Things You're Just Supposed to Know

Most of the time, Long-Forgotten assumes that readers are already familiar with basic facts
about the Haunted Mansion. If you wanna keep up with the big boys, I suggest you check out
first of all the website, Doombuggies.com. After that, the best place to go is Jason Surrell's book,
The Haunted Mansion: Imagineering a Disney Classic (NY: Disney Editions; 2015). That's the
re-named third edition of The Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies (NY:
Disney Editions, 2003; 2nd ed. 2009). Also essential reading is Jeff Baham's The Unauthorized
Story of Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion (USA: Theme Park Press, 2014).

This site is not affiliated in any way with any Walt Disney company. It is an independent
fan site dedicated to critical examination and historical review of the Haunted Mansions.
All images that are © Disney are posted under commonly understood guidelines of Fair Use.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

Conjuring up the Hatbox Ghost: An Interview with Imagineer Daniel Joseph

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I had an opportunity to ask Daniel Joseph some questions about the new Hatbox Ghost figure, which he designed.

(Photo copyright ©Walt Disney Imagineering. Used by permission)

Long-Forgotten:  I understand you are quite an admirer of Yale Gracey and know quite a lot about him. Is this something that developed while you were with Disney, or was it already a special interest before you became an Imagineer? If so, was it something that motivated you to apply to Disney in the first place? How did you become so fascinated with this particular Imagineer?

Daniel Joseph:  I grew up on the east coast in Delaware, not really close to any Disney park. It was a very special occasion to take a trip down to Orlando (or Anaheim when I was a teenager) to see Disney Theme Parks. Ever since I was very young I would tinker and take things apart as well as create new things. At about age 11 I got into making haunted houses in our basement and building homemade fog machines, mirror effects, basically anything that went into the haunted house was homemade. This was my absolute joy, since I grew up with some learning disabilities, my haunted houses gave me a creative outlet that I could "one up" my friends in school that could read better than I or do arithmetic faster than I. They became bigger and more elaborate every year. It was soon after I started my haunted houses that we went on a family vacation to Orlando. I had a life changing experience on two attractions specifically. The first was of course, the Haunted Mansion. I had been on it before as a younger child but this time something happened to me. I was utterly fascinated and hooked. How could these illusions happen right in front of me, it couldn't just be "movie magic" because this was live, real life! The second attraction was Horizons in Epcot which blew me away in its scale, and feel. The theme song "if you can dream it then you can do it" literally spoke to me. I would go back to the hotel room with my family and build things I had seen in Horizons out of pens I would take apart and pieces of various things I found in our luggage. 

This Walt Disney World trip was a real turning point in my young life. I never before asked myself  "what do I want to do when I grow up". I now knew the answer to this question, there have to be people in the world that made places like the Haunted Mansion and Horizons and I want to be one of them! I didn't know anything about Imagineering yet but I would make it my goal and quest to find out.  

I started scouring books, websites, and asking friends of friends who knew people who at one point who had some loose affiliation with Disney. At this point is when I learned about Yale Gracey. 

Everything I read about him made me more and more interested. I also felt a kinship and very shortly he had an "idol-like" status to me. He was my "Michael Jordan." This was someone whom I felt had such a quite intellectual brilliance that I could only hope to have one day. I put a framed picture of good ol' Yale on my bedroom wall with written description of "Illusioneering" and set my tunnel vision sights to that! The rest is history, I guess!

Long Forgotten:  Do you have any Yale stories that are not generally known but would be of interest to Haunted Mansion fans? We know about his personal ghost story from childhood and some other general things such as his membership at the Magic Castle, and we know what effects at the HM were wholly or partly his doing. What is something we probably don't know?

Daniel Joseph:  When I came into the group all pixie dusted and bursting with new invention ideas and Yale appreciation, I think my colleagues who had been at Disney, some for 30 years, were pleasantly  surprised. I work alongside two Special Effects designers in particular who were interns for Yale. This blew me away and I have chewed their ears off with countless questions about him. Two short stories stuck out the most to me. One being that Yale would give the designers working with him freedom to play, to invent and create all kinds of wacky things. He would regularly bring some of these new interns into his office after a week of creating and ask, "What did you build this week?" Then he would take a look and pour a small glass of scotch for himself as well as the young designer. After that he would take out some paper and the two of them would have a sketching session. Yale would bounce illusion ideas off of the he young man and vice versa. All I could say was “Wow!”.....

The second comes from a speaker series that WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) put together during the EPCOT days where management would bring in Walt's Imagineers to give lectures to the new generation. In this talk, which was recorded as were all the talks, Yale spoke (which was a treat as I never had heard his voice before) about problem solving and inventing.  If it didn't exist, they would create it! A great example he gave was the fog machine. In the mid 1960s you couldn't go to the local Halloween store a buy a fog machine, they hadn't been invented yet. Yale explained the process of creating a very elegant, simple fog machine for the parks. Possibly the first in the world! These stories are treasures to me and I keep getting new ones from various Imagineers still at WDI.

Long Forgotten:  realize there are limits on what may be said here, but basically what I would like to know is whether the HBG you developed and we are now enjoying was a project developed from scratch or whether you worked in continuity with earlier efforts.

Daniel Joseph:  The Hatbox Ghost has been a favorite of many Imagineers for years. There have been many pitches to try to get him back. Most were just not at the right time and appetite for the park. There was a pitch several years ago in which a model of a version of the illusion was even created. It was very promising and clever but needed a lot of room as well as couldn't allow the figure to move without a very complex arrangement. 

A few years later and tangentially to the above, I and a few other passionate Imagineers were reinvigorated by the positive response to the impromptu figure we did for Disney’s D23 Expo. This got me thinking about the illusion and I came up with a mockup which I built and pitched to several people at Imagineering. I think our show producer said it best when I demonstrated the effect really close up, "You did it!" I had to trigger the effect several times and have people walk all around it to have them understand what was really happening and how it worked. That for me was the biggest compliment. I am a firm believer in building ideas into working mockups. This is the only way to prove them out as well as get everyone on the same page creatively. This was the process for the Hatbox Ghost illusion and really helped get things off the ground.

Long Forgotten In the official video for the new HBG, you mention that basic illusions and concepts developed by Yale Gracey were still part of the mix, along with the obvious high-tech, computer-generated elements.  As best I can tell, this is certainly the case. (We're pretty sure we've figured out how most of the illusions work.) Again, you can't talk about specific effects, but as a general observation, did you find any sort of special satisfaction in being able to incorporate the kind of simple trickery Yale was known for? I've always thought that the HM had the "feel" of a 19th century stage magic show more than a high-tech wonder, and much of the basic gimmickry in the new HBG seems to me to follow that same recipe, despite the high-tech components. (And for that, I thank you very much!)

Daniel JosephFrom the beginning I wanted to keep the illusion as practical as possible. As a team we kept to this mantra because we were all fans of the Mansion from both a look and feel standpoint but also a place in time. The Haunted Mansion was created during an amazing time at WED and has the soul of that time period within its walls. The question was how could we create a figure that would match the design vernacular of the rest of the show? As a team we divided and conquered this issue and came up with what I thought was a really good plan. Our show producer, Jeffrey Shaver-Moskowitz was able to locate the original plaster tool used to make the fiberglass shell of the figure’s face from 1969. We made a casting from the tool (which still is labeled hatbox figure!) and then 3D scanned the positive. I then went to our Imagineering library and located some very high resolution images of the figure which are pretty good front and side views. Then our digital artist texture-mapped these pictures right onto the 3D data which we had scanned before. He was even able to rig the piece so it could be 3D animated to blink and snicker. The result was a very analogue hand-made looking 3D model which even has brushstrokes and finger prints from the photograph of the original figure! This proved great and we all felt really good about moving forward with the figure. We had to restrain the animation as well to follow the character of the air-actuated, solenoid driven figures in the attraction too. Of course the digital face COULD do anything but that was not was we were setting out to prove.

I come from a background of trying to find the simple and elegant way to do things. That said, almost all magic is done this way, which is really what makes it magic in the first place. All of Yale’s designs followed this mantra, a kind of design Zen which made them look amazing, and stay maintainable over the years in a theme park environment. It is important that we as Illusioneers following in Yale’s footsteps really drive this home since the technology we have available is only a means and a tool, not the end result. A really important guiding principle of many Victorian magicians and Phantasmagoria shows was to make your audience believe by having them think they know how an illusion is done, then shattering that notion! This was something I wanted to do from the start with The Hatbox Ghost effect. By “rolling up our sleeves and showing there is nothing hidden” I think we were able to create a really convincing illusion. The “rolling up our sleeves” part of course is the proximity of the figure to the track. This was to take any hindrance of doubt left and allowing close-up magic to happen, on a ride!

Long ForgottenHow long did this project take? About how many people were directly involved in it (if that's okay to talk about)? I guess I want to know how major a project this one was considered at WDI.

Daniel JosephThe project took 1.5 years from mockup and pitch to installation. About 10 core people from several different disciplines made it happen. The whole effect, figure, artwork, everything was designed and built in-house at Walt Disney Imagineering. The figure is truly a Disney product in every way.

Long ForgottenVirtually every explanation about why the original HBG didn't work mentions that he was too close to the track for the face to completely disappear. On the other hand, many have noted that the new HBG is surprisingly close to the doombuggies as they go by. Do I detect a certain swagger over so convincingly licking the problem, or am I reading too much into that?

Daniel JosephA close-up, physical illusion was the only way to go ;-)

Long Forgotten: Thanks for your time, and congratulations.




(Many thanks to Frank Reifsnyder at WDI for arranging the interview.)




22 comments:

  1. Thanks again for another insightful article exploring Disney's Haunted Mansion, and warm thanks to WDI and Daniel Joseph for this fascinating and informative peek behind the creative curtain.

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  2. I find it very comforting to read that the new blood is so very heavily invested in perpetuating the original 'design vernacular.' The queue and hitchhiking ghosts at WDW are really great examples of how things can go astray as a consequence of ignoring or perhaps misunderstanding said vernacular.

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    1. Yes. Making the new stuff blend in with the old that is already there should be an obvious concern. The CG Mirror HHG's are like a sudden switch to 1940s Warner Brothers animation during the final scene in an Anime feature.

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  3. Curious as to why they needed to find the original mold (or "tool"). Were there no Ezra heads available, or the mold that makes the Ezra head? Just paint that to match the original photos and scan that.

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  4. Yeah, that seems overblown to me too. It's a good symptom, though: wanting to get as exactly close to the original as possible. You would think they could just get the head from one of the Ezra hitchhiking ghosts no longer in use at WDW, and that would probably be close enough to make a new mold, if they needed it.

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    1. Maybe while digging around for research stuff they found the original.

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  5. Where was this mentality towards "design vernacular" when they put together Constantine?

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  6. Wonderful post ! How lucky you were to get this interview ! And I'm happy to find a new post again.

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  7. I'm curious why the lighting and coloring of the figure are so different than the rest of the ride. The black clothes and glow-in-the-dark-green bone structure seem to represent a more modern aesthetic but don't really blend into the scenes very well.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the effects and the figure overall.

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    1. Curiously enough, the closest thing to the "look" of the new HBG that I can find is the look of the original in the home movie footage of him:

      http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y32/danolson/stuf/Screen%20Shot%202015-08-20%20at%209.44.02%20PM_zpsakycmwkv.jpg

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    2. Well yes for the *shape*; but the *color palette*, we don't know, and I quite agree that (although I don't think it's really a problem) it is unlikely that the original Hatbox Ghost was green.

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    3. When lit with show lighting in the attraction it matches fairly well.
      https://youtu.be/MtCXB709l-A

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    4. We do know. He was mostly white, and under show lighting glowed a greenish-blue. That photo HBG2 referenced is a still from a color home movie, and the reference photos of the original figure are in color as well.

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    5. I don't think there was much green in the mix, actually. Since we know his body was just wads of cellophane wrap and his clothes were "shower curtain" vinyl, we can be pretty sure that he looked a lot like the graveyard ghosts: a basic, blacklight, bluish purple. Highlights on the edges of his clothing look like they were in white paint, which would be that same color but a little brighter and more sharply distinct. The new figure does appear to have some greenish highlights (especially the hands), but based on what I've seen I don't think his overall coloration is wildly out of line with the original figure.

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    6. Are there any other ghost figures in the Mansion that have black clothes? They display the UV lighting really well so the blue is very saturated. The photos in your post from May are very near to true representations. The new HBG has a really green skeleton (ribs, femurs, hands, face) and I can't think of another figure in the ride that also has this coloring. I know the ballroom dancers have some color in their clothes and hair but the reflection really washes that out so they mostly have the same ghostly pallor as all the other phantoms. I would chalk it up to the fact that he's a skeleton so (I guess) a corporeal figure (in transparent black clothing?) but so is the mummy and he also has the ghostly white glow. Could an argument be made for the guy in the coffin?
      The new HBG is artistically very attractive, but the more I reflect on him the less sense he makes environmentally. Coming in after the ballroom with all of those ghosts who look the same and then Connie who is dressed in all white and has a blue-ish tint to her face, he just pops. I'm guessing all the black is a key element to the success of the effect.
      I'm glad he's there and I wouldn't remove him. But, I don't know, maybe I'd consider changing his facial color to a bluer tint and darkening the corner so he's more in the shadows and less of a complete corporeal figure (like a visual bookend with Shadow Man).

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  8. Without seeing him in person it's an exercise in futility for me to discuss coloration in any detail. You say the colors in the May photos are accurate. Well, he's overwhelmingly blue in those. In general, ghosts are presented in "cold" colors (blue, green, purple) as opposed to "warm" colors (yellow, red, orange), and nothing more specific than that seems important. Whites are never pure whites but cool or warm whites, depending on the mixture with the above colors. The ectoplasm ball and face in the Séance Circle are green, if a precedent for outright green is felt to be necessary. The black, I suppose, represents invisibility more than anything else. In the dark and not-quite-yet-fully materialized = black.

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    1. Oh you haven't seen him yet! Well, then yes, ignore my minor critiques.
      You should definitely try to get down here before the end of the year. They brought back a lot of old attractions that haven't been around in a few years. And the light parade is fantastic.

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  9. I'll just be grateful that he's back, and executed so well! I do think his color scheme is green in the photos, but ride videos show him to be more of a bluish tint. I'll have to go to DL to know for sure.
    I do think that their concern for ride congruity has definitely been spotty. Constance isn't animatronic at all (she really should have moving arms, at the very least) and the WDW queue and HHG additions are overly cartoonish and ruin the mood. At least they got it right this time.

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  10. I agree with Cory. He does seem to standout from the others and have a more modern aesthetic. He also seems to be a little more on the silly side with his expressions. More inline with the current mood in the attic than the original tension.

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  11. Don't know if this has been cleared up but I recently saw new Hattie up close and personal and he definitely has a mirror within the hatbox itself. Pretty cool stuff!

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    1. That was what I thought. Nice to have some confirmation.
      There is further discussion on the topic in a comment attached to the earlier post about the new HBG.

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