Phantasmagoria (Roberta Williams')

Making of

With special thanks to Bill Crow who provided detailed insight in the filming of Phantasmagoria!

In 1995 Phantasmagoria was by far the most ambitious and expensive project Sierra worked on. Though Sierra had already used blue screen recordings in the past, for example for certain scenes of King's Quest 6 and Police Quest 4, Phantasmagoria was entirely made with blue screen and high resolution backgrounds. Sierra built a facility from the ground up to deal with the technical challenges. More than 200 people worked on the game and it took nearly 3 years to complete it: one game on 7 CD-ROMs, a record in the gaming industry.

The idea and story

The idea of Phantasmagoria started in the winter of 1992. Roberta Williams started thinking about a game series that would be titled "Scary Tales". The original idea was quite different from what Phantasmagoria would turn out to be, but a few elements remained the same: a female protagonist, a magician, a monster, and changing illusions. The story started getting shape as Roberta did research on horror based on movies and novels. In the end she involved Andy Hoyos, the art director and a horror lover, to deepen the plot and write the story. They worked for 2 months to develop the story. Roberta then made a 253-page script, consisting of 748 scenes, almost twice as much as a standard Hollywood movie. The name "Scary Tales" was at one point replaced by "Phantasmagoria". As a matter of fact, during installation of the game, a folder named "SCARY" is created, a reference to the original name.

A new studio

In 1994 sierra built a studio from the ground up in Oakhurst. Bill Crow, director of the studio and head of video production, supplied the studio of the qualified people and proper equipment. A network of 5 computers was set up. These computers arranged everything, from backgrounds to the scenes to the server that stored everything in the Ultimatte system. The Ultimatte system composed all video elements and replaced the blue sections by the artwork from Sierra's artists. Everything was arranged from a control room which had a direct view to the "blue cave" where the film sections were made.

The movie crew

The crew that worked on the movies was notably small. Aside from Bill Crowe, director Peter Maris and camera man Jerry Wolfe, there were usually only five other people on the set. Randy Littlejohn was responsible for lighting and the camera and sometimes took over from Wolfe. Bob Ballew and Craig Denny also helped with the lighting and cameras. Bob was also stage manager and Craig was also property master. Robert Koeppel was in the control room, responsible for the Ultimatte system and video. Cindy Jordan did all the make-up for the actors.

While Crow and others were working on setting up the studio, Peter Maris was hired from Hollywood. He and co-producer and musician Mark Seibert selected the cast in a matter of weeks. Ironically both Victoria Morsell (Adrienne) and David Homb (Gordon) were the last ones to do audition for their role.


The filmcrew worked during the summer of 1994 for more than 3 months, 12 hours per day, 6 days per week. Actors and crew worked together very intensively. The film crew had to deal with many challenges, like a heightened platform from which Morsell had to hang down, special effects which had to succeed during the first shot, stubborn cats, inventive use of mirrors, forklifts and other objects that would later be replaced by computer generated images.

Bill Crow: "This is a breakdown of a typical blue screen shot. The photo on the left is the frame captured by the camera. The white box shows the portion of the captured frame that will actually be used. The upper-right picture shows the transparency matte as produced by the Ultimatte system and a mask layer to exclude any content that should not be shown. In this case, the custom matte also included the proper cutout for the shape of the mirror. The middle-right photo shows the masked image against a black (empty) background and the bottom-right photo is the final composite against the 3D rendered background. For most scenes, this also includes any appropriate color correction to match the foreground with the background. Note that the scene as shot includes a real hairbrush, sitting on the blue box that doubles for the bathroom vanity. This is because Victoria will pick up and use this brush during the scene. The stands supporting the mirror and the microphone and mic stand are all masked out of the final composite.

During a typical shooting day, we would capture scores of individual shots. Fore eash shot, we setup the various bluescreen props and align the camera to match the background plate, light the foreground and then shoot multiple takes."

The actors had to adapt to the blue screen filming, continuously imagining how their surroundings would in the end look like. This was particularly difficult for Victoria Morsell, who often had to run, push, look at, pick up and react to objects which weren't there, and do so convincingly. They used many items, like different pieces of furniture to resemble what the object would look like in the end. Each scene was then taken several times, out of which the best one was then selected.

How was this filmed?

The rape scene

Bill Crow: "It was not an easy scene to shoot. Victoria and David both did an amazing job through multiple takes. Remember, there was no real bathroom. Victoria was backed up to a couple sheets of blue-painted 4x8 plywood, alongside some blue boxes that served as the vanity. The plywood was mounted on an aluminum scaffold with two stage hands behind it trying to keep it from moving as the actors banged against the "wall." Also on set was the director (Peter Maris), DP/Camera operator (me), sound operator, and makeup artist, plus video operators in the control. It was certainly not the most conducive environment for an emotional performance. Even though the actors knew each other well and we all knew it was just "acting", it was still hard to stand there and watch through the multiple takes."

Hortencia's death

Bill Crow: "This was another interesting scene to shoot. We used a combination of a full latex molded head of the actress, along with her performances in shots lile the one above. We used the latex head for the violent attacks, but relied on the actor's great performance for the "dead eye stare" captured in this frame.We made a special trowel with the tip cut off and a rubberized end attached that she could hold in her teeth. The gorp all over her face is a combination of a sugar water based stage blood plus oatmeal with some food coloring and other ingredients (like ground up Wheat Thins and other stuff like that) to get the correct texture and color. While it looks like she is outside, this shot was also done on our blue screen stage. She is laying in a box of dirt. It's one of the foley boxes we use for post production to create sound effects for footsteps. We had about six foley boxes with all different types of material to walk on."

Victoria's bottle-in-the-eye scene

Bill Crow: "We used a breakaway stage bottle (made of a material called sugar glass) for the shot where Carno slams her head down. The the makeup artist went to work to create this bloody mess with the end of the bottle protruding from her eye. It was a nice, gory mess! Since the action was shot on blue screen with a 3D rendered background, it was very easy to create the translucent effect when we assembled the different elements."

Regina's choking death

Bill Crow: "The actress was a real trooper on this shot. Of course, the funnel is fully supported so there was no real weight pressing into her mouth. And the bottom of the funnel is closed; nothing can actually go through. Still, she had to spend a bunch of time with her mouth opened very wide! The tasty snack is made up of latex molded shapes all drenched in a mixture of stage blood and thickening agents. There were multiple separate shots for all the different angles, and also allowing us to remove content to create the illusion that it was going down the funnel. It took some careful shooting and editing to make the continuity work and help you believe that Carno was actually pushing stuff down through the funnel. One of the reasons we went with a black background was because we weren't sure exactly what angles would work until we shot it, so we weren't able to pre-render 3D backgrounds that we would align the camera to. It was a bit of a cheat, but it worked well because is forced your attention to her face and the funnel contents."

Carno's stunt gone wrong

Bill Crow: "There are a lot of different elements in this shot. The chair is real; the curtains are the digital background. It's a latex head on a dressed dummy with a puppeteer underneath making it wiggle and squirm. The fire is real - using rubber cement on the latex head, with a stage hand (and trained fire fighter) standing just out of the shot with a CO2 fire extinquisher. The swinging blade is entirely digital, 3D rendered and composited in during post."

Demon kills Adrienne scene

Bill Crow: "As you might imagine, a lot of prep went into this shot. The head is a full latex cast of Victoria's head, including a separate dental cast to create the teeth. The latex head was put over top of a plastic skull that was already spit in half. Likewise, the dental casts and the wig were also pre-split. The head was filled with latex "brains" and there was a set of plastic tubes that allowed us to pump lots of stage blood into the head interior. There was also a layer of jell-like stage blood between the skull and the latex skin. The beast arms are latex molds, worn as gloves. This was pretty much a one-take shot, once we ripped the latex head in half it was never the same. There were two puppeteers that created all these special effects props; one of them was the beast and the other operated the blood pumps. Victoria was underneath the head and torso dummy for this scene. It's her hands that are trying to fend off the beast."

Adrienne on the execution chair scene

Bill Crow: "We only made one latex head from the cast of Victoria's head. This is the same head we used for the Beast attack. We spent a bunch of time cleaning it up, washing the wig and putting it all back together. The head was refilled with bloody brains and the skull halfs were rigged with monofilament so it could be ripped apart. Remember that the blade is completely digital. We ripped the head apart using the monofilament, with copious amounts of stage blood pumped up the neck. Lots of planning, prep and setup, one take and then a lot of time to clean up the mess!"

Demon defeat scene

Bill Crow: "We used multiple fans and special lighting for this scene. The box was specially rigged so the lid could fly open, with lights inside. Because of the upward angle of this shot, we had to rig a blue screen on stands over Victoria's head. I was pretty happy about how this particular shot came out."

The sets

Sierra had to build convincing sets. They did not use bricks, but wire models. Graphic specialists at Kronos and Sierra's artists Kim White and Brandy Prugh did most of this work. They took the designs of Andy Hoyos and used Alias, a 3D software product to create wire models. When the environments were set up, then the skins were placed on them, high resolution images. Then they set up the camera to move through the room. They also used workstations from Silicon Graphics to create certain animations and effects in the game.


Integration of the more than one thousand backgrounds with video, animations, sound effects and music was a gigantic undertaking. The programmers started around the same time as the graphics were developed, setting up the interface and connections to other elements. When the video recordings were completed in August 1994, that's when the real work started: putting all those videos in the game. Sometimes the 3D designed objects had to be inserted frame per frame. They also had to make difficult choices between number of frames per second, processing speed and desired resolution. Lead programmer Doug Oldfield and his team solved this problems.

Music and sounds

The last essential elements that needed to be added, were the music and edited sound effects. Composers Jay Usher, Neal Grandstaff and Mark Seibert were responsible for this. Seibert composed the main theme and closing credits song "Take a Stand". They also needed to created the supporting music, which creates the tense atmosphere throughout the game.

Almost ready and then... back in the recording studio

Lead QA Robin Bradley and Mike Jones were playing the game over and over again to test every possible aspect of it. Late 1994, just when everybody thought the game was ready for sale, they realized it could still use some polishing. So Sierra called back a few cast members and the movie crew for an additional month of filming in January 1995 and a few more weeks in April. Then it was the turn for the programmers, artists and sound engineers again to work non-stop to get the game on the shopping shelves.

Did you know that..

- The "blue cave" often got dirty during filming. These stains could possibly be seen on the blue screen scenes. Therefore the film crew had a "paint party" every Sunday to make it all look nice plain blue again.

- The name of the village Nipawomsett is derived from Nipinnawassee, a neighbouring village of Oakhurst where the Sierra studio was. They adjusted the name a bit to make it sound like a place in New England.

- The Character Shop from Los Angeles came for a week to Oakhurst to help out the crew with special tricks in the game. They delivered gallons of blood, countless fake body parts, fake weapons and a fake version of Morsell's head.

- Bill Crowe played the dead body of Cyrus in the chasing scene because the original actor was no longer present. Crow also delivered the BMW that Adrienne uses to tavel between home and Nippawomsett.

- Morsell and Homb started dating during the recordings and were together for a while. During the editing of the scenes, Roberta Williams regretted that she didn't have more scenes with Don and Adrienne as a loving couple because in real life the actors were such an adorable couple. It would also clarify why Adrienne fights to the end to try to save Gordon.

- The make-up that Homb wore, was a half-mask in one piece, which everybody referred to as the "pizza face". The personnel in the Mexican restaurant near the studio refused to serve him if he wore it.

- On two occasions the local fire department helped with the recordings. First they borrowed an industrial smoke absorber for the exhaust fumes of the forklift, which was used for the elevator scenes in the secret passages. The second time, they were in the studio, ready with the waterhose during the filming of Carno burning alive, just in case things got out of hand.

- The crew had plenty of fun ripping pictures of Victoria Morsell for the final chapter. They said "she loves me, she loves me not" while cheerfully ripping her head off the pictures. Ironically Homb only ripped a few of them himself. Morsell gave a few of the pictures to her mom.