Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Hatbox Ghost, a familiar face returns to Disneyland...

For those that still follow this blog I say thank you. I miss writing each day and think about how prolific I used to be. But there is no time to lament when we have cool things to talk about. As many of you may (or may not!) know I am a big Disney fan. I like the animation and Disneyland Park. One of my favorite attractions was updated recently. Actually it was "retro"-fitted recently. On the occasion of Disneyland's 60th Anniversary several attractions have been getting updates and new fireworks shows, parades, merchandise and other goodies are in store for visitors. The one that seems to have everyone most excited is the return of the Hatbox Ghost to the Haunted Mansion. For those that don't know there was an animatronic in the Attic scene of the ride, just after the Ballroom and before going into the Graveyard. Anyhow this animatronic was called the Hatbox Ghost because his head would disappear from his shoulders and reappear inside a hatbox he was carrying. The effect never worked great and audiences could still see the head in both locations even under low light. So the character was pulled after two weeks on opening in late 1969 by Imagineers. Yale Gracey, the effects Imagineer was the person that most likely made the call. As the years went on most forgot about the character, attractions in Disneyland rarely stay the same for long. Little details are added or changed on a year-to-year basis.

The Hatbox Ghost became a sort of urban legend in the park. He was there for such a short time that only the most die-hard fans even knew about him. Over the past decade there was a revival on the character. He began turning up on official Disneyland merchandise and audiences couldn't get enough of him. The Hatbox Ghost built a cult-like following which was unique considering that the attraction itself had so many wonderful characters that most of them could have symbolized the attraction. Yet fans seemed to gravitate towards the ghost that stuck around the shortest amount of time. When the merchandise began materializing over the past decade many hoped that the figure would find his way back home. It didn't happen for the 40th, 50th or 55th celebrations but this year would be it! I did want to say something about the update character. The park had to update their presentation in order for the effects to work the way they were intended.

The majority of the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion were audio animatronics wrapped in transparent plastic clothes. This looked his the hydraulic components well and looked convincing in low light. However the Hatbox Ghost sat so close to audiences that they could clearly see where his head was hiding within the hatbox. In the updated version the Imagineers gave the ghost dark colored fabric that they painted to appear semi-translucent. The artists highlighted the seams as skeleton legs and ribcage in backlight colors over the fabric. This hid all of the new hydraulics and electronics that went into the figure. The head itself was a projection map on a black screen. The head inside the box was also a projection so that no matter how close audiences looked the physical head was not in either location. This was similar to an effect that I proposed on a blog entry over at MiceChat. With the effect and animation in place the ghost had finally found a permanent home and would be haunting visitors for many years to come.

The team at Imagineering did a fantastic job of recreating the original designs from Yale Gracey, Marc Davis and Colin Campbell. I did want to say that there was an artist that I think deserves some recognition for the updated look. Brandon Ragnar Johnson is a well-known name in the art community. The Southland resident is a huge fan of Disneyland and his mid-century-meets-pop aesthetic compliments the company very well. Many years ago he did a piece inspired by the Haunted Mansion. In the illustration there is a green room with a portrait of the Hatbox Ghost hanging on the wall along with a crystal ball with the head of Madame Leota. He created a second piece with the head inside the hatbox and the letters HM. It was a brilliant tribute. The use of colors and strong shapes made it one of the best Haunted Mansion illustrations ever made.

A few years after that illustration came out Disney announced that they were working on a new Haunted Mansion movie with director Guillermo DelToro. This was a surprise to the 2011 San Diego Comic Con attendees. Some in attendance won posters for the movie. The illustration by Ragnar was redone to include the name plaque of the Haunted Mansion and words 999 Haunts.

The Hatbox Ghost looked slightly different than Ragnar's previous illustration. The hair was much thinner and the colors were just a bit stronger on the new poster. The sneer, sinister stare and gold tooth were unmistakable in both versions.

When the new Hatbox Ghost was revealed I couldn't help but notice how similar the animation was to the design of Ragnar. The artist clearly knew what elements were the most important to create to capture the spirit of the character. With a few shapes and color choices fans could make out the face from across the room or even while sitting right in front of the piece. The same clean shapes and colors were obvious in the remake. Neither Disney nor Ragnar had to make the face hyper-realistic in order to make it unique. In fact the less-is-more approach worked wonders for the new animatronic.

A few years prior, in 2013 Disney had shown off an animatronic during the D23 Expo in Anaheim modeled after the Hatbox Ghost. This figure was hyper-detailed. It had a complete wardrobe and physical head sculpt. The Imagineers did not mean for this figure to ever be used in the Haunted Mansion. They just wanted to show off the most advanced animatronics the company had to offer. The basis of this figure was known as the A100 model, it was the type featured in Abraham Lincoln and the Pirates of the Caribbean auctioneer, making it very fluid and lifelike. If just so happened that Disney wanted to dress up the robot for the Expo in an iconic costume.


Audiences interpreted the gesture as a confirmation that he was returning. Thankfully the version in the ride was nowhere near as garish as the D23 one. The hyper-detailed look detracted from all of the other ghosts in the attraction. That level of costuming would have worked well in the Pirates ride but simply stuck out on the Haunted Mansion. But I digress, I was mentioning that the face animation was very reminiscent of the designs created by Ragnar. The head inside the hatbox was a projection as well and it preserved the same qualities that Ragnar had done years earlier.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into the updated look and maybe it is all a coincidence. But I'll let you Disney fans check out the ride and tell me what you think.

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