A Fairly Comprehensive and Somewhat Boring History of Bates Haunt

I wrote this up for Nathan Hurst of Wired Design that wanted to know how Bates Haunt came to be... with a somewhat technical focus. Hope it isn't too boring. Someday it may get pictures... maybe.

I have always loved video, and have made a large number of cheesy little movies in my time. I always wanted to bring this talent and my love of halloween together, but it was always to expensive and painful to do looped film.

In 2001 we got some video projectors at my office, and I knew that this was the opportunity to start using video in my haunt. I borrowed one of them and brought it home. I set it up on an extension cord projecting on my garage, expecting that that would be the limit of the projector's brightness...but it was still beautiful and bright. I picked up the projector and started backing up. I backed all the way up across the street and into my neighbors driveway and it still looked great! I was so excited about the possibilities, and immediately set to work creating elements to project.

My testing went well, and showed that high contrast elements worked best. My original plan had been to rear project an eyeball into my half-round upstairs windows as my first video project, but this worked for outside too. I am not much of a sketch artist, but I love video special effects. It seemed like the easiest way to create elements was to use real video elements of my body parts and my family. So I filmed these, hopped them up, and animated them in Adobe Premiere 4.5.

I planned and started animating blood to run down the house and driveway, but I made the decision that this show was for the trick or treaters of all ages. I have stuck with this decision and tried to stay within' the "boo" kind of scary that is found in Disney's haunted mansion. I hope that everyone finds my show a bit scary, but not too violent or gross.

It became immediately apparent that I needed to come up with a way to figure out where things would end up when projected. My first attempt involved me taking a picture with my camera from my neighbors window (where the projector would be) and using that as a background for the video. This was not very accurate due to the focal lengths of the devices and the sizes of the areas, but I still went with it.

At the last minute I realized I needed something to project onto in the middle of my yard, so I threw together the mausoleum out of an old gate set piece I had in my attic, and a piece of cardboard. I also whipped up gravestones for my family out of 3 old gravestones for others (don't look at the back).

On Halloween night the video was looping on my mac, out the firewire port and through my camera. The sound goes to the amp from there, and, using X10's DVD anywhere, I broadcasted the video the 120 feet to my neighbors upstairs window for projection. After that year the DVD anywhere became useless because it runs on 2.4 gigahertz which is cluttered with wi-fi now days.

The show was a hit despite the challenges. I was sure the next year would be much better.

In 2003 my neighbors sold their house and at the last minute I found out the new family was not too keen on me using their window. Fortunately the neighbors next to them love halloween and allowed me to project from their back yard, but this meant building a box for the projector. I hastily threw together a box on 12' 2x4s and attached it to my neighbors fence.

Because of this last minute change to the position of the projector I had to completely re-layout the show. To improve on my photo concept I tried projecting a grid from the new projector spot and then using the grid to distort the photo to be more accurate. It was really hit and miss, so I had to come up with something else. One night I had the computer connected to the laptop and I started moving around windows. I noticed that I could move them and line them up with pieces of my house. Then the idea came to fire up Photoshop and create what I call a 3D trace in full screen mode. This worked so perfect and the show looked great in my tests, but the projector kept overheating in the box. Then a blizzard hit Halloween night, and as I was standing on my tiptoes on the very top of my 6' ladder to put the projector in the 12' high box in the middle of a blizzard I realized I would have to give up for that year.

The next year (2004) I had figured out a trick of putting holes in the bottom of the box. I also had a glow in the dark plastic skeleton I always hung in the window. I decided that on Halloween night he would come alive and dance around the yard like the skeleton in "Young Sherlock Holmes". With my new found tech I was able to suck the lights in the windows into the projection itself so that the projected skeleton would show up. The window lights are an actual recording of the Halloween lighting I use in my window when I am not projecting. The skeleton was a big success, and my new projection mapping tech worked like a charm.

In 2005 I was not sure what to add. I had not had sound in my show yet other than various music I played from a sound system. I saw a show on youtube that had pumpkins flashing to grim grinning ghosts, and I decided I needed some music. I love the singing busts in the Haunted Mansion, and I had always wanted to do facial projection since seeing a projected face on a mannequin in a show at the LDS Church's Temple Square when I was like 6.

I decided that singing pumpkins would be the thing. Hanging out with my friend Robert Wolf, and seeing that some other haunts had signature music convinced me that I needed to write a song in the same vein as "This is Halloween" and my favorite "Grim Grinning Ghosts", so I started to write a poem and the music for my song. It turned out very well I think (considering it was my first attempt to write a song from scratch). I used Audacity to perform and work out the 4 part harmony for it.

I am always looking for interesting things to do with keying, matting, and other video tricks to avoid doing animation which always sounds too tedious for me (in addition to the fact that I don't have any tools to do it). I ended up coming up with an idea of how to perform a pumpkin face with my face and post process it into something that would project well onto the giant orange garbage bags the are becoming popular. The Saturday before the big night I finally got around to trying it out. With makeup all over my face, a T-Shirt covering my hair and neck, and my teeth all blacked out, I recorded each pumpkin face, making modifications for each pumpkin. The black lights burned my eyes by the end so the bass got sun glasses. My daughter was really freaked out by my looks and kept telling me she didn't like me, but it worked out perfectly!

I was also tired of not using the full capabilities of my 800x600 projector (and the pumpkins needed all the resolution they could get), so I decided early on that I wanted to use an MP4 movie at 800x600. That meant putting my laptop across the street to run the loop via VGA into the projector. Out of necessity I worked up a way to extend the range of my TuneCast FM transmitter across the street, and it ended out working nice after some last minute power adapter hacking. I used my surround sound receiver this year for the amp so I could put a center channel speaker by the pumpkins.

I also switched to Premiere Pro since I was having frequent crashes on Premiere 6.5 due to the complexity of my project. Needless to say, IT ROCKS! I was able to break the whole thing up into sequences and compile them all back into the main project to maintain my sanity. No more crashes (at least not many) and I could use the cool new spline based animation stuff for my ghosts!

It turned out amazing and my friend suggested that I should enter the video into Propmaster's DVD collection. I was suddenly introduced to the haunting community. Who knew there were so many crazy Halloween fans? I ended up winning 2 Haunt X convention awards: "Best Yard Haunt" and "Halloween Enthusiast of the Year".

I kept adding elements and songs to the show in the same style until in 2009 I decided to make the big jump to HD. I had been selling a resource DVD to people who wanted to have the pumpkins in their own haunts, and I had made enough money to buy a nice full-HD projector. I opted for the Panasonic PT-AE3000U because of its lens shift feature and "Smooth Screen" screen door effect reduction. When you are projecting something 100' away the spaces between LCD pixels make a big difference.

Unfortunately the 16x9 ratio and the narrower lens on the projector made it so I had to build a new self supporting projection box. I had to get the projector farther away into my awesome neighbor's yard. I wanted the box to be able to go up and down with ropes because I was really frightened of holding my brand new projector over my head to put it into the 16' high box I needed. I ended up building a stand out of 3" ABS pipe (because it is black and easy to deal with) that allows the box to "slide" up and down. It slides really crappy really actually and it wobbles in the wind. Every little wobble at 100' projection distance equals like a foot on the house. Oh well. I hope to upgrade to a welded metal one for 2013.

It has been a crazy 10 years, but I have had tons of fun creating this show with my family. I think my wife for putting up with me, and my fans for making me want to continue enhancing the show. Thanks for your support and nice comments!