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From the Theme Parks to the Silver Screen

Exploring the Soundstages of The Haunted Mansion

In the spring of 2003, staff members from DoomBuggies.com were invited down to the Barwick Studios in Los Angeles for a top-secret sneak peek at the sets and soundstages that were designed for the then-upcoming filmed version of The Haunted Mansion. Pictured below are, seated from left: DoomBuggies staffers Nate, Bruce, and Terry, with Haunted Mansion Producer Don Hahn (standing). The sofa they are seated on, incidentally, is the same set piece that appeared in Nemo's parlor in Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

DoomBuggies staff visit the soundstage of Disney's Haunted Mansion film.

Chef Mayhem Explores the Haunted Mansion Soundstages

PART ONE: Production Design and Costumes Set the Mood

The photograph at right is a picture of the facade for the Haunted Mansion exterior shots. The top half of the Mansion will be completed digitally with computers, so only the lower half of the building was physically necessary.

By Chef Mayhem

"So you're from DoomBuggies.com… yeah, the sounds!" said Haunted Mansion Production Designer John Myhre, still warm from the glow of his Oscar, which he won for his Art Direction for the Academy-Award-winning best picture of 2002, Chicago. "We'd been hearing those sounds all through the halls during pre-production. We were sitting with [the film's director] Rob Minkoff, and he typed 'Haunted Mansion' into the computer and there you were."

"Yeah, DoomBuggies was a big part of the process," continued Don Hahn, producer for The Haunted Mansion. "We referred back to your site a number of times as we were in development."

As the webmaster and creator of DoomBuggies.com, it was gratifying for me to hear that the web site, a tribute to Disney's Haunted Mansion theme park attraction, was a useful resource to the creators of the upcoming film. I assume it would be a source of pride for any Disney fan, of which I am one, to have the opportunity to speak with men who are responsible for such Disney classics as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast-but even more satisfying was the realization that these two men, Minkoff and Hahn, are true Haunted Mansion fans at heart. In my conversation with Hahn, not a minute detail nor an inside joke about the classic Disney attraction escaped his notice.

"The thing that is so wonderful about the Mansion [attraction] is that it is one show, yet it is placed in four different theme parks-Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Tokyo, and Paris-and each of the four shows has its very subtle distinctions that make it a different and interesting part of the family," Hahn said. "What I hope we can do with this film is create a fifth Mansion-another creation, a different part of the family that retains the feel of the others but builds on the premise."

In this photo, you can see the true scale of the massive exterior facade set that was constructed and filmed in southern California at a location dressed to appear like marshy Louisianna land. On film, the Haunted Mansion will appear to zoom skyward twice as high, as the entire top half of the buidling will be rendered with CGI effects. Fine details and intricate sets and properties were not compromised during the making of this film, as the filmmakers themselves are big fans of the Haunted Mansion attraction.

And so began DoomBuggies.com's tour through the massive sets of the Haunted Mansion movie, which was in production as I visited the non-descript independent soundstage just south of Burbank in which filming was taking place. Nestled in the heart of an industrial neighborhood, the studio was a flurry of activity on the day I arrived during filming in early spring. While walking the halls with the film's publicist, we ran into Nathaniel Parker, who is playing the film's protagonist, Master Edward Gracey, the owner of the Haunted Mansion. In full costume, Parker was clearly well cast as a 19th century aristocrat (and he even passes for the man portrayed in a painting on the wall of the Walt Disney World attraction's foyer remarkably well.) The publicist noted to Parker that we were about to tour "his" majestic home. Popping into character, Parker responded "Yes, then, well please see that you wipe the dust off of your shoes before you enter," and was off in a whirl.

The Art Department

At Production Designer John Myrhe's invitation, we walked the halls of the film's art department and inspected the many production drawings, sketches, and storyboards that coated the walls. There were many conceptual illustrations of the movie sets. Architectural renderings and photographs of grand old manors and turn-of-the-century Louisiana architecture were fairly represented, as were a good number of photos and sketches of the Disneyland Haunted Mansion façade, upon which the look of the movie's mansion is based.

The external sets also included a multi-layered graveyard, which included stone markers as well as many above-ground graves, since the boggy ground in New Orleans requires that the bodies be layed to rest above the level of the groundwater. These graveyard sets are essential to the movie's storyline.

The conceptual sketches of the Mansion's various rooms demonstrated an amazing faithfulness to the feel of the attraction, while enriching the spaces with ornate decoration and lush detail. Rich, carved wood is evident throughout the artwork, as are macabre marble statues-beings with veiled visages, and enshrouded guardians. Blueprints of the Mansion's rooms littered some walls and tables, while foamcore maquettes of the sets allowed the viewer to look through the camera's perspective at shapes and dimensions of the proposed spaces. Various fabrics and wall coverings covered one wall of a hallway, with samples for lush draperies in rich, deep tones and embroidered patters that resembled eerie creatures. One wall contained a storyboard of a scene from the script, in which a man falling from atop the roof catches himself on a stone gargoyle, losing grip as the gargoyle tips and regurgitates its load of swampy water all over him. Hundreds of such sketches of scenes from the film are created in the storyboarding process, enabling the film's creators to visualize scenes as they are developed into a cohesive story.

Pictured: Intricate stonework and detail abound throughout the production design and sets of the Haunted Mansion movie. Pictured to the right is the Gracey family crypt, the heart of the graveyard behind the Mansion. Foreboding statues guard its entrance... but who knows what lies beneath...? (The DoomBuggies.com set tour team knows!)

The Costuming Department

Next we visited the costuming department, headed by Costume Designer Mona May, who had previously worked on films as varied as the frothy Clueless with Alicia Silverstone and the grim 8MM with Nicholas Cage. Such experience would seem to be the perfect background for this picture, as it is ostensibly a family comedy, though it is becoming obvious that there will be some sinister, eerie elements to the frivolity.

The day before my visit, a massive scene had been filmed in the Mansion's "Grand Hall," entailing dozens of 19th century characters dancing at a macabre ball. The costume department showed evidence of the weighty scene, as colorful fancy gowns and velvet coats were scattered everywhere. A large number of these costumes were borrowed and leased from theatre companies overseas, while some were created specifically for the scene by May's department. In a few cases, authentic period dresses and outfits were restored by May specifically for the film, with a very delicate touch, so that the restorations could be undone to leave the clothing in its original state.

May's studio was a whirlwind of color and texture. Along the walls, May's collages of "inspirations" were displayed for the various settings in the film. One collage, titled "Graveyard," was covered with all sorts of aged and distressed fabrics and laces, in mossy, silvery, and earthy hues. In between the fabrics, photos and illustrations described the feelings the graveyard costumes were to invoke-gothic images and eerie characters that represented gloom and decay. Another collage depicted the costume ideas for the "ghosts" of the Mansion, including many characters made famous by the ride itself (yes, even the three famous spooks out looking for a lift were included.) These rich costumes were, in some cases, evolved from the clothing worn by the audio-animatronic characters in the attraction created by Disney's Imagineers, and are sure to bring a chuckle of recognition to any hard-core Haunted Mansion fan.

May's costumes are innovative, and her creations are quite unique. Part of her challenge was to create a new method by which to portray ghosts, as the Haunted Mansion is filled with them; in fact, there are "999 happy haunts," according to the theme park lore. The Haunted Mansion ride itself uses an amazing special effect to imitate spectral beings that involves reflection, making the characters seem semitransparent-an amazing effect in real life. But on film, see-through ghosts are a Hollywood cliché. Meeting the challenge head-on, May has developed a fascinating physical effect that gives the ghostly costumes an iridescent, almost bioluminescent appearance on film (and to the naked eye, in fact.) By weaving a reflective substance (similar to that found on the backs of jogging shoes) into the fabric, each roll and twist of the cloth glistens in the dark. When augmented with digital visual effects, the ghosts should shimmer in a way never before seen on film.

While May has worked hard to costume the Mansion's residents, Academy-Award-winning make up artist Rick Baker (Planet of the Apes, The Ring) has worked hard to create fascinating characters for the film. In addition to the ghosts familiar to fans of the attraction, there are some new apparitions and Baker creations as well. Drawing from the ride's predetermination that the Mansion entertains ghosts from many historical periods, some new characters in the film hail from distinct past eras.

Baker also recreated the zombie for this film. By avoiding grue (as the film hopes to secure a PG rating), the Haunted Mansion's zombies are crusty and bony, and appear in various states of decay. Utilizing an innovative technique, Baker has also created a practical prosthetic effect that hosts a startling skeletal neck no wider than the vertebrae it consists of — an amazing feat, since prosthetic effects typically appear oversized and out of proportion when worn by the actor.

In the midst of construction, sunlight shines through the ceiling as the set for the grand foyer (see conceptual art below) is constructed in the Haunted Mansion movie soundstages at Barwick Studios in Los Angeles. Unlike many productions, the entire crew was housed at Barwick Studios, such as Mona May's costume department and John Myhre's art department. In fact, the entire production department was based on the second floor at Barwick Studios, while all of the soundstages were constructed on the main floor. This made consultations and conferences among the production staff convenient—even Rick Baker's personal studio was only a quick drive away.

On the next page... PART TWO: The Soundstages from the Haunted Mansion, with more exclusive photographs


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