Happy haunting, Muppets style

The ‘Muppets Haunted Mansion’ is a vintage-style production made with the latest filmmaking techniques.

Karen Moltenbrey
The Muppets Haunted Mansion was made using virtual production techniques. (Source: The Walt Disney Company)

What’s Halloween without a healthy dose of spookiness? And, what’s a Halloween show without a heavy dose of frightfully fun apparitions and ghosts? Not very monstrously mysterious or mesmerizing, that’s for sure. In fact, it’s downright foolishness when lacking in ghoulishness. 

Disney’s Muppets Haunted Mansion, which debuted last October on Disney+, has fast become a family favorite particularly when fright-night grows near. The 50-minute runtime Halloween special combines two indelible properties—the beloved Jim Henson Muppets and the popular Haunted Mansion Disney theme-park ride. (The Walt Disney Company acquired the Muppets in 2004.)

The streaming special has the Muppets Gonzo and Pepe accepting a scary challenge: They have to survive one night in a haunted mansion; if they don’t, they will become trapped there forever. At the abhorrent abode, they encounter various ghosts who resemble their Muppet friends. After eerie encounters and escaping a wickedly weird (almost) wedding, they eventually make it through the night—barely. And in a nod to the Haunted Mansion park ride, as they are leaving, they are trailed by hitchhiking ghosts.

A Muppets Halloween special had been discussed for years, dating back to the 1990s, but it never materialized. When the project was resurrected in 2021, the rapid pace of production was enough to stir the dead. Filming took place in April 2021 over a span of just 18 days. Kirk Thatcher directed. Even though the streaming special was based on two vintage properties—the Muppets were created in the mid-1950s, and the Haunted Mansion opened in 1969—neither became outdated and remain elements of pop culture to this day. Nevertheless, one cannot escape the irony that a modern-day project based on dated material would be produced using advanced XR filmmaking techniques.

XR technology company ARwall headed up the project. They were joined by film production/VFX services company Dastoli Digital and production design company Allucinari, as well as set designers.

To augment the virtual set, high-fidelity 3D stock assets from TurboSquid were used to add alluring atmospheric backgrounds and other haunting and enchanting effects. The use of stock images proved efficient and cost-effective, as opposed to the slower, more expensive method of hand-modeling every object from scratch.

The show’s virtual stage was built at Soapbox Films. Called “the Cuboid” due to its resemblance to a cube, the stage comprised a primary 20.5 × 11.5-foot LED main wall using Ledman COB M series 1.5-mm pixel-pitch LED panels; two 15 × 10-foot sidewalls; a 20 × 15-foot ceiling; and two 20 × 40-inch mobile walls with Absen VN 8 mm panels for additional lighting. The main wall appeared on camera, where the virtual sets were composited along with the actors and set pieces, while the other screens provided immersive lighting and reflections that shifted according to the needs of the scene. (The crew made good use of this, as there are a lot of spooky lighting moments in the production.)

To deliver the real-time visuals for all six screens was a single ARFX Pro server from ARwall running Unreal Engine and controlled by a keyboard, gamepad, and MIDI board.

ARwall also builds and uses ARFX, a suite of real-time tools developed natively for using real-time in-camera LED effects for scripted filmmaking. The company’s ARFX Pro plug-in consolidates all virtual production settings from across Unreal Editor into one place. (ARwall creates tools for its various projects and then releases those tools for others to use on their own productions. This includes the ARFX plug-in for Unreal Engine that the company used on the Muppets special.)

Muppet characters throughout the spooky adventure inside the mansion. (Source: The Walt Disney Company

Assets and design
Rene Amador, cofounder and CEO of ARwall, was an early pioneer in real-time virtual production. Prior to that, he was a filmmaker, directing commercials, short films, and pilots. For Muppets Haunted Mansion, he called on his collective skill sets. He, along with the production designer, set designers, and others, approached the holiday entertainment special as if it had been made in the mid-1990s, at the golden era of Muppets films such as Muppet Treasure Island, which was co-written by Thatcher. 

Because the images for Muppets Haunted Mansion had to fit into the desired lighting and color scheme, most of the time the stock assets had to be tweaked. Because virtual production tends to be more demanding for close-up items, the material and mesh quality of the hero items that appear on camera prominently had to be increased, as well. 

“The sets had to feel like someone had constructed them in 1996, left them in a vault to collect dust, and we had simply pulled them out and started shooting,” Amador says. 

ARwall’s team in front of the Cuboid getting ready for Gonzo and Pepe to meet the Caretaker in the cemetery. (Source: The Walt Disney Company; courtesy of ARwall)

Of course, in reality, the majority of assets are new digital creations, with a few physical elements added to the stage. By bringing an entire haunted mansion into the virtual production stage, the group was able to cut down on set construction costs. This also resulted in a nimbler production, enabling them to switch the look of entire environments in less than a minute to home in on the style they wanted.

Despite the experience ARwall had up to this point working on virtual productions, Amador points out that every production is like going to school and learning how to “kill it on the next one.” And  the Muppets Haunted Mansion was no different. In fact, all the teams had to consider the unique needs of the Muppets performers, as well as the pandemic concerns and the fast pace of the overall production. To this end, ARwall built new tool sets specifically for this project, enabling  the crew to use virtual production for nearly every scene. 

Pepe and Gonzo find themselves in a ghastly graveyard in Disney’s Halloween streaming/screaming special. (Source: The Walt Disney Company; courtesy of ARwall)

A number of Easter eggs were added into various scenes, which surely pleased fans of both the park ride and the Muppets. Surprisingly, TurboSquid stock images were used for these, too. 

“Stock assets are where these fun moments can hide and be revealed, and deep discussion went into how explicit to make these little Easter eggs we snuck into the film,” says Amador. “Production designer Darcy Prevost takes the most credit for meticulously designing the wallpapers and other fixtures. Inside a familiar picture frame, one might find a gruesome familiar face, and above a normal doorway may sit the visages of ghostly Muppets.”

Happy Halloween!