Exclusive: Sue Rowe Guides Us Through The Maze Runner's VFX

The first  installment of The Maze Runner continues to do well at the box office. After another successful weekend, the film's total gross is now quickly approaching $100 million, which is an extraordinary financial success given that the film cost $34 million to produce. Investors are already seeing the film's potential to become a bankable franchise similar to other literary-based series like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter. The film's plot, based on James Dashner's popular series, follows a troop of teenagers trapped within the center of an enormous maze with one hundred foot walls. They struggle to form a community while trying to survive the bloody-thirsty Grievers who guard the Maze's exits. However, the arrival of a new person (Dylan O'Brien) also brings some new challenges for the group. The divided leadership struggles to prevent the group  from splintering into separate ilks, leaving it vulnerable to the Grievers. wide shot cont image The Maze Runner is an interesting story with a futuristic Lord of the Flies feel to it, and the actors give a solid effort to bringing the characters to life. However, as anyone who's seen the movie can tell you, its real heroes were the stunning visual effects teams that created the spider-like, bio-mechanical Grievers and the claustrophobia-inducing expansiveness of the Maze's environments. The film's main visual effects vendor was Method Studios who had Sue Rowe and Eric Brevig leaving up the VFX teams. These two industry veterans are not strangers to creature and character films, both with impressive resumes in supervisory positions.We spoke with Sue Rowe over the phone and asked her to guide us through The Maze Runner's VFX shots, which included creating and animating the Grievers along with how they brought the film's environments to life. During our conversation we also got to know more about Sue's VFX background, her thoughts on the current state of the industry, and future projects for her Method team.

Was The Maze Runner your first film with Method? What was the experience like?

Yes, it was my first film at Method. I was actually enticed here by the lovely Shauna Bryan who was the managing director at the time. She and Method had this plan that Method Vancouver’s unique selling point would be character animation and creature work. She actually knew me from the UK. We had met a number of times, and I’d worked on quite a few creature movies. I guess the most high profile would be Golden Compass. So, they kind of encouraged me to come over to Vancouver.

Then we went looking for movies that would suit our new embryonic creature pipeline. Maze Runner came along, and it was just perfect because it had one alien Griever asset and then the Maze, which was a repeatable asset. This was the perfect film for us to begin this new field of creature animation because we had one Griever that we changed the tone and surface texture on for the other twelve. As far as the Maze went, it was a pretty modular build. You build one wall with multiple ivy surfaces and you’ve got the whole repeatable Maze environment.

So, it was great for that reason, but also it’s just a really good book. My daughter had read it. She’s fourteen, and when I came home and said “Oh, I’m pitching on this movie called The Maze Runner.” her face just lit up and she was like “You’ve got to do it! Do it for me!” So, everything just added up.

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Was the Griever’s bio-mechanical structure something of a new approach for you and the VFX team? What did that approach entail?

Well, the truth is that everything is new in visual effects because, even though you may have done it on a previous show, technology would have changed. Things update all the time. Software you used two years ago is, although worthy to learn, is probably a little out of date by the time you get to use it.

The things you take with you are your wits about you and your understanding of how creatures move. Then just knowing that you have to kind of fluff it in some ways. What’s the thing you can do to make it really disgusting and icky or very dynamic in how it moves? So, I brought those things with me, but I hadn’t really done a mechanical character before. But it was exciting and that was one of the things that I really liked.

Wes Ball, the director…he’s like thirty-three, but he looks like he’s seventeen, and he won’t mind me saying that. He loves that. [laughs]…He’s really vibrant. When I first met him, the first thing he started to do was act out how he wanted the Griever to be. He’s doing the sound effects. He’s got his chest inflated and he’s doing the guttural roar. Then there was the script and the book, which describe how the legs move in a very mechanical way, very percussive. That was all I kind of needed for one meeting.

I went back and met my animation director, Eric de Boer, and we had one concept that we looked at by a guy called Ken Barthelmey. It had soft body, whoozy, organic surface, and then the legs were like a spider’s legs with kind of a little steampunk. So, we thought about what sound it would make and how it would move.

That’s were we got the idea of the telescoping legs. Like a crane, they could extend and contract. But they would also have sharp points so that it could skitter and move very fast. But it was still a toning weight. So we had to think about how that heavy weight would move and translate. This gave us a really good platform to start with how the Griever would look.

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Method had 150 character shots and 380 environment shots. Was there much overlap? If so, did you typically try and tackle the environment shots first or character shots?

We actually did the environment shots first mostly because of the complexity of the Griever build. We built the initial Griever in about two months, but that was a very basic prototype for beginning the basic animation. From then on it probably took us six months from start to finish. In that time, it made sense for us to start doing the environment work.

I had a big team. There was about 150 of us. I had a CG supervisor that had done a lot of character work before, and then I had another CG supervisor that had done a lot of environment. So, while we were building the creature, we concentrated on the Glade walls, which had mechanical doors that opened into the Maze, and then the Maze walls. Although they all do sound simple, it actually took a lot of skill because it’s all about implying scale and of course they were covered in organic ivy. It’s actually quite tricky to do as your Houdini expert there will probably testify to. Creating them procedurally is the right way to do it, but getting them to be controllable and look good is where the skill comes in I think.


So, you can set up a really complex system that may be really cool to use, but if you can’t get the look you want out of it, it’s not going to work?


Absolutely. A number of times I’d have conversations with my brilliant artists here and they’d go “But this is really cutting edge, it’s fantastic!” and I’d go, “I know…and I know you’ve worked really hard on this, but it just doesn’t look like organic ivy.” They’d scratch their heads and go off again and come back the next day just as perky and say, “I’ve got this idea…” which is what it’s all about, I think, when you’re an artist. It’s not about this is mathematically correct. It could be mathematically correct, but if it doesn’t look right, it’s not correct.


Can you tell us about the pipeline you used for the environment shots?

We had a really good group of very smart people that we kind of cherry picked from other shows within Method. And we got a few people from the outside. They knew building the environment in Houdini would be the right way to go. However, the challenge for us was that we needed to light it in the same environment that the walls were being built in. The walls were being built in Maya, and we were lighting everything in V-Ray.

One of the things that I’ve found tricky on other shows is with lighting some stuff in Mantra and some stuff in in RenderMan or V-Ray. All of the assets had to feel like they were in the same lighting environment, and if it’s not done well, you can tell that they don’t sit in the same environment no matter how hard you try.

So, we did export geo from Houdini into V-Ray when we needed to have interaction. For example, there’s a moment when the ivy wraps around the Griever and it’s lit with Maya and V-Ray. So, we exported those multiple ivy strands and lit that in V-Ray. That was something smart that the guys did for me so that we could get a good lighting interaction.

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How much freedom did you have with the Maze’s design?

The thing is, Wes Ball the director, had a particular idea about how he wanted the ivy and the walls to look. And that’s good because he’s very smart and he comes from an animation background. He had previously done a film called Ruin, which your audience might be interested to see. It’s all about a ruined city set in the future with a lot of freeways with ivy growing over them, bridges, and stuff. So, he kind of already had a set look of what he wanted.

Wes did previs himself and some concept himself, which is an absolute gift to a VFX company. By the time something gets to a VFX company, we need to be executing it. By the time we get on a show, we need to be going and building. We really shouldn’t be designing. So, that’s why working with Wes was such a blessing because he had great idea about how he wanted it to look.

We built the walls in Maya and used Mudbox to get some extra sculpting. Of course, we were guided by what was on set, although there wasn’t an awful lot. We did have the Maze walls that were built up to 16 feet high. They were covered in silk ivy.

So, at the different stages of the wall building, we lit our scans on the walls without ivy and we lit our scans on the walls with ivy. We took high res texture photography, which needs to be straight and flat onto the surface of the walls. You know you can’t tilt the camera up or down because, texturing wise, it’s used sort of  like wall paper. That meant that we got some really high res details and an idea of how the art department wanted it to be. We got little piles of rubble at the bottom of the walls, and tufts of grass growing out of it.

The challenging thing was the organic ivy that had to grow. On the set, they placed it so it felt like it was growing in and out of the contours in the cracks of the walls. Small dust, tiny bits of Spanish moss, all those things that you build up on set to make it look realistic for the camera. We needed to make sure that that was transferred into our CG world. So, great texture references are compulsory, LIDAR scanning is very important, and a lot of on-set reference photography is great.

The walls only went 16 feet up and we had to extend it by another 85 feet. So, it was all about getting that integration and also making sure that it looked real at that height.

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Was the reason the walls were built that short so that you didn’t have shadowing problems? We’re imagining that you might have actors’ faces with sunshine on half of them and not on the other and you’d be trying to comp that out.

That was only half the problem. The reason they were only built to 16 feet is because we shot a lot of it in a studio that was actually a converted warehouse. The roof itself was only 24 feet. It was actually a nightmare for the DOP to light these environments because film lights need about 3 feet before the ceiling to cast enough light. And then there was the problem of hanging a blue screen, which really should be 12 feet away from what ever it’s in front of at a minimum. So, everything was compromised. No, I would have taken taller walls if I could.

The other challenge we faced was the location of the Glade. The field that we shot in was 900 square meters. By the time you’re shooting on one side of the field that really great 20 x 40 foot blue screen you put up is now barely covering the back of the actor’s head. My collegue Eric Brevig really knows how to light blue and green screens, but the thing I really learned from him was about how to think on your feet. When you’ve got a whole camera crew looking at you, sometimes you can’t fly in a 20 foot blue screen. So you have to think about, “What can we do here? Let’s tilt the camera up so his head is over the sky, an area that we didn’t need to add CG to.”

This wasn’t a big budget movie. You have to think really smart and be fast on your feet. Other times you need to go “No, actually, if you want this to look any good, I need a blue screen there, I need it now, and I need it flatly lit.” You can’t be a primadonna all the time. You have to sort of fight your battles and make sure you get the best of your team coming back. That was the challenge of the blue screen.

You’re absolutely right about the interactive shadows. That was on my mind a lot of the time. You would find the actors would be standing in front of the wall, which should be a hundred feet high, therefore they should be in shadow. But they were actually half in and half out of shadow. Any time I saw that was the moment when I was absolutely, “No, we need to be careful of this. Let’s fly in black tarp to go over the top to cast them in shadow.” By the time CG lab puts their hundred foot wall in, it’s going to be very difficult for the post house to make something half in shadow or half out, or fake that light. That’s the thing that always gives it away.


It’s the director’s favorite phrase, right? “Fix it in post.”

[laughing] Yeah, well you know Wes was actually really cool with that because he comes from a VFX background. He used to make me laugh. There’d be times when he would say, “Oh, Sue there’s a ton of roto over there. I feel really bad.” and I’d say, “Oh, thanks for thinking of me, but let’s not worry about that right now because you’ve got like 15 Grievers in the foreground here and that’s what people are going to be looking at.” So, we learned a lot from each other about the compromises that you have to make. Let’s worry about the big things in the foreground here and let some other things go. I think that just comes from experience.

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What’s been the biggest professional change in your move from Cinesite to Method?

I guess my role didn’t really change because I was a VFX sup in London and a VFX sup here. I actually felt the weight on my shoulders was a little heavier at Method because there was such an expectation to carry this creature movie. But I feel vindicated because the movie did great. It got to number one here in the U.S. and Canada. On the back of that, we got a second movie called “Night at the Museum 3,” which has got a lot of character work. So, my team from Maze rolled straight onto another character film, which was great.

On a personal level, it was really big moving to Vancouver from London. I’d worked in London for 20 years, and it’s hard watching the industry change back there. I don’t want to be too controversial, but a lot of work is moving to Canada. There’s a lot of heartache about that because there’s some brilliant artists in the UK and amazing artists in the U.S. And there’s amazing artists in Canada because they’ve actually got a long history here.

But, like the UK, it’s a transient population. You’d walk into a room in Canada or the UK and there’d be like five different languages being spoken and people are from all over the world. That’s the great thing about VFX. It’s a huge melting pot. People move for projects because we’re all artists and we care about what we’re working on.


Throughout your career, you’ve seen a lot of changes within the VFX industry. What’s the most significant change you’re seeing take place today?

The thing that I like that’s changing is the respect that visual effects is getting. When I first started…too long ago…people were showing up on set and saying, “Hey, who’s this girl? What does she know?” Whereas now, I walk onto a film set and I’ve got a ton of kit with me, and your average director and team on set know that when we turn up with our silver gray balls and HDRI Cameras, it’s for a technical reason: to make the images look as good as they possibly can. So, I think acceptance of what VFX artists do has changed a hell of a lot, and I’m really pleased about that.

I think one of the things that’s changed a lot is tracking software. That’s moving all the time. Back in the day, it was really hard sometimes to get things to sit within a 3D environment because the tracking software just wasn’t as accurate as it could be. Whereas now, there’s multiple ways of doing it. Digital camera’s are changing all the time, and using the ALEXA was brilliant on Maze. I’m looking at Maze 2 now, and we’re also looking into a new camera technology.

Advances all the time are really helping us. Equally, people are pushing those digital boundaries as well. Nobody’s content now just to put a green screen in the background and put a matte painting back there. It’s got to have a move. It’s got to have sweeping moves. It’s got to have dynamic simulations all the way through it. As technology is pushing the boundaries, we’re being pushed by the audiences as well.

As long as we’re all striving for the same things, which is to make things look as visually good as we possibly can. But let’s keep the respect levels high for the VFX artists. They work really, really hard.


What are some of the challenges/advantages of being a woman in a predominantly male industry? Have you seen a rise in females joining VFX/CG department and do you have any advice for young females looking to break into the industry?

Well, I have seen a rise of female VFX artists moving into supervisory roles, which is great. Whenever I can, I do try to encourage some of the female artists on my team to sometimes just speak a little louder. You can be surrounded by 20 guys at a table all coming up with ideas. Again, I’m about to enter into generalizations here, so bear with me. But quite often, those in the minority don’t always speak out. So, when possible, I’ll make an effort to say to women like Sandra, one of my strong 2D leads, “Hey, Sandra, what do you think?” She would always have a considered, balanced view, much like the others, but there wasn’t a fight to speak first. Whenever possible, I try to be aware of that kind of thing within my team.

Yes, I have come across that on set where some people have said in the past, “Hey, when’s your boss gonna get here?” because they think I”m his secretary. Back in the early days, I used to be more shy and perhaps not really accept my own role. Whereas, if someone was to say that to me now, they’d get short change. But it comes from your own belief in yourself as well.


What’s one movie that you wished you had been a part of and why?

I wished I had been a part of Beetlejuice [laughs]. I love that film and I love Tim Burton. I worked with him on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He’s got my loyalty forever for that movie because he’s a genuine genius. I love Beetlejuice. Me and my husband watch that movie, I’m pretty sure, every Christmas and now I’ve got my kids into it. So, yeah, that’s on my wish list: Beetlejuice 2 please, thank you very much. [laughs].


Yeah, you’re already working on The Maze Runner 2, so where’s Beetlejuice 2?

I know…there’s rumors. There’s rumors about that.


In the original movie there wasn’t a lot of CG and VFX but just really great Tim Burton practical effects? There’s something about those that’s really cool.

You know what it is? Tim has a strong visual style, so it doesn’t matter whether he does it with a puppet or whether he does it in CG because his look is unique. I think that’s a lesson for a lot of directors and people who kind of go, “Let’s fix it in post.” You can fix it in post, but if you’ve got a strong director and a strong visual sense, then that will carry through the whole movie. You don’t want to just rely on somebody else just because they sit in front of a computer to make something up for you. It’s all about the artist. Yeah, that’s a great question, and now I really want to do that movie! [laughs]


Well, we’re glad that we inspired you.

Yeah, I’m going to write the script right now. [laughs]


Well, Sue, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us, and we look forward to seeing all of the great VFX work you’re going to be doing in the future.


No, problem. Thank you.