodile in its top jaw, and it’s blind, with no eyes to speak of,” explains Rowe. “Despite that, it can search you out, wherever you are.”
VFX veteran Eric Brevig joined the team as on-set VFX Supervisor in Baton Rouge for the intense location shoot. Sue Rowe also sourced Erik de Boer as animation director. De Boer’s history includes work on Life of Pi at Rhythm & Hues made Rowe and Eric Brevig confident that they had a great team. “While Method hasn’t been known for doing a lot of character work, the team we gathered was definitely up for it.”
The Griever body simulations were one of the biggest challenges. James Jacobs previously from Weta Digital, designed and executed the process Method Studios used to create this grotesque creature. Jacobs and his team built a creature pipeline which involved writing many custom commands and deformers, along with a solver and a bake pipeline to handle the large number of dependent processes pushed at the render farm. They mostly used Maya but enhanced it with a number of custom plugins, most notably the Finite Element Method (FEM) which solved the movement of muscles and other soft tissue on the Griever. The harmonic motion from the solve, was a good indicator of the mass of the beast.
Erik De Boer describes the Griever as a massive threatening slug with pile-driving legs. He says its body is made of soft organic tissue with a strong muscular back. The heart was pumping hydraulic fluid into the legs and the lungs were dealing with the pneumatic actuators at the tip of the legs. It was a mix between a mechanical hexapod and a jelly sloth.
From a personal point of view, De Boer spoke of walking into a new pipeline in Method after 17 years working at Rhythm &Hues. There was a new team, new management but also a lot of new technology. “The animation team here at Method is incredibly strong and a great fun talented colleagues,” adds Erik.
Animation supervisor Dan Mizuguchi, and animation lead Andrew Chang were both instrumental in getting the show running. Animators like Dan Mizuguchi, Andrew Chang and others made the Griever graphic, strong and intimidating. Steve Clee did lots of R&D work on how these creatures move. Rigger Victor Barbosa built an awesome powerful and intuitive rig that drove the complex telescoping legs. “The rig was fully functional with easy Ik/Fk switching to different levels of detail,” says de Boer. “The creature guy Paul Jordan did an amazing job simulating the hoses and doing other complex sim work.”
At the same time, there was the creation of the environment of the maze walls. In many situations they replaced the CG completely, requiring thousands of leaves and organic trailing vines. During the shoot, the maze walls were upwards of 16 feet high, and had to be something the actors could work with on set. But of course, these were to be extended digitally to around 120 feet high. All full of silk ivy and creeping vines. Lighting and perfecting the small surface textures were key to flagging the scale of the walls as they stood out in the foreboding light. The ivy itself was generated using freeware, modified with a proprietary tool to ‘branch it out further’. The tools were written in VEX for multithreaded support. They called the Ivy team Method’s digital gardeners! There was also a custom procedural growth system built in Houdini. “In the end, I could literally draw a line on the Maze wall,” says Rowe, “and the vine could be grown organically along it, as though it had been procedurally generated in Houdini, which we used quite a bit in the production as well anyway.” The team creates the vines procedurally and then set about making sure they looked organic. They added a way for the leaves to face the sun, so they would appear bright from one angle and darker in another, conforming to the cracks and shape of the walls. Method also developed lighting and shaders with V-Ray that would resolve perfectly for a selection of distances.
Method Studio is also currently in production with Night at the Museum 3.