When the decision came to revive 90s Channel 4 game show The Crystal Maze with new host Richard Ayoade, it made sense to get some of the original team back together – and set designer James Dillon was more than happy to rejoin the fun.
“I did the original Crystal Maze, so it was great to be asked back to both recreate the old series and create the new ones,” Dillon told RadioTimes.com.
“Luckily I had a lot of the original drawings from the first series, stored in a dusty box in my attic. So we were able to get those out and get them into production, which saved a lot of time and I suspect a lot of money as well.”
A scale planning model of the new Crystal Maze Aztec Zone
And luckily for us, Dillon was happy to discuss exactly how he recreated the iconic Aztec, Medieval, Industrial and Futuristic Zones, which while largely based on the original set have some subtle and some not-so-subtle differences in the new series.
“We’re in a different space, so we’ve had to adapt the kind of sets and what we do in the space,” he told us. “But I’ve tried to keep a very similar look to the various zones we’ve got, because people are very familiar with that.”
To paraphrase a well-known quote: could you start the plans, please?
The Industrial Zone
The Bottle Yard, Bristol, before The Crystal Maze set was built
“Obviously because we’re using some of the blueprints and design plans from the original series, it’s not like I’m starting from scratch,” Dillon said. “Immediately we kind of know what we were talking about in terms of space.
“Once we found that space it was then a question of adapting the sets we knew we wanted to do to fit, because it’s a different shape and a different size to what we had originally.”
The chosen location for the new Maze (Bristol’s Bottle Yard Studios, pictured above) ended up being incorporated into the new Industrial Zone, thanks to its handy architecture.
The original Industrial Zone
“With the particular space we found, the Bottle Yard in Bristol, we were very keen to try and incorporate some of the structure of the building into the set,” Dillon explained.
“It lent itself to areas like Industrial, because it was basically an industrial space, an old factory. So we were able to incorporate columns, pipes and duct work that already existed and bring those into the set to make them feel bigger and more real.”
The Medieval Zone
The new Medieval Zone
“My starting point was that we wanted to try and create the feeling of a castle-y dungeon again,” Dillon said of the recreated Medieval Zone, which apparently required a bit of a rethink for its big TV comeback.
“One of the things we didn’t need to do originally was concentrate too much on what the floor looked like in there. What we did was paint the floor to look like stonework, and then disguise it. What we did this time was lay layers of MDF and create stonework floor so that it would all feel much more realistic.
“There are cameras that are more high-definition now, so detail that we didn’t need to worry about too much the first time we had to concentrate on and bring the reality of this time.”
Part of the design for the new Medieval Zone
Still, in the end the effort apparently paid off, with the finished Zone apparently so frightening that at least one contestant had to take a little break from the action.
“Contestants often feel quite creeped out in there because it’s a bit scary-looking,” Dillon told us. “One contestant got freaked out and had to leave the game because it was scary in there, so she had to come out and have a bit of a break before she went back in. Somebody’s doing their job right!”
Crystal Maze purists need not worry – an awful lot of this Zone was carefully designed to match the look of the 90s series, with some props actually coming from the original TV Medieval Zone after decades in storage.
The new Medieval Zone
“Most things were newly-resourced there,” Dillon said. “We recreated the original hourglass timers. We had those made specially so we could have the times we wanted.
“Some candelabras were available from the original series that we managed to find. Everything else is pretty much a recreation of what we had in there before.”
The Future/Futuristic Zone
A shot of the Future Zone in London’s live Crystal Maze experience
Uniquely among all the zones, the remade Future Zone changed a lot for the new series, with a combination of the new space and other factors contributing to a complete overhaul of the area.
“The Future Zone is the one we did this time from scratch,” Dillon said. “I was able to change some of the rooms to be bigger than I originally intended to accommodate the scale of the games we wanted to put into them.
“On the whole we tried to scale up the games; they’re more ambitious than they were originally, so they needed different kinds of spaces.”
Set designer James Dillon on the new Crystal Maze
The look of the area also got a tune-up, after Dillon realised that the original 90s Zone no longer passed muster in front of modern audiences.
“Nothing dates quite like the future!” Dillon said. “The original was very broken down and aged, and kind of a very disparate view of the future. This one’s a much cleaner, whiter, silver view of the future. A brighter future.”
The Aztec Zone
The new Crystal Maze’s Aztec Zone
But it was in travelling to the past that Dillon faced his greatest challenges of all, with the Aztec Zone causing all sorts of problems for the production team – just as it had on the original run.
“Aztec is always the hardest of the Zones to do – it was originally and it was this time around,” Dillon told us.
“One of the games rooms that we did has something like 4,000 gallons of water in it. That’s a massive amount of water to put in a set; it also has to be heated and filtered because people are going to potentially fall into it.
“We have something like 20 tonnes of sand, which is something you don’t normally put in a studio! Sand gets everywhere as well – you have to keep sweeping it up, and it gets walked into all the other Zones. It’s a real pain. Before we shoot in the Future Zone, we have to sweep it to give it a fresh clean look.”
“There are also a lot of plants as well in that set, which creates problems,” he went on. “We’ve got a mixture of artificial and real plants, probably 150 to 200 of them. But because we’re in a working studio with no real light, at the end of the day on a Friday we have to take all the real plants out and water them, give them light on the weekend. And then go in early and get them back in place again so they’re ready to go. Otherwise they’d all be dead in about two weeks.”
The logistical difficulties didn’t end there, partly because of one crucial difference between the Aztec Zone and all the others – it’s supposed to be outside.
“It’s also the hardest to do because it’s kind of an exterior,” Dillon explained. “Designing sets in the studio while making them feel like they’re outside is quite tricky both in terms of the set and the lighting.
“We had a mass of scenic artists painting a 1600 square feet cloth, which creates this skyline that you can run above the set.”
Still, all these struggles didn’t mean that the team weren’t able to slip in a few changes, some of which were forced upon them by circumstance and some intended as an improvement on the original Zone.
“In the original series we had an entrance way which was a river, and we couldn’t recreate that this time because of space and budget constraints,” Dillon revealed.
“But we did put in, at the suggestion of Neil the producer, a waterfall to use as an entrance to a passageway out of the zone (pictured below).
“All the walls, which were originally in polystyrene, are now in polyurethane, which gives a much more realistic feel – and it’s much more resilient.”
And finally – The Crystal Dome
Of course, the coup de grace of both the new and original Crystal Maze HAS to be the ticket-scattering Crystal Dome, which was rumoured to never really work in the original series and has been given a significant makeover for the new episodes.
“The Dome, which is the beginning and the end of the show – we’ve tweaked that quite a lot,” Dillon told us. “I think the dome looks really sensational now.”
However, he deflected rumours of the original Dome’s inefficiency, suggesting that it usually fulfilled its purpose – blowing gold and silver tickets around while contestants try to stuff them into boxes at the close of the show – admirably.
“I think it does work. I don’t know about temperamental!” Dillon told RadioTimes.com. “It was always entertaining to watch people. I think this one now works very well indeed.”
He added: “The company that built the original dome were involved in manufacturing it, and the company who did the fans were also involved.
“So we’ve got a sort of continuity as well, which is nice for people who made the original show.”
Old friends teaming up to build ridiculous contraptions in a variety of scenarios? If that’s not classic Crystal Maze we don’t know what is.
The Crystal Maze begins on Channel 4 this Friday 23rd June at 9pm