Interview: Cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron on bringing the Haunted Mansion to life

Chase Dillon and Rosario Dawson in Haunted Mansion
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A big part of a cinematographer’s work is shaping a film’s visuals – Jeffrey Waldron chats with us about creating the striking look of Haunted Mansion.

It takes a lot of people and a lot of work for a film to come together, and Haunted Mansion is no different. Based on the Disneyland theme park ride that sees people travel through a ghost-filled residence, the movie is incredibly atmospheric while delicately balancing light horror and comedic elements.

The work to make it that way is spread among a huge crew in various roles, but it’s a cinematographer (sometimes called Director of Photography or DoP) who works with a director to establish how a film will look and feel. We got chatting to Haunted Mansion's cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron about collaborating with director Justin Simien and the intricacies of his day-to-day work.

Film Stories: With Haunted Mansion, what was the thing that excited you most about the project when you first came to it?

Jeffrey Waldron: There’s so many things about it that excited me and just made it feel like the perfect fit for me. I loved the ride since I was a little kid, it was the sort of first foray into maybe the horror world for me. It’s sort of been seared into my brain and my consciousness. Also, as a kid I wanted to be a hands-on animator, [and was] sort of obsessed with creating sort of optical illusions and magic and all this stuff. So it really just fit a part of me that – I’d always sort of gotten into film to try to scratch a certain itch. But also just getting to work with Justin, getting to work with [production designer] Darren Gilford, getting to basically go to Disneyland every day for work is a dream come true.

FS: What was it like working with Justin?

JW: I mean, I’ve worked with Justin before, and we’ve always just super connected on visual tastes. He’s a cineaste, so he’ll always sort of draw back to sort of obscure 50s, 60s, 70s cinematic references, which I always loved. Often I would connect with him on those, or have to go look them up and be like, ‘Oh, wow, he found this interesting, sort of twist.’ And he’s just a very giving person. He’s a very emotionally present person. He’s a very collaborative artist, and he truly, I believe, is an artist and really thinks about things cohesively beyond sort of the scope and everything, which this film certainly has. For him, it was about telling a story that’s very rooted in a real New Orleans, a black New Orleans, and a character that had real grief and real personal stakes. So you know, getting to work with Justin on something of this scale, but being able to hone in on the things that are important to him, it’s a really special combination.

FS: What sort of visuals did you envisage when you sat down and thought about how you wanted this film to look?

JW: The first inspiration for us all was the ride itself. It has this very unique, late 60s, sort of, horror meets comedy. It’s a tricky balancing act. And so when I started to see the designs Darren was bringing in terms of designing the sets – I mean, you go to Disneyland, and it’s all sort of painted on foam, and has this very handmade, old school sort of quality to it. He was bringing it to life on wood on a huge scale, so that was my first sort of jumping off point, and ‘How do I take what is this fun little ride world and make it feel huge and make it feel real, bring in bigger shafts of light, bring in all the candlelight, all the things that are inspired by the ride, but how do you make them feel like they’re tangible and real and big in the real world?’ The balance I’m talking about between funny and scary is kind of where a lot of the main, timeless, sort of painterly, formal feel I have for the film comes from. It’s enough shape and mood to lean a bit spooky, but enough richness and light to support these larger than life characters. It really is a balancing act, and it always was for the ride if you kind of dig deep into the history of it. But that’s sort of where I jumped into it.

The exterior of the haunted mansion in Disney's Haunted Mansion.

FS: You mentioned Justin bringing in some more obscure references. What were the films that you kind of pointed to as inspiration for this?

JW: Certainly. There are a number of New Orleans specific documentary-style films that he really envisioned for the opening to sort of show the life and the culture of New Orleans. There are actually two and they’re homages to each other. One was called The Cincinnati Kid, but that actually harkens back to an older, sort of more real doc picture that Justin loved. But basically, in this movie, they are showing this very New Orleans style funeral that starts as a dirge and as this sort of mourning procession that explodes into dance and explodes into jazz and sort of a jazz carnival on the streets, and that’s something that I didn’t know much about. But in sort of visiting that film with Justin I was able to really see through his eyes, so there’s glimpses of that certainly in here. The other movie is called Always For Pleasure. It’s an obscure film, but it is the one Justin was like, ‘You’ve got to see this.’ And then we watched a film that cited it from like 20 years later, and here we are, probably another 30/40 years later citing it again.

Beyond that, a lot of them are just strictly visual pieces here and there. I mean, the use of the color green in Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a big part of that sort of ghostly green that you see coming through the windows. There’s a shot that we loved from an old Twilight Zone episode that ends up there – that’s where Ben crashes into an actual real life mirror to snap us out of one of his sort of haunting escapades in the mansion. So yeah, you never know quite what’s going to come up but it’s definitely a collage of these different things that pop into either of our heads and like ‘Hey, check this out. What about this for that?’ So instead of I think ever emulating something very specifically, it was like creating a tableau of things we liked and kind of weaving our own thing.

FS: So once you’ve got all those ideas in place, how do you go then to shooting the film and kind of physically pulling it all off?

JW: So a lot of preparation goes in from there. A lot of the more complicated sequences will be storyboarded and pre-vised, by the VFX department so we can sort of see how they’re going to cut and all that. A lot of it, for me, was pulling together a dream crew in terms of lighting department and camera department, who could rise to the occasion to pull off these really complicated sequences, but also just sort of roll with it as things changed and sort of still sort of find things in the blockings and things to pre-rehearse. We let the actors have a lot of freedom. So it was really putting together this team, pre-lighting this enormous stage was part of that as well. You know, being able to have moonlight wherever we wanted it, through any window, being able to know how we’re going to snap between our waking life colors and this bizarre sort of Ghost Realm palette, all within the same units – sometimes within the same shot. Yeah, taking it to the filming is all about preparation and being prepared for all these things.

FS: Is there a particular scene that you’re really proud of, or one that was really challenging?

JW: There’s a number of really challenging scenes. I think one of the most fun was this ghost realm scene. Tiffany [Hadish’s] character talks about this world; it’s sort of like an astral plane where you can see all the ghosts. So far, they’ve been sort of haunted by these invisible spectres but suddenly, there’s this moment where Ben, our character, accidentally falls into this realm and he sees that this house is teeming with ghosts, and the way he describes it later is that it wasn’t this dreary sad, dead world. It was full of life. And so I kind of wanted to make sure it looked different and that it wasn’t just more of the sort of candlelit and moonlight vibe that the ride offers, but feels very fitting for night in a haunted mansion.

So I kind of used a film negative as sort of a jumping off point visually. I’m like, ‘Okay, well, what if this was the film negative homeworld? So like? What used to be warm light pervasively, is now this, like, pretty extreme cyan sort of color? And what if there’s – you know, you’re looking at a film strip and you see purples and pinks – what if the lights start to have that kind of vibe? And what if our blue moonlight is now this sort of bright Vertigo green?’ So that was really fun to just sort of test, and in early tests, I would take cameras and we did light with these different palettes and play with it. The other thing is, we made a specific lens for that world that has these very unique anamorphic qualities with like a lot of chromatic aberration, sort of smeared edges.

Left to right: Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish and Danny DeVito in Haunted Mansion.

FS: The film contains a mixture of CGI and practical effects. What was it like to work with a blend of the two?

JW: For me, the more practical, the better. I like shooting stuff. I like to put it in front of the camera. I like it to receive my lighting. And you know, be able to have a hand especially in how that’s going to work. But to your point, having a hybrid is really helpful because in lighting the Hatbox Ghost [the film’s villain], for instance, who is a VFX character, his clothes and his costumes are all real and in real wind and in real light, so we could really have a say in how he was going to receive moonlight and all these sorts of things that if he was just going to be fully CG, if we were basically just shooting a bookshelf that he was going to appear in front of, we wouldn’t know exactly where to put all that stuff.

Justin really wanted to be as physical as possible with this – obviously, with a lot of these effects it wasn’t possible – but one of the big things was just having a set that was fully real and realised, be able to walk through the room and see all the actual details, and be able to put hundreds of lights on each and every one of these amazing gargoyles, and the nooks and crannies that Darren and his team designed. Really helpful for the actors, really helpful for the filmmakers just to be steeped in it and actually feel what it’s like first person to be in a haunted mansion.

FS: Cinematography is one of those roles where people might have a rough idea of what it is that you do, but there’s probably a lot of intricacies to it that people don’t know about. So what does an average workday look like for you?

JW: So an average workday, we’d probably roll up a little early, take a look. I like to get there early and just sort of steep myself in the mansion. You know, walk through it, so you see what you’re shooting that day. You’ve obviously prepped and you know it’s coming. I like to spend a little time in the space, and look around when Justin arrives to sort of talk about what the shape is going to be. If it’s a more complicated scene, we’ve already worked out all the kinks of it. If you wanted to leave something open to the actors, we would wait for the blocking, and so once the actors arrive we all sort of talk about where everyone’s gonna go, and then sort of create, ‘What is this master? What is this shot that’s going to sort of show off the place and bring everybody into their space and sort of set off this scene?’

Then for me, it’s about lighting and making sure we’re creating the right atmosphere. Is this a scene in the seance room where it’s spooky, and it’s lit by one candle? What does that mean? How are we going to pull that off? How are we going to get a wide shot when the only source is a little candle, and there’s six people with varying skin tones all around this dark room? Troubleshooting all of those sort of visual puzzles is part of the game. What lens are we going to put on? Do we want it to feel distorted and weird right now? Is this a moment where it’s personal? Is it LaKeith talking about his grief? How close do we want to be on him? Is there a filtration? Is there smoke? Is there fog? Do we need to feel that moonlight shaft? Well, then we’re going to need a little bit of fog.

All of these sort of visual things are swarming constantly, and they’re decisions that you’re making to craft what’s in any given image. That’s a convoluted way to describe what we do, but that’s kind of it. And is the camera moving? And is the lens wide enough to feel that movement? And do we need to turn around 360 in the shot? Well, where are the lights gonna go? All these puzzles is really the whole game, and hopefully, when you watch it, you’re not thinking about any of these, you’re just sort of feeling the mood of this place and steeped in the atmosphere.

Thank you, Jeffrey!

Haunted Mansion is in cinemas from 11th August.

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