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Halloween Pregame 2007: Decorations, Props, Animatronics, & Remote Controls
10/28/2007 9:37:00 PM

The time has come for the big Halloween post of the year... As some of you may know, we spend way too much time and money preparing for Halloween.  It's a big deal, and it's a lot of fun for us.

This year, we've got a new array of decorations and props, including a number of animated ones.  Additionally, for the first time ever, we'll be introducing remote-control into the equation.

First things first, here's the front yard at the moment:

Halloween-2007-House.jpg

We've added a number of new features to the yard this year.  For starters, we've got a new fence for our cemetery.  We found a closeout on steel fencing earlier this year, and we thought it would look great in our graveyard.  We had to visit seven different Home Depots to round up enough parts; but it really looks great.

Just for reference, larger photos are available in the photo gallery

we spend a while in the woodshop manufacturing new tombstones for the front yard.  The new tombstones are made of solid wood (much stronger than their foam predecessors), and are anchored into the ground with tent stakes (the don't blow in the wind anymore).  I did the woodwork, Jessawick did the artwork.  We're really pleased with the results.  Also, since the new tombstones were finished properly, they are much more water resistant than their predecessors.  Everyone in the family gets a tombstone... Myself, Jessawick, Pica (dog), Ion (dog), Faraday (dog), and even Sandy Earth (skink).  We know that Sandy passed away a few years ago, but she gets her own tombstone anyway.

Our tombstones, with the creepy red floodlight effect.  All the markings are routed, then painted.  We cut the "damage" on the scroll saw, and finished it with the Dremel, for realistic weathering.  Jessawick did a great job on the painting and finishing.  She used black washes to create the "old" streaking effects; and even added green lichen on the face of each tombstone. 

Halloween-2007-TombstonesA.jpg

This is a wide-shot of Sandy, Ion, and Pica's tombstones.  They're a bit smaller than ours, but are made in a very similar way.  The designs are routed into the face of the wood.  Jessawick did a great job with Sandy's especially, a lizard is a complex shape to rout in the woodshop. 

Halloween-2007-TombstonesD.jpg

Faraday's tombstone has a striking resemblance.  Faraday is our baby dachshund.  She's not very tall, but she's very lengthy... just like her tombstone.

Halloween-2007-TombstonesC.jpg

A better angle for Ion and Pica's tombstones.  The weathered finish looks great (it's actually layering of various stone paint textures).  The designs are routed, and the marking at the top is a bit of moulding, for a full 3D look. 

Halloween-2007-TombstonesB.jpg

Next, we move on the rest of the yard.  This is our family scarecrow.  This fellow's got some history.  I don't know when he was first introduced, but he predates me by a few years.  My mother originally made him, back on the family farm.  His head is a recent addition, as it became misplaced somewhere along the way.  He's survived a long time.  Scarecrow: we salute you.

Halloween-2007-Scarecrow.jpg

The skeleton and the coffin return for another year.  This year, we've added some mood lighting into the mix.  Actually, the lighting situation is pretty interesting this year. We've integrated spotlights and floodlights into some of the animated props.  We've refitted several of the low-voltage landscape lights with high effeciency LED's to save power.  More on that later.

Additionally, don't forget the venerable family farm bell.  It dates back to my great-great grandfather, Holland Shaffer.  Through the years, the bell has passed into my possession.  It proudly stands in the front yard, even during the fall, when it's flanked with cornstalks and straw bales.

Halloween-2007-SkeletonBell.jpg

Here's a closer look at our hanging skeletal friend.  We built the coffin to fit him, when we picked him up a few years back.  He doesn't seem to mind the weather, as he has yet to complain. 

Halloween-2007-SkeletonFace.jpg

We've got one last new addition to the front yard... We've boarded up the windows on our "abadoned" house.  I'm actually really proud of this little prop.  Although it doesn't look like it; it's actually made almost entirely of pink insulation foam.  The whole thing is foam on a light pine frame.  The "boards" are just carefully cut and painted, they aren't boards at all.

The whole thing was done using a scroll saw and a hot glue gun.  It's supported by a very small pine frame, and all the "board" are just carefully cut foam.  The entire fellow weighs only about two pounds.  It's very light, and you're about to see why... 

Since I really didn't want to put holes into the house, it's hung in a very interesting way... The whole thing is hung like a large picture. It's supported entirely by suction cups on the window glass.  We thought that if we made is light enough, we could get away with only suction cups for support.  Thus far, it's worked out spectacularly.  It really adds a nice dimension to the yard.  I like it a lot.

Halloween-2007-Windows.jpg

Part 2:  The Props

Now that we've seen the front yard, let's discuss all the parts of the Halloween setup that aren't visible just yet...

We've spent quite a lot of time this year on props for Halloween night.  We always go overboard to make Halloween fun for the neighborhood children, and this year is no exception.  We've got 600 glowsticks ready, 40 pounds of candy, and an army of custom made props.

Jessawick made an amazing spirit ball for her witches' table this year.  It's actually made from several different items, and the effect is great.  She started with a base made of insulation foam, cut on the scroll saw.  It was shaped into a "cone" form.  Next, we got it wired up as a 110V light fixture.  The whole thing is basically a candle-bulb under a frosted light globe.  After the electrical part was finished, she finished it by covering it with bones and moss.  We scored a bunch of reject bones from the medical school skeleton factory (yes, there is a medical school skeleton factory, and most of their rejects go to the Halloween industry!).  She carefully covered it over, and the results look amazing:

Halloween-2007-SpiritBall.jpg

Also, this year the Reaper is making a return appearance.  We originally got him last year (and rigged him with an air cannon).  This year, he'll be returning, and he'll be tooled-up with a new and improved air cannon.  The new cannon triggers differently, and is much more potent than the previous incarnation.

Halloween-2007-Reaper.jpg

After last Halloween, I started working on a remote control system for our props.  Originally, I was just planning to have some remote controlled air cannons (to scare the kids with a blast compressed air).  Last November, I completed the first of our remote control units.  Here's a photo from last year, when I finished the first one:

RemoteValves.jpg

The big black box contains a custom relay circuit board.  Here's how it works:  The remote control works by RF (radio) control.  I decided to use RF rather than IR (infrared), as RF doesn't need line-of-sight, and we can trigger is covertly.  Each of the control boxes needs a 12V power supply to operate.  Since I want the props to be covert (and not look "wired"), I power them off packs of 8 AA batteries.

Since I need 12V power to make the remote relay boards work; I got an idea... Why not use 12V control systems, and power it all off the same battery?  Here's how things work:  The fellows at the bottom of the photo are solenoid valves (electrically triggered valves). These valves basically turn an air compressor (like you'd use for air tools) into an air cannon.  When the valve is triggered, air suddenly passes through, and a forceful "blast" of air hits an unsuspecting guest.

Each control box has two independent channels, so you can trigger two props off each remote.  I've tied the outputs to positive 12V, which results in a convenient little package.  Each control box output is basically just a remote-switched 12V power supply.  This allows you to turn innocent solenoid valves into much more interesing air cannons.

Here's a closeup of the circuit board that I use to make things work:

Halloween-2007-CircuitBoard.jpg

I've got great news for anyone who would like to try this at home... My whole control system is made from standard and inexpensive parts.  The circuit board in the photo is an HD2RX (two channel RF relay board), that can be purchased from Carl's Electronics for just under $30 (includes remote too).  I just mounted it into a housing and added some modular connectors to make it more friendly.  I use an N-type power connector (Radio Shack) for the 12V supply, and simple RCA jacks for the switched outputs.  Why RCAs?  They're cheap and plentiful.  Why go exotic when you can go standard?  The housing is just a cheap Radio Shack project enclosure.  Shockingly, the only soldering required was on the connectors in the project housing.

If you've ever worked with relays, you know that they aren't particularly energy efficient... How can I run this thing off batteries?  Well, you'd be surprised what you can get away with.  Think about Halloween props... They are triggered for an instant, and stay dormant for most of the night.  I've done the math on the battery pack's rating vs. the relays (and the draw from the solenoid valve too, as it's just another relay).  Here's the short answer:  You'll get about 25 minutes of "burn time" on a set of 8 AA's.  However, remember, you aren't going to have a cannon on "full blast" for 25 solid minutes all night long.

At this point, you're also probably wondering why I used AA's...  I've got an answer for that too.  They're cheap.  Other types of battery may be better suited for the application, but AA's offer two things that are helpful in the case.  Firstly, they're very inexpensive.  I can buy 30 of them for under $10.  Secondly, they're easy to get.  I don't need exotic chargers, and I can easily swap them in a hurry.

I'll admit though, I use a converted power supply from a dead external hard-drive in the workshop.  I don't want wires in the field, but a plug-in power supply is convenient in the workshop.  Note to Al:  Thanks for letting me take that power brick about 6 months ago.  It's powered my props in the workshop ever since.

Since we've got remote controls now, we decided to branch out into other air-powered props.  We've made two remote controlled tombstones (which aren't out in the yard yet).  They contain a bit of electrical giblets, so we don't want them exposed to the weather.  Here are some photos of them on the back table.  They're the same size as the others, and they shouldn't raise any suspicions when they "appear" on Halloween night. 

Halloween-2007-PopperADown.jpg Halloween-2007-PopperAUp.jpg

Both of these "head popper" tombstones are built using solenoid valves (to trigger air flow from the compressor) and pneumatic cylinders (a air-powered moving rod).  I scored the parts from Doug at FrightProps.  Doug is a great guy, and can be quite helpful in your haunting projects.

Although they are both air-powered, the two tombstones are quite different in construction... The first one (Orange / Skull) is directly driven off the cylinder.  The skull has a threaded receiver for the cylinder, and it rides directly on the rod.  Additionally, the skull has been fitted with glowing red eyes, that I wired into the voltage that drives the solenoid valve.  It's a nice touch.

Below is the second tombstone, which is actually a bit more complicated in construction:

Halloween-2007-PopperBDown.jpg Halloween-2007-PopperBUp.jpg

The second tombstone is made with an actual mannequin head.  Since it's fully life-sized, it can wear regular masks, and they can be interchanged at any time.  The mannequin head is much larger than the skull, and requires a different mounting system.  This tombstone actually works a lot like a "vertical drawer".  The head is mounted on a platform, which slides up and down on drawer slides (mounted to the inside walls of the tombstone).  The cylinder pushes the drawer "up" when air is applied, and gravity brings is back down when the solenoid valve is released (I got away with just using 3-way valves, as I didn't need a "powered" return).  The return is forced by gravity, and regulated by a flow restrictor on the exhaust.

Important safety note:  All my props have flow restrictors built into them.  A flow restrictor limits air flow, to control the speed of a prop.  This also adds a level of safety, should other components in the system fail.  Do not ever try to "get away" just using the regulator on your air compressor.  Buy restrictors.  Additionally, they're convenient for setting your "down" speed, when they're used on your exhaust ports.

Also, the mannequin head is fitted with glowing red "eyes".  I picked up some indicator bulbs at Radio Shack, and wired them into the switched voltage that drives the solenoid valve.  It's a really creepy effect.

Although I don't have a picture of it, I've got another interesting gadget for this season... I've made up a remote-adapter for the fog machine.  I found that you can simply replace the corded switch of the fog machine with one of your own design.  The 400W fog machine that we own is triggered by an IEC C14 (the female version of a standard computer power cord).  The wired trigger just closes the contacts on two of the connectors.  With just a relay and a cord to butcher, I made an interface to let our remote control boxes take control of the fogger.  Sweet.

Ok, on to the main event... We've built ourselves monster.  The monster is our biggest, baddest, and most intimidating prop this year. Just tell me this dude isn't intimidating:

Halloween-2007-MonsterFace.jpg

Here's the idea... The monster is actually a specially made prop frame (steel frame that moves under air-power).  When the remote control triggers the monster, he leaps up and forward, striking fear into anyone nearby.  It's actually quite intimidating.  He stands at over 7 feet tall, and he moves quickly.  He's outfitted with the same glowing red eyes, and he's really quite scary.

Halloween-2007-MonsterMechanics.jpg

The whole motion is controlled by a single pneumatic cylinder.  We used an 8 inch long cylinder, with a 1.5 inch bore.  He's controlled by a single 3-way valve, triggered by our standard control boxes.  The steel frame pivots up and down, depending on the position of the air cylinder, and it "jumps" to full height in a single controlled motion.  The frame is counter-weighted with springs, so the cylinder actually isn't moving all that much weight.  The monster doesn't require as much air as you'd expect.  We're easily able to run him off a pathetically small "1 gallon" compressor with a tiny motor.

We've bolted the frame to a big piece of plywood (painted black).  This allows of a bigger "footprint", and also lets us stack plate weights on the back, for counterbalance (he tends to jump forward with each firing otherwise).  Also, his body isn't as solid as it seems.  He's mostly just a large black cape (Jessawick made it for him) that's suspended on a steel frame.  This lets him fold down very small when he's "hiding".

Here are a few photos of him in the daytime, as he stands up.  He's much scarier in the dark.

Halloween-2007-MonsterDown.jpg Halloween-2007-MonsterMid.jpg Halloween-2007-MonsterUp.jpg

I've shot some video of the props in motion.  I'll be the first to admit that I am woefully inequipped for video work, but here are the results anyway (shot with a craptastic point-and-shoot in video mode!):

Well, that sure was the longest blog posting ever... 

New Toys
11/27/2006 7:13:00 PM
I've already started working on the Halloween Spectacular for next year. I loved how the pneumatic Grim Reaper worked out; so I'm expanding on the concept for next year.

The 2006 edition of the Reaper was run with an vinyl tubing extension on a standard blow-gun (attached to the air compressor). This worked well, but had some limitations. For example, the aperture wasn't wide enough. Not to mention, the blow-gun in your hand was a dead giveaway.

The 2007 edition is far superior. I've decided to have two different air cannons for the upcoming year. The Reaper will continue to have a cannon, but I'm also adding a second cannon in the archway. This one will point downward, and will get people as they walk through. You won't expect this one.

Here's the plan. I've built a modular controller for solenoid valves (electrically triggered air valves). I've hooked up a radio transmitter to a relay board. When I push one of the buttons on the remote, the relay is triggered. The relay opens the valve. The valve lets the high pressure air run through the cannon. When I let go of the button, the valve closes and we wait for our next victim.

Here's the toys thus far:

RemoteValves.jpg

The big box contains the radio board and the relays. The box has one +12v input and two +12v switching outputs. I decided to use RCA for the outputs, as it's easy to get and accomodates the lines nicely. It didn't hurt that I had a bunch of RCAs laying around the house either.

I made a couple extension cords as well. This way, I can use one control box for both cannons. I've designed the whole thing to run off of 12v DC, with a pretty low draw. Although the relays draw 6w when engaged; they aren't engaged for very long continuously. I usually run the system off 8 AA batteries. It's a small pack that's very easy to conceal. Conceivably, I could run the cannons from a compresses cylinder (to hide the air lines); but I'm not sure that's necessary.

I'm planning on making some special gravestones with remote-controlled popping heads. I just haven't gotten to that part yet. I think they will be air-powered also.
News
10/11/2006 7:55:00 AM

We've started our preparations for Halloween 2006. I've put out the first round of the decorations, and am preparing the second wave.

At the moment, I've got most of the decorations for the lawn in position. I picked up some pumpkins and straw from the local garden shop. We've got the fountain set up as well.

We're planning on turning the fountain red for Halloween; but we're going to wait until the last minute to dye it. As usual, I've recycled the Tiki Torches into duty for the holiday.

Although it isn't in the picture below, the air compressor project is flowing nicely. We've acquired a small (2 gallon) 100psi compressor, which will sit behind the house for Halloween. I'm secretly running air lines through the yard, so that the scarecrows will be able to blast the kids with air as they pass. We're going to trigger it with a blow gun, and run the final lines with soft vinyl tubing.

HalloweenA2006.jpg

I still need to make a tombstone for Faraday, and I should probably touch-up the others as well. They were made of pink insulation originally, and they require a good paint job each year (as rain is hard on the paint).

We've still got the family "ceramic pumpkin" in the window, and my mother's old scarecrow in the front flower beds.

Trips
10/2/2006 6:46:00 PM
This weekend we went on our annual pilgrimage to Field of Screams, an amazing hayride / haunted house out in the Lancaster area. They really put on a great show. They raised their game again this year.

The new "piggy" barn was really impressive. Nothing quite like a hanging slaughterhouse to get you in the Halloween mood.

I didn't get any pictures during the hayride, as I wasn't going to endanger the holy Nikon, but I got plenty of shots afterwards on the grounds.

This castle is the entrance to the hayride area (from the haunted house area).

FieldOfStreamsCastle.jpg

They really put a lot of effort into the haunted house itself. It's really a work of art. Here's the main exterior:

FieldOfStreamsHouse.jpg

Take a look at the corpse on the roof. That's attention to detail:

FieldOfStreamsBody.jpg

All told, a great trip. They are open for September and October. The hayride tickets were $12. It's $22 for for entire deal.

For those interested, it's about a 90 minute drive from Wilmington.
News
9/29/2006 6:54:00 PM
I've been working on the site again, and I've cooked up two new themes for Halloween. You can always switch themes using the links at the bottom of each page.

The first one is called "Trick or Treat". It's a cute little theme in the spirit of the season. It shares the normal Barnyard BBS feel.

TrickOrTreatTheme.jpg

The second one is a departure from the usual style. I went as "evil" as possible for this one. I call it "Midnight".

MidnightTheme.jpg

God bless Pagan holidays.