The new Scorch Trials film is based on the second young-adult book of the Maze Runner saga by James Dashner and continues the story of the Maze escapees or 'Gladers' in a dystopian science fiction future with a near horror plot line of control, 'zombie' like Cranks and evil WCKD plots. These plots actually differ somewhat from the original novel in the film although the overall arc is similar. The screenplay was be written by T.S. Nowlin under supervision of director Wes Ball.
Ball was given a chance to paint on a much bigger canvas this time, both in budget and in plot line. While the first film could not reveal much in the way of epic wide shots, as the whole point of the story was that the Gladers could not see the bigger picture of the Maze, in this film, open space and epic landscapes were critical to the story. "The visual concept of it was exciting to me ... I loved the idea that they were out of the Maze but they are still lost, and they see a horizon line all around them finally but they are still lost and they have no idea what is happening to them or where they are going," explained Ball.
You can hear our Mike's one on one interview discussing the film with Director Wes Ball which you can listen to on our fxpodcast.
Above: watch exclusive breakdowns from Weta Digital in this WIRED Design FX video produced by fxguide.
Ball is by all accounts both highly committed to these films and very hands on. While some directors might "tie themselves in knots" over creative decision, Ball actually had himself hung. Mid way through the film, our heroes are caught and captured. Ball had the idea for the audience to next see our team hanging upside down awaiting their fate. To make sure it was not too uncomfortable for the actors, Ball first had the stunt team string him up, before he broke the news to the cast that they would need to hung up for at least two days of shooting.
Of course, no one would survive - yet alone be able to act - for extended periods hanging upside down, so the crew would set everything and then at the last minute hoist up the cast - film, and lower them again between takes. Everyone on the cast was keen to contribute, although a few started getting sick by the end and had to be body doubled with stunt guys, but on the whole all the cast the audience sees hanging upside down are really the actors.
To realize the world worn down by solar flares, a loss of top soil, and punishing sand dunes, Ball was joined by visual effects veteran Richard Hollander, who's worked with Pixar, Rhythm and Hues, Robert Abel & Assoc. and his own company VIFX. Ball, who himself is formerly a vfx artist and very technically literate, enjoyed working with Hollander, whose film credits span Titanic to Die Hard, from Speed to the China Syndrome and Blade Runner. Hollander even won a Sci-tech Oscar for his work on developing Wavefront software.
Ball was also delighted to be able to work with Weta Digital for the first time. "It was a dream to work with them," he commented. Chris White served as visual effects supervisor for Weta. It is unusual these days for a film to be just with one vendor but it worked very well on this production. Hollander was really happy that Weta felt they could do all the work needed in the film, which spanned from extensive environments to creature work, rig removal, set extension and motion captured digi-doubles.
The film started right on the heels of the first film, with previs at The Third Floor. Hollander, as the production Visual Effects Supervisor, joined the second week of pre-production. "At that time Wes had done a significant amount of pre-viz," he says. "The context for me was the first conversation with Wes, I wanted to know his goals, and the first thing I asked was 'are we grounded? Are we real - where is the camera?' - as that usually sets up everything."
In the first Maze Runner film the camera never revealed much more than characters in the story could know, as such the Maze is only ever seen at the end in a wide shot as the team are helicoptered out. In the first film the camera was very much 'around the actors'. "Ball doesn't like to let the camera get too third person and even more so on this film the Scorch Trials," says Hollander. Ball himself felt that in the first film he got pretty good at doing two character scenes, and having that look interesting on screen, but the challenge for this film was dealing with many more 6 or 7 person scenes and making sure everyone had a purpose in the shot. This wider space set the tone for effects work. "I was so excited that they could see a horizon," Hollander recalls, commenting that the director said to him in pre-production, "'I was so closed up - in this one I get to be open' - he loved that contrast (between the two films)'".
Chris White told fxguide that, unlike in many desolate worlds, the Scorch Trials city was not overgrown with plant life, as it had been destroyed by a combination of solar activity and sand storms. This meant that it was very different from say the world of Planet of the Apes which was lost into vegetation, but Weta's pipeline is designed around huge productions and White was able to use many of the simulation tools in a slightly different way on Scorch Trials. Richard Hollander was always determined that the whole city be built in 3D and not to use matte paintings even for the distant ruins. The new Weta Manuka renderer managed to provide an opportunity to render the entire city in one group thus producing very accurate lighting and shadowing.
Interestingly, to build the realism, Weta decided on many buildings to model the complete building and then run destruction simulations to get the correct ruins, with accurate collapsed sections and plausible ruins. This approach of doing things procedurally extended to the texturing. While there was of course strong artist guidance and involvement, much of the weathering was done by fluid sims and particle effects - to produce accurate stains and rust marks, even though by the time the film is set the world is barren and dry. "Weta effectively spray painted with particles and that meant that procedurally in the comp we could add all this cool streaking and grading - it is really smart - they could crank around stuff so fast... it was fascinating to work with them" commented the director."
Given how lifeless the city is, the old trick of a flock of birds in the distance was not going to be believable so the team decided to add scale and some movement with flapping pieces of trash and plastic instead. Here again the Weta team did not just arbitrarily add elements but instead covered the building in a type of 'sock - cloth' simulation so that the caught and blowing material would be realistic and only catch on things that logically worked. The technique ended up being extremely effective in giving life and movement to a city that had none. The particle texturing system working in sync with Weta's MARI pipeline and their tri-planar textures to produce vast CG landscapes all correctly lit and rendered without compromise.
Hollander was adamant that the actors be shot with actual sunlight even when shooting greenscreen for these massive environments. "That was my choice but it was also Wes' choice. The main idea was if we are exterior - they are exterior - whether if there is a greenscreen or not, once you do that you take your lighting cues from that (real environment), there are issues shooting interior for daytime exterior plates. Stages aren't big enough, you can't get the lights far enough away - the fall off is ridiculous by the inverse square law. It is all wacky when you go on a stage - night is a whole other game - as it will always be artificial light, even on location".
But as it happened, even the end camp sequence was shot on location. "It was freezing," joked Hollander, "but it pays off - you get a consistent feel". In the new film, apart from one helicopter on the ground when the film starts, all the helicopters were CGI and that included the WCKD large transport 'Berg Ship' which featured in the end sequence.
The environment work and set extension really came into play when Thomas and Brenda get separated from the rest of the group, in a scene nicknamed the "leaning building sequence". While the actors did shoot some of the work 40 ft up over a green screen - on a glass panels, the set was not as big as Hollander would have liked and Weta needed to do work to really give the sequence the scale it needed. "That scene went through the biggest dramatic change, what we shot on was a V shaped channel with debris that the production designer did a good job putting in there - but literally there is hardly anything else - it was a very small real set that had to be augmented with the rest. Weta did a spectacular job with that."
As the Cranks are chasing the two heroes, what set there was was also sometimes removed and replaced with digital props so the Cranks could grab on to rumble or react to loose material and falling sections. Some of the staircase sequence ended up as entirely CG sequences. There is no digital double work on Thomas and Brenda, but they did have rigs on for safety and Hollander had nothing but praise for the paint and roto team at Weta. The team removed the stunt double (in a grey suit), before adding the Crank. "In one case," says Hollander, "the stunt guy is hardly in the same place as where we ended up needing to put the crank. It is just a spectacular job of replacing the background. Very difficult to do - when he is pulling Brenda's leg - just a ton of work." Looking back Hollander reflects, "I would say the tracking guys and the roto reconstruction work are just brilliant."
The other aspect of environment work that Weta needed to solve was the actual scorch or sand dunes. For all the sand dunes the heroes are seen climbing, on the actual shoot Director Wes Ball only had three actual dunes. Weta worked hard to produce very accurate shaders and sand simulation, with studio head Joe Letteri getting personally involved to bring his eye to the problem. Chris White points out that the notion of sand is very easy to imagine but the actual way it reacts to light especially with wind and dust blowing over it is actually much more complex than one might first think.
The Cranks are people who have been infected with the 'Flare', a plague brought on from the Solar Flare activity. The mysterious and powerful organization known as WCKD has been studying our heroes to find a cure for the Flare. While WCKD hunt down our heroes for enzymes in their brains enhanced from being under the stress of the Maze, the infected Cranks hunt down anything for fresh blood from rats to our heroes. On at least three occasions in the film, our heroes need to outrun and outwit the Cranks. The zombie like Cranks were classed into three stages, from infected to full blown consumed tree like zombies. The first two stages were special effects make up by Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. This last stage Hollander knew would always need to be fully CG.
For Weta, the visual reference for the Cranks was based in part on a real disease called Subcutaneous Horn, where a calcified growth, not unlike a horn, that develops on the face or body of an infected person or even animal. Harsh in its appearance, this was then crossed with an internally growing organic creature. The results are a fresh take on a very old visual problem. This was aided by the notion that the Cranks were more than just being infected and had organisms growing inside them. There was a version of the Cranks too repulsive even for Ball and Hollander, and thankfully audiences were spared from having that version on the big screen, as the team decided to pull back just enough to not lose the film into a full horror/gore genre.
In technical terms, the production and the tracking vfx team took advantage of the new Alexa 4:3 camera by using spherical lenses not anamorphic lenses as the new Alexa was designed for. The director only wants the world to see the film in 2.35 aspect ratio, but films such as this are normally finished to a taller 16:9 format (so there could be a TV version without panning or scanning). But both the 16:9 and the wide screen cinema master are only ever 2880 pixels wide. Given the Alexa 4:3 has 3414 x 2198 active pixels (Open Gate), or a 4:3 native aspect, the team could shoot hand held and if they needed to stabilize the shots, re-position anything or just wanted to see more of the set for better camera tracking, they had 18% extra frame to work with and even more if you only consider the wide screen 2.35 version.
"What this meant in the DI and sometimes in vfx was that I had 10-15% left or right to either move out, move over, pan left or right - to stabilize, to do whatever I wanted, to really have a lot of control over the final framing - it was so addictive. It is a really powerful thing to have," explained Ball. Hollander also points out that the spherical lenses have less chromatic aberration and work much better for effects work.
(Hear more about the grading and color spaces for this film including Dolby Vision from Wes Ball in this week's fxpodcast - at about the 25min mark)
Interestingly, while Wes Ball himself has a very strong visual effects background, for his VFX supervisor it was the director's production design skills that caught Hollander by surprise. "It is one thing to be savvy about visual effects it is another thing to really have a strong driving force about color, special arrangements and the magnitude of what someone wants to do. When I first met him, he showed me his 'mash-up' (photoshopped concept art) - and from day one...he has a great eye and a great vision. And it is not from just a blocking point of view - it gets down to detail," says Hollander.
In terms of the visual effects Hollander really wanted a collaborative environment with Weta and the director. "It was a great experience, their contributions kept us active and they came up with a few really good suggestions and really good shots. They would come back a few versions on things and really contributed."
BONUS PREVIS INTERVIEW - The Third Floor
The Third Floor's previs and postvis supervisor on Scorch Trials Jourdan Biziou tells fxguide how the world of the film, key action sequences, and the Leaning Building, were accomplished.
fxg: Can you give me an overview of the major scenes involving previs work?
Biziou: Our team worked extensively on many sequences in the movie, including scenes in the bunker, crank tunnel and crank pit as well as the Scorch journey, camp attack, opening sequence and ending. One of the most complex sequences we worked on was the Leaning Building.
The main purpose of the previs was to support director Wes Ball and the whole production team in visualizing action sequences that relied heavily on visual effects or stunt coordination. We also created techvis to facilitate coordination and communication between the visual effects, production designer and art departments. This included working with Visual Effects Supervisor Richard Hollander to create green screen cards of specific dimensions and place them in the previs set behind the known set pieces that were being built. We also worked with the production design department to make sure any digital extensions of the floor and walls, as well as dimensions of the shooting stage, were accounted for in the previs.
fxg: Would you say there was a certain style established in the previs, in terms of camera movement, editing and beats?
Biziou: Yes, Wes wanted to get a certain feeling with the camera, a naturalistic immersive feeling. He wanted camera movements that were grounded in realism and could be done in the real world by an actual camera operator. We worked with him first on blocking out the sequences and then added detail progressively, changing camera compositions to more tightly follow the action. Our previs editor, Krisztian Majdik, helped establish timing and flow, and then when Wes felt the scene was in line with his vision, he would use it as a template to capture that action on set and have the flexibility to alter things spontaneously in the moment.
fxg: How did you approach the desolate environments in previs? How much detail would you put in for destroyed buildings and areas, and how was this modeled?
Biziou: We had a pretty good idea right from the start about the general look Wes was going for. He was incredibly helpful in compiling a “look book” that we referenced throughout production. The look book contained some concept artwork with compositions that had a scope to them that spoke of vastness -- photos of deserts, buildings in decay, earthquake destruction and the like. Motoki Nishii, our asset department supervisor, and several other asset creators at The Third Floor built the previs models in Maya with various levels of detail. The hero assets would be the closest to camera, with lighter assets in the mid- and background. Everything was textured, lit and accentuated with naturalistic effects, such as blowing dust and aged layers.
For the Leaning Building sequence, we created a very extensive model with three sections: the lower half where Thomas and Brenda first enter through the different levels and flattened floors; a stairwell section and a separate floor section where Brenda fights the crank. For the Scorch crossing and Jorge Layer sequences, we had a significant amount of concept art to work with that we incorporated into the previs. Production design supervisor Dan Dorance and Andrew Max Cahn, the supervising art director, created some really great artwork for us for many of our sequences. We also had a wonderful, architecturally accurate model of the rail yard created by Brook Peters, one of the other fantastic set designers we had the pleasure to work with. This later made creating techvis on this sequence much faster as we already knew it was accurate to the location.
fxg: Can you break down previs for the creature shots - how did you impart a sense of danger in these shots?
Biziou: This was a really fun process. Wes is an amazing director to work with on many levels. For the cranks, he was very energetic and excited to get up and act things out with me and my previs lead, Heather Flynn, on site in New Mexico. We would talk about what the virus was doing to those characters, how it literally made them seem like meth-ed out zombies, twitching and freaked out. They had no sense of self preservation; their goal was to capture, infect and kill as quickly as they could.
Heather and I worked out positions with tape on the floor and then sent a video of us playing out that action so the rest of our team in Los Angeles could all be on the same page with Wes’ vision. Wes was also very clear that he wanted to have the lighting be very important with our previs, too. We only used lights that were present in a given scene. No rim lights, or fill that was not motivated. So in the crank tunnel, in particular, this was essentially shot with high-powered flashlights, which gave an instant feeling of reality, claustrophobia and danger. Add in freaky movements and you had a scary situation from which you want to run!
fxg: What postvis did you do for the Leaning Building?
Biziou: We did postvis on several sequences, with the Leaning Building being one of the larger ones. Postvis included updating our previs assets to better suit the look of the plates. We adjusted the floor layout and added digital set extensions, as well as cranks chasing Thomas and Brenda. We also did work at the end sequence, adding helicopter blades and soldiers blasting with their stunners. Jorge Layer was another fun sequence for postvis, where we worked with the live footage to show the structure falling apart.
Perhaps the most challenging postvis sequence was the Leaning Building. This was mainly due to a reworking on the ground floors and interior space. Wes and our amazing visual effects supervisor, Richard Hollander, thought it would be stronger if we saw more of the supporting structures holding up the floors, and not just have it be an obstacle course the characters were traversing through. Working with Richard, we flipped the floor layout and rebuilt our ground level environment, and then proceeded to add the set extensions.
The Maze Runner will return with Wes Ball directing The Death Cure in 2017. The Scorch Trials is in cinemas now.
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