Teaching Ghosts to Dance

  • May 21, 2010 5:14 am

Last November we released a video on YouTube of the Halloween light show we did on our front lawn (see it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMqdTYzoeN8).  Just recently, we began receiving numerous requests (on YouTube, forums and by email) to show you how we got the ghosts to pop-out from behind the tombstones.  We’re more than happy to oblige.  I just posted another video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrr_f5YjZbk) showing how we did it.

Haunted houses and Halloween lighting have always been a fascination of mine.  I remember as a kid going to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland for the first time.  I was a curious boy (in more ways than one) and my father, who did visual effects in the motion picture business, declined to explain how any of it worked.  Instead, he challenged to me figure it out by myself.  By the time I was twelve, I had managed to figure most of it out and even put together simple drawings on how I might recreate them in our garage someday.

Unfortunately, my complete lack of skill when it came to things mechanical led to the eventual demise of my interest in creating animatronic ghosts which was replaced by something even more fascinating to me—I wanted to know how to control them using a computer.  Constructing a cool looking ghost from wood, plastic and cloth was great, but the part I really wanted to do was teach that ghost how to dance.

VenueMagic 2.1 is actually the latest in a long line of lighting controllers.  My early stuff was mostly hardware-based theater lighting controllers.  They were simple programmable dimmers that were controlled by cues from a projector.  Later I developed a simple script-based light controller that I used for haunted houses.  VenueMagic 1.0 (released in June 2006) was my first attempt at DMX lighting control and it received quite a warm reception because of the unique way it used timelines to do lighting design and simplify the task of getting sound and lighting to work together in sync.

VenueMagic Halloween 2009 project

Despite years of experience doing show control and some animatronics (I even taught a robot to play the bagpipes once) It wasn’t until after the release of VenueMagic 2.0 that I finally got around to those spectral dance lessons I’d been waiting so long to teach.

What made it so easy to do in VenueMagic 2.0 was the ability to create a timeline whose sole purpose was to control a single pneumatic solenoid (along with some associated lighting effects), and then run that timeline repeatedly at precise locations in the main timeline.  In fact, I created six such timelines, one for each ghost.  Each ghost was a little different and each needed an air blast of a different duration between one-tenth and one-half of a second.  Too little air and the ghost would not make it past the top of the tombstone.  Too much and it would get blown off the top of the rod (right through the masking tape stopper) and into the trees above (sometimes the bushes).  By dragging the mouse, I was able to quickly adjust effect clips in each timeline until the air blast duration was just right for each tombstone.

VenueMagic event track

VenueMagic event track

On the main timeline, I placed timeline events (events that run timelines from within other timelines) precisely where I wanted them in sync with the music.  I followed a similar procedure to control the solenoid valves that fed the pneumatic cylinders to open and close the coffin doors.  Each door cylinder required two solenoid valves—one to let air in and open the door and one to let air out, allowing the spring to close it.  The dancing skeletons were controlled by 80 rpm motors in the top of the coffins that simply shook them back and forth—sometimes too hard as we would occasionally find ourselves retrieving body parts that had flown off into the bushes to join the ghosts.  These motors were also controlled by DMX switches.

Perhaps our greatest challenge with the ghosts was the strips of satin that formed their wispy, fluttering limbs.  We had slightly frayed them at the end for effect and they were constantly unraveling and getting stuck on the rough, plywood edges of the tombstone frame.  On one occasion a blast of air managed to dislodge the entangled appendage from the ghost’s head, a gruesome scene that was particularly disturbing to several of the little children who were watching.

All in all, we were pretty proud of our little Halloween light show.  VenueMagic 2.0 performed flawlessly throughout the night, despite a few technical difficulties that included leaking air hoses and the growing mound of bone fragments at the bottom of each coffin.  The recent release of VenueMagic 2.1, with additional features (and more to come) that better support animatronics, will open the door to much more interesting and sophisticated stuff.  VenueMagic is capable of doing far more than we’ve been able to put together and we look forward to someone out there really giving VenueMagic 2.1 a run for its money.

Perhaps I’m still a bit shy of my childhood dream of recreating the Haunted Mansion in my garage, but at least now I know I’m a step closer—and I definitely have tools that will help me get there.  Having at last managed to teach ghosts how to dance, perhaps my next adventure will be to teach them to climb out of trees.  

-Don Nolan

For more information about the VenueMagic show control software, visit: www.venuemagic.com.


  • May 19, 2010 12:59 pm

Welcome to the VenueMagic Halloween website!

The purpose of this website is to offer tips and ideas on how to best utilize VenueMagic for the creation of spectacular haunted houses and other Halloween lightshows and displays.  Here you will find blogs, forums, tutorials, photos, videos and many other resources to give you ideas and help you bring them to reality.  We’ve also created sample VenueMagic project files for a variety of different haunting themes that you can download and use however you like.

 As I’m certain that many of you will likewise confess, Halloween is definitely my favorite “holiday.” It’s an ultimate opportunity for creative expression as we put in months (or even years) of preparation to create a spectacle intended to shine brightest on just a single autumn night.

For many, creating haunted houses is not just about spooks, skeletons, goblins and scary things popping out from behind tombstones.  It’s about transporting people into a world of your own imagining to tell them a story of mystery and intrigue.  Lights, sounds, animatronics, etc…, are the quill and paper that convey your tale, and you wield them with skill and artistry as you bring your captivating new world to life.  Thats why we created VenueMagic–to help you realize your vision in the quickest, easiest way possible.

VenueMagic was originally created to control haunted houses.  It has since expanded into other venues, but the essence of its original purpose remains in tact.  It is a powerful tool for controlling audio, lighting, animatronics, etc… in a way that has never been offered before.  VenueMagic is the ultimate haunted house controller software.

It is our hope to form a community of VenueMagic users to offer Halloween ideas, make suggestions, and show-off their own skill and experience at creating haunted houses and Halloween light and sound presentations.  We invite you to submit photos, videos, ideas—anything that will help inspire others to tell their own tales in new and spectacular ways.

Felix obsideo!

(Happy haunting!)