Introduction: Pepper's Ghost on a Zero Budget: Quick and Cheap Ghost Illusion
This is a no money, no skills, no tools, 30 minutes hack for a subtle, but spooky and beautiful halloween window decoration. The goal for me was to build a Pepper's Ghost Illusion with things you have around in the house, only -- with the exception of some dark paper and a few strips of sticky tape nothing is consumed or damaged, so all parts can just be put back where they belong on November 1st.
This year I just did not have any time to participate in the arms race for the most sophisticated pumpkin carving, so I cobbled this together after supper. Anyhow, the kids loved it.
I've always loved the „Pepper's Ghost“ effect that's used in the Disney's famous Haunted House for the dining room ghosts. We live in a downtown area where a lot of people pass our house and often stare through our living room windows – I always wanted to build a pepper's ghost that takes advantage of this situation, with a half-transparent three-dimensional ghost floating in the middle of our living room. There are some instructables that show how to create this wonderful and subtle effect. But frankly, everything I found required too much effort and space and this year, I just did not want to spend any money or more than an hour work.
This pepper's ghost costs literally nothing as you probably already have everything you need. Even if you had to buy one or two things, it's dead cheap. You don't need any skills. You don't need any special tools. And it's easily done in 30 minutes fun!
Step 1: What You'll Need
I really wanted to create this without having to buy anything and that's was the most fun part: just using anything I could find in the house! The most problematic part is a large sheet of glass – but chances are you already have this: I took off
- a large 70cm x 100cm picture frame hanging in our bed room
and removed the picture, promising my wife to put it back on November 1st. For the ghost itself I used
- a doll, secretly stolen from my kids.
For a pepper's ghost, you need a black background. Fortunately I found
- an old black felt blanket; just take anything dark!
The rest is even easier to find at home:
- some light source: a small desk light, a flash light fixed with sticky tape, anything
- furniture, to hold the glass sheet
- books, pots, kettles, heaps of laundry – anything, as long as you can use it to weight down the blanket, support the glass sheet etc. Be creative!
- probably sticky tape
Completely optional, but nice for effects:
- a desk fan
- some black paper and a scissor
- a knife or any other scary prop for you ghost doll
Step 2: How It Works
There are long and thorough descriptions about how pepper's ghost works – I'll not repeat this in detail, but if you're interested, you can easily find them on Instructables as well as many other places on the net; this fantastic instructable has a good explanation, but uses a projector for the ghost, which I don't have at home -- also, such a projection lacks the 3D feel of a real puppet, which I aim for.
For now, just the essence: you have a very clean sheet of glass mounted somewhere in the room – mounted at an angle, so that it can reflect some puppet that's mounted in a place where the spectator can not directly see it. When a light source shines on this ghost doll, the glass sheet will reflect it, resulting in a sort of half-transparent and even three-dimensional picture that seems to float in the middle of the room. The effect can be absolutely stunning when done right -- it's a lot about cleverly disguising the edges of the glass.
The easiest way to understand this is building one, so let's start!
Step 3: The Glass Sheet
First, I took a framed painting off our bed room wall. I took the picture out of the frame, putting all those small metal brackets carefully aside for later restoration, my wife eying me suspiciously. For the first proof of concept, I decided to leave the glass sheet in the frame and I suggest you do the same – you will have to try around a lot with it until you have the right position and angle, and the frame will make it easier to work with this without breaking it.
The first thing I tried was to arrange our sofa and chair so I could put the glass on top of the furniture and lean it against our window. Well, clever idea, but it won't get you far: having the glass this near to the window will make it very difficult to place your doll so it can be seen at all. I experimented with this, but with only ca. 30cm between the lower edge of the glass sheet and the wall, I had to place the doll directly on the window sill, where people would see some of it, ruining the illusion, and even then the mirrored image would be too low to get that floating effect. This did not work out.
I had to position the glass farther away from the wall, but did not want to build a bulky frame (that would ruin the illusion, too). So I tried just putting the glass on the chair, leaning it against the arm rest. To fix it in that position, I stuffed some books between the glass and the other arm rest. Forget about those 45° angles you see in many documented pepper's ghost installations -- a steep angle like you see on the photos won't strain the glass too much and will make it easier to position the reflection for people passing by on the street.
Step 4: The Doll and Its Background
The doll has to be positioned in a place where the passersby on the street can't directly see it, i.e. in our case below the window. To get the perfect illusion, its background has to be as dark as possible: the dark parts don't reflect as much light (well, that's why they're dark ...) so they won't show up in the mirrored image the people will see -- the black background is what makes our ghost float in the air. I used a shabby old black blanket the kids love for some reason. I opened the window, put one edge of the blanket into the frame and closed the window again, pinching the blanket so it would stay in place.
During my first tries, I fixed the other end of the blanket on the chair using the glass, effectively making some sort of hammock for the doll, but later I just used a small stool under the blanket to position the doll.
Just do anything -- you'll try around later anyhow!
Step 5: The Lighting
Now, place a light source -- I experimented a little with a desk lamp at first, but then took an LED clip lamp with a "swan neck" which my wife normally uses for her musical scores when playing in dark places. It does not really matter that much what light source you use -- what's important is that you concentrate the lighting on your doll as much as possible; try to position your lamp so low it can't be seen from the street and lights just the doll and not too much space around it.
After that, I went through 10 to 20 iterations of a) going out on the street and looking at my ghost from different positions, b) repositioning the lamp, c) repositioning the doll, d) repositioning the glass. I ended up fastening the clip lamp to my desk lamp, putting my desk lamp on a stool, with the blanket somehow pinched between it, to get it all right.
After you found the right position for the glass, take the time to really clean it -- it makes the illusion much better if people don't see your fingerprints in mid-air!
Step 6: Make It Scary
Just a half-transparent doll floating in mid-air may be scary, but I decided it was just not scary enough for Halloween.
At this point, my 11 year old daughter came home and noticed I was using what's supposed to be her doll. Pettifogging as they are at that age, she would not let me rip out the dolls eyes or inflict other appropriate injuries. Let's face it: I may be good enough to bring home the money or give them a lift to some party, but if daddy want's to be creative once in a year, the fun is over.
Plan B was to cut out small shapes from black paper to cover the eyes, one with a little drop below it, and fixing them with sticky tape. In the reflection, you don't see the sticky tape. I then got a small knife from the kitchen and fixed it with sticky tape to the dolls hand. Simple, but effective.
A last thing I did was placing a small desk fan I still had in the basement (once bought for 5€ for a bubble machine I wanted to build), so it would slightly move the hair and the clothes of the puppet -- it makes it a little more alive, although the effect is not really visible on the video.
Step 7: Done!
I really love my ghost -- it's fun, it didn't cost me a dime, it's disassembled in a few minutes. And I just like the beautiful, subtle effect of a ghost many people won't notice right away, but rather after a double-take.
You can of course make this more sophisticated -- one thing I think would be fun is combining this ghost with a motion sensor: to get the most of the effect you could position a little peace of halloween decor on your window sill, just enough so some people will stop for a moment and look at it; a motion sensor would then turn on the light source a few seconds after it notices people entering the space in front of your window, maybe dimming up the light over a second, making the ghost appear just when people look into your window.
Aaah, so many possibilities if I just had the time!
Maybe next year. This year is cheap, quick and easy.