By RICKY J. DUARTE
Many of Disney’s iconic theme park attractions have a cult following. From Space Mountain to The Country Bear Jamboree, there seems to be a fandom attached to every ride the parks have to offer. None so, perhaps, as cult-like as those who adore The Haunted Mansion. Now, fifty-four years after the attraction first began welcoming “Foolish Mortals” to sit tight in their “Doom Buggies,” Disney is releasing its second attempt at capturing the magic of the ride in cinematic glory. Utilizing an Omnimover ride system, the attraction naturally harbors its own cinematic quality as riders glide through its “wall-to-wall creeps and hot and cold running chills,” discovering chilling vistas such as waltzing ghosts, a bride with an axe to grind, and a graveyard haunted by singing busts.
I was afforded the generous opportunity to speak with the film’s cinematographer, Jeffrey Waldron. We discussed horror influences, technical details behind replicating the atmosphere of the ride, creepy, custom camera lenses, and what may exist in “regions beyond…”
Were you a fan of the Haunted Mansion Disney attraction before you made this film?
Yeah! Huge, huge fan. Definitely engrained in my childhood subconscious in a way that I was able to access, I think, in the way a kid can remember things in such detail. I was sort of able to access that throughout building the look for this movie, which was very much inspired by the ride. But even on top of that, Disney in general: definitely a Disney-raised kid in terms of feature animation—that’s what I wanted to do originally, I wanted to be a hand-drawn feature animator. So…already super entrenched in this sort of Disney art and storytelling background, and then on top of that, my first, I think, major exposure to maybe horror concepts and iconography was the ride, you know. We hope that this movie can also awaken some young horror fans, as well. Just sort of be that first little burst of adrenaline to build future horror lovers, and obviously Haunted Mansion ride lovers.
I always say, Disney kind of shaped my taste in horror—between The Haunted Mansion and Chernabog at the end of Fantasia, or The Headless Horseman, right? These iconic moments of horror…they just shaped me.
What were some of the iconic moments from the attraction that you were excited to recreate for the movie?
So much of it! There are three major images that I think of when I think of the ride. One is sort of leading up through the front gates of the ride, itself, that sort of three-quarter view of the columns, you know, the towering house at a low angle, and we wanted to make sure to preserve that feeling of approaching the house, so we built it three-quarters to our gate. The proportions are exaggerated in the film — it’s a much bigger house. On the technical side, and I know Disney’s a little bit weird about talking about the VFX side of it, but we actually did build a full-sized third of the house. We had the bottom, the columns, the stairs, we had everything. We actually had the true distance to a gate — a real road, and all that stuff. Then VFX took that and built the top two stories for anything you see outside of the mansion. Then the dining room — iconic in the ride as you’re looking at it from overhead, seeing the spinning dancers, seeing the dining room table and fireplace on the side. You’ve got the organ on the far left — that room, specifically, was really important to get right because, again, I have access to a burned-in, seared-in, visceral reaction to seeing that for the first time as a child, and I think it’s full of optical illusions and effects that are fifty years old. The ride hasn’t changed much since 1969. I was on it this last weekend. I still get chills when we come around that corner and see the ghosts all celebrating in that room. So, we do kind of tease that room—things start to happen in that room, some of it happens in the [Madame] Leota backstory, but we save that specific ride POV for a very special moment in the film. And then, I would say, when the ride comes around its final corner and you’re in a giant graveyard, that’s our third act/final battle playground, I would say. We have, behind the house, this sort of vast graveyard/bayou/wasteland that things come to a head on, so that was the last big piece of it. Beyond that, there’s the endless hallway, every one of the paintings — I was looking and was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s in the movie!” There was stuff I’d forgotten from the ride because we’d started making this movie a while ago and I was like, “Oh, yeah! Almost every single little detail is in there if you’re looking for it.” Pretty amazing. The production design side of it, and how much is in there, is amazing.
You worked with a creepy custom lens in this film, specifically for flashback sequences. What can you tell us about that?
There’re a couple custom lens packages that Panavision helped us build. There’s our main lens package, and the main fabric of the film inside, when the lights are on, and our character are sort of coming together to build this team, and start seeing spooky things, was our T-Series anamorphic lenses that have a soft, painterly look, but nothing too saturated. Nothing too wild. There’s a flashback told through Leota’s crystal ball that Panavision helped us make custom portrait lenses, they call them, but it’s basically a super glassy, sort of smear around the center in sort of a sphere, harkening to the fact that we’re watching this through a crystal ball. It’s all done through actual anamorphic optics. There’s no filter, there’s nothing like that. It’s just a heavily anamorphic-sized lens, so it was a fun sequence. I showed the test of that lens to Justin [Simien; director] and we were excited to build a flashback sequence that could be center-punched in terms of framing, because once you get too close to the side, you start to smear out. But to keep this vibe of looking through a crystal ball, even though it’s our actual lens. We’re in the past, viewing things through that. There’s another dimensional fabric of the film called “the ghost realm,” which is essentially the astral plain that Tiffany’s [Haddish] character, Harriet, tries to enter via séance. Once we enter this ghost realm, it has a very specific look, and it also has specific ghosts. There were lenses that we made, which are G-Series anamorphic, more vintage anamorphics, kind of from 60’s/70’s period of the ride, have a lot of natural apparition, have a lot of distortion, and so once we entered that world, you’ll see there’s a very different lens look there as well to separate it. There’s a bunch of other stuff with the ghost realm we did, we tried to hit every one of the cinematography tools to differentiate it from our waking realm, but this is where you can basically see all the ghosts. In the basic fabric of the story, you’re seeing spooky things happen, but they’re not quite on our plane — we can’t see what’s happening yet. Once you enter the ghost realm, you can see — like the ride — that they’re living among us, they’re everywhere. Justin challenged me to come up with a visual language for this ghost realm that would differentiate it. He gave me a lot of freedom. The amazing production designer, Darren Gilford, unfortunately, was like, “I can’t build a whole new set!” So you’re dealing with the same hallways, they swapped wallpaper panels in terms of color and stuff, and I came up with this lens set and in testing we came up with these custom colors. The visual idea was that it was the negative film of our daily life, so when you look at a film negative and you see those purples and deep cyans and things like that, it was the flip-side of our world. So, light that was warm there is gonna be this deeper blue/green. It flips the color dynamic. Hints of purple and pink and stuff, inspired by the dancers in the ride; there’s these sort of psychedelic colors planted deep in some of the ghosts details that we brought to life there. And then the final chapter of that lens is lighting colors. Jill Bogdanowicz, our colorist, just stretched those colors and made them very separate. It has a very unique, visceral vibe. It’s fun.
Brilliant! It sounds like there’s a lot of in-camera trickery going on in this movie. Can you talk about working on such a special effects-heavy project?
Yeah! It’s kind of new for me to do something with this much overall effects. Very exciting, because, again, I wanted to be an animator, and I think from there I went on to just making practical effects-style stuff with my sister on our camera, doing everything in-camera, just being fascinated by the early work of ILM. Actually, ILM working on this film…total dream come true! Also, Justin really set out—he was like, I want this to be as practical, physical, optical-versus-digital, as possible. There were always going to be VFX, but he wanted them to feel as worldized and in-camera as possible. But I think because in the ride there’s no camera, it’s just you watching amazing things with your eyes, he loved that, and we connected on that early, and I was like, OK, how much of that can we do? So there is a lot of fun camera trickery involved. There’s a moment when we used a Twilight Zone reference, where Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) starts walking through the house and is transported to the endless hallway, where he is chased by a ghost, and eventually he’s coming at the camera, and we realize when he smacks into a mirror that we’ve been viewing this whole thing through a mirror, and the mirror shatters, and that’s all practical. There’s a lot of fun stuff like that that feels visceral. We try to make everything feel as in-camera as possible.
That sounds incredible! Aside from a Twilight Zone reference, were you influenced by any specific horror films when setting up your shots?
That’s an interesting question. Horror films didn’t come up so much, the ride was the main thing. I’m a big horror fan. Justin’s very much a cineist and would pull a picture here and there. There wasn’t anything we specifically set out to be like, “OK, this should look just like this,” it was more just kind of creating this tapestry of images. It was like, let’s all get on the same page and speak the same language, but there was never a specific scene. I think Hitchcock’s technicolor stuff—Vertigo—was a huge influence, just in terms of color, especially for the ghost realm. You’ll see some of those greens. Twilight Zone, specifically that shot, was one we just super loved. There’s a number of them. I feel like Crimson Peak I looked at a lot, which is kind of, possibly, Guillermo Del Toro’s Haunted Mansion movie, which is kind of funny to be looking at as a reference, but his use of color and green, specifically, and this sort of elegant, painterly vibe was influential for me. I tried to keep our lights out/moonlight vibe very soft and atmospheric. A little desaturated, so it was sort of like how your eyes see in the dark. Your rods and cones don’t work vey well in super low lights. Kind of this vibe of what happens before your eyes adjust to the light. These were the references. I was like, “Oh, what does it actually feel like to be in a place that is super dark?” But you’ve obviously got to be able to see it, it’s a Disney movie, they’re not gonna let us go super dark. Nor should we, because the ride, while it has moments of darkness, you can see everything, and that’s what that tone of scary/spooky but also funny works, because it’s never super severe. So I never looked at super deep horror stuff, though I do love it, for this. It was more sort of elegant—paintings came up. Renaissance paintings. The kind of thing you might see in the mansion. Dusty, soft light vibes. Obviously, the city of New Orleans was a big reference for us, it was super important for Justin to represent that accurately. There’s a film, I think it’s called The Cincinnati Kid, I think, that he referenced for the opening, which starts with this sort of jazz funeral, this funeral dirge march that erupts into this carnival of jazz celebration, and that was a big, interesting celebration of death and celebration out of grief. As an overall theme for the film, that was really important. So we did look at that opening.
The attraction is known for its blend of horror and comedy. The first section is spooky, then it moves into being funny and fun. How do you convey humor versus fear in cinematography?
That’s a tricky balance. Obviously, the film as to go between the two far more often than the ride did. So you have to be able to, at one point, have a jump scare, and then turn around and be laughing at something. So I think creating a sort of rich, visual, elegant, or painterly vibe let us play both sides. It would let us fall into the darkness without it feeling severe or a sort of violent kind of darkness. It could also lean into comedy without it ever feeling like a bright, super traditional comedy. It let us play both sides and weave them together as a middle ground. I think that was important because this was never going to look like a comedy. You’re not gonna get scared if it looks like Scary Movie or something like that, if it’s something with bright lights, you know? Wide shots and jokes all the time. At the same time, if it was too moody and creepy, it would be hard to get the laughs. We studied the history of the ride and if you look into it, it’s full of these conversations of, “How funny do we go? How creepy do we go?” Some of the Imagineers wanted it to just be a real, haunted, terrifying experience. Some wanted it to be a big, silly thing, and they found this middle ground, and that was what we kept looking at. “How did they do this? How did they keep a wink going even when it’s a little bit scary?” Again, we just kept going back to the ride, and I think their production design, the general vibe of the ride, the use of music, all those things inform cinematography, too. It creates this, “What is that tone? What is that tone that let’s us walk down a creepy hallway, get scared, and realize it was just Danny DeVito?” And let us laugh a second later.
You’ve worked on some very successful and well-received television series. What are some of the major differences you’re coming across between shooting for film versus shooting for television?
Good question. I’ve done a lot of indie film, and I’d say that’s a lot closer to television in terms of the timing and how quickly you need to move, and how you need to use your resources as the DP to make your days. I will say, the difference between those films and this film are as different as from television to [indie] features. So, it’s really the difference between TV and a gigantic feature, which, for me and Justin, it was a first time thing. He had done a couple indie movies, and his television show. It was night and day. Just, gigantic sets, the time to really figure out what you want it to look like, and to have enough pre-production to really work out how each of those sequences can work. Know exactly how you wanna move the camera. What tools you’re gonna need. How to pre-light these sets in a way that’s super versatile and you can afford to do it. Because, again, each of these sets had to go into different modes. They had to go into the ghost realm, and that was all built into LED’s on a pre-programed board. There’s just a ton of resources and a lot more time to think on something like this. That said, I do love television too, but once you get going on TV, it’s more about the brain power. How am I gonna make this look good and tell this story? It’s more of a chess game, when the big feature is, “OK, let’s dream as big as we possibly can. If this could be our perfect Haunted Mansion movie, what would that look like, and how do we apply this budget and this time to making sure we achieve that?”
Is there a moment in the movie that you’re most proud of?
There’s a number of fun sequences that I really like. I really like Travis’ (Chase Dillon) approach to the mansion, when he’s sort of, like, you see it from the inside out before we see the iconic wide shot, it’s just him and a flashlight in a haunted mansion and I just think it’s fun and creepy — it’s maybe the scariest part — but it’s very atmospheric and it’s through his point of view, and he’s just a great little actor. It’s a very fun sequence for me to watch. It’s very visual, just him and a flashlight going through the hallways past the suit of armor into a room. Another guy and a flashlight and a bride sequence, which you’ve probably seen in the trailers, is LaKeith in the attic, which is a very specific reference to the ride. Whenever I turn the corner [on the ride] into that attic, that’s maybe one of the closest representations in terms of the space. But that sequence is also super visual, super tense, and a lot of fun. One of the scariest parts. I think I’m only loving the scariest parts just because they’re so visual and so fun. It’s a lot of camera work, it’s a lot of movement, lens choice, and stuff that’s building those sequences. The main ghost realm sequence is really fun, where one of the characters is seeing for the first time what a house populated by ghosts looks and feels like. It’s also the introduction to The Hatbox Ghost. There’s a series of shots around his introduction that I just love the vibe of. They’re in our ghost realm palate, they’re dark and strange. There’s a couple of really weird sort of spatially… like, walls start folding and floors start opening as trap doors. There’s a couple sequences where the house starts turning on our characters and there’s a lot of really fun, inventive visual effects work and camera work in there, and I think it’s really surprising and fun. And some of the best stuff there is also in the ghost realm sequence, sort of surrounding The Hatbox introduction.
Do you have an interest in ever making a full-on horror movie?
I have. I’ve made some indie horror films. Not great ones. Do not seek them out. [We laugh.] There are some I really like, I should say! I would really love to do another horror movie. It just all comes down to a great script and the right resources paired with sort of the right genre. I did one really cheaply not that long ago with Andy Mitten, who did Yellow Brick Road, some of these very small, indie horror films, really smart guy. When the script is perfectly set for a hundred-thousand dollar budget versus this, which was, you know, crazy… when the script fits the specific kind of horror, it can be really great. So, yeah, I’d absolutely love to. Honestly, if you look at my history, you’ll see there’s a little bit of everything. I very much don’t love repeating myself, and if it’s within a genre, I want it to be a totally different take on it. You won’t see that I’ve done a bunch of horror movies, and that got me here, and I haven’t just done a bunch of comedies and that got me there, I really love to play with genres—play with all different genres. I just love to make movies. And I do love watching horror. And I’d be really excited to do a really great horror film.
I have one more question for you: do you believe in ghosts?
Great question! I mean, on the outset, no. But…I’m trying to think of a philosophical ghost that I could believe in. [Pondering…] I don’t believe in ghosts as human apparitions. There’s something the movie touches on that I think is gonna be the most surprising thing to people, is that it’s a story about grief. I lost — this is about to get real deep — but, I lost my father, surprisingly, while I was working on a film years back, and while I don’t ever feel like he appeared to me as a ghost or anything, the film talks about “ghost winks.” That the people we’ve lost are winking at us, and you’ll notice these details everywhere you look. And it’s probably psychological. You know? You’re looking for it, so you see it? But I do like to believe in ghosts in that sense because it brings me a little bit of comfort. I think you’ll see that in this film. Again, the most surprising thing about it is that it’s a film about grief, and the loss of a loved one, and how some belief in ghosts allows them to live forever with us.
The Haunted Mansion opens in theaters July 28th.