Halloween 2014 – Creating the Content for Castle Brittahytta

You’ve probably realized by now that so much work went into Halloween 2014 that I have to split up the making-of videos into more digestible chunks! Coming up in a few weeks will be the Electronics & Equipment technology and prop-building video, including all the VSA control programming for the Spirit Materializer, but today here is the first behind-the-scenes video about all the writing, filming, editing & effects we did while Creating the Content for Castle Brittahytta…even including a few outtakes!

Halloween 2014 – Creating the Content for Castle Brittahytta

Creating the content for Halloween 2014 took over two years of writing, prop building, filming & editing with both digital effects & practical in-camera effects, with a few fun outtakes along the way! Watch how we created the characters, filmed the ghosts & moving portraits, filmed Miss Wells and the Webmistress talking to each other inside the Spirit Materializer, filmed the crystal ball appearances, produced the teaser trailer with original music, edited & added effects, and skewed everything for final display as the Main Event interactive mystery at the party!

Don’t forget these other videos from Halloween 2014, and stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes in Halloween 2014 – Electronics & Equipment coming soon!

Halloween 2014 Main Event – The Spirit Materializer

Halloween 2014 – Studying Spirits with Miss Hermione G. Wells

Halloween 2014 – Verdigris Portraits, Family Heirlooms and Other Clues

“Creating the Content for Castle Brittahytta” full video transcript with helpful links:

Creating the content for Halloween 2014 took over two years, and even longer when you consider the majority of the costumes were created many years before everything solidified into one grand idea! The Story of Seven Spirits is just the beginning of the Verdigris Saga spanning a thousand years into the past, even before Castle Brittahytta was originally built in Europe, so there will be plenty more surprises in store for future Halloweens!

After years of being on my Halloween list, finally a single projected ghost appeared for Halloween 2011 with Ghoulish Glen’s assistance, so of course I wanted even more ghosts next! However multiple ghosts would be kept as a secret project in case it didn’t work out so no other actors were allowed, and we knew from experience that recycling footage just doesn’t work well, so that means they all had to be filmed new. While standing in line in Orlando at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Haunted Mansion at DisneyWorld in March 2012, I thought to save myself some sewing work, I could take some of my previous costumes and wigs and put them into rough chronological order as members of the same minor European royal family, which would explain why they all looked alike. This genealogy chart ended with my steampunk inventor character, Miss Hermione G. Wells, as the mysterious missing heiress from some 18th-century intrigue causing her royal ancestor to end up in America, so that tied in with my original Halloween 2009 story of how Castle Brittahytta was built in California. The party game idea would be to match the ghost to the portrait, with a couple harder-to-find clues, but I had no real party plot yet. I provided my spreadsheet of character sketches & costumes to Ghost Writer Glen, by April we had named almost everyone in the Verdigris family, and Glen had already started fleshing out my character sketches into fabulous stories that will take many years to tell!

All six ghosts were filmed in 2012 against a black gossamer backdrop, either hanging from the movie screen trellis in my backyard for several including the Pumpkin Queen, draped over the pipe organ in position inside the shed for the Phantom of the Pipes, or weighted down in the bottom of my parents’ swimming pool for the Watery Wraith. After filming, all the ghost video was heavily-altered in post-processing by boosting the brightness, desaturating the colors, boosting the blue to maximum, and masking around the subject to absolute black. Our first ghost filmed was Merry Madam Mead, who was a little washed out because her dark hair and dark dress blended too much with the black backdrop, so brightening her levels also lightened the background. We hadn’t figured out yet that two sidelights aimed on the subject with shades to avoid any light spill on the backdrop was the best technique that worked well for the rest of the ghosts, even jumping around sword fighting an imaginary foe as Swashbuckler Sally. We learned through trial and error that dark wig hair, dark hats and metal crowns could be temporarily lightened with talcum powder, which helped me separate the subject from the darker background during editing. The different projectors and screens used in the final illusions also altered the ghosts’ final appearances. More details about the execution of each ghost are available on BrittaBlvd.com.

The seven moving portraits required planning with the ghost filming, since many made sense to film while I was in the same costume, wig and makeup. It was easier to control the set lighting in front of my large living room window by waiting until after dusk. We intentionally made the portrait subjects sit 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. Since it’s much easier to loop a static background, all of the portrait subjects left the frame at least once in their sequences, and most had several clips linked together in the long loop, so they left several times. Everyone leaving at the same time would spoil the illusion, so all the clip timings were different on purpose. 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, the Pumpkin Queen tending to her garden, the Webmistress gazing into her crystal ball, 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. Each set was also specific to each character, with props and poses authentic to each era. All seven portraits were originally filmed in 2012, but we did add some surprises for 2014.

Not only did the Main Event need a giant custom-built steampunk device full of electronics as its stage display, but even the video content of Miss Hermione G. Wells summoning the Webmistress through the Spirit Materializer required a LOT of special effects, both practical and digital!

The footage of Miss Wells was all in-camera practical effects except for the static, the color and the audio. We had left the movie screen hanging in my backyard long past summer season in hopes of more room to film outside like we had been filming the ghosts, but by the time the script was finally ready to film, it started raining, so we had to bring the whole setup into my cozy living room instead! We hung the screen from my ceiling beams in front of the same window that was the backdrop for most of the portraits, aimed the short-throw Epson projector at the screen from around the corner by the piano to show a looping video of real thunder and lightning, set up the carved gravestone and the rest of the set, where I sat on my hard floor, reading my script in front of a fan blowing my hair for the stormy weather, fading my own lighting up & down per stage direction in the script, playing with imaginary knobs, and trying to read all the technobabble that had only been delivered as a final script hours earlier that same day. I had two large metal stakes with looped wire that I stabbed into the dirt in a pumpkin pot brought in from the garden, and the lever was an old bottle-capper from my grandfather’s basement anchored to Glen’s portable workbench to stay stable as I cranked it at the beginning of each scene. There was a real albeit empty bucket I tossed for the “dihydrogen monoxide coolant,” and whacking Glen’s grandfather’s old pipe wrench against the workbench leg is what finally “Fonzied” the device into working the last time for the finale in Act 7. Writer, director & cinematographer Ghoulish Glen had an electronic pop flash that he timed for the first equipment failure, and throughout filming, he flashed his still camera as extra lightning flashes, which captured the only behind-the-scenes action photos we have of this session!

There was a lot of size adjustment and skewing for projection angle at the very end, but otherwise the digital effects were minor for Miss Wells. I easily found a loop of analog video static online to intersperse along the way. Using either black & white or sepia filters ended up removing all our lovely glowing clouds in the background, but desaturating the color gave the vintage look we wanted while keeping our thunderclouds. Glen was emphatic about filtering the audio to sound like early-20th century short-wave radio, but the party audience found it difficult to understand, and most of them had no idea it was authentically vintage.

In contrast, the ghostly Webmistress was almost all digital effects. Even though we paid close attention to details of her appearance that affected the story, and I did my best old age makeup so I wouldn’t look exactly the same as Miss Wells, since the Webmistress would be standing in the vortex, we needed the full frame, so the camera couldn’t be close enough to register the old age makeup or all the costume details, like the dew detail on the spiderweb dress, the spider earrings, or the inherited Verdigris family necklace and official seal ring.

We had been filming ghosts against black backdrops all summer, but the Webmistress was our first green screen subject. Unfortunately since we needed to film her almost full body in the frame, we didn’t have enough green extending onto the floor to put enough distance between the subject and background to light the background separately, plus in that location we couldn’t stretch the green screen to remove all the draping shadows. Even with cropping the video as tightly as possible first, then fading opacity to make her more ghostlike, all of these issues made keying out the green more difficult, so having a green ectoplasm-powered vortex required by the writer was a blessing. Adding some echo and reverb sounded otherworldly and like she was coming through a tunnel. We found a YouTube vortex that I was able to tweak to the ectoplasmic green we liked, plus reverse and repeat to loop seamlessly over and over for the 4 hours of footage we needed, since the vortex was spinning for the entire party, even between scenes, before and after.

Timing was a challenge, since I was talking to myself! We tried our best to speak the opposite lines mentally to wait long enough before my cue, and it mostly worked pretty well, especially considering this was our first time ever attempting anything like this! The static was our secret weapon for Miss Wells, since I could stretch out her pauses with a couple well-placed bursts of static, but the Webmistress pauses had to be sped up or slowed down to match the dialog with Miss Wells. Even how the characters looked at each other, at the audience, or at the crystal ball worked out just right…thank goodness!

All that content was filmed in 2012, but the Main Event wasn’t filmed until too close to the party for all the editing and rendering necessary, so the six ghosts and seven portraits were a grand success for Halloween 2012, but the Main Event was postponed until 2014. Since we had so much already filmed, we thought we could add some enhancements to the original plan, like a separate micro laser projector for the crystal ball, which also required newly-filmed footage, touching up our first washed-out ghost, redoing one portrait for story developments, and adding two green screen surprises for some portraits to interact. Five ghosts were filmed for their crystal ball appearances including Sarina and the Pumpkin Queen, Sova also had a new portrait, Merry also had a new ghost and a green screen surprise, and Ergelise also had her own green screen surprise. This became a two-day filming schedule with costume changes and backdrop changes from green screen to black behind the ghost and the crystal ball.

The crystal ball sequences were relatively easy to film, since I stayed seated and could read my lines with a cue card on the camera tripod, biding my time looking around like I was actually inside an orb taking in my surroundings, until it was time to perform the one essential phrase for each ghost. My Halloween Scream Team did have excellent ideas how to distinguish the performances to be different people, like more militaristic movement and speech for swashbuckling Princess Sarina. I had already edited the Main Event for dialog timing, so I used those videos on my iPad in my lap, with one headphone earbud to listen for my cue, hiding the headphone cord behind my back and through whatever wig I was wearing for that character. We made sure to powder the dark wig for Merry and Sarina, plus powder Sarina’s hat, and only sidelight the subject, which worked well against the unlit black backdrop when adding the ghostly digital effects, like lightening and desaturating, adding a bloom flare, and feathering a circle around the subject. I got lucky and found a clouds generator filter that looked just like a crystal ball tuning in.

Knowing that how much trouble I had keying out the Webmistress green screen was due to distance and lighting, I thought of rotating our living room soundstage so the one tall wall I have could be the green screen, stapled across to stretch out as many wrinkles as possible. Since we wouldn’t show any feet, we had the whole length of the living room to place the subject, using separate lights for the background and for the subject. This made the green screen keying so easy for both Ergelise and Merry that I swear it was like magic!

[Click for the complete portrait of Princess Sarina]

It was a little tricky to coordinate the timing between portraits so they wouldn’t be in two places at once, but I solved that by stretching out some of the blank times when the subject was not on screen. I still haven’t delved into actual animation effects quite yet, but I was able to fade in Merry drawing a jack o’lantern face on the Pumpkin Queen’s skirt well enough for the joke to work!

[Click for the complete portrait of Queen Dynia]

Queen Sova had recent story developments that required new filming this year, so we remembered to take more behind the scenes photos, mostly courtesy of Scary Jerry, since Ghoulish Glen was busy playing director and cinematographer again. Those are sadly very uncomfortable violet contact lenses and a LOT of makeup to make me look albino without looking clownlike, plus a more realistic wig than the 2012 Sova.

We tried a different color palette in hopes of highlighting the violet eyes, but the digital photo frame was so small that it was still hard to see her eyes very well. If you looked closely you could tell something was different than all the other queens, and you could see her owl necklace, along with her seven pet owls in the portrait, and three owls carved into her frame. The extra dramatic lighting was to highlight the contrast between the shadows and the light, which echoed some of the advice she gave to passers-by.

[Click for the complete portrait of Wise Queen Sova]

But wait…there is STILL more filming! We had learned from previous experience that my party guests either are not interested in reading explanations, or they are not bringing their reading glasses to my parties, so we decided against a letter from Miss Wells, and decided to film a video loop of her explaining why she was not in person at her own party and why she needs their help. Since I have my family’s old film projector from the 1940s, my plan was to set up one of my small projectors hidden to look like the old film projector was showing the loop, and because it would show in the Library Laboratory, the backdrop behind Miss Wells should be the Spirit Materializer from out on the patio. The timing for this was tight, since we couldn’t film it until the Spirit Materializer was built enough to be a backdrop. We liked an in-between old film look, not quite black & white but not quite sepia, then I was lucky to find a Final Cut Pro filter called “Bad Film” with adjustable parameters like jitter, shake, focus, hairs, dust & scratches! Adding an old film countdown I found on YouTube to the front and about a minute of blank film deadtime at the end made a perfect loop.

[Watch the full Greetings from Miss Hermione G. Wells here]

After I had dressed up in old age makeup again to read the séance lines by candlelight, the Miss Wells intro was in the can, and Scary Jerry had recorded his best “in a world…” Mr. Trailer Man voice, I had enough footage to produce the party teaser trailer, but I only had a week to edit it all together before my invitation deadline of 6 weeks before the party. I took the special Webmistress candle footage, some Webmistress vortex footage, the Miss Wells intro, footage of all the ghosts, a couple moving portraits, Castle Brittahytta from 2012 with some real lightning video added over the towers, a couple closeups of the Spirit Materializer equipment in process, and some staged Miss Wells travel photos as exposition, and arranged everything timed along with Jerry’s narration and original music I wrote. My Halloween Scream Team is a very critical audience, so we had a few rounds of fine tuning, including last-minute rewriting and arranging the Verdigris theme for 10 straight hours to be more “soundtracky” for trailer use. I am very glad all three of us loved how it turned out, and the overly dramatic ending still makes me laugh every time. 🙂

[Watch the full teaser trailer for Halloween 2014 here]

Even though the Miss Wells intro footage was edited before the trailer, I still needed to finalize the projection setup so it would look like my family’s old 1940s film projector was showing the loop in the Library Laboratory. I tried several locations, but the best place to hide a compact UltraProjector ended up being attached to the easel behind the menu chalkboard with the projector upside-down and at an angle to the whiteboard screen across the table with no keystone adjustments available on the projector itself…so the video skewing began. It took 7 attempts of skewing footage, loading onto the onboard flash memory on the projector and aiming at the board before I got it good enough, and you can tell by the cross in the countdown that horizontally it was still a little too spread due to the screen angle. At least the Miss Wells intro was all set to show at the party!

[Click for all of Studying Spirits with Miss Hermione G. Wells]

The video skewing for the Main Event was much more challenging! First of all, I “flattened” each track for each screen so all their separate clips and video effects wouldn’t have to be skewed separately for each clip. I did this by copying only those clips into a new sequence, exporting as uncompressed DV, then importing back in as a new 4-hour clip. We had designed the Spirit Materializer so both displays could be rear-projected from the same short-throw projector in our backstage area, but that meant the projector beam had to be aimed between screens at the corner of an obtuse angle, with each stretched gray-microfiber-sheet screen angling away from the projector. I’m sure there should be some mathematical way to calculate the exact angles and what video compensation angles are needed, but after my skewing frustrations with the Front Show projections for Halloween 2013, I just took some example photos from behind to see where the footage was landing compared to where the screen edges were, and kept working trial and error on a 20-second clip to avoid long render times. This was extra challenging because the angles stretched the footage so much horizontally they were too far apart from each other, so I had to go back to the original clips to scoot the Webmistress over in the frame so there would be enough visual area to skew so drastically! Finally attempt number 10 was the magic number, and it looked so fantastic inside the Spirit Materializer that I literally squealed with glee!

All that was just the content we created for Halloween 2014, not HOW we displayed it, which required a lot of various technology explained in the Electronics & Equipment video up next. Thank you for watching, and Happy Haunting!

Waving Webmistress on the Set

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