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Haunted Mansion Cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron Wanted a Timeless Haunted House

Daniel Eagan, BELOW THE LINE

August 10, 2023

Based on a popular Disneyland ride, Haunted Mansion sends a half-dozen strangers on a quest to escape the deadly Hatbox Ghost and free the spirits he has entrapped. The film is shot by cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron, who adds a coldness and warmth to the atmosphere fitting for a movie about death.

With a cast that includes LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, and Jamie Lee Curtis, Haunted Mansion follows in the tradition of theme-park based movies like Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Justin Simien (Dear White People) directed Katie Dippold‘s screenplay, which embraces the camp of the historic ride. Director of Photography Jeffrey Waldron previously worked with Simien on the acclaimed first season of Dear White People. He’s also shot shows such as The Morning Show and A League of Their Own, and he directed the award-winning documentary, Ghost Fleet. Recently, he spoke with Below the Line on a Zoom call.

BTL: What kind of problems did you face? For example, most of the film is really dark: it takes place at night, in rooms with failing lights.

Waldron: Yeah, darkness is hard. Disney darkness is extra hard because a horror film is one thing, but a Disney horror film is another thing entirely. I wanted to make sure we could see, but still feel it was dark.

I took a cue from when you’re walking around in your home without lights. The rods and cones in your eyes are less efficient. You end up with this silvery, ambient, cool light. That meant building soft boxes over each of the stages so that there would always be an ambience we had full control over. Like, can we see into the shadows?

A little bit of haze helps pick up the shadows. And then we had a filmic LUT made for this picture. We built in quite a bit of wiggle room, so that we were actually lighting quite a bit to get darkness that we could always pull up in the DI. If you look at what we shot, it’s like broad daylight brought down rather than very dark brought up.

BTL: Were you using volumes or environments?

Waldron: Basically, the whole mansion set was physical. We had a number of reshoots, but the bulk of the film — the downstairs, the ballroom, the stretching room, the main hallway — all that was a continuous space that we could shoot 360 without having to worry about VFX extensions or anything like that.

Even with the Hatbox Ghost [played by Jared Leto], there is a practical element to most of his stuff in the mansion. So we’re not just shooting a bookshelf and guessing what it’s going to look like later. We actually put one of our stunt coordinators in full wardrobe and hung him from wires. That way we could light the Hatbox Ghost so post would have a jumping off point.

Most of the clothes, textures, things like that were practical. The final graveyard was practical, although it did extend to blue screen beyond the trees. It was built in these island pieces that could be ruptured and moved.

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