Ghosts in the Machine: Conjuring 'The Haunted Mansion'

Ellen Wolff talks with visual effects supervisor Jay Redd, who reveals what Sony Pictures Imageworks conjured up for The Haunted Mansion.

Eddie Murphy takes on spookier family fare with Haunted Mansion. All images © Walt Disney Pictures.

Youd have to be living in a cave to be unaware of one of the most enduring attractions ever built for Disneys theme parks The Haunted Mansion. With its ghosts and spooky talking heads inside crystal balls, The Haunted Mansion now arrives as a movie in time for the holidays, with Eddie Murphy in the lead.

This year has already witnessed the first blockbuster film based on another Disney attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean. But visual effects supervisor Jay Redd of Sony Imageworks believes The Haunted Mansion goes for a closer take on the original theme park ride. There actually IS a story to the ride, observes Redd. We worked really hard to stay true to that and to the rides mix of goofy and creepy stuff. But at the same time, we had to update it so it doesnt look like its from the 60s.

Redd, who has worked at Sony Imageworks since 1996, previously collaborated with The Haunted Mansion director Rob Minkoff on both Stuart Little movies. While those movies involved the creation of 3D computer-animated stars, Minkoffs latest effort, says Redd, is definitely more of a live-action film than anything else Rob has done.

Sony Imageworks visual effects supervisor Jay Redd.

A Lively Approach

Promos for The Haunted Mansion tout the appearances of 999 Ghosts, so a key visual effects decision involved how to create enough spirits to suggest such a cast. Redd recalls, When we originally looked at the script, we started thinking about going a purely CG route on the ghosts. But our schedule didnt offer us years to do the work, and we wanted to recreate some scenes from the ride. So we thought that having human beings behind the ghosts would make things a little more lively.

The decision to have live actors play the ghosts led directly to a strategy that combined motion-control and bluescreen photography. The most dramatic example was a large cemetery sequence, which was shot on a set created by production designer John Myhre (this years Oscar winner for Chicago) at Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, California. The motion-control gear used to capture the background plates of the cemetery was provided by Santa Monica, California-based Camera Control, and Redd notes, They ended up shooting dozens of shots. It was all realtime motion-control, which was the only way to do this movie.

Two months later, Redd had about 30 actors standing on a huge 360-degree bluescreen stage. It was 120 feet wide and 35 feet tall, with 50 feet of motion-control track, he recalls. It was very elaborate. The plan was to film the actors using the same motion-control move that was used on the cemetery background, enabling Imageworks to composite the elements seamlessly together. In reality, artifacts such as vibration interfere with the repeatability of a move. This is especially true when the camera is moving quickly, as it often was during filming. Redd expected Imageworks digital team would stabilize these plates later on.

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The vfx wizards used a combination of old school tricks and new technology to turn live human into ethereal ghosts.

Redd shot most of the ghost-actors individually against bluescreen with many, many passes of motion-control photography. We pretty much kept every ghost separate, except in a couple of cases where we had ghosts that had to interact. Those would require us to go through an elaborate roto process later on.

Day-Glo Ghosts

Redd got a good start on making the ghost-actors appear spooky, however, via a high-tech product from the 3M Corp. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin found Scotchlite, which is made of microscopic glass beads that reflect light. Its built into reflective material on freeway signs, explains Redd. We were able to buy the actual ink to mix into glue, and it was heavily used on props and costumes.

Scotchlite-treated costumes designed by Mona May appeared to glow when lit with a special light mounted on the camera. When that light shone onto the actors, says Redd, it would bounce right back to camera and make them look like they were glowing. If you werent standing next to the camera, you couldnt see the effect.

The ghosts in this movie are energetic, adds Redd, so we wanted to create a very different look for them. We didnt want to be Ghostbusters or The Frighteners, even though theres beautiful work in those movies. So getting this glowing effect in-camera was really cool. My philosophy is if you can get it on set, get it!

Multi-Oscar-winning makeup wizard Rick Baker also played a key role in turning dozens of extras into hundreds of glowing ghosts. Through an array of masks as well as glittering makeup, Redd suggests a wide variety of people, including Rick himself, played multiple parts. Rick and his crew are such magicians they can disguise anybody. The masks built by Baker would later have digital effects layered on top of them by the Imageworks team.

The Layered Look

While these practical techniques provided a good foundation, completing a semi-transparent ghostly look required considerable digital treatment. The process at Imageworks began with plate stablization and tracking the ghosts into the background plates. We used proprietary tracking software as well as Boujou and Maya, Redd confirms. We built tools on top of Maya to make it work really well.

Imageworks used its optical flow software to track the movement of select points in a given image from frame to frame. This allowed them to add effects like electrical tendrils and smoke coming off the bluescreen photography of the ghosts. Redd explains that David Stephens, our effects lead and head particle simulation guy, worked with a number of artists in coming up with a way to get these ghosts into his machine as bluescreen photography and then track their motion.

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These scary specters transformation to finished product kept the original design intact.

That gave us, literally, a base coat of particles that tracked around with each character. We then used that information to generate effects like smoke and electrical plasma. There were a dozen layers for each ghost running off those glows that wed shot live. Stephens prime tool for creating particle effects was Houdini, and Redd notes hes written tons of plug-ins for Houdini to make it work the way we wanted.

Otherworldly 3D

Imageworks did have to create 3D-CG in order to depict one of the most famous images from the original Disney attraction: a head floating within a glowing crystal ball. For the film, the character of Madame Leota (played by Jennifer Tilly) had to be speaking while Murphys character walks around holding the ball.

For some shots in the sequence, says Redd, We did elaborate motion-control photography of Jennifer Tilly against blue screen. Then we shot Eddies parts against bluescreen as well. But for the shots where Eddie actually has to pick up Madame Leota and walk around, we did a 3D version of her head. In the original ride, when you go around the séance table, you see theres actually a projection of footage onto a static model. So it looks like shes talking. Weve been doing projection technology for 20 years in the CG world. But we took it a little further. We scanned Jennifer Tillys head in 3D. Then we filmed her dialogue in a frontal view against bluescreen, took that footage and projected it back onto the 3D scan of her head. We moved her head a little bit to correspond with the footage of her, so we had a 3D head that was able to move around the room. Our animation supervisor Troy Saliba and his team added winks and mouth and cheek movements so its kind of a crossing of technology.

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Once the design was locked, actress Jennifer Tillys head was scanned to bring her into the crystal ball of her character Madame Leota.

As is typical with effects filmmaking, Tilly and Murphy didnt share the set during this sequence. Murphy just walked around carrying a flat white sphere with a little glow inside which Imageworks would later replace with the digital ball. But Redd notes, That prop put some interactive light on Eddies face, and he had something to interact with. Giving actors something to focus on is crucial so that their eye lines can be matched up believably during compositing.

CG was also used to create singing statuary (the humorous barbershop quartet) and digital stunt doubles, as well as virtual set extensions, which made the films 40-foot-high mansion appear 80 feet tall. We built a number of 3D sets, Redd recounts. In the séance room we had to have Eddie and Jennifer rise 8 feet into the air and start spinning around the room. We worked with Dan Sudick in designing a rig that would spin them around. Then we used our motion-control cameras in conjunction with that to program really elaborate moves. We shot that against bluescreen but then because we couldnt pick up the séance room and spin it we digitally created a séance room based on the set that was built for some live-action shots. We built our own geometry of the room, mapped photos of the actual set onto that geometry, and spun it around at will.

Controlling Chaos

Near the films climax, there appears a fiery character that presented Imageworks with perhaps the most difficult animation task. Redd admits, I cant give too much away, but lets just say hell opens up. We had to create digital fire on a demon-like character, and our digital fire is on screen with real fire. It also had to cover 80 feet of stage space. What does fire look like when its rushing through a room at 80 mph?

Shooting a fire element and trying to map it with textures would never work. We had to sculpt a creature out of fire. It fills up the entire screen and interacts with many characters, so we needed to control it. When you try to control chaos it gets really difficult. Thats exactly why we went 3D.

Finishing Touches

Imageworks rounded out its 320-shot assignment with a variety of matte paintings and 2D effects such as sky replacements and sunsets. The latest RenderMan software was used to render the many digital elements in The Haunted Mansion, which were then composited using Imageworks proprietary software Bonsai.

Looking back on such a multi-faceted effects assignment, Redd asserts, We did some pretty cool stuff on this movie that I dont think has been seen at this level before.

Ellen Wolff is a Southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the Website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.

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