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The Maze Runner

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The Maze Runner is a science fiction action thriller directed by Wes Ball based on James Dashner's 2009 book of the same name. As the lead vendor on the film, Method was involved in the creation of 150 character shots and 380 environment shots, put together under the leadership of VFX Supervisor Sue Rowe. The menacing characters called Grievers, designed by Creature Designer Ken Barthelmey, are integral to the storyline and Method’s artists relished the opportunity to bring them to life under the guidance of Method’s Academy Award Winning Animation Director, Erik de Boer.

MECHANICAL BEASTS


While remaining faithful to the descriptions from the novel, Method worked with Wes Ball and enhanced the Griever’s design to make the creature more dynamic and powerful so it would have a dominant presence on the big screen. The character development process gave Method the opportunity to create a hybrid creature pipeline based on the knowledge of their specialist supervisors including James Jacobs who designed and executed the process.

Made from a combination of mechanical and biological parts, the challenge was to understand the physiology of the beast, and how it would move. Its body is made of soft organic tissue with a strong muscular back, attached to which are eight mechanical legs. Method’s team studied hydraulic machinery and pneumatic pumps to make sure the legs were grounded in mechanics. In addition, ants, slugs, moles, rats and fleas were researched to make sure the character was physically based on a skeleton and muscles that could move in an organic way. The extensive use of physical simulation in order to define the bio-mechanical nature of the Griever provided the director with a fantastical, intimidating creature that was as true-to-life as possible. One of the highlights for the animation team is the shot when the Griever is hit by burning fuel - the agile yet monstrous way the Griever moves in this scene is surely enough to make the audience want to run for its life.

BUILDING THE MAZE


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. At the center of the Maze is the Glade, a safe haven for the teenage cast, surrounded on all sides by an impenetrable 100 ft. wall. The challenge landed firmly with VFX to make the epic proportions of the set extensions look photo real and blend in with the live action footage.

After creating these environments, the crew had to work out how to destroy it all. They relied heavily on Method’s Houdini experts to crack and destroy the walls with flying debris and dust. FX leads Niall Flinn and Lisa Nolan were the key players for the Maze Rearrange shots, following previz done by the director himself.

The basic concept of Maze Rearrange is that large concrete slabs have been rigged to move when the Maze was designed, some unspecified time ago. In the intervening years, they have accumulated layers of soil and dust and the concrete itself has begun to degrade, so that when they finally begin their predetermined sequence of movements, they become somewhat damaged in the process. As such, the moving maze animations resulted in complex shots comprising many layers of FX elements.

DIGITAL GARDENING


Lastly, one of the unsung heroes of the VFX project is the tools Method wrote to create the ivy and vines on the CG walls. The ivy was populated using a custom procedural growth system built in Houdini, an excellent environment in which to develop complex systems. Artists were able to interactively decide how many branches the parent vine was to split into and there were parameters allowing for the leaves to face the sun, move subtly with wind and conform to the cracks and shape of the walls.

With such huge walls, identifying scale was of paramount importance. Method developed lighting and shaders that would resolve correctly at far, mid and close camera distances. They also made use of forced light attenuation and color theory.

SUE SUMS UP


Having a background in animation, and working on a number of creature shows such as The Golden Compass, Sue Rowe delighted in the chance to work on The Maze Runner. She notes, “The whole team at Method was determined to make every shot look as good as possible. Our team of artists may have had to work on a challenged budget, but we never let that appear on the screen. I hear Fox are very happy with the result and I am looking forward to the next collaboration with them and working with Wes Ball again.”


Keywords

  • Characters
  • Environments
  • FX
  • Concept
  • Compositing
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