Image source: Travel Channel
Are you an aspiring haunter? Maybe you're hoping to take your hobby of constructing haunted houses to the next level? Then you might want to talk to Ed and Marsha Edmunds, founders of animatronics and effects company Distortions Unlimited and stars of the Travel Channel series "Making Monsters." The couple came to Denver Comic Con to offer tips to would-be pro and amateur haunters, ranging to tips on how to design the best layout for large crowds to the virtues of using windshield wiper motors on your mechanical monsters.
"Basically, we've been making haunted houses for 35 years," Ed tells the audience, but sometime in the 90's, they got into adding animatronics to the act. Their first attempt was an electric chair with a writing mannequin in it and although some "jokey" attempts by other haunted house makers were out there at the time, Distortions' was the first to garner public interest. They sold 200 of those--an unprecedented manufacturing number for their company--and despite some issues with the heads on those first mannequins blowing off when the chair lit up, it was getting press.
"We couldn't sell an $85 Geiger alien from the movie 'Aliens,'" Marsh says about an early prop mask they created years back, but that since the rise of Distortions, it's become a sought-after collector's item (he recounted the story of a collector approached by 20th Century Fox about buying one of the masks).
Now, Distortions works on a lot of animatronic props, sourced from both pneumatic and mechanical materials, made up of pumps, windshield wiper motors, and really, whatever works (Ed recommends doing Google searches if you're keen on learning how to make your own while Marsha says there are plenty of pneumatics seminars out there to teach the basics of pneumatic construction). Ed says that once upon a time, his team would build animatronic effects which would require computer interfaces (apparently, these were a nightmare), but now they work strictly with the mechanical and pneumatic components. One cool project in the offing is a recent commission Distortions received from Microsoft to control an animatronic effect to the Kinect motion camera--Ed says that they haven't quite figured it out, but that he's optimistic about the opportunities of controlling an animatronic prop using voice and simple motion commands.
The audience was filled with would-be "haunters" and amateur special effects makers, some looking for tips on improving their haunted house for next Halloween, with at least one standing up to ask about taking his hobby pro. Ed says that when he was younger, this kind of network of learning and information about creating these kinds of effects wasn't available to him, so questions like how to apply paint without it cracking, or fabricating materials were things he learned through trial and error. Marsha adds that if you're looking to go pro, don't assume you can quit your day job--she says most pro haunters still keep their 9-5.
Ed says that they've done some work on Eli Roth's Goretorium in Vegas, one of the few, dedicated, year-round haunted house attractions, but he says that the current thinking is that haunted houses are typically locked in at Halloween. "It's going to take time to change America's mindset," he says about making them a year-round entertainment (he noted working on another in Isreal and a recent house opening somewhere in England). Audience members chimed in with other locations in Times Square and Ohio, but the network of information about where these places are seems to be diffuse--passed along by word-of-mouth among the faithful.
I asked about some of the biggest challenges in designing an attraction and Ed offered up immediately designing for volume: he talked about the layout of corridors to manage large crowds and allow the same actor to scare multiple groups across different areas. He says that around October 1st, their Brutal Planet house would find itself with a group of 300, necessitating that they hire around 50 actors to jump out and scare visitors.
But for Marsha, it's something simpler than that: make sure whatever it is, it scares people. They both agreed that many haunters design their exhibits with impressing other haunters in mind, and Ed joked that even though he sells props, many designs would err on the side of too much eye candy. They talked about a March of Dimes charity house which was sparsely decorated but was incredibly effective thanks to the use of sound and breaking line of sight between visitors. Ed says one trick this particular house used was actors listening to visitors calling out each others' names when they got separated in the house, following them through the house, and then spookily whispering their names, giving the horror a personal touch.
You can find out more about the Edmunds' work on their site, Distortions Unlimited.