Creating a practical ghost can be a challenge, but Patrick Horvath found a way to do it.
Bringing ghosts to life in film is often a job reserved for the FX team, but David Bruckner’s The Night House wanted to use practical effects to create its monster, a shadowy entity. Patrick Horvath, the entity effects designer for the film, took on this task, manipulating shapes and shadows to inhabit the house, taking over the character’s psyche through optical illusions.
But how did Horvath do this? Horvath took to Twitter to share the process behind creating the entity within the space of a scene.
Through a lot of trial and error and cleverly crafted set designs, Horvath and the set design team used negative space to trick the audience into seeing something that was never truly there.
How Horvath created the entity
For most of the entity scenes, Horvath used a mannequin for reference. He would also create roughed-in shapes using a lot of foam core and large sheets of newsprint. The progress was tracked through a camera set-up that fed into Horvath’s iPad, showing if his work would translate well in camera.
Working off of Bruckner’s established general shot and blocking, Horvath figured out how to create a forced-perspective “Negative Space Man” that would form out of a confluence of edges. Originally, Horvath thought that he would be able to define a side of a head by shaping the edge of a mail organizer with the hopes that a shadow would cut across the wall in the background, but the depth was not enough.
With pretty much all of these, I used a mannequin for reference, and roughed-in shapes using lots of foam core and large sheets of newsprint that I would cut up. I also had a camera set-up feeding to my iPad that I’d use as a monitor so I could see what the hell I was doing. pic.twitter.com/64mXDz8Rab
— Patrick Horvath (@PatrickHorvath) April 11, 2022
After brainstorming with Bruckner, they ran with the idea that the entity could appear in the door that led downstairs. This could be accomplished with a window treatment. Horvath measured the space with whatever lighting was available to him and realized that he would play with a glare that was coming off a back wall to help complete the shape.
The window treatment and specs for the mail organizer were designed in Adobe Illustrator and sent to Paratore Signs in Syracuse, New York, once completed. Paratore Signs printed up the window treatments and used their CNC router to cut out the shapes for that organizer using MD Fiberboard. Once everything was completed and staged, the shadow figure made his debut and created a psychologically terrifying in-camera moment.
The man in the molding
One of the most memorable sightings of the entity is in the illusion of molding coming to life. The head turn was digitally added after filming.
The process started again with foam core to experiment with shapes. Horvath wanted to use the background to help create the shape he wanted, playing with different angles until he decided to use the corner of the wall and some to-scale tool shapes from foam core to create the negative illusion.
Horvath and Bruckner knew that the “rest position” of the mold was going to involve a profile of Negative Space Man’s face, and needed to create a strip of molding long enough to wrap around the pillar. Using Sketch-Up, Horvath designed the modeling and figured out how much to shape the face to read as “normal” once the 45-degree cut on the corners was made to allow the molding to wrap around the pillar.
Instead, John Paratore (owner of Paratore Signs) came up with the genius idea to cut out a bunch of “profile” cuts of the molding pattern from 1”-thick high-density urethane boards. Glue ’em together in a row, sand, paint, and you’ve got your custom molding. pic.twitter.com/YjYylShpZ8
— Patrick Horvath (@PatrickHorvath) April 11, 2022
Unfortunately, custom molding is expensive and would eat up time that Horvath did not have. John Paratore, the owner of Paratore Signs, came up with the idea to cut out a ton of “profile” cuts of the molding pattern from one-inch-thick high-density urethane boards. Once they were glued together in a row, sanded, and painted, the custom molding was finished.
While setting the mold, Horvath learned that most pillars are uneven. It’s always a safe bet to have plenty of molding to work with so you can ensure that there will be enough material.
The finishing touches to the negative illusion came from Bruckner, who suggested that a shelf should run across the length of an area in the back to highlight the face on the other side of the pillar. A few more set design pieces were added to the background to accentuate the Negative Space Man’s body, creating a visceral reaction from the characters and the audience when they spotted the optical illusion.
Set design plays a massive role in films and is often overlooked by the audience, but The Night House brings the set to life through a character that can only be seen through the clever work of Horvath. Bringing a set to life and having it play a role as if it were a character can add another layer to your project, hiding secrets to the themes of your story.
The Night House is streaming now on HBO Max.
What do you think of Horvath’s Negative Space Man? Let us know in the comments below!