The Seance Circle
Madame Leota's eerie incantations from regions beyond
After moving through the Corridor of Doors, the Haunted Mansion's visitors escape to the relative calm of a sťance room. Forming a circle in this parlor, guests focus on a misty crystal ball glowing in the center of a table, surrounded by tarot cards. The raven that had been perched next to the coffin in the conservatory has now lit upon the medium's velvet-covered chair, which is empty. Upon closer inspection, the crystal ball actually contains the disembodied head of the medium Madame Leota, who is uttering plaintive incantations: "Rap on a table; it's time to respond; Send us a message, from somewhere beyond!"
As Mme. Leota continues her chants, guests begin to notice musical instruments and other objects floating around the room... and, in the corner, a manifestation of the supernatural appears as a dimly glowing ball of light wanders along the wall. In fact, Madame Leota's crystal ball itself has been known to levitate, when the proper sympathetic vibrations have aligned.
Projecting her feelings
As one of the Mansion's featured effects, the speaking disembodied head of Madame Leota confounds guests to this day. Many believe that this effect is created through the use of holograms (though in 1969, when this effect first appeared, laser technology wasn't as advanced as it is today, and such a high-tech effect wouldn't have been possible.)
In tne original incarnation of the Seance Circle, as you can see in the images to the left, 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 (which you can watch above), making it appear to speak. The voice of Madame Leota was performed by Eleanor Audley. If she sounds vaguely familiar, that's probably because Audley is another popular Disney vocal talent, performing in Disney animated features as the characters Malificent and Lady Tremaine.
This promotional photograph shows the animatronic raven perched above Madame Leota in her crystal ball. Note in the closeup image that the talking head is actually a neutral static form upon which the animation is projected. There is no mechanical facial animation involved at all.
Pictured below is a strip of the 16mm film that was originally used to project Mme. Leota's face onto the static head. The projection was made via a bin-loop system which would repeat constantly. The bin-loop system projected film from a 90° angle so that the projectors could lie flat, rather than be set up vertically.
Trivia time: Séance Circle: Storage Area?
Haunted Mansion cast member Shawn Potts recalls a secondary
use for the Seance Circle set: "As the Haunted Mansion is built in
the sense of a movie set, they only build what's necessary. There's a 15
foot drop between your Doom Buggy and Leota's table. They added a rope net
one year. You've probably heard why." (Ed. note: an errant guest once
left his Doom Buggy in an attempt to reach Leota's table and fell, not realizing
that there was no floor between the Doom Buggy track and the seance table.)
"The area under Seance Circle is also used for storage for props and spare animatronics from other attractions. When I was around, a Wendy figure from Peter Pan's Flight was down there as well as spare crocodiles from the train track."
Pictured above right is a detail from the area above the Seance Circle, demonstrating a few of the many objects that Leota has summoned via her supplications.
Experimenting with video technology
In the late 1980s, the film strip was converted to video and saved onto a laser disc. The projection was then accomplished by projecting a video source rather than film strips, which had a tendency to break frequently. In tandem with this conversion, Disney also developed a new system of projection which enabled them to hide the source altogether.
Madame Leota was projected in reverse from inside of the actual head prop via fiber optics from the laser disc. A special wide-angle lens projects the image out to its proper proportions from the center of the head. The image of this system pictured at left is taken directly from Disney's patent for this special projection system. To download the entire patent, click here. It gives an interesting, albeit highly technical, view into the creation of a Disney invention, as well as describing possible ideas for future uses of this technology.
However, the resulting 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.
A 50th anniversary surprise
In tandem with Disneyland's 50th anniversary (which was celebrated in one form or another from 2004 through 2006), the Haunted Mansion was given a number of new special effects. One amazing feat that Walt Disney Imagineering accomplished was to give even more life to Madame Leota by causing her crystal ball to levitate and fly around the table it had previously only set upon. Practical technology to create a mechanical means to synchronize a projection with the "flying" crystal ball didn't exist until recently - but with the advent of brilliant, high-definition video projection technology, a solution was designed. The entire field of space which contains the path that the floating crystal ball follows has become a virtual "screen" for the high definition projection. A computer has the predefined path that the ball will follow programmed into its memory, and the face of Leota (still the original, inimitable Leota Toombs) follows that path, much like a bouncing ball on a computer screensaver.
The set was also redressed as part of the update, and now includes many new candles on the table (with more new technology - amazingly realistic flickering electric flames), and a new spell book that sets next to the seance table, inevitably turned to page 1313, which "spells" out Leota's incantation designed to "bring to your eyes and ears one who is bound in limbo."
With the "re-haunting" of Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion in 2007, Madame Leota now floats above her seance table in Orlando as well. However, in the Walt Disney World seance scene, Madame Leota's face is actually rear-projected via a special LCD projector with a fisheye lens in reverse from inside the moving globe onto the static headform, rather than being projected from the front as the effect is accomplished in Disneyland. While interior projection for this effect was attempted and rejected in earlier years, this next generation of rear-projection technology produces a remarkably sharp, bright visage, as you can see in the photograph of the new Walt Disney World Leota pictured in regular room-lighting above, left (photo courtesy Jeff at WDW). The rear-projection also allows the Imagineers to use a full high-resolution image for Madame Leota's face, as opposed to Disneyland's projected "bouncing ball" image, which is essentially a very small portion of the full high-resolution projection, which covers the full moving path of the crystal ball.
Eventually, Disneyland's floating crystal ball began to use the newer interior projection technology as well.
Spooky faces emerge
The Seance Circle had also always contained a "glowing orb" which would make a path on a far wall behind Leota, located directly behind the Doom Buggies as they first entered the room. A subtle effect, the "orb" was created by placing a tiny bright light on a mechanical arm that would slowly move the light in a predetermined pattern behind a part of the wall that was semi-opaque. The backside of the wall, where the light was positioned, was coated with phosphorescent paint.
From the front, all viewers would see is a small orb of light moving mysteriously along the wall, with a glowing "trail" that would follow it as the phosphorescent paint would maintain a brief glow after the light has passed.
For the 50th anniversary, WDI added a twist to the glowing orb by making it appear to "illuminate" a ghoulish visage (see photo at right). As the orb moves, the large image of a ghost's face (actually, the image alternates between one of a few photographs of Mansion characters) almost, but never quite, comes completely into view.
Trivia time: a Séance Circle souvenir
Pictured to the left is a custom, on-demand thermal postcard printed digitally at a short-lived kiosk at Disneyland in the early 90s. This Tomorrowland self-serve booth allowed patrons to choose between a variety of Disneyland locations and insert themselves into the scene, then receive a postcard in minutes for $5. The somewhat-high price point and costly technology doomed the kiosk, though Disney has since gone on to embrace on-demand printing as a retail concept at its theme parks. The background art here was painted by Collin Campbell.