“Haunted Mansion” VFX Supervisor Edwin Rivera Gives These New Ghosts a Spectral Charge
The spirits have materialized for Disney’s latest comedy adventure Haunted Mansion. Everyone’s favorite spectral residents, from the hatchet-wielding Bride to the Hatbox Ghost, are coming out of their coffins for a swinging good time. The film fleshes out the skeletal stories of the spooky spirits who haunt Disney theme parks around the world. VFX Supervisor Edwin Rivera, who hails from visual effects studio DNEG, cast the classic characters in a new light.
“One of the things we added to our ghosts is this thing we called ‘ectoplasmic effervescence’ —it’s a mouthful,” he laughed. “We were trying to mimic bioluminescent algae. If you’re not disturbing it, they don’t light up, but as you move your hand through them, they start to light up. Our ghosts have the same thing. As they move through their ghostly realms, they started to give off these particles that lit up very much like bioluminescence.”
There’s an authenticity to the scares that adds chills to the atmosphere. Tangible creations laid the foundation for the ethereal. “Justin Simien, our director, very much wanted to keep the movie grounded,” Rivera said. “He wanted real sets. He wanted real actors dressed up as ghosts walking around so that it feels real. There’s a feeling that The Shining or The Ring has that maybe some other movies don’t because there’s this creepy person in the room coming at you. It started from that point, then that gave us the basis of we want to make it feel real like you’re actually there. This is something that, as fantastical as it seems, it at least visually looks like it’s actually happening.”
Turning human actors into tortured souls was an intensive process. Footage was layered together to capture real performances before transforming them into translucent beings floating through the mansion.
“We would scan their bodies, so we had a CG model,” Rivera explained. “We track that model to their bodies, and that would give us the opportunity to be able to generate the bioluminescent particles. We knew exactly where their body was at any given moment, so then we could create the CG skeleton underneath that was revealed in those transparent spots. We also made sure that we shot clean passes of every scene without any of the actors. Every single time. We had what was behind the actor; then we could reveal that through the empty spots in their body on the face or legs or whatnot.”
Despite being long dead, these ghosts are simply glowing and boast familiar – yet updated – designs. The textures are spectacularly creepy. Rivera’s team made excellent use of dim and deteriorating details to give the spirits depth.
“Adding a transparency to the shadow areas where you can see that they’re see-through and there’s skeletal structure underneath that’s creepy and decrepit,” Rivera added. “All those little elements were used to enhance what was already there without being distracting.”
The ride employs some impressive optical illusions that originally debuted in 1969, but a mix of practical effects and modern technology sends the images soaring for the film. Perhaps the most famous gag from the attraction is the medium Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis). Rather than gazing into a crystal ball, she floats inside one. Rivera’s crew was committed to finding the right technique to channel her.
“Early on, we talked about maybe having somebody’s head actually in the ball in the middle of a table,” he recalled. “I think there’s a romantic quality to practical effects, right? Very quickly, we found that that was impractical, so we completely scanned Jamie Lee Curtis’ head. She’s a completely CG character. We did a full motion capture scan of her as she’s delivering her lines because then you get all the subtle little eye twitches and facial movements that are specific to her and make you recognize her as her, and then added CG hair and CG lighting for the CG environment that she’s in. She’s completely CG, but all of her acting is as she delivered it when we captured it.”
Perhaps the most recognizable portraits in the mansion are the four unfortunate souls who are hiding deadly surprises just out of frame. As the doorless chamber stretches, their hazards are revealed. Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) and Travis (Chase Dillon) soon find that the deathtraps aren’t satisfied to stay on the canvas.
“It started off as something very simple, just the stretching room that had the element of danger just because it’s inherently dangerous to be that high up. As we went along, the thinking was we kind of have to kick this up a notch,” Rivera revealed. “The request was maybe we have these different zones mimic the different things that are happening in the paintings. We have alligators, we have dynamite to mask the guy in boxer shorts, and we have these gnarly tombstones coming through and the quicksand. All those different things correlate to the paintings and add the danger and crank up the incentive for these characters to escape through the roof.”
While the chamber stretches up, the hallway stretches out. A normal passageway by day, the characters are stuck in an endless corridor after midnight.
“DNEG did a great job creating all the interiors,” Rivera praised. “The endless hallway was only twenty feet long, and they had to make it look like it was miles long. We only built the first floor. One of the more iconic rooms is the dining room. We built the first floor, so anything above that in all the different directions, that was all DNEG.”
While the most chilling frights lay inside, the stately manor’s architecture was enhanced by Rivera’s team. “Anytime you see the exterior of the house, that’s 90 percent CG because we only built the first floor – the porch pretty much and the staircase. Anything above and beyond that is completely CG. Anytime you ever see anything of the house from the outside, that’s 90 percent CG. The idea is for you to take it for granted.”
The mansion truly earns its frightful reputation. From disembodied footprints to the eyes of statues following you, everywhere you look, you will spot evidence of hauntings. The film features a detail from the ride in nearly every shot. All the references are impossible to take in on first viewing, and some are craftily hidden in the background.
“I think it’s important to have the things that no one notices because it creates the backdrop and the feeling of the scene, but not the focus,” Rivera noted. “This is the mood, this is the room, but then there’s an actor there. You don’t want to take away from them. You want to be respectful of them. When you don’t notice it, I think that’s a win for VFX.”
The happy haunts of Haunted Mansion are now materializing at a theater near you.
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Featured image: Lindsay Lamb as The Bride in Disney’s HAUNTED MANSION. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.