Episode 304 — MAZE RUNNER Director Wes Ball
Episode 304 — MAZE RUNNER Director Wes Ball
Wes Ball is a Director, VFX and graphic artist. He’s directed The Maze Runner trilogy and currently has several projects in development, including the next installment of the Planet of the Apes franchise.
Wes graduated from the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. In 2003, his short film A Work in Progress won a Student Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His animated short Ruin got the attention of executives at 20th Century Fox and earned him his first feature directing job: The Maze Runner. After the success of the film, Ball started his own production company OddBall Entertainment.
In this Podcast, Allan interviews Wes about the passion, perseverance and courage that it takes to be an artist, the importance of building and maintaining authentic relationships, and offers an inside look into his creative process and the vision for the future of filmmaking.
Wes Ball in IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1226871/
Ruin by Wes Ball: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doteMqP6eSc
The Planet of the Apes Announcement in THR: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/new-planet-apes-movie-works-maze-runner-filmmaker-1258816
Wes Ball’s OddBall Entertainment Signs First Look Deal with Paramount: https://deadline.com/2021/01/wes-ball-oddball-entertainment-first-look-paramount-pictures-deal-the-maze-runner-1234678316/
Wes Ball on Twitter: @WesBall
[03:28] Wes Ball Talks About Starting Out as a Filmmaker
[14:01] What It Takes to Persevere as an Artist
[17:23] Building and Maintaining Relationships
[25:27] Courage and Failure in an Artist’s Life
[29:14] On Failing Fast
[34:06] Wes Talks About His Creative Process
[39:17] On Directing the First Feature
[57:13] Inside Look into the Next Planet of the Apes
[1:04:47] New Technology Changing the Filmmaking Process
EPISODE 304 — “MAZE RUNNER” DIRECTOR WES BALL
This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 304! I’m sitting down with the Director of The Maze Runner trilogy Wes Ball. Wes came from an art background and we get into a lot, what it takes to make it, the value of relationships, the future of the industry including photogrammetry.
I’m super excited for this one. We get into so much great stuff here.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[01:24] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[1:14:14] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH WES BALL
[03:28] Allan: Again, Wes, thanks for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Wes: I’m Wes Ball. I’m a filmmaker out in Los Angeles. Some people know me from my short film RUIN (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doteMqP6eSc). From that, I got the Maze Runner movie and it became a franchise. I almost made Mouse Guard which some VFX artists may have seen tests for. Now, I’m working on the next Planet of the Apes film.
[04:08] Allan: I love that! When you were growing up, did you always imagine yourself doing something creative?
Wes: Pretty much! I grew up in a small town in Florida. We had no stop lights in my town! I spent a lot of time watching VHS tapes because the closest theatre was an hour away. I watched a lot of HBO and we had a satellite dish. I was on the floor, building LEGO’s. I was building constantly. I knew early on that I wanted to be a part of the filmmaking process. For the longest time, I wanted to be a pyrotechnical artist. So I’d take my sister’s Barbi car and I’d set a VHS tape, and I’d blow up the car and try to make it cinematic. There was another phase where I wanted to be a stunt guy.
There were earlier phases where I found myself wanting to be whatever I was watching. I found Michael Biehn in Navy SEALs and I was that. I started to realize that I wanted to be a part of fabricating these worlds, these films. That’s where I decided to go into movie making. Early on in the 90s, on the Discovery Channel, there was a series called Movie Magic. And they did all this great behind-the-scenes. They’d show the explosives, or the miniature making, just starting to show the CGI stuff. And that’s what locked me into going to film school to be an editor, probably; but to also be involved in visual effects. That’s my background.
In high school, I made a lot of shorts. My introduction to CG was: We had a Video Toaster at my school and my teacher Mr. Thomas (and I have to thank him), he locked me in a room and said, “Figure it out and don’t come out until this thing works”. On that Video Toaster, which is a hardware switching box (which was an Amiga 2000), it had LightWave 3D on it. That’s how I started to learn the 3G side of things. LightWave was going to go solo, and that was right around the same time that Firewire was starting to happen and digital video started to emerge. I did a short with visual effects in high school, with LightWave. It was silly but awesome! That’s when I decided I was going to go to Florida State.
I got accepted on my second attempt but I started volunteering on film sets. The next year, I got into film school and that’s when my world exploded. I learned sound, editing, even acting. Shooting, of course! I had an innate desire to direct. There were 30 people in our class. One of them was Barry Jenkins, T.S. Nowlin. We all went out with a Bolex camera and 8 mm film. It was super primitive! We used a weekend to make a film. We all came back and watched each other’s films. I made something that was totally ridiculous. It was a spoof on The Matrix, but done in a silent film approach way. There was no sound. It was such a valuable lesson to learn! I printed out all the locations and we’d shoot a shot and I’d shoot a still frame. I even did a bullet time. But the reaction in the audience was crazy! That’s what gave me the bug, man, to bring these things to be experienced by an audience.
[11:04] Allan: Man, that’s so awesome! There is so much I want to pick your brain about! Do you think having done all the other areas — and building the foundation — it allowed you what you’d be directing?
Wes: Yeah, it’s super valuable. As a director, you’re kind of the jack of all trades, master of none. You kind of have to know the language of all the different pieces. It’s your job to lead different departments toward one goal. And sometimes, you don’t even know where you’re going. But you have an army behind you and you have to understand their jobs and challenges, the necessities they’re providing. Every director has his / her own strengths. Some are actor based, some are visual based. I think it’s a super valuable thing. Moviemaking is a strange artform. It’s the only artform that combines the standalone artforms: theatre, sound, photography. All these elements come in to make a unique thing; just so 200-300 strangers can sit in a room and enjoy the experience, and submit to it. It’s a different experience, especially after being home for a year. I think we can all admit it’s a different thing to watch something in your living room. We don’t really submit to it. The theatre experience is truly unique. There is something about the environment that makes you submit and it’s a magical experience. It’s about understanding these different factors that go into making this thing. One part magic, one part effort.
[14:01] Allan: I love that! When you didn’t get into film school after the first time, can we talk about it? When people hear no, they go do something else. The ones that make it, they persevere. They pivot. For you, what was that mentality?
Wes: A lot of the time when people tell me they want to direct, I tell them, “Don’t do it!” It’s an awful job, it’s terrible, it sucks your life away. If you don’t do it because of what I say, you’re probably not a director. On some level, it applies across the industry: You have to have a kind of sensibility of “I’m going to do this and I’m not going to ask for permission”. There is a thing, especially with my experience with film school, I was dying to get in. It’s a really selective school: It takes 15 transfers and 15 freshmen every year. They get thousands of submissions! When I didn’t get in, it was crushing. But I thought I’m going to go to Florida State anyway. I want to be a part of this stuff. I would take classes on the side and wiggle my way in by meeting students. That was an extremely rewarding experience just by being a volunteer. You could see from the sidelines what people were doing wrong. But I was also a part of learning to be on set. Live action sets are a different thing for someone who’s never seen it before. It was valuable to come in that way. I’ve met some really cool friends. My buddy and I were grips and we’d mutter on the side, “If I got in, I’d do this!” We got to know some of the faculty, and we worked hard!
[17:23] Allan: Looking at where you are now, how critical do you think it is to build relationships?
Wes: It’s everything! This town runs on relationships. Almost all the business I’ve done, all those friends — like Barry and T.S. — there were a lot of talented people that came out of our school. I know all those guys. It’s kind of like a clubhouse. Especially for someone like us, moving from Florida to Los Angeles, it’s a scary thing! You have to do it when you’re young and naive, but it’s so helpful to have a structure of friends around you to call up. That was really in hindsight underappreciated. But beyond that, the town runs on relationships. Almost all the work that I’ve done, since my short film in school — which was an animation film that won a bunch of awards — it took me 10 years to become a director. But a lot of people who watched that first film would be like, “You’ve got some talent, kid! What else you got?” It didn’t work out right away but those people, when I made RUIN, were the same people I was talking to. After that, the studios, primarily Fox with Maze Runner, they brought in me from RUIN. They gave me the book for Maze Runner. The guy Steve Asbell that brought me in after seeing my short, he’s now running Fox and he’s my boss on Planet of the Apes. The person who was my boss on Maze Runner is Emma Watts and she’s now running Paramount. A lot of the friends I’ve made at Fox are now at Universal or Sony. I can call these people up! Relationships are underappreciated. They’re everything!
[20:29] Allan: A lot of people will look at them two-dimensionally. They think they need to get to know people because of where they are, in the meantime ignoring the people in their circle. You never know where they’re going to head off to! I have a lot of friends who grew up with me in Australia but are now directing features in Hollywood.
Wes: And not only that, dude! But it’s about being a nice person! Talent is important. But the more that I’ve done this, the more I value personal rapport more than the talent. Movie making is really difficult. It’s long hours and for a lot of us it’s an obsession. To have to do it next to someone who’s a jerk, it’s not worth it. So being nice goes a long way! Once you get your foot in that door — but you’re also a nice person, a team player, you want to make this thing better, you come from a good place (not a negative place), all these things — it’s super important! When someone needs a job in 6 months, they’ll think of you. How you project yourself professionally is crucial!
[22:41] Allan: Yeah, making sure it’s someone you can have a drink with!
Wes: Even if you don’t drink! Even if you’re odd and weird, it’s fine. People just don’t need that negative energy on set. We’ve had issues like that where we had to let people go. Because a little thing just poisons the rest of it!
[23:10] Allan: I think that’s so critical! You’ve created a few short films. Do you feel they were stepping stones early on?
Wes: I think so. Film school was important because that’s the one place where you can fail without consequences. I like being on the cutting edge of my abilities and every movie gets harder and harder. The first film had one VFX shot. I like pushing the challenge of that because you learn so much. You shoot for the stars and you’re never going to get there. It’s all a compromise. But if you’re shooting for the stars and you get halfway there, you get further along than if you aimed for the halfway spot. I’ve always wanted to be on the edge, technologically and storytelling wise. Different types of stories are more challenging than others. It’s super important to push yourself with every project. Looking at RUIN now, I can’t believe I did that. Naivete and being young and hungry got me through.
[25:27] Allan: I’d love to talk about RUIN. It’s a catalyst to so many things. Do you feel like it’s easy to talk yourself out of doing something because it’s too ambitious? People’s imposter syndrome kicks in.
Wes: I think so. And it’s a shame! A lot of artists suffer from it. “I don’t belong here,” “I don’t deserve this,” “I’m not that good”. Especially after you’ve had a couple of reviews, it makes you question yourself. You have to have thick skin in this world. When I made RUIN, it was an ambitious thing. I didn’t have a lot of people around me telling me, “Don’t do that!” I didn’t have that doomsday staring at me. It’s a tricky thing though. After the first Maze Runner movie, I had the privilege to go to London for some publicity stuff. And I got the call from producer David Heyman who worked on Gravity, the Harry Potter movies. He just wanted to meet because he saw my movie and thought it was great. I was telling him about my next project. He had these two words that were so simple but that have stuck with me ever since: BE BRAVE! That has stuck with me for so long. It’s a simple thing but it’s hard to do. You just have to know inside that you have to make it and then just do it. You’re going to burn, you’re going to crash, you’re going to succeed — it’s all part of the process. You have to be open to all that stuff. The last piece of advice [that I’ll mention] came from a faculty member at my school who said, “You’re going to have 10 failures for every success.” Make sure you get those 10 failures out the way as quickly as possible. Know you’re going to fail. Don’t assume it, just know it’s all part of the process. You’re going to go onto the next thing and it will happen. This works on all fronts. There is something about the movie gods, they will shine down on you. And you’ll get your success. You just have to plow forward.
[29:14] Allan: I think a lot of people will say, “That’s easy to say that!” How do you see failure? I see it as course correct, as part of the process. And what’s your perception of perfectionism?
Wes: Perfectionism is a tricky thing. I struggle with it. I come from VFX and we’re so used to pixel everything. It can paralyze you though. The truth is — it hurts if people don’t get it. Acknowledge that and then move on. Have your time with grief and then find the next thing to jump into. Sometimes what you learned doesn’t apply to the next thing. Experience becomes like this backpack thing to wear. Every project has its own unique thing. It is tricky though. What lessons do you learn? You have to be careful not to learn the wrong lessons. A lot of the time, as a director, you’re the guy to make the choice. To have to doubt yourself, you can spiral out of control really quickly. Being indecisive is the death of movie making. It’s something that everyone has to navigate. It’s natural to feel bad but then move on. Find the next thing to do. Find the next mountain to climb. It’s hard to watch movies with an audience for me, for example. But I love the experience on the way up. With Mouse Guard, for example, we got shut down 2 weeks before rolling but it was a year and a half of designing every blade of grass in this fantastic world, and working on pipelines. It was so fun and I got a lot out of that experience!
[34:06] Allan: I love that! What do you find a creative process that you tend to rely on?
Wes: It’s almost always music and visual for me. You might have a sense of the mood of the shot, an aesthetic. I like to write in visuals. I have a lot of concept artist friends and I am one myself to a small degree. It’s a way that I can get lost in an image and my brain starts firing. I can sit there and imagine the whole scene and it triggers this avalanche. Music is crucial for the feeling. There are some exceptions. I had a project where the character story popped up first, like a Don Quixote figure. That’s a fantastic story! I listen to a lot of soundtracks. Since I was 13, the first CD I ever bought was the soundtrack for Jurassic Park. And that set me on the path of listening to soundtracks constantly. I can listen to that track for a long time. There is something magical about soundtrack music. It helps me find a rhythm and a tone, and an emotion to the visual. From there, I can pitch someone an idea that gets them excited. Then we find a writer who is able to convert inspiration into text. I’m better at getting text to the end result.
[37:37] Allan: Do you find during editorial as well that it’s critical?
Wes: Yeah, I’m probably a wannabe editor. In film school, I thought that’s where I’d go. It has to do with that perfectionist thing. That’s where I’m in my worst perfectionism — in the editing room. I will be ruthless. My poor editor is so gracious with me! I really obsess over construction of a shot. Sometimes you can get lost in it. You can’t lose the trees for the forest. I’m still learning how to manage that stuff. It’s such a fingerprint of my movie of how they’re constructed.
[39:17] Allan: I’d love to talk about your first feature. I can only imagine what it’s like! What were some of the biggest takeaways for you from that process?
Wes: It was a pretty smooth process. Part of that came from film school where they heavily focused on production. We learned the rhythm of sets and department heads. I was aware how it worked. Now, it’s way bigger. We have 15 trucks lined up outside. It was a small movie. We took 8 weeks to shoot, a $39 million movie. That’s a cost of a rom com. We were very ambitious and the VFX gave us that ambition. I was pretty comfortable with that. I knew enough to be dangerous. I could help that process a bit. We were pinching every penny. That was fun! I am good at problem solving. Another reason it went so smoothly was the team around me. Fox was really good at bringing in the people that would let me do my thing, and they saw the inspiration I had. They trusted me. First timers need that support. I had a great AD, two producers come on. One is Josh Hartwick who became a producing partner and then Wyck Godfrey. We got along great! He went off to run Paramount for a few years. You need team members that trust you and that you’ll listen too. I had to go select a DP who was fantastic! My sensibility is one of an indie approach, but I love giant blockbusters! It’s a weird thing. The experience was incredibly rewarding. We had a fantastic CD who chose a fantastic cast that I could lean on too and trust they’d deliver and it would work! The film works because of the actors. The casting thing was a real discovery for me. We were shooting a scene with two characters talking and I fell in love with it! You give the actors what they need. Now, I have that itch to make a character driven movie. And sound! Sound is always underrated but it’s more than 50% of the experience. Sound is the giveaway of an amature. Good mic, good sound and mix — that goes a long way!
[45:21] Allan: You take it for granted! It’s a lot easier to get the visuals.
Wes: We pretty much crossed that threshold. If you can imagine it — we can do it. It’s just about the cost now.
[46:37] Allan: Music and sound, without those you’re lost.
Wes: It will either push you in or push you out. It can make you feel things. It’s super crucial. That’s why I’m giving you this great mic! (Laughs.) Do you have the ambition to direct?
[48:24] Allan: A lot of my friends now started to direct things. In general, they’re moving into that realm. I produced a lot of shows.
Wes: It’s just as crucial. As a director, you get the accolades and the blame. But I cannot do it without a good producer! I need people to do it the best they can.
[49:22] Allan: But I can’t imagine the pressure of being on set. Once you’re there, it costs money.
Wes: I’m spending a lot, especially if I’m behind. I’m pretty good at pushing that away. You just roll it off your shoulders and get it done. The biggest pressure is delivering on the promise of fans. My first 3 movies had these expectations. At the same time, there were things I wanted to do. And then you want it to make money for the studio. Our business doesn’t work unless they make money.
[50:51] Allan: One thing I was going to say was working on Daybreakers when the budget ran out. If you have some understanding of VFX, does that give you more confidence on set?
Wes: For sure! Things have changed for me a bit. My last film was a full CG movie. I’ve never done reshoots. Our movies didn’t warrant that, they weren’t big enough. When I’m set, I will protect myself sometimes. I’ll get an extra shot in case I need it. At the same time, with Planet of the Apes, it’s a different world. I will do reshoots with that one. It’s a tricky thing. In terms of me now, I’ve developed a workflow. Because I can get on a computer, I don’t need all the artifice. I just cut out 5-6 different steps. That’s a huge thing! We like to do more with less at our company. Movies just cost too much!
[54:43] Allan: A friend of mine Mark Toia self financed the film, he was able to shoot it (www.allanmckay.com/276). Some people are at that point of opting out for a smaller budget. I love that’s an opportunity now.
Wes: That’s what George Lucas did. No one could make those prequel movies like he did. He used a lot of his money and it was a huge risk. In the last decade, we’ve seen the access straight to the viewer. It’s a different realm to be in. It’s amazing! No one could do what Lucas did now. It’s always exciting!
[57:13] Allan: I was curious about your starting [your own company] OddBall. You’ve got a relationship with Paramount as well. And you’re working on Apes.
Wes: It’s going to be amazing! I can tell you this about it: After Mouse Guard got canceled, everyone was apologetic about it. They took me aside and asked what I’d do with Apes. All the pieces were there already. At first, I thought, “I don’t know if it’s a good idea.” That last trilogy was fantastic! Where do you go from there? But then I found my way in. I was not interested in doing a part 4, but I didn’t want to lose what came before. We found a great take on it and found our own track. I think it’s going to be an awesome movie! We’re going to push things on the tech front, but it still belongs to that universe. The way to the first Planet of the Apes, I grew up watching that thing. I had a connection to this franchise! They got it too. We got the original writers and we’re playing in this space that has the respect for what this is. This is not a reboot, and it’s not a sequel. But I think people are going to friggin love it. It is the natural step for the next trilogy, the next chapter of the franchise. We have people around us to make that happen. I’ve had an art team put together some development before COVID hit. I’m super excited about it.
As for OddBall, it’s the rewards you get when you make a successful movie. Maze Runner was one of the most profitable films for the studio that year. We put a flag in for the studio as someone to feed them content. That’s what it is. They gave us money to have an office and hire people, to read scripts, etc. Some of the stuff I direct. The deal was at Fox. Since then, Disney bought Fox and Emma left for Paramount. We have a great deal with Paramount. It’s in a re-awakening. New people are coming in. Paramount gets to take swing and create new IP. They get to carve their own path. On our front we like to do small scale and big canvas. It’s an interesting time for us, while we’re busy on Planet of the Apes.
[1:04:47] Allan: That’s so awesome! In terms of upcoming technology, is there anything you’re excited about?
Wes: Real time! Real time is everything! That for me was a big breakthrough on Mouse Guard. We built it in Unreal that would send it to Weta. It was a challenge to get it working. It was so good. If anyone saw that trailer, that was made with very few people. I lit all those shots and built those megascans. And this is real time. It’s amazing! I’m on a huge real time kick, and I support Epic with what they’re doing. This collision with games and filmmaking, it’s going to be an exciting time. So any VFX artist right now needs to be learning real time. It’s going to be the future. The Metahumans aren’t there but holy crap! What the world is going to look like in 5 year is so exciting! We’re going to be able to do amazing things! I have this weird project with a Star Wars world and a John Hughes story; and the visual world is so big and huge! With a small team, we can make this thing in Unreal, or at least cut a lot of corners. I think the world that’s going to come is really exciting.
[1:08:28] Allan: Photogrammetry and LiDAR scanning is such a great combination! You can capture the whole set.
Wes: We’re doing that already anyway in a big movie. Weta scans every set. They’re going to take all that into a data file. I’m not messing with that thing! They can! But I can go into Unreal. If I want to shoot a movie in New Zealand but can’t fly there. I can go to a location and scan the thing, line up my cameras. I already had the sets. We do the paperwork and start building. We can use these tools for efficiency. I’m interested in using these tools to lower the level of entry and shrink the team size. I love to talk to the artists, instead of this telephone game! How can we use these tools to communicate better? I want to be on that cutting edge. If you have experience on these tools — Unreal isn’t that difficult to learn — you can find your stuff really quickly. I’m interested in getting it done quick and dirty. Then go in and spend the time on perfecting it. But I dream!
[1:12:50] Allan: I think in the next few years, it’s going to change how we do things.
Wes: Yeah, man! It’s a different experience and we aren’t far away. New artists should be aware it’s a valuable skill to have!
[1:13:44] Allan: This has been epic! I appreciate your time!
Wes: You got it!
[1:13:05] Allan: Where can people go to find out more about you?
Wes: I guess Twitter, but I don’t go there much.
[1:14:13] Allan: Alright, man! Thank you so much!
Wes: Thanks, guys!
Okay, what did you think? I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Wes for taking the time to talk. I’d love to have him back in the future.
I’ll be back next week with Tarsier Studios who worked on Little Nightmares and Little Big Planet.
Please share this Episode with others. I’d appreciate that!
I’ll be back next week!
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