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22nd June 2017

New Zones: Behind the Scenes look at Crystal Maze Reboot

In the words of Eminem – guess who’s back, back again? The Crystal Maze, that’s who. After the success of the Stand Up to Cancer episode last year, The Crystal Maze Reboot will be aired Friday 23rd June on Channel 4 at 9pm.

More than 30,000 people applied to take part in the 90s cult show remake this year that will have 20-episodes, five of which will be celebrity specials and one a Christmas special.

Comedian / filmmaker Richard Ayoade will be at the helm guiding the first round of celebrities around 41 brand new games. The first round of celebs are likely to make things interesting – who doesn’t want to see flamboyant Louie Spence scream like a girl as he dances his way through the challenges, while Vicky Pattison shits herself and Lydia from Towie breaks a nail and proclaims ‘awmygawd’? However, as handmade escape game designers, what we are really excited about is the work that has gone into the redesigned zones.

We bring you a behind the scenes look at the new Crystal Maze zones, including exclusive comment from set designer James Dillon on his love for immersive experience…

What are these new Crystal Maze zones you speak of?

The zones are actually the same in concept, players will still be tentatively making their way through the Medieval, Industrial, Aztec and Future areas – but the sets had to be rebuilt from scratch for the new show, which gave them an opportunity to include some added twists and improvements in a major refurb.

While a one-off filming for the Stand Up to Cancer Crystal Maze special last year was possible at the live experience site in London, for a full series, Channel 4 needed to move to a new more viable location. The original designer of the Crystal Maze set, James Dillon, explains:

“I wasn’t involved in the shooting of the special but I believe there are great difficulties in shooting the show in that space. It’s not designed for television, so getting the cameras in and around all the sets and into the games and generally in the zones was very difficult… So as a result of that, Channel 4 were keen to see if they could explore doing a full-scale version of the Crystal Maze, bring it back, and that’s when I got involved.”

Back to the drawing board with a new location

Luckily when the producers called on him for his help James still had his original sketches. “The producers asked me to come in with whatever drawings I had of the original sets and talk them through how we did it, and just explain what the upsides and downsides would be of building a new one. And building a new one was exactly what we ended up doing.”

We know the hard work it takes to build an escape room, so we can only imagine the level of pressure on this scale. We wanted to know more so got in touch with James to get more insight into the build, he said:

“There were months of discussions with producers on what to keep the same for the shows fans and what to change in order to refresh the look of the show and interest a new generation. Then concepting and modelling the new future zone at the same time as having all the other sets being built.”

In a recent BBC article James also explained that “all of the zones are quite epic and quite filmic in terms of the size of the sets, and that’s really exciting – to work on something of that scale… But it’s also quite worrying, because what’s involved is a lot of people and a lot of time and money, and it’s all a countdown to the thing being filmed so the pressure can be high to get everything ready and working on time.”

The Aztec zone in particular was very labour intensive “It took almost three weeks to build it up because it’s almost brick-by-brick.” 

Now, let’s delve into this gamer’s fantasy and have a good perve over the new twists to the zone designs.

The Medieval zone – new realistic floor

The darkest and moodiest of zones lit by candles and flaming torches, the key change is a more realistic-looking floor. James said:

“I think the original one was just a painted floor on an aircraft hangar with some straw over it, but it’s now a completely flagstone floor which makes it feel a bit more real and locked together…And that goes into the games rooms as well, so everything feels of apiece.” 

The Future zone – less dystopian, more spectacular 

The plan for this zone was to really open up the space to allow for bigger scale games that are more physical, but James explains that he also wanted to move away from the original broken down dystopian look and create a more spectacular scene. To do this they used a lot of LED lights and screens so they can play with the visuals.

“Now the vision is very clean, pristine, quite antiseptic – it’s like the neighbourhood has come up a bit.”

The Industrial zone – factory elements and knocked down walls

The location is a factory, so when it came to the redesign of The Industrial zone, Dillon decided to use existing factory elements and knock down some walls to enable crane shots. In the 90s this kind of scene was familiar, but James feels like ‘it’s almost like a period set now’.

“There’s so few elements from the original in daily life now. So much industrial landscape has disappeared, we don’t do industry so much in this country anymore… So it’s almost like a period thing now that you look back on and go, ‘oh yes, that’s what it used to be when you went to a factory or an industrial landscape.”

The Aztec zone – more detail for high definition filming

In the 90s the filming wasn’t that great, so the team were able to use a few cheap tricks to bring the Aztec zone to life. Now of course viewers will be watching through high definition, so the primary focus for the redesign was quality and detail.

“We’re now talking about high definition large TVs which everybody has in their house. So we’ve had to try and make sure that everything on set is as high quality as it can be. We can’t get away with any cheap and cheerful tricks anymore.”

Somewhat of a high-maintenance zone, while some of the plant-life is artificial there are still real plants that they need to take out of the studio every weekend for light and water.  

“One of the problems is you’re shooting three or four weeks on a darkened stage, and the plants would die if you’re not careful.”  

The Crystal Dome – modern vibe with more lights 

The Crystal Dome looks like it’s had a visit from the Fairy Godmother with a complete makeover. There are also more lights and fans than a Beyonce concert – well perhaps not but you get our drift. Unfortunately though it is no longer the centre of attention. The sand from the Aztec zone was too dusty, causing an issue with the fans. Instead they were forced to build the dome on a different stage.

“We had particular problems with the Crystal Dome because there are fans inside it that would suck the sand and dust up into it… It was a nightmare job cleaning it and keeping it sparkling, but because we’ve taken the dome into another studio this time, it’s easier to control it.”

If it’s anything like the sand invasion you experience during ‘sex on the beach’ then we get it – ouch. Good call guys.

More on James Dillon’s inspiration as a creator

We were also curious to find out more about the set designer himself, here is what James Dillon had to say:

What is it about escape games that interests you as a designer? 

In this instance it’s the idea of immersive worlds. Taking a journey through ‘time and space’ which you might fail to complete if you are not smart, clever or skilful enough. 

If you had powers beyond belief and money / time was no object, what world would you create for gamers?

I’d do an MC Esher world…difficult but fun!

what are your thoughts on A growing interest towards experience over stuff?

I think real experiences are the best. A lot of film and TV is all CGI now and audiences will become bored of unreal worlds and effects that only exist in a computer. VR is fun but nothing beats the adrenaline rush of the real thing.

You can view more of James Dillon’s work on his website.

Are you ready to be a-MAZE-d?

Wowsers. We don’t know about you, but getting insight into all of the work behind the show makes us want to watch it even more. Even if we don’t get to see the contestants battle with fan propelled sand in the Crystal Dome – spoiling all the fun.

We are all about escaping digital and enjoying real experiences, but on this one occasion we’ll allow it. Get your beady eyes over to Channel 4 Friday night at 9pm.