Warning: The following article contains major spoilers for “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.”
Like Minos, the shadow organization that serves as an antagonist in the film, the crew behind Sony’s “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” had to figure out how to raise the stakes with elaborate (and deadly) puzzles in the second installment of the budding horror series.
“We did a lot of very cool ways to kill people in the first movie: fire, gravity, gas, cold,” said director Adam Robitel. “So when I started developing [a sequel], it was challenging because we had ticked a lot of those boxes.”
The film, which is now playing in theaters nationwide, features settings as disparate as a warm New England beach and a bank located in the bowels of New York City. Shot in Cape Town, South Africa, the sequel required full and partial set builds, lots of props and custom pieces like a miles-long backdrop and 20,000 tons of sand. Along with writers Will Honley, Maria Melnik, Daniel Tuch and Oren Uziel and production designer Edward Thomas, Robitel and the crew first determined pairs of locations and threats before shooting each sequence over the course of 6 to 9 days.
“We always like to say Minos likes to create beautiful spaces that kill,” said Robitel. “The big thing that we’re saying in this movie is that the game has expanded in the sense that there’s no such thing as free will. It was a process of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and coming up with the best spaces possible.”
“What’s been great about these movies and working with Adam and the writers is that they’re open to the design process taking the lead in some of these things,” said Thomas. “So it’s been a real joy.”
Here, the crew explain the process behind four of the film’s major escape rooms:
“That was one of the two rooms that was preserved from the original script,” said Honley. “The introduction had always been our characters getting on the subway and meeting some other characters.”
“I thought the idea of a subway car derailing and then pulling us into the game in a very high octane way could be really cool,” said Robitel. “And then from there it’s like, ‘OK, we have the space, what would be the visual threat?’”
Electricity was a no-brainer, he says, thanks to the association of trains with the electrified third rail. “Electricity can certainly be very visual and cinematic and that was my way into the movie,” he said. “Like, ‘OK, now we’re underneath New York City and there’s all these defunct trains and stations and tunnels so it’s like a labyrinth under there.’”
Although Honley had never been to New York or been on a “bonafide subway” before, he used Google Images to imagine potential clues that could blend into the interior of a train car like handholds, signage and tokens “even though those haven’t been in usage for like 20 to 30 years now.”
Next, Thomas “really brought it to the next level,” said Robitel. “The train was built entirely from a 3D model of an actual New York City subway car. There are no trains in Cape Town so the train station that you see is a bunch of sleight of hand and trickery.”
The crew found a location to serve as the exterior of an underground station and built one full train car, the facade of a second that could be visible through the window and a set for the interior of the station. The station’s length was extended using CGI. “We had the actors run through four different versions of the same set with different stunt people so it makes it feel like it’s huge and long and vast but it’s actually just a small section of a build,” Robitel said.
Thomas and his team also built the freight elevator that transports the surviving players between puzzles.
“We built it as a proper New York subway station and then filming went away so we had a couple of weeks to turn it into what was going to be the lift that you see them in,” he said, noting the “transition” sets are often as exciting to create as the ones where the main action unfolds. “Some of those transition-period sets have to move really quickly but some of them, you give the audience and the cast a chance to breathe.”
Art Deco bank
“We either think about the threat first or the space first,” said Robitel. “In this case, I thought lasers could be kind of cool. What would be a great space for a laser? What about an art deco bank?”
The producers were lucky enough to find an abandoned bank in Cape Town that they were able to restore before laying down the marble tiles that would trigger the lasers.
“I think in the original draft, the pressure points turned the lasers off but we decided to reverse that,” said Honley. “It felt like a game that kids might play like ‘you can step on that square, but don’t step on that square.’ I think the familiarity makes the audience able to participate.”
Achieving it visually was the hard part. “Everybody was afraid of lasers. There haven’t been that many great examples [onscreen], so I was worried going in that the visual effects weren’t going to be up to snuff,” said Robitel.
Luckily Thomas had experience creating lasers for “Resident Evil.” “I knew how you can get the cast to really fear the lasers because very often they’re just bits of string,” he said. “It’s a huge job for the props department and the graphics department to make sure they really get these clues on track.”
“Props are important,” agreed Robitel. “Every time we punch in on a closeup of a clue, it has to be designed. So much of this stuff is fabricated. So the props themselves took a long time and a lot of them were very engineered and designed.”
That includes the room’s exit, a 2,000-pound tooled door that was created from scratch and brought to the location. “There’s something intriguing to me about being able to see the safe place and not being able to get to it,” said Honley. “Where you can see where your exit is, and it looks clear, but that’s not the case.”
“I remember distinctly sitting in the room when Adam looked across the table at me and was like, ‘What about a beach?’” said Honley. “He starts painting this picture for me and once we knew [we’d include it], the threat just seemed obvious.”
“Quicksand was always something that was scary to me as a kid,” said Robitel. “So initially we thought, ‘What about an ancient temple?’ We did some really cool concept art but it just felt like a ‘Maze Runner’ movie, it didn’t feel like ‘Escape Room.’ And then one of my Sony executives said, ‘What if it was a beautiful Cape Cod beach?’”
The beach set was the largest of them all and had to be built from the ground up which made it the longest and most challenging sequence.
“They come out and it looks like they’re outside but the studio was like, ‘That’s a cool moment but we can’t afford to keep the CG set extension going the whole scene,’” said Robitel. “So I said, ‘OK, what if Indya Moore’s character takes a photo and then suddenly the whole beach turns into this big amazing backdrop that you can feel is a wall?’”
They custom ordered a translight — “this massive piece of fabric with a photo that we took [of a beach] and brought in from the UK,” said Robitel. “It was probably like three miles of fabric, like this giant curtain and again we were like, ‘Will this work?’”
“There was only one company in the Northern Hemisphere that could print such a large canvas for us,” said Thomas. They camera-tested it to ensure the patina of the cloth would give off “that lovely 1950s postcard feel.”
Pulling it off was “inordinately difficult,” Robitel says, because of the challenge of working with sand and the mechanisms required to sink the actors and scenery. “It was 20,000 tons of sand that they brought in from a beach in Cape Town and everything that you see is practical,” said Robitel. “It took a minute to sink somebody and it was kicking up all of these bubbles, it looked like weird porridge. Or somebody wouldn’t sink but then they would just drop.”
“We had special effects teams [fluidizing] the sand so that it would turn liquid,” he added. “Every time an actor would sink, they would be kicking up all this sand into everybody’s eyes and people’s corneas were scratched. The pier itself and everything you see sinking in the movie was done practically, so it was almost like a Universal backstage set the way it was very functional. You could press buttons and the Crab Shack would roll and teeter and start to sink. It was really cool but very, very challenging.”
NYC street corner
“It took a long time to come up with these spaces,” said Robitel. “With the NYC street, we thought it’d be cool to just feel like you’re outside for a second. And then to have it be slick with acid rain [was] very ‘Blade Runner'-esque with all these great neons and art on the walls.”
The scene was shot in an old car warehouse, which conveniently featured metal grilles on the floor allowing the water to drain. Thomas used Google Earth to study a New York-specific street corner and settled on one near Central Park. “It gave us a sense of the direction of traffic,” he said. “ Once we’d established where we wanted to shoot, we sent a [crew] there and they got us some beautiful shot plates of all the traffic and lights.”
The plates were stitched together and played back using a series of projectors “so the cars really looked as if they were coming towards us,” said Thomas. The final touch was adding props: a bodega, neon lights and curbstones that had “NYC” stamped onto them. “I think that was a real visual treat, that room,” he said.
Getting the particulars of the rain down was the tricky part. “The script called for a light drizzle and then it gets heavier and now it’s a downpour,” said Robitel. “But when we got on set, there was one level and it was downpour. And you wet the actors and suddenly you’re waiting 30 minutes for them to be dried off.”