Halloween is a nationwide neighbourhood occasion that is quite unlike anything else in the calendar. Families meet in the flickering porch light of wax candles ensconced in carved pumpkins. It’s a very sanitary affair today and really more about collecting sugary treats and wearing inflatable costumes than seeing ghostly spirits or being scared by spooky sights. But we bucked the trend. We decided that this year, Archer Dental clinics in Toronto were not simply going to put out that same tired orange plastic bucket filled with Nature Valley granola bars again this year. This year we vowed to do something better. We decided to make a proper ghost projection that could haunt our office and make an impression on pedestrians who walked past the front window.
What is a ghost?
The spirit of a deceased person, the idea of ghosts has been around forever. They were in fact mentioned in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known written work of literature. Ghost stories are part of most cultures’ folklore, although the essential definition of what comprises a ghost varies from country to country. Shakespeare invoked ghosts in several plays. Hamlet says, “Angels, and ministers of grace, defend us! Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damn’d. Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell. Be thy intents wicked or charitable. Thou com’st in such a questionable shape, That I will speak to thee” (Hamlet, 1.4) and more then once the Great Bard invoked ‘airs from heaven’ as being the corporeal substance that gives shape to the spirits his characters behold. Ghostbusters, a 1984 American fantasy comedy film directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis took it a bit farther. All ghosts and paranormal activities they encountered were considered to be “ectoplasmic”. The Ghostbusters speculated that such other-world apparitions needed to adopt this slimy state in order to appear here in our realm. And there may be something to that. Researchers who use special photography equipment to try and capture images of ghosts for YouTube videos today have lumped their visible specters into three main categories; all of their observed phenomenon can be classified as either the misty ghost who is rather shapeless, the orb ghost who has some recognizable shape, or the funnel ghost that’s usually associated with a cold spot in a house. That categorize them like this because that’s what appears in their pictures. Few people have ever seen the proper Hollywood ghost who appears lifelike and walks and talks and gives the protagonist narrative information to advance a plot.
On designing our ghost effect
It was our intention to shoot original footage of the dentists themselves as ghosts. I had an idea to put them in white smocks with white-painted faces and perhaps some blood dribbling from their mouths. I wanted to shoot them slightly over exposed against a totally black background. This didn’t happen of course, and after that first conversation the idea was never mentioned again. What everyone wanted was a scary ghost and not a bed sheet derived spectacle that was ridiculous to behold and made the dentists look silly. They wanted a Hollywood-quality film effect to occupy their office lobby from six pm to midnight on October 31st. It had to be visible to passers-by outside on the sidewalk and so that meant it had to bright enough and close enough to the windows that people would actually notice. This is a very tall order, and it was not as easy to accomplish as we’d initially imagined.
The realities of making ghosts
After some research it became clear that to make a scary ghost appear and disappear in a darkened room would require three basic components:
- Projector – the source of the effect.
- Ghost media – the video image that will be projected to make the effect.
- The screen – the substance, otherwise invisible, that is illuminated by the effect.
Positioning the projector and screen are critical to making the ghost projection appear real and lifelike. Like any good cake recipe, the devil is in the details. Each time we set this up, we tried several different layouts and with various different parts and pieces until we evolved just the right effect. The first installation was a disaster; we’d bought exactly the wrong screen from William F Whites, a film rental house in Toronto and the material was too thick and too heavy. Suspending it from the ceiling bent three ceiling tile flanges. And it was terrible to behold in the darkness; it made a misshapen mass of light upon which it was near impossible to focus the beam. So we scraped it. Someone ran to Walmart the next day and bought fabric sheers and binder clips and tried again the following evening.
Night Two is when we realized our FX projector was junk. In fairness it simply wasn’t designed for bright city streets. One of the downfalls of doing this in the city is the inherent light pollution. We could turn off all the light inside our office of course, but we couldn’t control the energy outside which was so bright it dulled the effect of our consumer grade FX projector. The rig was designed for residential settings. The location we’d selected for the tests, Archer Dental Little Italy at 564 College st is right beside The Big Scoop ice cream store and their neon encrusted exterior bleed light in every direction. But at least we could detect the ghost, and if we concentrated our eyes on the sheer drapes suspended from the ceiling, and we found it was possible to see the outline. After we killed more light and sharpened the image we found we could bring the spirit’s face into focus on the fabric. However the video clip was too short and the ghost didn’t really disappear for any length of time. That meant it could not appear suddenly and scare anyone. So that component needed upgrading too. Overall this was yet another night of setbacks.
Night Three saw us try again with better screen material, a longer video and a much better projector. We reconvened at Archer Dental Baby Point, 387 Jane St. just south of Jane and Annette.
On that evening and from that point forward we used the Epson VS250, a 3LCD projector that provided a much crisper image, probably because of its 3-chip technology; it had 800 x 600 SVGA resolution and a more finely calibrated focus ring on its lens. The rig also offered a built-in USB port so we could input and play our media directly on the device and therefore we didn’t need to ask someone to give up their laptop for the evening. And it was three times brighter than our first so-called FX projector. The Epson VS250 had 3,200 lumens brightness and this meant we could get some distance back and still have enough intensity to attract pedestrian eyeballs.
The screen was improved too. Instead of those flimsy four foot long sheer drapes with visible folds, our gopher girl had gone out again and purchased a 12x sheet of the perfect sheer fabric from a craft supply store for twenty bucks. That low price was less than one tenth of the cost of the material we’d initially purchased from Whites. And it was so much easier to clip into place because it was so lightweight. The fabric was also quite stretchy and when pulled taut it almost disappeared into a misty ambiance. When viewed from outside with no ghostly lights on it, the fabric melted into the air and made the interior dental office waiting room appear slightly misty.
So the stage was set for the ghost, and that component was improved too. Our projectionist had gone online and downloaded the Ghostly Apparitions Halloween decorations from AtmosFX for nine dollars each and thereafter he’d gone through the tracks and selected all the videos of one particular ghostly lady. He made a story of her sequences in an assembly that showed her pacing left and then right and then she fades away for five seconds and then reappears and explodes in anger which you can probably see in some of these pictures. There was audio too and next year we’ll hook that up to exterior speakers which don’t exist at these two locations at this time. The audio cues would be very helpful in getting pedestrians to notice the effect playing in the window.