In 2001, Disneyland introduced theNightmare Before Christmas elaborate holiday overlay to their Haunted Mansion attraction. In the section normally featuring the beloved bust statues singing "Grim Grinning Ghosts", they are displayed with singing, animated jack-o-lanterns covering them. Since then, and especially more recently this highly effective illusion has been replicated by enthusiasts everywhere with a wide range of results.
I have a lengthy history of creating themed environments and incorporating video projections as illusions and special effects dating back to 1991 and have learned a lot along the way. In 2009 I created my first installation of this effect in my courtyard for Halloween, where it consistently entertains and bewilders. This instructable will detail important information for you to create a professional-level special effect which might rival the original effect at Disneyland! Enjoy!
Step 1: Animated Pumpkins 101
The illusion of the singing pumpkins is created by projecting animated features onto uncarved pumpkins. It is particularly effective because the only content in your projected animation are the carved features of each pumpkin. The rest of the video image is black, or no light when translated to a projection. The brightness of the projected animation reflects off of the pumpkin and appears to emanate from within, even casting a glow in front of the pumpkin as it would if it were actually carved and internally illuminated.
Step 2: Basic Materials Checklist
This effect requires a few props and equipment which may vary depending on your installation site.
The very basic requirements are:
The number and sizes will depend on your specific animation. I use One larger and two smaller. Their proportions to each other are more important than the actual dimensions of each. Ideal pumpkins will have a large smoother surface. I think a relatively round shape is better than one that is taller. Real pumpkins can work just fine, but I use and recommend Funkin brand artificial pumpkins which look entirely realistic.
If you have a projector already, awesome. If not, most any compact LCD video projector in the $350-$500 range will be ideal. I recommend one with a minimum of 2000 lumens and a contrast ratio of 3000:1 or greater. Resolution doesn't need to be any greater than standard definition, but the greater the resolution, the less the pixels will be visible. Amazon.com can be a great resource.
The soundtrack to your singing pumpkins will need an amplified speaker. If you have a smaller bookshelf or center-style style speaker, these can work very well, but require a separate powered amplifier. If you don't already have something, I recommend purchasing small internally amplified speakers, which will make your installation simpler. Search for small powered speakers and you should find many options under $20.
DVD player/digital media player
The animation loop can play from a dvd player or a digital media player. Most dvd players should work. For a simpler option with no moving parts, I recommend the Micca Speck Ultra Portable Digital Media Player http://amzn.com/B008NO9RRM
If you are not an animator, there are several existing options for the animation content that you will be projecting onto your pumpkins. They also range significantly in quality. Here are the only two current options I can recommend. There are available options for each source and not all of them will produce the most convincing illusions.
(These animations are, in my opinion, superbly animated for this effect, but for the most realistic illusion I would avoid any animations that involve cross-fades or other overt video effects.)
Step 3: Additional Materials
You can significantly enhance the impact of your animated pumpkins display by incorporating other elements into the scene.
Additional carved and illuminated pumpkins
Although you can use real pumpkins, I highly recommend using artificial pumpkins, especially Funkins brand, as your display will last longer and be available for reuse each year.
Basic Funkins are available at JoAnne crafts store each fall. They are also available through the Funkins website:
Illuminate your carved pumpkins with C7 "Christmas bulbs" for the perfect level of safe illumination. I use and recommend lamp cord with simple snap-on sockets to create custom electrical strings.
I also go the extra step to add realistic candle flicker to these bulbs, usually in 3 circuits so that all the pumpkins are not flickering in sync. This may be a relatively expensive addition, but I believe significantly enhances the entire display by further reinforcing the illusion that all of the pumpkins are real and that the carved and projected pumpkins are the same. These devices offer fully adjustable brightness and flicker. I haven't tested the first link, but they have more economical options that appear to function very well.
Tombstones, logs, vines, faux ivy or other scenic elements can help to arrange your pumpkins and complete the display. Creating or utilizing existing varying elevation will enhance your scene considerably.
Your singing pumpkin display will be significantly more effective with proper illumination. The source of illumination is less important and can vary significantly. The method is more important and will be in the details section later.
Step 4: Location. Location. Location.
An ideal location for this display is one where the viewing angle is optimal and controlled to some extent. It is also important that everything is out of reach from spectators for a variety of reasons. Creating your display on a raised location or platform is helpful as long as the end result is something natural in appearance. There are many excellent possible locations and arrangements, but should try to include these basic suggestions. An ideal arrangement will have your pumpkins (carved and projected) at varying heights and depths. If you are using an animation that incorporates more than one pumpkin, It can be helpful to secure each pumpkin into place, possibly together as one component so that there is less chance of the projected image drifting.
You will also want to hide your projector from view. This can be very effectively done behind foliage like ivy, another pumpkin, a tombstone, a rock, etc... I have created a cover using an extra large artificial pumpkin, but found it easier to hide the projector with black fabric and artificial ivy and vines. Be sure to consider airflow for your projector to ensure it doesn't overheat. If your display is outside, you can build a vented cover to place over your projector. Don't worry about making your pumpkins viewable from a wide angle with zero obstructions. The effect will be more charming and convincing if your display doesn't look uniformly arranged and has an object or two limiting their view to some degree.
Fog machines are great for Halloween, but terrible for this illusion. Any fog or haze in the air will instantly reveal the projected light onto the pumpkins.
Step 5: Sound
Your speaker should ideally be placed near the projected pumpkins and hidden to some extent, perhaps behind some ivy. The volume doesn't need to be especially loud or base filled, just clear and emanating from the general location of your pumpkins.
Your singing pumpkins have no need for stereo audio. Only a single speaker is required. If, however you have any audio editing skills/software, you may opt to add a quiet atmospheric track of something like crickets chirping, to the remaining track if you are using a second speaker. This will be especially noticeable if there is a period of time in your pumpkin animation loop where they are not singing.
Step 6: The Devil Is in the Details.
The difference between a convincing and mesmerizing illusion and one that is instantly recognizable as a projection and thus less engaging are a few surprisingly simple details, which are more often missing. If you take the time to employ these extra efforts, I promise you'll be rewarded.
Light your scene
Popular opinion seems to be either: keep your jack-o-lanterns in the dark, or illuminate them with the projector, which can be done if your animation has any color other than black outside of the carved features. Some available animations have orange rather than black. Never use this option. If all of the lighting comes from the projector it flattens everything and ruins the illusion that the pumpkins are carved and that light is emanating from within them. You will have similar results if all of your lighting is coming from the same direction as the projector. Some ambient lighting that hits the face of the pumpkins can even be a good thing. If your projector is bright enough to effectively "cut through" the ambient lighting, the illusion will be excellent.
If your animation utilizes multiple pumpkins, arrange them so that they are not all at the same depth (all in a row, etc...). Place them a few inches in front or behind each other. You can then focus your projection to be somewhere between the two depths which will add further realism to the effect as well as blur the pixels of your projector just enough to mask the digital nature of the projection.
Color match the pumpkin illumination
It's likely that the projection animation will not be the same color of illumination that is coming from the C7 lamps in your carved pumpkins. Additionally, most consumer LCD projectors employ an RGB color wheel that creates a perceptible color flicker that can give the projected pumpkins an "electronic" quality. There's a relatively simple fix to both of these problems. Use a slightly amber theatrical gel filter over the lens. A swatch book from your local theatrical lighting supply can help you obtain just the right color.
Additionally, I edited my animation from themightymicroscope.com to have a realistic candle flicker effect within the carved features. I did this with a very low-tech method, transparently overlaying a video of a white surface illuminated with a light I manually dimmed and brightened. This effect exists with the newer AtmosFX.com animation.
Remove additional light spill
You can significantly enhance the quality of your projection by removing all the light spill that comes from the black areas in your animation content. This can be accomplished simply by using an opaque tape like gaffer's tape to frame the lens of your projector, while it is on and projecting your animation loop. Move strips of tape in the direction of the projected features until until you are just outside of cutting them off and affix the tape. This can also be affixed easily to the theatrical gel mentioned above, rather than on your lens. This will make your projection appear notably brighter with a higher contrast to the surface of the pumpkin.
Align your projection
Take the time to size and center the projected features onto your pumpkins. Be sure to watch your full content loop to ensure features don't begin to move too far around the edges of the pumpkin ruining the illusion.
Step 7: Now Go Impress the Neighbors!
Certainly, some of these items may seem finicky to you, and they probably are. Attention to these sorts of details is what separates Disney Park attractions and those at lesser theme parks. I present this information so that you may have the best success presenting this fun illusion. Obviously jack-o-lanterns are not able to spring to life and sing, but with some attention to detail, you can really elevate this effect to a work of art. Simply aiming a projector at pumpkins and calling it a day will look like you've done just that and lessen the impact you were hoping for. There is also plenty of room for experimentation even within these guidelines and employing even a few of them will improve your results. Most of all, have fun!