Seance Behind the Scenes

The major addition to Carnival of Souls this year was a black light puppet show wherein a spirit medium would summon the spirits of the undead, with unexpected results.

If you haven't already, read the show overview and the script.

The Idea

We wanted to do something different than the other home haunts out there, and our target age range was younger than your typical haunt target due to the particular demographics of the little subdivision we live in.

As a result, we came up with the idea of a black light puppet show. This would allow the kids to sit and watch a show with their parents, we could still engage in making some magic, and it would allow us to really pack in several innovative effects.

The nice thing about black light puppetry is that you don't have to hide your puppeteers - just dress them in black, and the audience won't see them. You can have your puppets do anything, and it will seem magical.

Fabrication

We learned a lot from this project. Probably the most educational part of the project was the fabrication of the puppet heads out of latex from clay sculptures. We had the good fortune of having a talented sculptor on our team who showed us how to do the molding and casting ourselves. (If you're not fortunate enough to have a sculptor on your team, we've captured all the instructions for your use.

Sculpture of the tightrope walker's head and the Ringmaster's puppet head

In retrospect, we probably could have just bought some latex masks and be done with it (and did, in fact, do this for the preacher puppet), but now we have the skills for later years.

This process also involved a lot of experimentation to find materials that fluoresced properly. We managed to procure some fluorescent paints in town, but we didn't get the blue to fluoresce satisfactorily until we added laundry detergent to the paint.

The Planning

The script went through many revisions. I stopped counting at twelve. We were revising the script all the way up until show time, and I noticed that the cast had even embellished the script over the course of the Halloween performances.

Much time was spent figuring out how to construct the stage in order to best meet the needs of the script and effectively utilize the available space. All along we had planned for a back yard stage. Unfortunately, at 4:30 on Halloween day, a freakishly strong wind storm came through and tore up our stage, even though it was under a covered porch, and the flats had wind pressure release flaps cut into them. We spent the next hour rebuilding the stage in the garage.

But it all worked out for the best - the show was much more effective in the garage than it would have been in the back yard. We were able to control the lighting better, and we generated a lot more interest in the show.

You can read the final script.

The Stage

Our stage layout

The stage was built inside the garage. We opened the garage door, and placed an 8'x8' sheet of foam into the slot between the garage door and the ceiling wall, which left us a wide opening into the garage. We covered that with black plastic, so that we could control the lighting in the garage, while still allowing easy egress. (In case of emergency, we could easily pop out the entire facade wall, leaving the garage door open. We also had two other exits - a side door and through the house.)

The stage flats were built from PVC piping with black plastic sheeting hanging from it. The PVC piping was sunk into large buckets of sand to weigh it down. This was fine for the night's purpose.

We formed a 'C' alcove for Madame Sarita's table and crystal ball. Over her left shoulder was the haunted portrait, which was brought to life by an LCD projector over her right shoulder pointed at it and hidden by a facade wall. The computer was manned on the other side of the black plastic by one of the puppeteers. The rest of the alcove was decorated with various trinkets placed on a bookshelf, a few statues, trunks, books, and cobwebbing.

Some oriental rugs were placed on the floor for comfortable seating for the audience, and these were separated from the stage by two large metal trunks which were used to keep the children out of the stage area and to shield their eyes from the black light fixture on the opposite side of the trunks which illuminated the puppeteering area.

The Haunted Portrait

The haunted portrait was a blank piece of foamcore mounted in a frame. Throughout the show, a portrait of a woman was projected onto the foamcore. The lumins were dropped down enough so that it was not obvious that it was a projected image, but instead, it passed as a normal painting for the casual viewer.

The Haunted Portrait channels the past.

When the skull spirits began to tell their tale, the computer would start a Flash animation (created by Matt) that would cause the images to shift and float to tell the story of Sarah's plight. When the story was done, it reverted to the old portrait.

Matt is a very talented animator, and the animation we used was thrown together in an evening. Not bad for several minutes of animation!

Controlling the Show

Because we didn't know who our final puppeteers were (one of our puppeteer's sisters was scheduled to have her baby around Halloween), we decided that the bulk of the show should be pre-recorded and set to sound effects beforehand, so that the actors would only have to gesture and move, rather than have to memorize some lines. This also solved the problem of having to microphone the puppeteers, and allowed us to add voice effects to the characters.

The flash animation file that Matt created was set to have several states. The "preshow" state had somber, creepy music playing in a loop. When Madame Sarita started her seance, a puppeteer could hit the space bar to advance to the next state that started the summoning sequence. That would play through all the way to the part where Sarita leads the kids to shout at Marius to go away. When she had successfully banished Marius, the space bar would be pressed again to complete the show. At the end of the show, it would drop back into the preshow state.

Madame Sarita was the only character whose voice was not prerecorded. This was because we wanted her to be free to talk to the children as they entered and got seated, and to give her a story-level separation from the ghosts. As such, we wrote the script so that whoever played Madame Sarita (Dana or a substitute in case of emergency) wouldn't have to memorize much.

Despite the rigid nature of the production, the cast was able to vastly improve their performances over the course of the evening. I sat in on the dress rehearsal (ten minutes before our first show!) and the last performance, and there was a night and day difference.

The cast was able to improvise some special effects, polished their character motion, and blocked out better choreography than we had originally planned. The characters really came to life, and they made for a much more entertaining and satisfying show in the end. They did a spectacular job, and it was a thing of beauty to watch. Each puppeteer brought a really creative flair to their characters.

Weaknesses

Although we got uniformly glowing reviews, and have confirmation that some kids talked about the show all the way home, it still could have been better.

The original idea was to have a horde of different ghosts and goblins dancing around in a spectacular display of special black light effects. Unfortunately, the de-scoping that occurred close to Halloween precluded such an ambitious venture, and we settled for telling the back story of our haunt. (But there's always next year!)

Since we didn't have time to fabricate all the puppets we wanted, nor did we have time to do a lot of complicated choreography, we ended up telling most of our story in narrative. Although it was augmented with the haunted portrait, it would have been better with some more action. We intend to fix that next year.

We also had planned on some more seance-y effects and mood. As it was, the audio was a little rushed, and because we couldn't get all our voice talent into a room at the same time, our voice acting was a little stilted in places. With more time, we could have really polished that part of the show.

Matt tells me he is unhappy with his animation. Indeed, I've seen a lot of his work, and he has done much better. But then, he had much more than an evening to do those. I'm very happy with his work for this year's show - in that one evening, he did all the animation, dropped in the music, and did the programming for the different states. He may be disappointed, but I think he knocked one out of the park.

The Music

Music for the show was provided by the great people at Midnight Syndicate with permission. This band makes great atmospheric, gothic-sounding music, and they allow haunted attractions to use their music for free (just go to their site and register).

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The Cast and Crew

I could not have pulled off this amazing show, or even come close to my vision for this great addition to Carnival of Souls, without the generous, selfless efforts of several people.

Our talented cast and characters

Special thanks to our cast (in order of appearance):

And special thanks to our stagecrafters: