Introduction: Skeletal Organist Animated Halloween Prop
Our Nimble Fingered Organist, aka “The Skeletal Organist”, is an effect we first created back in the 90’s for our home haunt, and turned out to be a perenial favorite as the best Halloween prop in our haunted house. Everyone assumed it was an animatronic skeleton and wanted to know the secret behind how we achieved such natural, fluid arm and hand movements.
The secret, as you’ll find, is a surpisingly simple one. Moreover, this DIY project is fairly easy to build, especially as far as creating animated Halloween props goes. It doesn’t require any special skills, tools or know-how. Most prop builders should be able to build this do-it-yourself Halloween project in an afternoon. Ready to begin?
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Here is a list of items you’ll need for this project. See the links page at the end of the tutorial for recommended brands and links to where you can buy some of these items online if you don’t already have them in your haunter’s tool kit.
• Skeleton (Good posable plastic skeletons have become available for cheap recently)
• Skeletal gloves (the kind with the raised plastic bones on them work best)
• Black Light (get a good tube type black light, the light bulb types don’t put out much UV light)
* Glow-In-The-Dark Paint (spray paint is easier to apply and glows more brightly)
* Masking Tape
* Zip Ties (the “Natural” colored ties are best for this project. Short ones are fine)
* Black fabric (3 yards should be plenty) plus some tacks, staples or duct tape to secure it
* 1-inch Threaded Floor Flange (your local hardware store will have these in the plumbing area)
* Reducing Male Adapter” (1” x 3/4”) (also available in your hardware store’s sprinkler dept.)
* 3/4” PVC Pipe (a 2-foot scrap piece will do just fine)
* Black paint (spray paint or liquid form is fine) (You can also use black duct tape instead)Black long-sleeved shirt (for your operator to wear during performances)
Optional: Piece of plywood, 35” x 14”, (if you don’t want screw holes in your organ bench)
Optional: Clamps or black duct tape (if you don’t want screw holes in your organ bench)
Optional: Talking Skull (Swap in a talking skull if you want your organist to speak or sing)
Step 1: Replace the Hands
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the hands you see playing the organ so nimbly aren’t the lifeless bony hands that come with the skeleton... they’re actually human hands inside skeletal gloves, attached at the wrist in place of the original hands. So simple, yet it never fails to mystify an audience. Let’s get hacking…
Remove the original hand by clipping the metal wire emerging from the hand. Tighten any loose screws holding the hardware into the bone, as these tend to work loose with time.
Using a sharp object, poke a hole in the glove at the wrist, about 1/2" away from the edge of the glove. Try to make the hole in a spot where the glove is strong to keep the hole from tearing with time. Next, insert a zip tie into the hole you just made. Poke the zip tie into the hole starting from inside the glove, so the tip emerges from the top (bony) side. This way, the zip tie’s “head” will be better hidden.Notice that we’re only attaching the top side of the glove to the arm bone so we can still slip our hand into the glove after it’s attached.
Feed the zip tie through or around the hardware remaining on the end of the arm bone. Tighten the zip tie so that the hand is secured close to the arm, yet loose enough so that the hand can move fairly freely. Trim away the rest of the zip tie and clip or file any sharp zip tie edges.
Make sure your wrist moves freely enough for you to bend your wrist upward and downward without binding, and that the hand appears to be naturally attached to the arm bone. It may look a little odd at this point, but once you’ve painted the bones, pulled your long black sleeves into place, turned off the lights, and flicked on the black light fixture, it will instantly become clear!
Repeat the previous steps to prepare the other arm. Alternatively, you can opt to incorporate just one arm if you’re in a crunch for time, as the effective is just as effective.
Step 2: Paint the Hands and Skeleton
An important part of making this illusion work is the glowing bones and fingers. By making them glow brightly while dressing the operator all in black, the eyes will see the skeleton but be blind to the person operating it. For that reason, we’ll be using a vibrant glow-in-the-dark paint lit by a black light.
Use masking tape to keep paint off of the black fabric backing. Small pieces are easier to position. Then, station your black light nearby and turn out the lights so you can see your resuilts as you paint. Cover the hands and entire skeleton with Glow-In-The-Dark paint. The black light will show you any spots you miss..
Step 3: Seat Your Skellie
To enable your skeleton to sit in proper performance position, we’re going to make a simple support for him. Start by attaching what’s called a 1-inch Threaded Floor Flange (from Home Depot’s plumbing department) to the top of your organ bench, a couple of inches from the back edge. Screw a “Reducing Male Adapter” (1” x 3/4”) into the flange. (Home Depot, sprinkler dept.)
Next, insert a 2’ long segment of PVC pipe into the reducing adapter. We now have a simple support that will keep the skeleton sitting upright on the organ bench. If you don’t want to mar the bench, you can attach the flange to a piece of plywood (as we’ve done in the photo above), cut to the same size as the top of the bench. Use clamps or duct tape to secure the plywood to your bench. This will allow you to remove it later with no major harm done to the bench. Paint the PVC pipe and flange black and it will be virtually invisible during the performance.
Seat the skeleton’s torso over the PVC pipe, sliding the pipe up into his ribcage and against his spine. You may find it easier to remove the skull to do this until you have the PVC cut to length. Note that the pelvis and legs are optional. I like to include the pelvis and upper legs, but they aren’t essential (as pictured above) if you find it simpler to leave them off. If you do include the legs, remove the lower legs from the knees down, as they won’t be seen and will just get in the operator’s way. Use a couple of zip ties to secure the torso snugly to the pipe support. Lastly, cut off any PVC pipe that shows above the collar bone, and re-attach the skull.
Step 4: Set Dressing and Lighting
Using a staple gun, tacks or duct tape, drape black fabric around the back and sides of the organ bench to hide the operator. Stretch some fabric between the organ’s sides and the bench as well if your operator is still visible at all (though if they’re dressed all in black, they’ll be hard to spot).
Station a black light nearby where it will illuminate the skeleton the best, keeping the audience’s viewpoint in mind. Try to keep the black light from shining on the operator as much as possible. Any nearby room lighting should be kept to a minimum so as to not give away the trick!
Step 5: Operating Your Skeletal Organist
Now comes the fun part... operating your new skeletal organist! Sit on the ground in front of the organ bench and slip your hands into the skeletal gloves. Duck your head beneath the keyboard and raise your arms so that your hands are resting on the organ keys.
If you find this position to be uncomfortable for you, you can opt to use only one arm. Going this route frees you up to duck further underneath the organ keys, and leaves you in a more relaxed position. A cushion to sit on also helps keep the operator comfortable during performances. You may also want to swap out with another person at intervals during the evening if you find yourself getting tired.
Step 6: You're Done!
And that’s all there is to creating this haunting animated skeletal organist! Add it to your home haunters’ DIY to-do list of scary Halloween props, and be the haunt all the trick-or-treaters are talking about this year!
For links to many of the items needed for this project, visit http://www.nightfrights.net/halloween-how-to/hallo...
(Mike Fox is a life-long haunt builder, inventor, and Halloween enthusiast, as well as the creator of the popular Ghost Bust® and Scary Mary Mirror® haunted house props. See Night Frights’ expanding line of high-tech Halloween props at http://www.nightfrights.com .)