With the Halloween movie season comes a variety of different things for people both young and old to watch to get into the spooky spirit. While many focus on horror films that will raise the hairs on the back of the neck, room should always be made for zany childlike fare. And, this Halloween season, the Muppets team has done just that with a Disney+ special titled Muppets Haunted Mansion. For fans of the legendary Disneyland ride and of the Muppets, this 50-minute special is just for you.
To make Muppets Haunted Mansion flow between comedy, childlike whimsy, and creeping suspense, Editor Alexandra Amick had her work cut out for her. Due to her background over the years working on Muppets-related projects, in particular, the TV Show Muppets Now, she had a familiarity in the editing room for the complications that would be involved with puppets. Her work on Emma Tammi’s horror film, The Wind, also provided her with the tools necessary to balance between all of the various emotional components that this ambitious project needed to land on its feet.
Earlier this month, Below The Line talked with Amick about her experience editing the film and dissecting how her work on The Wind aided her in massaging out those scary moments in Muppets Haunted Mansion.
Below The Line: At Below The Line, we like to learn more about the background of the people we interview, because everyone’s journey is different. So, did you go to school specifically for editing?
Alexandra Amick: Not for editing but for film. I went to Florida State Film School and the BFA program there, they specifically don’t let you specialize so, that you have to do every job on set. I’ve gripped. I’ve script supervised. I’ve written. I’ve directed, and I’ve edited and done other post positions so that, when you go out, you have a full understanding of film and how it works and you can crew, but you can also be a better whatever it is you choose, because you know how you work within the whole.
But I came out of film school knowing that I wanted to be an editor. I had a feeling going in, and then it was just definitely confirmed for me. I think I enjoy being on set, but I also don’t. There’s weather and long hard days, and I prefer inside at my desk, but really I just really enjoy the act of editing. I think it’s rewriting with pictures, and I think it uses…it’s a technical skill, but it’s also a creative skill. And I think it uses both sides of my brain. I’m a very organized, technical person, but also I feel story narrative, heavy on the right side, and it just really melds those two really well.
So, I went to film school and moved out to Los Angeles immediately after graduating. I did a couple odd jobs like script suping a little bit, but pretty quickly, I became an assistant editor on some web stuff. This was back when YouTube and Google gave production companies a million dollars each to be like, what is web content? Now it’s like why did we ask that question. So, I did that, and then I quickly moved into marketing for trailers and such, and moved kind of up through the ranks there as an AE and then a finishing AE, and then eventually became an editor doing that kind of stuff. And then in 2018, I was offered a feature horror film, The Wind.
BTL: I saw that on your projects and got super-excited.
Amick: So, I did that. That was my first feature, and it was such an amazing experience, and just a great film to be anybody’s first film really, or any film I feel like. And then, I worked on the show Muppets Now. And then I heard that Muppets Haunted Mansion was happening and I reached out to the EP Andrew Williams and was like, “Hey, I edited a horror movie and a Muppets TV show, so I feel if there’s ever any kind of weird experience required, please let me do this because I have it,” and it all kind of fell into place from there.
BTL: I looked at your portfolio online and I was like, Man, there’s a lot of Muppets stuff here.
Amick: Yes. I’ve been working with them for a long time. Mostly on smaller things. Some sketches, live performances, and stuff like that. The biggest before Haunted Mansion was the TV show Muppets Now.
BTL: Because Muppets Haunted Mansion is an extremely different level of chaos compared to the Muppets TV show that you worked on, what was different about editing the puppets this time around? Because you have all the VFX and puppets, in general, just require a different level of editing compared to humans.
Amick: In general, puppets are harder to edit because puppets are harder to shoot. So, I’m always going to get limited footage, even more so than when you’re shooting with regular old human actors. Because they end at the waist and if you bring in the puppet that doesn’t end at the waist, you need more puppeteers, and it just spirals into this wide shot that takes 50 times the amount of effort than a regular wide shot would.
So, it’s always more difficult. The show was very bite-sized so, it was little individual sketches within the bigger whole kind of strung together. So, it wasn’t necessarily harder to edit, but they were just more bite-size. They were just smaller and each one was kind of what it was, and it took a while to kind of find what each sketch was meant to be. Obviously, that’s just how it works out. But in terms of this one, the VFX was really the harder part of it. On both of them the performers like Bill Baretta, who plays Pepe, and Dave Goelz who’s Gonzo, they love to ad-lib, and normally when you watch dailies for anything, it’s kind of boring because it’s take after take. There’s no movie magic added to it. But watching Muppets dailies is so much fun because they know these characters so well. They’re just throwing out lines and just one at a time, and the wide shot isn’t like the close-up isn’t like the medium shot. So, that’s difficult to edit too, but also really fun.
But yeah, the VFX was the hardest part of this. We had almost 1000 VFX shots in a 50-minute special. And our schedule, we shot in April and delivered at the end of August, early September, which is pretty crazy of that turnaround. It was very intense. But yeah, each Muppet that was a ghost was shot individually on green screen. So, every time you see a shot with five ghosts, I’ve watched five times five takes per shot per scene. And also, they shot all of them on a green screen. There were a couple of very small sets built but mainly it was in front of an AR wall, like the big LED screen that they use on The Mandalorian, which is just all the sets were digital. So, we had to combine stuff that was shot, quote-unquote, practically with a background, with virtual environments. The other stuff like the other side of the room, perhaps that I had no idea what they looked like yet and I’m just given five hours of Muppet ghosts, and told, “Okay, so this happens. This happens. We fly through the ballroom,” and then I’m like, Okay. Here we go!
BTL: With a music number thrown in.
Amick: The ballroom was especially difficult because they had a couple of shots with Gonzo and Pepe on that AR wall. But otherwise, it was completely a digital space. So, we had another editor on the film, Jason Bierfeld, who did all of the musical numbers. So, that “Life Hereafter” musical number in the ballroom was the bane of his existence and also just like joy of creation all at the same time. But for me, it was all leading up to that song in the ballroom and flying down from the chandelier and across the table, and through all the dancing people. It was very hard to do. It definitely stretched our technical skills and our creative minds a lot further than other things, or even really what I was expecting, just because they’re ghosts. They can be anywhere in frame. It can be any take. You don’t have to worry about the fact that these Muppets don’t have legs anymore because they’re ghosts and so, complete and total freedom can sometimes just be overwhelming too.
BTL: Especially in such a chaotic scene.
Amick: Yeah. We had long discussions of who was a ghost, who was corporeal, who and where are we going to look at continuity of this ghost was here on this side of the table in this shot, but are they over there when we go to this shot? So, we had to decide sometimes yes. Sometimes no. They’re dead. We have ghost Muppets, people. So, bear with us here. They’re everywhere.
BTL: The ballroom was challenging, but was that the most challenging scene for you to work on? Or was there anything else that tested you?
Amick: I think technically, in terms of VFX effects, that was the most difficult, but story-wise, and I think more editorial-wise, the big climactic run at the end kind of from when Pepe and Gonzo separate. Pepe goes with the Bride. Gonzo goes into Room 999 to face his fears. It was always meant to be intercut back and forth between the two. It always read really well in the script, the back and forth. It felt like we’re cutting from here to here at the right time, the jokes or the scares are all playing really well. And then, obviously, that has to be translated on set. And things that read really well don’t always shoot really well, or you find something in the moment that’s different. They’re inspired, and they do it a little differently. And so, that section changed a lot over the course of shooting. So then, when I got it, we kind of put not back into the way it was scripted, but here’s kind of what was shot in the order that we thought would originally work with that. And it worked. It did. But we knew it could be better. And so, we had to really say okay, we’re throwing it out the window, and we’re going to cut out here instead of here, and that line is not going to go in this scene. That line is going to go in this scene and he’s gonna run up the stairs and there’s gonna be a monster at the bottom of those stairs and all that kind of stuff came together.
I think that my experience on The Wind actually really helped me with that because it’s a completely out-of-order movie and it was always intended to be that way. But every single day, Emma Tammi, the director, and I would rework those scene orders to be what’s better, what’s pulling us. And so, I had a really strong foundation and thinking about carrying emotions, telling the audience where they are, all that kind of stuff. I worked really hard on that with Director Kirk Thatcher and EP Andrew Williams through that section to get it. And I think it’s really strong now. It always was, and then it just continued to get better
BTL: It clearly shows what you learned from The Wind, because the suspense building and the overall tension build are really strong.
Amick: We were really proud of that. We just knew that by adding cuts where they weren’t normally intended, it was going to really pull that tension. Is Gonzo going to get there in time? Is Pepe going to get eaten by this woman? And, all at the same time, it’s a challenge because it’s also ridiculous. Because it is the Muppets. That always makes it fun, too.
BTL: Was this your favorite scene to edit too? Or do you have a different favorite?
Amick: Well, I think nostalgically, my favorite would be the stretch room sequence, mainly because it’s my favorite on the ride. The Haunted Mansion is my favorite Disney ride. I remember being like eight years old in that stretch room and when the lights go out and that scream happens, I remember screaming along with it and being shocked at my own scream level.
BTL: Replacing the scream with the goat in this one, I completely lost my mind.
Amick: Yes! The screaming goat is one of my favorite Muppets overall. So, being able to make her be the scream, was such a great opportunity to do it. Because the scream that you hear when the lights go out is the scream from The Haunted Mansion. We work very closely with the Imagineers to make it look and feel like The Haunted Mansion. They gave us all their sound effects. So, we have that, but we were able to meld it into this goat scream and so, it was really fun. I think that that was my that’s like my overall favorite scene mainly because it just made me really happy to do. And like I said, they all like to ad-lib and that scene especially with the hench monsters popping up with their dun dun dun and Will Arnett having to apologize and all of that. All of them were just really just great at improving through that scene. And so, it was really fun to do.
Muppets Haunted Mansion is now available for viewing on Disney+. All images courtesy Disney.