Updated: Oct 7, 2021
The Haunted Mansion is one of Disney's most popular attractions, and it's no wonder why. It brings together some rather sophisticated (and simple) special F/X developed by Disney Imagineers, and has captivated generations of visitors. One of the coolest sequences is the quintet of singing plaster busts in the graveyard. How did they do it? As it turns out, with a bit of cleverness and a video projector. The projector casts an image of the singing actors onto the smooth, precisely-aligned bust surfaces. The light projection across the three-dimensional surface tricks your eye into thinking that the bust faces are moving.
It's been a longtime goal of mine to make the singing busts for my annual Halloween display. Literally years in the making. This blog post is about how I finally did it. Here were my goals:
1. The overall illusion should capture the spirit (nyuk, nyuk, nyuk) of the Disney version. It doesn't have to be a copy.
2. The cost needs to be somewhere around $100 (or less) per bust.
3. The materials need to be durable and resistant to rain.
4. It has to be achievable in a reasonable time period. I don't have an infinite amount of time.
You can find a variety of Singing Bust videos on YouTube. The quality is highly variable, and none of them precisely replicates the Disney version. I decided to use this one. The picture quality and audio are decent.
BUST A MOVE
I'm not the first person who has attempted this project. Google it. You will find a bunch of examples. One guy attached a bunch of Styrofoam heads to a board on his porch. It worked, but it wasn't exactly Imagineering at its finest. I wanted something with a bit more artistry. Another guy applied papier-mâché to a mannequin bust, and coated it with Air Clay. He made three of them. That was a pretty good effort but, in my opinion, it was extremely labor-intensive, and I didn't think that it would hold up to Seattle rain. Yet another guy somehow got his hands on the original Disneyland Haunted Mansion busts while the ride was down for renovation, and he made molds; which enabled him to make exact copies. He wouldn't sell the resulting busts, but he was willing to rent them, if you lived in Southern California. Sounded slightly sketchy. I had encountered an impasse: Making the busts from scratch from clay, resin, or plaster was just too costly in terms of time and money.
Meanwhile, life intervened. I put the project aside, and it percolated occasionally in my head. Remember the vacant look that you saw on my face when we were at the Seahawks game? Yeah, that was this. It finally occurred to me that I should consider using real plaster busts. Duh. It seemed like a fairly obvious, fairly practical idea. But, it turns out that most of the life-sized busts that I found were neither life-sized nor affordable. They were too small. Or they lacked proportionality. I needed them to be visible from a distance of 20 feet or more. I really liked the busts of Bach, Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Thomas Jefferson. I simply wasn't prepared to spend $873 for each of them.
Then, I found this. It's a bust designed for use by artists (sculptors, sketch artists). The price was right ($69), and it's actually larger than life. Okay, so game over, right? No, not even close. Here's the really important detail: You can't just project a video onto the face of a bust, and call it a day. You need smooth surfaces around the eyes, nose, and mouth; otherwise, the projected video and the facial features of the bust combine in really distorted ways. To get slightly more technical, the individual pixels from the projected video stretch and blur as they wrap around the contours of the bust and, the more complex the surface, the more they form a moiré-like pattern which ruins the continuity of the illusion. Plus, it's a pretty basic bust. It has no hair, and it's bare from the chest up. I wanted to add little details like collars, ties, and other little things. But, at least I had found the bust.
To get the bust contours smooth, you need some kind of durable modeling material. There are a number of different modeling materials that you can use: Plaster of Paris, clay, resin, rubber latex, etc. Each of them has pluses and minuses. I did some research, and found a kind of air-drying clay called Magic Sculpt. You don't need a kiln. It comes in two parts -- one, clay and the other resin-epoxy. You mix equal parts 1:1, and knead together very well. You have about 2 hours to sculpt it and, then, it will become as hard as concrete. You can find it on Amazon for around $35 for 5-lbs. That seemed like a good fit for what I was looking for. Another thing: Wear gloves. This stuff is toxic. During the course of my research, I read anecdotal warnings from sculptors who experienced loss of nerve sensation in their hands from long term exposure to resin. So, please, do yourself a favor and wear latex (or nitrile, if you have a latex allergy) gloves.
You need the following to get started:
1. An adequate work area
3. Magic Sculpt
4. Paper plate for clay
5. Plastic cup filled with water
6. Latex gloves
7. Newspaper for work surface
8. Sculpting tools (optional)
Projects like this are messy, so you need a work area that's big enough to move around in, well-ventilated, and well-lit. I used the bar in my home theater room. It's elevated, it allowed me to walk around and examine the bust from different angles, and I could simultaneously watch movies on my big screen. Heh. Okay, so, that's just an added bonus. I unrolled thick brown paper that was left over from our bathroom remodel project, and placed it across the bar. I filled a plastic cup with water, and got a thick Chinet paper plate to hold the clay while I was working. After putting on gloves, I extracted a handful of clay and another handful of resin, and started kneading them together. It's a little tough at first: The resin is definitely more stiff than the clay. I added a little water to make them more pliable. I chose a white clay. The resin is gray. You can tell when they're mixed together sufficiently when you no longer see any striation patterns.
I filled in the eyes, nose, and mouth first. This took some time, and you want to get it as smooth as possible. Use plenty of water. Feather the edges of the clay as you apply it, so that it's evenly distributed. I also added hair. There's no easy way to do this. I basically plopped down a bunch of clay, forming the outline of the hair, and then added more clay within the outline. You can use sculpting tools or a comb to get the texture of hair, if you really want that level of detail. The good news is that (like a Hollywood movie set) you don't have to cover the back of the head since nobody will ever see it. I filled in the chest to get more of a flat surface. Remember: This is an art project. Don't hurry through it. Take your time, get the details right and, if you get tired, put it aside and go do something else. The clay will dry, and you can always come back to it.
DETAILS, DETAILS ...
During my research, I ran across a video on YouTube from a very talented artist who uses Magic Sculpt to make really cool, otherworldly masks. She cuts out cardboard pieces which she attaches to a mannequin head with tape/glue. When that's secure, she applies plaster cloth to the cardboard and lets that dry; then, she applies Magic Sculpt on top of the plaster cloth, smooths it, and adds detail with sculpting tools. I got the idea to make the shirt collars, ties, and other details in the same manner. Except I skipped the plaster cloth. I used an actual shirt collar as a template to cut out the cardboard, glued it to my bust, and taped it until dry; then, I applied Magic Sculpt over the cardboard, and let it harden. The cool thing about using the cardboard is that, unlike pure Magic Sculpt, the cardboard provides some rigid structure -- an armature -- but it can also be bent and shaped as needed.
I applied different appliances to each of the 4 busts that I made. One of them has a bow tie and collar. Another has braided military epaulets. I even used bits from my old naval uniform (buttons, insignia, etc). The basic point here is that you can get creative. You don't have to reproduce the Disney busts exactly.
I decided to dress up the busts a bit with some resin appliques from Etsy. You can pick them up for about $4 each. I glued them to the busts with an all-purpose glue, and taped them in place with duct tape. You can spray-paint them, and they look exactly like plaster. It's a small but attractive detail.
UGH. NOW, FOR THE FINISH WORK
When everything was applied, I let them dry for a day. I got out the sandpaper, and started sanding to smooth the surface, first with a medium grit followed by a fine grit. You can use an electric hand sander but be careful. It's very easy to take off too much material. When they were relatively smooth, I blasted them with air from my compressor to remove all of the dust.
I coated them with several coats of polyurethane. You can use a spray can or a paintbrush. This is important: Plaster and dried clay are very porous materials. They basically soak up any moisture that you apply to them. So, you really need to coat them well with polyurethane. The polyurethane acts as an impermeable barrier. After the polyurethane dried, I applied a couple coats of combination white primer/exterior spray paint. Finally, I applied another couple coats of polyurethane.
If you want to save a little money, you can display the busts on the ground or a table, or you can make your own stands. I figured that there had to be some relatively inexpensive stands out there, and I was right. Do you know what a plinth is? I had never heard the term before. It's essentially a plaster (or plaster-like) base that you use to support vases, statues, busts, and other architectural elements. I found a cool looking medium plinth on Design Toscano's website for about $50. You obviously don't need to spend that much. Choose whatever works for you. I painted each of them with a combination white primer/exterior spray paint, and coated them with 2 coats of polyurethane spray.
I needed some kind of device to play the projected video. I didn't want to put my laptop outside in the yard, exposed to the elements, or string a 20 foot HDMI cable from one of the windows. I tried a variety of smaller players (FireTV Stick, WDTV Media Player) but each of them had flaws. For example, some of them had visible gaps when they repeated the video loop. Some of them displayed an animation during this cycle. Which completely destroyed the illusion.
I found an excellent little media player on eBay for around $35. It supports HDMI, 1080p, and allows you to seamlessly loop a video from a thumb drive. It comes with a remote control, and you can configure it to auto-start playback of a particular folder on the thumb drive.
Perfect for my purposes.
I bought a NEC projector from eBay for around $135. Projectors are generally rated in terms of the intensity of light that they produce (lumens), throw distance (the distance between projector and screen), pixel resolution (1080p), and interface (HDMI). You want a projector that produces at least 2000 lumens. Make sure that it supports HDMI. A lot of older models only support VGA. Also, be aware that projector bulbs will eventually burn out and need to be replaced. Check the number of lamp hours remaining. You don't want to replace a bulb if you can avoid it. Some of them are as expensive as a projector, itself.
NOW FOR THE TEST
I did this test in my front yard. But you can do it anywhere that you have a little darkness. I plugged the media player into the projector, and started the loop; then, I painstakingly moved the busts into position until the projected faces were aligned with the bust faces. Tip: You can move the busts forward and backward to decrease or increase (respectively) the size of the projected faces.
HERE'S WHAT'S LEFT
You maynotice when you project onto the busts that there's a halo on the background behind them, where the projector light bleeds around the busts. You can fix that by lighting the background. There's also a pretty stark contrast between the bust faces and the darkened plinths. Put another light on the bases in order to reduce contrast. Also, you can adjust the brightness, contrast, and sharpness of the projector to fine-tune the right look.
NOW, THE WAITING BEGINS ...
All told, this project took about 3-4 weeks of actual work to accomplish. I honestly thought that it would take more time. Which gives me an opportunity to work on my next illusion (Madame Leota). The more difficult task is packing them away for the next 11 months until Halloween.
Let me know what you think.