Haunted Mansion: Creating ghosts for Disney’s theme park adaptation

Inspired by the classic theme park attraction, Haunted Mansion is about a woman and her son who enlist a motley crew of so-called spiritual experts to help rid their home of supernatural squatters.

Directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People) from a screenplay by Kate Dippold (Ghostbusters) the film has an impressive cast, including LaKeith Stanfield (Knives Out), Tiffany Haddish (Bad Trip), Owen Wilson (Loki), Danny DeVito (Jumanji: The Next Level), Rosario Dawson (Zombieland: Double Tap), Jamie Lee Curtis (Everything Everywhere All at Once) and Jared Leto (Suicide Squad).

With ghosts, ghoulies and all sorts of frights on offer, we sat down with production visual effects supervisor Edwin Riviera (who’s no stranger to the genre, having worked on Joker, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming) to find out more about creating grounded Disney ghosts and taking inspiration from the famous ride…

How does your work with VFX begin on a project?

Each movie is like a personalised pizza. So you want to know what kind of pizza they want. What kind of pizza is the director looking for? Is it a spicy pizza, is a mild pizza? So it was talking to Justin [Simien].

At first it was a study of, ‘alright, we’re doing a ghost movie, what does that mean?’ What has preceded us? What flavour of ghosts would you like? Do you want Harry Potter-type ghosts? Or more like The Ring where it’s an actual person standing in the room and makeup? More CG wispiness?’

So we did a study of that first and honed in on what parts of which ones we liked. Then started figuring out how to find it. What do we need to film on the day to achieve this? Then working with visual effects companies, specifically DNEG, figuring out ‘okay, given that we are thinking about this particular pipeline, what’s that going to look like?’ Is it going to look as cool as we want it to be? So, working with them at the beginning of prep to take our idea and run with it so that we had some kind of assurance as we were filming it.

Edwin Riviera’s work began by sitting down and figuring out with director Justin Simien what kind of ghosts to have in the movie.

How did that initial conversation with Justin go? What kind of ghosts did he want?

Justin very much wanted it to be grounded. I think he really appreciated the Poltergeist [movies], or The Shining with thet creepy woman coming out of the tub. Those kinds of eerie ‘I’m in the room. I need to get out of this room’ kind of feeling because that person was actually standing there.

He very much wanted to stay away from completely CG all day long and have actual people standing there. The challenge was: Okay, how do we take those people and make them more ethereal? Make them more otherworldly? How do we make them more ghostly? So he wanted very much to be grounded and have somebody in the room with the actor at the time as opposed to just a green ball.

People were on sets playing ghosts.
Director Justin Simien wanted to stay away from completely CG and have actual people standing there on set.

The Haunted Mansion ride is famous for its practical effects. How did you go about keeping that practical feeling for the movie?

The hope was that we were adding to the new movie, not necessarily becoming a distraction. When you’re in the ride, it’s all part and parcel. You feel like all of the things that you’re seeing are actually there. They add to the eeriness of it all, but they don’t necessarily blind you with colours or light. They just blend into the scenery and I think that’s what he really wanted to create. He wanted to create a world where it all just felt very normal for these guys to be here. Not necessarily something that felt like CG fireworks.

Did you get the chance to go on the ride for inspiration?

We were able to go on the ride before the park opened, which was amazing. We actually got to walk it which is actually even more amazing. There’s a path along the dune buggies, and we were able to walk it twice and we went through it once in the dark as you would with the sound off because I think it’s a bit disorienting otherwise. Then we went through again, with the lights on and the sounds on and it’s really amazing.

It’s funny, you take so much for granted what these Imagineers created. All of these amazing visual tricks to make you think that something felt floaty or that something was there but not there and you could see through it. But [also] using particular colours that would stand out in the blacklight, and ones that would then fade away.

It was amazing, just the level of detail everywhere. It’s stuff that I can’t imagine anybody would ever perceive when the ride is on. It’s really really incredible.

Edwin Riviera walked through the Haunted Mansion ride before opening time to get inspiration for the look of Haunted Mansion.

Is there a particular scene or effect that you’re looking forward to audiences seeing in Haunted Mansion?

I think our general ghost effect. The ghosts in the Ghost Realm was something that we worked on the hardest and that’s what we started off in prep. Just the idea of: what does a ghost look like?

We have these real people in costume and when you see them on screen, they feel fairly plain and not particularly scary. How do we make that scarier? I think what we came up with was pretty amazing. DNEG created an effect where when we see a ghost, the lit side of the ghost is opaque and feels like it’s there, and then as it goes into shadow you start to see through them to the skeletal structure underneath and see the room behind it.

Then they had what we called ‘ectoplasmic effervescence’. It’s a mouthful and basically, it’s like a phosphorescent algae and as you move, it starts to light up. We thought it would be interesting to see them as they move through their space and that’s when they start to have this little effervescence that comes off of them. Coming up with that look with DNEG was particularly challenging and rewarding because I think it really came together well!

Haunted Mansion will be released in cinemas on 11 August

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