By Lindsey Bahr
Updated August 15, 2014 at 10:46 PM EDT
  • Movie

When Wes Ball finished reading The Maze Runner, the first book in James Dashner’s hugely popular trilogy about a group of teenage boys mysteriously imprisoned by the sky-high walls of a seemingly impossible-to-crack maze, his mind started spinning as he began to think about what Dashner’s world would look like. He hadn’t even signed on to direct the movie yet, but, with a background in VFX it just seemed natural.

“I went and pulled up some of the 3D assets I made for Ruin,” Ball says of his arresting 2012 short about a post-apocalyptic universe. “This one image was kind of my way into the story: This little concept image of this kid standing back-lit against the sun with these huge towering walls behind him. It was like Lord of the Flies. It’s dark and edgy and messy.”

For the uninitiated, Lord of the Flies is perhaps the best way to think of this particular story about a group of boys living in the Glade in the center of a hostile maze that’s teeming with deadly, Alien-like creatures called Grievers. The guys, who welcome a fellow prisoner every month, have created a tenuously stable society. When the rebellious Thomas (Teen Wolf‘s Dylan O’Brien) arrives, however, the once-predictable maze starts behaving erratically, and the hunt for answers as to why they’re all trapped there becomes even more urgent.

As $100+ million production budgets become standard for young adult adaptations, the teams behind smaller movies like The Maze Runner need to really work to stand out, especially when designing a world this elaborately imagined. Here’s how Ball and his F/X team brought the tricky geography of Dashner’s world to the screen.

Ball started by drawing his own rendering of the full maze.

“James had described it as basically a bunch of boxes arranged like a square,” says Ball. “I had this idea that I thought was really cool of almost mirroring a clock that would essentially count down.” Ball is intensely modest about his artistic prowess and ability to visualize and create entire worlds, but even this drawing served as the blueprint for a mini-model of the maze that some of the boys have mapped out based on their explorations.

And despite a limited budget, Ball wholeheartedly embraced the challenge of crafting a maze that was as real as possible. “I wanted to make it feel like it was believable, that it wasn’t just magic,” he says. “This isn’t a Harry Potter maze. We tried to ground it in as much reality as we could.”

He started with the height of the walls. “In the books he says they’re 400 feet. When I started doing my pre-vis stuff, I could design walls that were 400 feet, but what I found was, if they were 400 feet, you couldn’t fit them in the frame. It wasn’t an interesting shot,” he says. “We ended up in that zone of 100 to 150 feet, which felt massive enough that you felt like you were in a prison, but they weren’t so big that it was like we were looking at concrete the whole movie.” The maze, he says, is made more threatening, more imposing by being aware of the tops of the walls.

“I wanted to make sure we had lots of different flavors of maze,” says Ball, who created a logic to the look of the maze as you get further removed from the center. Closer to the Glade, “everything’s very organic and overgrown and concrete; then it starts to become a little more metal and you feel like you’re seeing the mechanics of the maze itself. Then you get further out to the edges and you really find the sci-fi of the maze.” He adds: “It’s like a machine they’re entering in to.”

Dashner’s text also describes a maze that also never takes the same shape twice, which is a nice, provocative idea in a book, but Ball wanted a reasonable explanation of why this was so.” We couldn’t just have walls moving willy nilly everywhere,” he laughs. “That’s where I came up with this grid pattern [not pictured]. It kind of reminds me of that Plinko game from The Price Is Right.”

But perhaps the most innovative aspect of Ball’s shoot is the fact that he opted for authenticity wherever possible. Sure, it relies heavily on effects. Ball didn’t shy away from the green screen here and there, but the Glade is an actual field in Baton Rouge, La., where they built huts and gardens to fully create the world in which the boys live. Ball also found a demolished hotel foundation where they set up a makeshift maze and little markers so that they could film in real sunlight and on real concrete. And where they did have the ability to make a small section of maze, Ball got experimental with camera angles and made some of the more elaborate chase sequences look as though they’re taking place around an infinite number of different corners in the maze.

“I wanted them to have real sweat on their faces,” Ball says, which ultimately wasn’t much of an issue. Sometimes, he says, “it was 100 something degrees and they’d be running full sprint all day long. That was really fun stuff but it was tough stuff.”

The Maze Runner hits theaters on Sept. 19.

The Maze Runner

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 114 minutes
  • Wes Ball