<I>Muppets Haunted Mansion</I>: editor Alexandra Amick
Issue: September/October 2021

Muppets Haunted Mansion: editor Alexandra Amick

Disney+ began streaming Muppets Haunted Mansion on October 8th. Directed by Kirk R. Thatcher, the feature was inspired by the Disney Haunted Mansion attractions located at themeparks across the globe. The story is centered around daredevil/artists The Great Gonzo, who is set to take on his greatest challenge to date - spending one night in The Haunted Mansion. 

The project marks the Muppets’ first-ever Halloween special and features three new original songs, "Rest In Peace”, "Life Hereafter" and "Tie The Knot Tango”. Alexandra Amick edited the feature and recently detailed her work exclusively for Post.

Tell us about your background. How did you get involved with Muppets Haunted Mansion?

“I attended Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts and graduated knowing that I wanted to be an editor. When I moved to Los Angeles, I worked as an assistant editor and editor on primarily trailers and marketing campaigns. And I did a few smaller sketch-like pieces for The Muppets over the years. In 2018 and 2019 I edited the horror film The Wind. And then in 2019 and 2020 I edited on the Disney+ series Muppets Now, so when I heard that there was going to be a Muppets and Haunted Mansion crossover project, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I reached out to our executive producer, Andrew Williams, and said that if there was ever a weird horror/Muppets editing niche of experience required for this job, I had it. From there, everything fell into place and I was brought on.”

Can you talk about your editing setup?

“We worked on iMacs and on Premiere Pro, but everyone was work-from-home on this project. We were all in our separate home offices doing Zooms and meeting everyone’s cats as they walked across the keyboards - OK, those were mostly my cats!

“Vaccines were just starting to roll out when shooting and editorial started, so we had to remain remote. It had its challenges, both technically and creatively, but I think it forced us all to make a lot of decisions independently, where we’d normally pull others in. When not in lockdown, if I’m working through notes, I may just grab the director or producer to pop in and see things in a rough state. But when working remotely without that ability, the bar is higher in terms of what’s worth asking for a Zoom call or uploading and downloading a rough cut to discuss. I had to pick a lane and commit to it all the way through. And I think the project really benefited from that. Whether or not it was the lane our director, Kirk Thatcher, or our EP, Andrew Williams, wanted, they were able to see a more fully realized sequence, and their feedback and collaboration had a stronger jumping-off point. There is nothing that can replace the one-on-one time when you’re deep in a cut with the director in the edit bay. But I think that working from home made everyone more confident and independent.”

How was the feature shot and how did you handle the editorial files?

“The film was shot single camera on an Alexa. Our raw files were 4K MXFs and stored on a server and separate RAIDs for redundancy. We worked with 1080 offline files. We had a central server system that we could use to access footage remotely via VPNs, but for ease and speed, we all had key-code encrypted hard drives that we’d lock in a safe every night. Since the project was very under wraps, we had to be extremely vigilant about security. I asked for a hidden panel to be installed in my home office for the safe, but no dice. And because we were working off of individual hard drives rather than a shared server system, our assistant editor, Jessica Perlman, worked tirelessly to design our workflow and keep us organized so passing cuts back and forth could be as easy as possible.” 

Does editing puppets differ from editing human actors? 

“Most of the puppets end at the waist. So right off the bat, you’re limited with how you can film them. If you want a wide shot, they have to bring in a different build of that puppet with legs. And that puppet better have been built with the costume they need. And because its legs are showing, that requires additional puppeteers, which requires additional VFX work in post production to remove, etc. 

“If our director, Kirk Thatcher, wanted a wide shot of one of our human actors, like Will Arnett, he could just ask for it. The camera would move, or they’d change lenses and they’d get the wide shot. But with puppets, grabbing what would normally be seen as a simple wide can snowball into a complicated thing that costs extra time and money. Sometimes those resources are available and other times they aren’t. 

“On top of that, puppets can’t do everything that a human can do, no matter how amazingly talented the performers, like Bill Barretta (Pepe) and Dave Goelz (Gonzo), are. Certain puppets can’t turn a door handle, some puppets can’t hold a full glass of wine. So they’ve got to shoot it in a way that allows me to put it together that makes it look like they turned that door handle when they never actually did. Between those inherent difficulties, I’m often given much more limited footage than if I were editing with just humans. So that’s the work, that’s the challenge. I never want the audience to know that we didn’t get that wide of Gonzo or that Pepe never opened that door. I never even want them to miss it. 

“On Muppets Haunted Mansion, we had the amazing benefit of the fact that around 90 percent of the puppets on-screen were going to be ghosts, with cloudy, ghost-tails to cover where legs and puppeteers would be. It presented its own set of challenges since that meant each character was shot separately on green screen, but it allowed us so much more freedom on set with choosing camera angles and in post when choosing takes and placing them within the frame. 

Do you have a favorite sequence from the edit?

“There’s one big sequence in the piece that I feel particularly proud of. It’s the huge sequence at the climax of the film. Gonzo is facing his fears in one room, Pepe is in the attic being ensorcelled by the Bride, and chaos in both narratives ensues. We’re intercutting between rooms and characters, emotional turning points, scares, jokes and action. It’s a lot. And how it is in the final piece is not how it was in the script. Even on-set, while they were shooting, they were making changes. They added elements and changed some big moments. That’s not uncommon, but it was a major sequence to make changes to. So when I put it together in some semblance of script order, it worked, but everyone knew it wasn’t working as well as it could. But it’s a scary thing, changing scene orders and undoing entire sequences. It can feel like a house of cards that you can never put back together. 

“When I was working on The Wind, the director, Emma Tammi, and I did that every day. That film was always meant to be told out of chronological order, but we were constantly trying to make that order better. So I came at this fearlessly, and with a much better understanding of how those puzzle pieces could fit together again. The executive producer, Andrew Williams, and I had a lot of Zoom meetings to work on it and bounce ideas back and forth. And I think it came out better than what was already strong in the script and the footage. The emotion, the story, it was all strengthened by that hard work.”

What other details can you provide about the post production process?

“There were almost 1,000 visual effect shots in this 50-minute special. To put that into perspective, one of our producers, Chelsea DeVincent, told us that The Fellowship of the Ring had under 500. And our entire schedule from shooting to delivery was less than six months. The technical undertaking was immense. During editorial we had to combine footage that was shot with AR wall (a giant interactive LED screen, like what was used on The Mandalorian), footage that was shot on the few sets that were built, and the footage of all the characters shot on green screen that were to be added into completely-virtual environments that we had yet to see fully realized. In some ways it gave us enormous creative freedom, but with a million options, it can be overwhelming to know what to choose and how to even fully realize what we chose. 

“I was on calls daily with our lead VFX artist, Nick Lively, our post/VFX supervisor Brooke Stone, and Jason Bierfeld, who edited the musical numbers. It pushed and expanded our technical and creative skills far beyond anything I’d ever work on before. So when you see shots flying through the ballroom, or running down a twisting hallway, or a snarky group of ghost grooms, know just how much creative work went into them and how proud we are of the final product.”