Conjuring Madame Leota

It's here!  My updated version of this effect, Sybil the Clairvoyant, is now available.  Click the graphic below to check out the new, improved, disembodied medium projection effect:

The new effect is a much better system, but enjoy the old tutorial, if you like.

Conjuring Madame Leota

I've had a few requests to explain how I accomplished the Madame Leota effect in my yard haunt, so here you go-- I'm assembling a little look into the making of the most popular prop of my display this year.

First, here's what we're making:

Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this illusion, I think explains it best. "Leota's head is a static form made out of a neutral colored substrate, encased in a glass ball sitting on an ornate bronze base. With the lights dimmed, a speaking face (performed with ghoulish delight by Leota (Toombs) Thomas) was projected onto the neutral face via a 16 mm film loop..., making it appear to speak... The talking head is actually a neutral static form upon which the animation is projected. There is no mechanical facial animation involved at all."

This, not so incidentally, is the same technique used for the singing busts in the Haunted Mansion's graveyard scene.

Considering the setup of my haunt, I was a bit stumped as  to where I could hide a projector so that no one would see it.  My solution came from the ride: "In the late 1980's... Madame Leota was projected in reverse from inside of the actual head prop via fiber optics from the laser disc."

Ah Ha! So, If I make a vaccum-formed head "shell" out of semi-opaque white plastic, I can hide the projector within the body of my latest witch, who will be looking over the crystal ball.  This is my original sketch (sorry if it's a little hard to see):
The idea is that the witch's body is actually a shelf with a head, arms, and legs, which houses the projector in the chest area.

But guess what?  When I got to mid October and still didn't have my vaccum former built, I had to change my plans.

So, I decided to go with the original method used in Disneyland, which probably turned out to be a good thing, since Disney's "internal projection, when viewed through the semi-opaque head, was not as bright as traditional projection from outside, and the facial features seemed to distort somewhat, as the natural shadows from the contours of the head form were eliminated via the technology. Therefore, the external video projection was restored to Leota in October 2001."

Fine with me, it turned out to be much easier this way, and the hiding the projector problem could be solved by building  a shelf on the inside of my fence, covered in ivy.
You can kind of get an idea of where it went here, that big box in the foreground, directly in front of the crystal ball (picture).

So then I needed the projection "screen," for the Madame, a crystal ball with a blank head inside.  Conveniently, I had purchased a Gemmy Spirit Ball at the clearance last year, and was able to remove the head from within it to have a big, empty sphere with a nice little base.
Start with this:

pop off a leg, and unscrew the...screw to release the globe, which twists off

Then unscrew everything else.  This is tricky, if you want to save the head for later projects

Now, for the head form itself, I tested the projection (which I found somewhere online (it's been a few years)) on a standard wighead, and found it to be distorted in the lower half of the face; Ms. Thomas's jaw is wider than the wighead's.  So, I coated the entire wighead in a thin coat of plaster, and made the lower face bigger.  Then, I sanded it a smooth as I could (this is a little tricky, as the plaster tends to flake off if it's to thin).

I think the trick with the head is to not make it too rounded-- the flatter it is, the less the image will distort.  Also note that there are no lips-- I sanded these off of the wighead before plastering to ensure that Leota could speak without mouth distortion.

I projected the image onto the form, and made a few pencil marks of the hairline.  I didn't find any wig I liked, so I made her hair out of spider webbing hot glued to the head.

The head was attached to the globe base using hot glued stacks of foam core scraps.  You can see that the head isn't very pretty up close, but it didn't make much difference in the final product.

Then, it was just a matter of putting a scrap of black fabric down to cover up the inside of the base, and popping the globe back on.

As for the projection itself, I mentioned I found a digitized version on the web somewhere, but my projector simply couldn't play it small enough as is to fit on the head form in the ball from six feet away.

My solution?  Bring it in to After Effects (Adobe's special effects/ compositing program).  This was helpful anyway, as the original was not digitized very well, since the head had a tendancy to jump up and down between frames.  So, I stabilized the head movement, scaled down the image to fit (this took a little math and some playing around), and was even able to rotate the face to make it more straight (not sure if that is how it is in the ride or not, but the video copy was a little skewed).  Finally, I added that swirly green glow that fills her hair and acts a a spot light for the witch, whom I named Eleanor (five points to the first one who can tell me why).

So yeah, that's what I did.  If I didn't explain anything clearly enough, I'm happy to explanify.

Madame Leota Q&A:

Q: Did you have any problems with refection off the crystal ball? I tried my projector on the same ball that you used and got a image on the ball and the wig head. 
A: The spirit ball is spray painted with a bunch of silver paint to make it look more magical, I guess. Take some  "thinner for metalizer" (from the plastic models section of your hobby store) or "Goof Off" on a paper towel and wipe off the flecks of paint that are in the front area of the globe (the part that looks clear).
If you look closely at my video, you can see that when Leota's mouth opens really wide, it actually had that double image on the lower part of the globe.

Q: I'm a total After Effects N00b. Are there any suggestions you would have on how to create a similar effect? Like what did you use to create the green swirl, give the image some stabilization, etc.

A: Well, let's see if I can remember what I did...
The green swirl:
I followed a tutorial online to make a starburst in photoshop (google that and you should come up with it)... it basically looked like this:*. It was black and white.
Then I imported that into AE, futzed with the colors to get the green, and applied one of the ripple effects to it to get it to swirl out. I made an identical rippling starburst at 50% opacity (or I may have changed the transfer mode to screen), but tweaked the ripple effect so that it was basically reversed (ie: still appears to ripple outward, but the ripples themselves are curved the opposite direction).
Finally, I made a subtract mask in the shape of Leota's head (which was on the layer below the green(s)), and a circular add mask (heavily feathered) around the whole thing, making sure no green reached the edges.

Leota's stabilization was a bit more trial and error. I used the motion tracking feature in AE (that's AE 7-- if you have AE CS4 or later, I believe it's in a separate application) to lock onto two or three points on her face (corners and areas of stark contrast tend to work best), then applied that tracking data as stabilization to the layer.

I think that's about all I did (aside from scaling it down appropriately, which took I lot of math that I've since forgotten). Again, if I need to clear something up, let me know. I'm happy to help.

Q: How do I make the effect with a different face?
A: ShellHawk and I did a live broadcast of this version of the project.  Some recorded clips can be found in the links on this post:


  1. I think I may have used the wrong thinner on the Gemmy ball. Now the plastic is cloudy and I have tried a million cleaners to un-cloud the ball. Do you have any advise on what I can do to get it clear again?

    1. Yes, that sounds like you used a thinner that was too aggressive. What you're looking at is texture created by the thinner eating away at the plastic. Give it a good wash out to make sure there's no thinner still in there, and look into polishing the globe smooth again. I haven't done this, but I'll bet there's info on polishing plastic online somewhere.

    2. Thank you so much for getting back to me! I will try that.

  2. Hey, Ryan from Cirque Du' Soleil here!! I don't suppose you'd be interested in manufacturing one of those for us?? If interested, please contact me with a price.
    Cordially, R.

  3. Hi. I have always wanted to make one of these for Halloween. My biggest concern is the video of Leota herself since I'm not too handy with software programs. Would you by any chance be able to build one for me? If so, what would the price be? Thanks.

  4. Hi Your Madame Leota is fabulous. I'v been trying to find a way to acuquire the Loop video/DVD to produce this effect. I can't find one anywhere to down load. How can I get my own Madame Leota DVD Loop?


    I've also been looking for video to reproduce the effect. If anyone has the video or a link to where it can be download please email me at:

    Thanks beforehand!!

  6. Very nicely done! We did the singing busts for Halloween this year and are looking to add Madame Leota and/or The Bride next year. And naming the witch after Eleanor Audley is awesome! Leota, Lady Tremaine and of course Maleficent. What a voice she had!

  7. What projector make and model do you use and can you describe your DVD player input/ set up? Thanks!

    1. I recommend a projector with at least 1,000 lumens. The resolution doesn't matter much. When I did this, the DVD player simply plugged into the matching input on the projector.

  8. Hi Mr. C.

    Having been a Haunted Mansion/Madame Leota fan for nearly 40 years, I'd LOVE to make this - but without investing tons of money for a one trick pony.

    I've seen the Lightblast projector for sale - at a very decent price. I'd like to make my own Madame Leota and other effects (with videos from others, as I'm no video producer) such as the singing tombstones, singing pumpkins, etc... Will the Lightblast projector work? Or will I be wasting my money? Thanks!!!

    1. Hi there,
      I haven't used the light blast, but my suspicion is that it's around 50 lumens, where the projector I used on Leota was 1000. You'll get a much more versatile unit if you save up for at least a 1000 lumen one. Basically, a lower lumen projector is less bright, so you'll need it closer to the projection surface to show up well, resulting in a smaller image than you might want, and forcing you to find a hiding place for your projector closer to the projection surface.

      When I made the Haunted Tombstones, I designed them so this wouldn't be much of an issue, and you can see I use a projector even cheaper than the lightblast in the How To video with decent results. So there are effects that will work well with cheaper projectors, but Leota, since you're limited by the size of a human head, is much easier to do with a better projector.

  9. Thanks for the info on the projector - I'll search for a 1000 lumen projector so I know it'll work.

    I really appreciate the fact that there are so many people out there who dig this stuff!

  10. I see a few people looking for the video loop. It's actually on the you tube. there are several programs out there that will grab a video from you tube and most of them are free. I was able to get the loop this way and my Madame Leota turned out awesome thanks to Mr. Chicken!

  11. Great effect. I'm trying to build one of these for my Halloween decor this year, and I'm nearly finished with it. I'm only missing one key element... the crystal ball.

    I'm not trying to spend a whole lot of money on this, and the Gemmy Spirit Balls I've found online are too pricy for me.

    Any bowl or aquarium I've been able to find has a flat bottom on it, which I'd like to avoid.

    Any tips or suggestions?


    1. You could use a fish bow and put fake moss on the top and drape it a little down the side to appear more natural

    2. Look around on Craigslist.. I happen to find a gemmy spirit ball last week on ours for $12 which would be cheaper than the fish bowl at Michaels that I priced but I did look at that idea.. They have VERY large ones in their floral section..I too am making one this year!

  12. Eleanor Audley... the voice of Madame Leota. =) 5pts. - Stephen Stackpole

  13. I was wondering if you can tell me what size mannequin head you used? I see them online in 10", 11" and up! Also, I am about to download your 2 (together) tombstone downloads, Can you tell me where to look for the foam board? thanks!

    1. I don't recommend using a mannequin head anymore. It's just too difficult to sculpt the correct face shape on top of it to avoid distortion. My new Sybil the Clairvoyant (link on the upper left of the page) is a much better system. I get my foam from Home Depot, in the insulation section.

  14. Jasper's Leota video appears to have disappeared from youtube. Did any kind soul manage to download this while it was available and would you be willing to share? You can pm me at Cheers.

  15. Hi There! I'm wondering if you are willing to share the video you created? or for purchase? Please email me at

  16. I too need the loop, it is IMPOSSIBLE TO Find. Much appreciation, happy haunting.