Introduction: Madame Leota the Way the Imagineers Did It.
This project covers how to create a convincing 3D projection effect similar to that used in the original Madam Leota crystal ball in the Haunted Mansion at Disney Land and Disney World.
Step 1: A Little Background...
Walt Disney World opened in October of 1971 and that's when my family started going! We lived in Florida and I visited Disney a lot as a kid. For one visit, When I was about 13, I grabbed all the E-tickets I could find and headed over to the Haunted Mansion by myself to figure some stuff out. (Parenting was different then...). There was no line that night and I went through again and again until I had figured out ALL of the special effects that they used at the time.....except for Madam Leota! It would be about 20 years before I understood exactly how that effect worked, several more years before I had the opportunity to replicate it and 4 or 5 more years before I finally got around to sharing it with you. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do. Let's get started.
Step 2: Overview: the Main Components
This is not a simple project, but the components you will need are readily available and not prohibitively expensive. The entire effect consists of two, well, three components.
1. The Periscope Chair. This is where all of the projection apparatus goes.
2. The globe and table. This is the projection medium and it also hides the wireless speakers.
3. The Madam Leota Video. I use the original video of Madam Leota as a tribute to Leota Thomas...and because I think she was the best. Look her up if you want to read an interesting Disney story. I can't tell you where to find this video today, but it is out there. You can also create and video your own character.
Notes about the videos:
All of the video players will allow you to loop your video, but depending on what version of Windows you use and what video player you use, there may be an annoying split second of darkness at the end of each loop. For this reason, I use a video editing program and stick a bunch of copies of the video together to make a 4 or 5 minute loop. This way, the split second of darkness is much less noticable.
Also, there are a few things you will want to do with your video, whether it is Madam Leota or your own. First, the face must be perfectly still as it talks. In the past when making talking head videos for projection onto statues, I used a black cardboard cradle for the head to keep it perfectly still and a perfectly black background.
Depending on where you place your projector, you may need to mask the projector lens to prevent extra light from hitting your house or something else behind the prop. This can be done with a piece of thick black card stock. If light shining on something behind your prop is an issue, look up projector masking to get more information.
And lastly, you may need to manipulate the size of the head in the video as it projects onto the screen and through the projector. If the head in the video is too large or too small, it won't fit on the bust. I used a commercial product, Adobe Premier, but there are other programs that will allow you to alter the size of your video and save the altered video to create your loop. I recreated my video in several sizes and ended up using one of the middle-sized ones. If you reduce the video resolution too far, it will pixelate on the projected head like when you zoom in on a low resolution digital photo. These are not elements I can go into detail on here, but I wanted you to be aware that some video manipulation may be needed.
Step 3: List Parts and Tools
OK, here is the list of items you will need. It may seem daunting, but there is always eBay and Craig's list.
1. The Periscope Chair:
- An old laptop computer with a VGA port and a power supply. Almost any old laptop will do. (You could use a Raspberry Pi here, but I have a bunch of extra laptops.)
- A VGA projector. I bought several on eBay for less then $40.
- An old wing back chair that you can gut and rebuild. I got this one on Criag's list for $20.
- An 8-foot 2x2 and a saw to cut it with.
- A 1x8 or 1x10 board about 4 feet long. This is your laptop shelf. You will cut this to size.
- (2) 4x4 sheets of particle hard-board. You will need to cut these.
- Some 1x4 board for the periscope. You will need to cut this also.
- A computer fan and power supply to keep everything cool.
- A 4 plug extension cord
- A wireless speaker system. I used an old RCA system that works with the laptop.
- 2 pieces of mirror. Mine are about 3.5 inches square.
- A throw cover for the chair. This will hide all the equipment and wires.
- Screws and a screw gun. I used deck screws.
2. Madam Leota.
- A plain Styrofoam female wig head.
- A round, metal, interesting planter stand roughly 10 inches across.
- Some drywall compound. (or plaster of Paris)
- Another piece of hardboard big enough to sit on the planter stand.
- A 1/4 inch by 4 or 5 inch bolt and nut to use to stabilize the head.
- A Halloween wig of your choice. I tried several and settled on Blue.
- A 16 inch clear plastic light globe. You can get these on line at lighting supply places.
- A Dremel tool and a cut-off wheel.
- Tarot cards.
- A lamp with a battery candle.
- A tablecloth. I use a dark red one.
- A card table.
- Other props of your choice.
- Lights of your choice. I use low wattage (really dim) colored spotlights.
3. And for the whole thing you will need:
- A pop up tent to contain everything and keep it from getting wet outside. (Assuming you are using it on Halloween.)
- Some "caution" tape to keep kids from walking up to the table or bumping things.
- Probably another extension cord.
Step 4: The Periscope Chair
This is my third version of this chair. For the first two years I used this, I had to throw the chair away because I could not fit it through the hatch into the attic. I finally fixed that. Here we go:
- Take your chair and rip out the springs and pads in the bottom. If you will be storing it in the attic, do what I did and rip everything out including the front cross member so you can get it through the attic hatch. Keep the cross member parts, though. Keep the seat cushion and any cover material you tore out.
- For the periscope, take your 1x4 and cut (2) 4 inch long pieces and 2 18 inch long pieces.
- Build a little box with the 4 inch pieces inside the 18 inch pieces.
- Set the 4 inch pieces at a 45 degree angle between the 18 inch pieces.
- Mark the center on the edges of the 4 inch pieces where they sit against the longer pieces and mark the longer pieces where that point touches. This will be the pivot point for the mirrors once mounted.
- Drill a hole in the longer pieces and screw a screw through the hole into the shorter pieces where you marked the pivot point. The idea here is to allow the small er pieces to pivot so you can adjust the way they reflect light.
- Glue the mirrors to the smaller pieces.
- What you will end up with should be similar to the periscope in the first image above.
- OK, time to place your equipment.
- Start with the projector.
- Aim it at the periscope and turn it on.
- Adjust the periscope so that the light from it bounces off both mirrors.
- You can use a test image and try focusing the projector against a wall of something else to see the effect.
- I attached small blocks around the projector and used Velcro straps to secure it into place. You do not want the projector to move once have everything in place and covered up.
- With the projector in place, decide where to put the cooling fan,power strip and wireless transmitter. My transmitter sticks through a hole in the board so it fits.
- The VGA cable goes through a hole in the board down to where the laptop will be.
- Covering it all up.
- Take the seat cushion you saved and use it as a template to create a matching insert out of hardboard.
- Cut some 3 or 4 inch 2x2 boards and attach them to the insert to be feet. Place these feet so they don't interfere with the projector or other components on the board.
- Cut the cushion cover so it fits over the insert.
- Set it on the chair base, covering the equipment you placed there.
Now you should have your periscope and all of the projection equipment hidden away inside the chair, with a little shelf under the chair for the laptop.
The only thing remaining is to take the throw cover and place it over the chair. Cut the smallest possible hole in the throw cover so that the projection from the projector and periscope comes through the opening.
You just built an awesome projection-periscope chair! Congrats!
Step 5: Madam Leota
OK, now to build the projection "screen"
- Start with the planter base. Make sure there are no lips or ornamental bits sticking up above the top edge of the planter, because that will interfere with the globe. I ended up cutting off some tabs with a grinder and spraying the whole thing with black Rustoleum to make it look normal again.
- Once you have confirmed that your planter base is flat, cut a base out of hard-board that is the exact size of the planter.
- Drill a hole in the exact center of this round base, insert the bolt into it and tighten it down with the nut.
- The wig/mannequin head
- Although a plain styrafoam wig head works, I found that they deform/crush very easily and you can see the foam through the projection cast upon it, so I plastered over the Styrofoam with drywall mud. This works very well, but the resulting head is top-heavy and very fragile, especially if you finished the head with multiple coats. Over the yeas, mine has been damaged, repaired and even replaced, so be prepared to have to fuss with it a little. Note that you can't spray or coat the foam head with anything because the Styrofoam will dissolve. I purchased a half dozen foam wig heads and several real mannequin heads in an effort to find a better solution, but nothing worked as well as a plaster wig head.
- Place the base board on the planter stand and the wig head on the base. If you used a foam wig head, there should be a hole for the bolt. If not, drill one or be creative. The idea is to make the head stable on the board.
- Place the wig on the head.
At this point, you can test your projector set up with a test image or your actual video. You should be able to adjust the projection so that it is the correct height and size for your mannequin head. It s usually easier to move the head ON the table or table and head to get things right, then move the table UNDER the head to get the table where you want it. Ideally, you want the head to be in the back of the table so you can put props in front of it on the table.
- The Globe (USE EXTREME CARE HERE!)
- This is THE most delicate part about this project. The neck of the globe is too small to fit over the mannequin head, so you have to cut it. Once cut, the globe cab crack very easily. I use a Dremel tool with a cut-off blade.
- Use the planter base as a template and draw a light circle around the INSIDE edge of the planter base on the globe.
- Carefully cut the globe.
- To make the edge a little stronger, consider adding a bead of glue around it and letting that dry. The edge of these globes is VERY fragile so handle it with extreme care.
- Another thing to keep in mind is that the plastic globe scratches easily. NEVER set it down on it's side! Since you are projecting through the globe, any scratches on the globe will project onto Leota's face. I usually set mine down upright or place it in a padded box. For storage, I put it back in its original box in the baggie it came in and surrounded by foam or air padding.
Step 6: The Table and Pop-up Canopy
As a last step, place the tablecloth on the table partially folded so you can see all the legs and see that there are no wires or anything underneath it. This is especially freaky looking to visitors because they rarely get that the projection is coming from the chair. I hang the wireless, battery operated speakers under the table using using stiff wire.
On top of the table, I place some tarot cards and a Turkish style hanging lamp with a battery operated candle inside it. Use a rolled up piece of tape or double-stick tape to hold each tarot card in place and prevent the wind from blowing them around.
The pop-up canopy should cover both the chair and the table and the chair and table should only be a couple of feet apart so nobody can walk between them. Use caution tape around the canopy to keep people from knocking the chair or table. (We once had a little kid come up and bang on the globe so hard he knocked everything onto the ground and broke the head. I still haven't figure out how to make it all completely kid-proof short of putting wires through the card table to hold it all down, but I'll keep trying.
With the chair in place, you should have only one extension cord coming from under it. One year I ran two identical extension cords under in opposite directions (and powering other props in the yard) so it looked like the cord was just running under the chair instead of powering things in it. Then I realized that nobody even noticed the cord anyway.
Depending on where you place everything, you can set it up agianst the house of against a wall so that people can't walk around it and see the projector. If you do this right, though, people won't notice the projector even when they are standing right next to it. The only time they notice it is if they get around completely behind it and look back. In any case, choose your location and orientation carefully so people aren't standing behind your new prop.
Step 7: Putting It All Together.
You now have all of the components and you just need to place them where you want them in the correct orientation for the projection to work.
I use this prop at our house on Halloween night. I put the set up in our driveway so that people don't walk behind it. Orient the chair to one side, and the put Madam Leota on the back of the table on the other side with your tarot cards or other props positioned appropriately. The two images here show the orientation of the chair to the table.
From the front, or even standing right up against the caution tape, you can't see the projection system inside the chair. Even from the back, the only trace of the projections system is the small hole in the seat cover at the top of the periscope.
You want the projection to go left-to-right or right-to-left to minimize the reflection from the projector. We place a small, dim red lamp in the top of the canopy so that the props are visible in the dark.
The third image shows the canopy and overall position at our house. It is one of several props that we put out for trick-or-treating when the weather is nice. We get 200-400 kids for trick-or-treating and Madam Leota is always a big hit!
I apologize for not having more images of the prop set-up, but we ran out of time.
If you want to see some of the other things in the yard, go to my YouTube channel, also called GraveYard Workshop.
I hope you enjoyed reading about this project as much as I enjoyed making it. Happy Haunting!
Participated in the
Halloween Contest 2017
5 years ago
Very nice job! Thanks for sharing all your hard work.
I have posted a couple of Instructables on the same Madame Leota theme:
You are correct there are many versions of the Madame Leota video on the internet. However the one I am using, and like the best, is found on our own Instructable’s website from someone else's previous Instructable: https://www.instructables.com/file/FPIQ07SFN82O50H...
Great Instructable. As a side note, from what I've read Disney originally used a film projector and it was located behind the guests (as they rode in their "doom buggies"). This allowed the crystal ball to later float as the projector and crystal ball tracked together on a type of gantry. Happy Halloween!
Reply 5 years ago
Thank you very much for the link! Anyone who wants to use the REAL Madam Leota should use that loop. That is the video I am using too! I love it! It is the original one that played at both Disneyland and Disney World from the opening of the Haunted Mansions until the 1990s when both Haunted Mansions were renovated. I think the levitating systems were installed around 2011 but I don't have exact dates. Each Haunted Mansion now has a slightly different physical mechanism behind their floating Leota presenations. One has the levitating Leota with projection system and tracking projector.
(The projector is behind the Doom-buggies, but since I don't have any doom buggies, the chair will have to do....) One has a projection system that is inside the levitating globe itself using a micro projector and special short-throw lens. As I understand it, they had a lot of trouble with the levitating designs initially but have worked out the bugs.
As for the file loop, yes they were all film loops originally. Disney used film for everything until about 2000. I did a Universal Studios behind-the-scenes tour back in 1999 and was surprised to see that the giant simulator rides like Star Wars had huge film loops literally strung across the bottom of the simulator. My how times change. Now it all fits on an SD card.
5 years ago
This is brilliant!!!!!!!
5 years ago
I'm having trouble visualizing the light path... The periscope top half projects into the globe from the back, right? The original has the chair behind her. How does the image make it's way to the front of her face?
Reply 5 years ago
The very first original had the image projecting from the front similar to the singing ghosts in the cemetery and the "room for one more" ghost near the end of the ride. That's the way this one works. The chair is in front. If you know of other designs, I'd love to see them. I have built a few rear projection props in the past (using a short-throw projector) but for human faces, front projection seems to look the best. Check out my Youtube channel with the same name as here to see some other stuff I've done.
Reply 5 years ago
Here's a pretty good read about some of the original effects: