Friday, January 30, 2009

Haunt Theory: Lighting

Got a question about my lighting techniques. The insanely-talented Rob at has the finest lighting tutorial around. I agree with his approach as it front-lights your props and creates some beautiful shadows and accents the most important part of your hard work - the front.

My yard haunt has two main issues that forced me to light the haunt from the above tree branches:

1. A super bright and super close street lamp (that provides a lot of ambient front-lighting).
2. A horrible family that walks through the lawn of the yard haunt, between the props, and under the tree.

One experience comes to mind. I use two strings of flickering flame bulbs for under my witches' iron cauldron. I love that effect and take a crazy amount of time to perfect it. Placing the twigs and sticks of the fire carefully as to hide the bulbs and wires, but to allow enough orange light through. A member of my family walked across the lawn and got tangled in the extension cord running to those lights. I watched those flickering bulbs go flying quite a few times over the years. Pushing the lights and sticks back under the cauldron quickly before more trick or treaters arrive is another sickening ritual I could do without. I can only imagine if I ran cords to the front of my display to feed flood lamps placed there. It's surprising how many people actually cut through the small lawn of my yard haunt.

So it's actually a practical use of lighting, and I'm surprised my family doesn't climb the tree at some point during the night, tangling my wires and breaking my bulbs while they fish around in the branches.

That said, I think tree lighting from above can work if you keep in mind the importance of shadows. I always make sure some pine needles and branches of the tree are in front of the flood lamps. And I try not to go overboard with making the haunt too bright. I think of it as moonlight. Smaller bulbs stuffed into the bushes or cornstalks on each side of the porch add a lot of atmosphere. In the case of my witches' smoking cauldron, I had a green spotlight shining straight down into the cauldron. The fog appeared to be giving off a ghostly green glow.

Every year, I venture back to where I grew up and haunt my folks' lawn. I won't be doing that forever and I'm looking forward to a change of scenery and a new environment. And you can bet I'll be using some of SkullandBone's techniques for lighting it.


Shellhawk said...

At the risk of giving you a suggestion you've already tried and discarded, for your cauldron fire, how about a battery pack for your string of lights? They sell those at Christmas, one battery pack per something like 25 or 50 lights, and it's wired into the light string. Hope that helps.

Of course, you can't keep your family from finding some OTHER way of annoying you and ruining your effect. *sigh*

Grim said...

That's something I really want to work on this year, lighting. My pictures make it look a lot brighter than it actually is, and most everyone likes the lighting but to me it is still lacking that special something. I use a ton of extension cords and have metal handheld landscaping edger that I use to make a small trench along the driveway to run the cords in, then most of the rest run along my fence or through areas that no one "should" be able to get into. I'm always scared of someone tripping on one of the cords, so I get a little O.C.D. in hiding them.

Jon said...

This is a great piece, man. I really appreciate you sharing some of the details of your lighting setup. This is, without a doubt, THE hardest aspect of a haunt in my opinion. Even over prop building. Placement is a close second after lighting.

It's so hard to get that balance of light and shadow that lets people see enough to be scared. I use a combination of 2 pin spots and 3-4 standard landscaping floodlights with colored bulbs in them. The longest and most challenging part of my setup is figuring out where to put them. Especially since I usually do it the day of Halloween. There's nothing like testing lights in full sun.

This year I'm planning to sketch my setup in advance and do a lighting "rehearsal" a few nights ahead.

Have you considered putting a creepy fence or some other kind of barrier around your haunt to help direct traffic? I have a similar issue with a hill in front of my house. This year I'm solving it by directing people between two stone walls and toward our garage.

Again, great piece. Lots of humor and some good stuff to take away, as well.


Rot said...

I toyed with the idea of a fence to keep my family out, but I fear the small size of the front lawn might get accentuated and the whole thing might seem dinky.

I should just nerve gas their house on Halloween morning.

Bones said...

I was going to suggest the idea of a fence too, but you're right, the size is something to consider. Then again, some fences could be made that are just enough of a deterrent, but don't visually trample the rest of your layout. Maybe a a rope-fence or something.

I finally put up a small fence in mine this past year, but I felt it was more a necessity. Since my grave-plot is on a concrete driveway, the gravestones are held in place by 6" nails sticking up out of a plywood base. I've been afraid that some idiot would walk over, fall into my graveplot, and impale themselves on those nails. The fence at least helps keep people back a few feet. Previously I just put up danger-tape, but I suspect people might think it's part of the display and not dead-serious.