You probably already guessed that my moving portraits were inspired by the Harry Potter universe, specifically my trip to the Wizarding World theme park in March. Actually, the first idea was normal portraits to go with each ghost as a matching game, but then I decided I had enough budget to buy or otherwise acquire all the necessary video panels in addition to the extra ghost electronics equipment, so if I had to dress up for the portraits again anyway, why not film video?
The original idea spark was knowing I wanted to move from one ghost last year to several ghosts this year, but how, who were they, and what would be their stories? While standing in line in Orlando, I had a glimmer of a thought that maybe I could use some of my previous costumes as members of the same noble family from the time of the founding of Castle Brittahytta and throughout its history. They were the same family since I couldn’t avoid them all looking like me, even though I borrowed some wigs from friends and bought a couple more to help me look different enough. I wrote some basic character sketches based on costumes I had, came up with some fun names that wouldn’t sound out of place with Britta, arranged them in an approximate timeline, including how a branch ended up in America for Hermione G. Wells to inherit the castle. My “ghost writer” turned those character sketches into an elaborate epic plot that will take years to reveal…awesome!
Obviously my 60″ plasma big-screen TV permanently in my living room would be one portrait, I borrowed my parents’ extra 32″ flatscreen TV, and I borrowed a 17″ flatscreen monitor from a friend, but I needed 7 screens total for all the portraits. I don’t have enough wall space to hang all flat panel TVs everywhere, plus that’s more expensive than even my expanded budget, so I was hoping to use photo frames for smaller portraits, then buy one medium flat panel TV that I could use as an external monitor for video editing year-round. After some research & comparative pricing, I found Aluratek cheap basic photo frames on Amazon, with various sizes all the same brand, bought a small one as a test using all free points from my March vacation Amazon Visa spending, and after online searches and Windows-only video conversion shareware, finally got the video converted from QuickTime to the Motion JPEG AVI with mp3 audio format that works on most photo frames…whew! Over the summer I kept buying more when the month was up and I had more Amazon Visa points to spend, until I had three 12″ 4:3 aspect ratio frames and a 32″ widescreen TV that could run video off a USB flash drive!
Of course all those panels were black modern frames, not very portrait-looking at all. I had enough thin foam sheet scraps to make custom carved foam frames for the 3 small portraits and my 32″ TV. All those frames were styled to the portrait inside, some as extra character clues that won’t come into play until later stories are revealed. For all the frames, the foam was cut out to nest around the electronics so they would stay on without any tape, and for the most part that worked. I painted them all with a brown basecoat first, using an old brush to cram paint into all the carved areas, then after the brown was dry, I dry-brushed with gold paint to leave the brown showing all the carved detail.
Ever since I got my big TV several years ago I have wanted to disguise it for Halloween, but I kept looking for a way that would be stored easier than big carved foam strips. Since I didn’t have any content to show on the big TV anyway, that kept getting shoved “until next year.” Last year I started looking for anything I could print myself on long spools of paper, but no luck until my friend showed me Spoonflower.com. Fabric is so much better than all the cheap vinyl decorations, since vinyl shines in light, including flash photography, ruining your atmosphere. I had investigated printing fabric last in 2008, and it was quite expensive and required more yardage that I thought I might use. Spoonflower still isn’t cheap, but it’s more reasonable, and you can buy a single yard. I took photos of a bunch of frames at other houses and my own, plus some of my carved own frame designs from foam for spookier themes, designed the fabric, then placed my order for the heaviest fabric they have. The fabric is still not as thick as I’d prefer, so I add iron-on interfacing to the back so the edges won’t flop as badly, plus that helps seal the edges from fraying. The closer your Fabric Frame is to the width of your actual panel frame, the least risk of flopping. Because the monitor wouldn’t hang flat against the wall and tipped forward a bit, Sarina’s frame tended to flop at the top unfortunately, but I still liked the illusion. Three of my portraits used Fabric Frames, and I had them ready early enough to sell a few this season on Etsy!
The portraits themselves required planning with the ghost filming, since many made sense to film the same evening while I was in costume, wig and makeup. It was easier to control the set lighting by waiting until after dusk. The only one we filmed the ghost first was Sova, since we needed the original tattered all-white ghost dress to film the Watery Wraith in the well, then after that was done (and fully dry again!), I altered her dress into a tidier princess dress by folding all the tatters into a wide handstitched hem and adding fresh gold trim to the neckline. I had planned for Sova to have long blonde hair, but my secret circle all voted it was easier to match to her ghost with the same long stark white hair, so it became part of her character story. There were so many back and forth suggestions from online video clips requiring resetting and refilming the next day, that I requested my “ghost writer” to be present as director for all future filming! That worked much better since he couldn’t ever come up with anything in advance when I asked, but on the spot his ideas were many and great.
We intentionally made the portraits sitting still for quite awhile, trying their best to behave, with only minor movements like eyes blinking, looking around, adjusting their hair and clothing to proper portrait appearance, candles flickering, crystal ball changing color, and leaves rustling in the breeze, so they would only attract attention on second glance “hey, did that just move?” Since it’s much easier to loop a static background, all of the portraits left the frame at least once in their long loop, and most had several clips linked together in the long loop, so they left several times. We didn’t want them all leaving at the same time, so all the clip timings were different on purpose. A short loop with a lot of movement would be really obvious it was just looping, but if the loop was 10 minutes or longer, we sincerely doubted anyone would ever stand around watching the whole thing to find out when it looped! Each character had at least one action specific to her character, like Ergelise turning to play her piano, Sova shushing her hooting pet owls, Sarina brandishing her sword, and the First Queen greeting people at the entrance. However, we did come up with “easter eggs” in case someone happened to be walking by at the right time, many of which are clues to the larger story, with some that won’t make sense until years from now. There were also some that were just funny, like Queen Meresinine “Merry” Verdigris, so you should watch that one all the way to the end. 😉
I think the most hassle was the poor Pumpkin Queen! First of all, when I originally made the costume in 2008, I never finished the leaf sleeves nor the final crown decoration, plus now she needed the Verdigris dragon emblem on her crown too, so those were added this summer. At least the sleeves were already cut out and I knew exactly where they were. Then I kept waiting and waiting for my pumpkin vines to bloom, but once they finally did, the blooms would close up before noon…ack! I am not a morning person, especially on my precious weekends when most of these were filmed! That explains my puffy eyes…heh! Since I didn’t even plant my pumpkin seeds until mid-July, the blooms were very late, but we finally had enough to look good by early October. The day beforehand I arranged all the pots & fake pumpkins in my backyard in a shady spot for best lighting, including tying mini plastic jack-o-lanterns to the vines like baby pumpkins, then we got up super-early for the last chance at the local flea market for cheaper video cables, came back to put my contacts in & get in wig, makeup & costume so we could be done filming before 11am. At least once we got started it went fairly quickly, since there was only so much she could do to care for her precious pumpkins, and we knew the noisy backyard audio would need to be replaced anyway. As a tie-in to the original music I had written that Ergelise played on the piano in her portrait, I sang the Ode to Verdigris a cappella to the pumpkins and added the audio in post…but I think my favorite part is how the orange skirt poofed out when she squatted so that she looked like a pumpkin herself! 🙂
You might have noticed by now that each set is also specific to each character, even though many were filmed in the same spot in front of my large living room window. This is perfectly appropriate for painted portraits which often tried to represent the character with props and still life arrangements around the subject. I even researched possible poses to be authentic to each era. Not only did the Pumpkin Queen costume finally get finished to my original plan after a 4 year hiatus, but the Victorian Webmistress also got her “dew on spiderwebs” beading after running out of time last year. Set design was fun, gathering stuff from around my house that might be useful, making sure the backdrop colors were different for each so the location wouldn’t look the same but still be period-appropriate, and even making new props, like the Verdigris crest stained glass window. One big unexpected problem was the volume seemed loud compared to normal conversations, but the ambient chatter of party noise was so loud, no one could hear the portraits that spoke! I cranked up the volume on those later in the evening, then some people were able to hear them, but duly noted for 2014 when the clues will be more meaningful, especially what the Webmistress says as she hangs over the dining table. 😉
There were some frustrating technical difficulties I couldn’t figure out how to overcome. Using the exact same video formats & settings from QuickTime through the Windows conversion program, I ended up with a perfect Sova audio track timed with the action for a long video, but no matter what I did, after converting to Motion JPEG AVI, the Merry audio always went off track about 3 minutes into the video, so that the clinks when she poured and sips she took were heard before the action happened…annoying! The monitor I borrowed squashed Sarina fat even though she was the proper 4:3 aspect ratio already, and my fancy new TV that could loop USB video showed words onscreen that it was looping, so I had to make a 5 hour mp4 myself to put on the USB stick so it would last the whole party without revealing the silly looping message. I felt like I was in video format hell between getting all these settled plus the ghost videos…my kingdom for one good video standard format across all platforms & devices!!!
There were also big hassles with using Apple iDevices to export video to displays, even though it was nice to have such a small device to hide instead of a DVD player or computer. Online research revealed there were a billion versions of the Apple dock to video cables over the past few years, and some devices would play with old but not new, and I couldn’t nail down model numbers or anything to have confidence buying anything that was a $25-$40 gamble. We had an older iPod Touch that never was used because we had no cables that would work with it. I was VERY glad that the iPhone 5 came out in September, since both my mom & I needed new phones, so I was able to borrow her iPhone4 with a $15 flea-market dock to HDMI adapter even though it didn’t pass-through USB to charge as it should have. I used my iPhone4 to run Sarina’s portrait via a dock to RCA flea-market in-box cable that had a USB cable that did charge. Since iOS doesn’t have a loop option on the Video app (QuickTime does so why not iOS?!?), the option to create a video playlist is now gone, and no 3rd-party apps would export video over the cables we found, I was stuck with creating 5-hour video files to last the party. Thankfully my mom’s iPhone4 fully-charged was able to run 5 hours of video for the Webmistress portrait without dying!
Here was the final equipment breakdown for all seven moving portraits:
Ergelise: 60″ plasma TV with receiver speakers with MacMini input looping QuickTime mov
Sarina: 17″ monitor (no audio) with iPhone4 dock to RCA playing 5 hour mp4
First Queen: 32″ TV with built-in TV speaker with USB video playing 5 hour mp4
Webmistress: 32″ TV with built-in TV speaker with iPhone4 dock to HDMI playing 5 hour mp4
Hallway Trio: 12″ Aluratek photo frames with built-in speakers with SD cards looping Motion-JPEG/avi/mp3 format videos
Some last technical notes…You need to plan for hiding power cables and media player input devices when arranging your portraits! The big plasma TV wasn’t moving from its giant articulating mount and couldn’t be rotated vertically, hence why it showed Ergelise at the piano as a logical horizontal portrait. I placed the larger portraits in prominent locations where I had nearby outlets under my table, couch or piano, which were also good places to hide the media players. Since I have shelf space above my hall closet where some of the haunted portrait gallery is usually displayed anyway, I put all 3 small portraits on that wall with their power supplies going up to an extension cord up there, and any visible black cables I painted to match the wall color with leftover paint. This also means you have to rotate your video so that the power cable end is the top of the video. To keep the most resolution and video quality intact, we filmed all the vertical portraits with the camera turned vertically, but some needed to be rotated 180 degrees based on which way the panel decided to display it. They were a bit of a pain to edit though, since rotating then rotating back was horrible for any masking plus took forever to render, so I got a crick in my neck watching sideways! I did try some various filters to attempt brushstroke effects, but I didn’t like any of them since they muddied the detail too much. The irony was that one guest asked specifically for me to send him what effects I used to make them look painted, but I told him it was just standard def video displayed on HD equipment! 😉
Last but not least were the nameplates. I finally found gold foil inkjet label paper last year, so I printed all the nameplates and stuck them to the frames so they would look like engraved metal. Little did I know that the label adhesive didn’t want to stick to paint or fabric very well, even though it stuck to the plastic trophies last year just fine. 😛 So next time those might have to be glued or some stickier tape to keep them in place, since they are necessary to identify the true names of the ghosts!
It was a LOT of work all summer long all the way down to the crunch time on party day, but overall I was very pleased with the portraits and the guests were impressed too, thank goodness! You can see all the moving portrait photos in the full gallery below if you’d like to click to continue reading. But this was only half the filming & video work…I still have to tell you about all the ghosts, too!