ARWall on set for Muppets Haunted Mansion

Making the Muppets Spooky: Using TurboSquid on a Disney+ Virtual Production

Larissa Mori Customers, Real-Time

Whether it’s Treasure Island or A Christmas Carol, the Muppets have a long history of invading classic stories and filling them with their unique brand of Muppet madness. Disney+ Halloween special Muppets Haunted Mansion is the latest entry in that grand tradition, with a hilariously spooky take on the beloved theme park attraction.

Photo and trailer provided courtesy of The Walt Disney Company. 

The production embraced state-of-the-art filmmaking techniques to create a special for families to enjoy. Together with a small team of artists, the experts at ARwall used TurboSquid’s stock 3D assets on a virtual production to visualize atmospheric backgrounds and frightening effects. This helped them work faster despite having a small team, as there was a massive library of content that was ready to go on the production. To learn more about the creation of this Muppets classic, we spoke to Rene Amador, Co-Founder and CEO of ARwall.

TurboSquid: Rene, can you tell us more about yourself?

Rene Amador: Before ARwall I was a filmmaker, primarily directing commercials, short films, and pilots. In 2016, I joined a group of fellow filmmakers and engineers to explore how real-time technology and VR tracking hardware could create in-camera effects without post-production. 

We were very early on this, won a few patents, and completed our first pilot—which was based on George R.R. Martin’s novel Nightlfyers—in an LED volume powered by Unreal Engine. Since then, we’ve completed about 60 additional deployments of that same basic tech, including work for major studios like Disney+. 

What were your aims for Muppets Haunted Mansion?

Stylistically, I was adamant that we approach the project as if it had been made in the mid-90s, during the golden era of cross-franchise Muppets films like Muppet Treasure Island that the director Kirk Thatcher had co-written. These sets had to feel like someone had constructed them in 1996, left them in a vault to collect dust, and we’d simply pulled them out and started shooting.

Portrait scene of Muppets Haunted Mansion.
Photo provided courtesy of The Walt Disney Company. 

What technology did you use to help achieve that look?

We used Unreal Engine 4 as the graphics engine and our proprietary plugin ARFX Pro, which is available to license from our website. By bringing an entire haunted mansion into our virtual production stage, we cut down on set construction costs and ensured the production was quite nimble. We were able to switch our environment’s whole look in less than a minute, which helped us iterate as much as possible to achieve that mid-90s style. 

ARwall has used TurboSquid models before. How have they proved beneficial?

When working in Unreal Engine, there’s a marketplace of stock assets we usually start with instead of building things ourselves. However, more and more, we have projects with such a specific look that we need a much larger selection of assets, and TurboSquid has one of the most amazing asset libraries out there. When we’re working directly with a production designer or director that has a specific design in mind, TurboSquid makes getting proper clearances for the studio lawyers simple.

Crystal ball scene of Muppets Haunted Mansion.
Photo provided courtesy of The Walt Disney Company. 

What are the benefits of using stock assets on a production like this?

Speed and cost will always be primary concerns in TV, and with virtual production being primarily used by TV and streamers to keep up in the content wars and strike back at inflation or pandemic costs, stock assets are required to ensure schedules are met while quality stays high.

Was there a lot of modification on stock assets to make them fit the aesthetic?

Most of the items were tweaked to ensure they fit into the lighting and color scheme we’d envisioned. Because virtual production tends to be more demanding for close-up items, we increase the material and mesh quality of ‘hero’ items that will appear on camera prominently.

Dinner scene of Muppets Haunted Mansion.
Photo provided courtesy of The Walt Disney Company. 

The sets in Muppets Haunted Mansion are full of fun easter eggs for fans. How much work went into those? 

Stock assets are where these fun moments can hide and be revealed, and deep discussion went into how explicit to make these little easter eggs we snuck into the film. Production designer, Darcy Prevost, takes the most credit for meticulously designing the wallpapers and other fixtures. Inside a familiar picture frame, one might find a gruesome familiar face, and above a normal doorway may sit the visages of ghostly Muppets.

Has this production changed how you’ll approach future projects?

Every production is like going to school and learning how to kill it on the next one. Muppets Haunted Mansion was an absolute blast of a project, with a team that came together to entertain the heck out of their friends and families. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that some of the human elements of the film business can be resolved by virtual production and we can make an industry in which people work with new technology to make creation easy and enjoyable. ARwall is devoted to creating products and solutions that are fun to use, and for viewers, this means better content made by happier people.

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