Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner features complex maze environments and even more complex creatures – all requiring meticulous planning to bring to the screen. Previs and postvis would help the filmmakers prepare for the live action shoot in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and then aid Method Studios and other VFX shops in creating intricate visual effects shots involving the moving maze and the mechanical Grievers. We talk to John Griffith, who was previs director at 20th Century Fox on the show, and Jourdan Biziou, The Third Floor’s previs supervisor, about the film.
Griffith worked early on with Ball and his visual effects team on exploring ideas for the Glade and the Grievers, using a game engine approach. “It was the perfect film to put Crytek’s Cinebox software through its paces,” says Griffith. “I had been developing it for almost four years prior, having developed it on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. By then the pipeline had become a very smooth process. It has sped up the process of creating previs and added a whole other level of quality and realism to the work we produce.”
– A top down view of the Glade reveal. Watch more previs videos showing Griffith’s work here.
Griffith’s team worked on the Fox lot in LA while production was based in Louisiana. But the visual effects team could still explore the virtual Glade set in real time across the internet with a remote workflow. “For the Glade we took LIDAR data provided by production and created an accurate landscape that reflected the shooting location in Louisiana,” adds Griffith. “This allowed everyone to see exactly how much of the maze walls would be visible from just about any angle on set. We were also able to provide an accurate time of day sequence and ‘tours’ of the Glade based on the month and day of the year the shooting would take place. This gave accurate shadow placements based on where the Glade walls would be if they really existed.”
– Previs used to help to determine where to place bluescreens.
The Third Floor’s previs aided in filming exterior shots of the wall of the maze, too. “There was a set number of wall pieces in various shapes,” says Biziou, “so we were able to configure the maze and set up virtual previs cameras that helped the filmmakers determine what could be shot practically and what would need to be a digital extension. Initially we started with schematics of different maze sections based on our practical wall sections. We had little animations of where characters were with numbered walls, sort of like watching a GPS of your car on a map overlay on the actual shots. When we hit a limit on wall sections, we then used the same sections in other configurations so we could continue the action and give the scope of a larger maze.”
Inside the maze, The Third Floor also created previs that reflected the director’s desire to use realistic camera movement, as Biziou explains: “It was hand held, visceral and with movements that could be filmed with real equipment, gear, and people rather than video game-like shots. There is a very dramatic section where Thomas and Minho are running through the maze as it drastically changes all around them. Wes had a very good idea of where he wanted the characters to go, so we jumped in the sandbox and previsualized ideas about how to get them through the madness around them. We knew they had to get from one place to another, so it was really a matter of coming up with cool and exciting moments then cutting the previs shots together to see if the flow worked. Wes has a very strong background in visual effects as you can see in his short Ruin. He created a mockup of the maze that we used as the basis for the size, scope and placement of elements that we built upon and expanded in our previs assets. From there, we were like kids in the candy shop, collaborating to try ideas until the previs was locked.”
Griffith’s team delved early also into Grievers motion tests. “We were able to take the source ZBrush model designed for the film,” he says, “and implement it into Cinebox so that we could explore the way the creature moved and for how the eyes and body might emit luminescence.”
– The Grievers attack
The Third Floor would focus on mostly gross Griever movements as the studio continued to design shots. “At this stage,” notes Biziou, “we were interested in the compositions and timing of where the creatures were in relation to the characters and wall dimensions. We based our previs rigs on concept art, with designs Wes evolved over time until he got the creepy and biomechanical look he wanted. During postvis more fleshed out movements of the creatures came into play. And of course there was the fantastic work by Method to produce the final creatures.”
As Biziou mentions, postvis was a big part of The Third Floor’s work on the film. “There is an extensive sequence we worked on that had many shots with the Grievers,” he says. “They shot a lot of hand held, very fast-paced footage on blue screen. Even with tracking markers it was the most challenging material we worked on. In postvis, we tracked the shots, removed the blue screen and animated the creatures into the scene to create temp versions for the scene.”
Biziou notes, too, that working with a director such as Ball with a rich history of VFX and CG experience, was a very satisfying experience. “Wes and the film’s visual effects supervisor, Eric Brevig, are great talents. The whole show was an amazing joy to collaborate on. Wes has such a great mind for visual storytelling, and one day he sent over a wonderful video that was a literal look into the maze. He had created a mockup of the maze and geography, so he was able to not only communicate his ideas with words but also visually walk us through his thought process about where certain actions could happen. He had created little mini animations and sketched things out. To work with a director with that kind of visual vocabulary was great! His enthusiasm was very contagious.”