How to Supercharge Your Halloween Like a Pro with a Digital Projector

By Jason Fitzpatrick on October 28th, 2016

Halloween is one of those holidays that really brings out the tinkerer in a lot of geeks. There’s a veritable laundry list of things to deploy, modify, and enhance all in search of becoming the spookiest house on the block and throwing the best party. Read on as we highlight how easily you can turn a digital projector into a Swiss Army knife of cool Halloween tricks.

Why would you want to do this? Because, obviously, it’s fun! You can live another year without incorporating a digital projector into your Halloween preparations, sure, but if you have one on hand, can borrow one from work, or you’re just looking for an excuse to buy one, then there’s no time like the present to ensure you’ve got the coolest Halloween display around.

Projectors lend themselves to Halloween displays because they’re so versatile in terms of what can be displayed and how it can be displayed. Unlike televisions, you can easily scale a projected image up or down from the size of a small television to 300+ inches across. You can project onto things, through things, onto fog, into spheres and odd shapes, down across the ground, up across your house, and in all manner of ways that are impractical or impossible to achieve with a television screen.

What You’ll Need

While the full list of materials depends on how you opt to deploy your projector setup, there are some basic materials you absolutely need and then a list of materials for each setup type. Let’s talk about the basic materials here and then, in each appropriate section, we’ll highlight the necessary and optional extras for that configuration.

The three core components of any Halloween projector setup are a proper projector, good source material, and something to play the source material from. Let’s look at each category before we move on to showcasing what you can do with your projector.

Selecting a Projector

When selecting a projector for a Halloween project, your primary consideration should be brightness and adjustability. Some of the factors that are important for a home cinema (like quiet fans) aren’t particularly important for Halloween unless you intend to use the projector in a very quiet room as part of a haunted house effect or what not. Realistically, however, the noise of the event (party goers, trick or treaters, etc.) will typically cancel out any fan noise.

In fact, we can apply the basic ideas behind selecting a backyard projector used for summertime movies to selecting a projector for Halloween decorations. You want 2,000+ lumens of illumination (2,500+ is even better), you want the ability to scale your image up to a pretty substantial size (at least 300″ if you want to create a spooky display that can be seen at a distance), and you want to be able to easily adjust the keystone/angle of the image, because you’re definitely not going to be projecting under ideal ceiling-mounted-to-flat-wall conditions in most Halloween setup scenarios.

Keystone adjustment allows you to mechanically (ideal) or digitally (serviceable, but less ideal) adjust the projected image to compensate for the projector not sitting at a perfectly level 90 degree angle in front of the projection material. If you want to hide the projector down in your bushes and project a spooky loop of ghosts dancing onto a sheer sheet hung in your front yard, for example, you’ll need to use the keystone adjustment to compensate for the angle between the projector lens and the sheet.

These factors, brightness and ease of adjustment, take precedent over resolution—anything SVGA (800×600) or higher should work just fine—as we’re projecting effects onto walls, windows, sheets, clouds of fog, and other surface and not exactly showing a finely remastered high-definition movie to a discriminating audience of critics.

To achieve our end, we selected the Epson PowerLite Cinema 500. It features 2600 lumens, SVGA resolution, a throw distance that easily allows for adjustment up to 300″, and a really easy-to-access keystone menu.  In addition, the Cinema 500 also allows for rear projection. Although it’s impossible to tell if most of the projections used for Halloween decorations are backward (as there isn’t much to indicate left-from-right in them) it’s nice to know that we can reverse the image in the projector if it looks off when projected from the rear.

At $359 delivered, it was one of the more economical ways to roll out the project short of trolling Craigslist for a used projector. If you do try to go cheaper on the projector, make sure you don’t skimp on the lumens—remember, you want 2000+ lumens or better for illumination that can cut through streetlights, yard lighting, and other ambient light as well as work well for indoor displays.

Selecting Source Material

We’re all about DIY projects here at How-To Geek, but there are some times when it pays in terms of time and frustration to skip making every single step of your project DIY and use pre-made material. Although you can cut your own video to use with the projector, it’s quite an undertaking to create footage and edit it property for these projects (and an even bigger undertaking to create your own animations if you’re not a CGI animator by day).

Although we searched rather diligently on YouTube for some Halloween-themed loops, we were rather disappointed to find that the quality on most was extremely low (we’d rank quality between camera phone resolution and Light Brite quality).

Fortunately it’s the twenty first century, and there’s a company for every endeavor under the sun—including creating HD quality projection loops for Halloween. Rather than spend weeks leading up to Halloween trying to edit our own loops, we turned to the AtmosFX company that produces a wide range of videos in their AtmosfearFX line perfectly suited for our purposes.

You can purchase AtmostfearFX loops in DVD format and as digital downloads. The loops are intended to be used (depending on their design) either on a large television set, projected onto an opaque surface (like a wall or projector screen), or projected through a semi-opaque surface like a sheer cloth hung in front of a doorway.

If you’re not sure exactly how you want to set up your Halloween scares quite yet, the DVD ($25-40 depending on the theme) is definitely the best value, as each DVD features all the variations of its particular theme (including clips intended for all types of TV setups and projections). The downside is that the quality is limited to 480i resolution. We know we emphasized that brightness and adjustments are more important than quality (and they are!) but if you can’t stand the thought of leaving any bit of projection power unused, you can purchase all the clips in a given set in 1080p for $50, or you can purchase individual clips in 1080p for $9.99 each—which is probably the best bet if you have a specific project in mind that required a specific loop.

The quality on the AtmostfearFX loops is top notch, and they’re designed specifically for our purposes—no tweaking, editing, or fussing required. The only “bad” thing we can say about the loops, after sampling dozens of them across the various themes, is that they are actually really damn creepy. If you live in a neighborhood with a lot of small children, and you intend on using the loops as part of an outdoor display that can be seen from the street, we’d strongly recommend sticking with the clips flagged “family friendly” unless you want traumatize your neighbors’ kids. Your neighbors will thank you when you pick cute singing pumpkins over ghosts that dance with their dismembered heads.

Selecting Your Player

All the projection power and great source material in the world is no good if you don’t have the right tool to pump the signal to the projector. The only requirements here are compatibility with the inputs on the projector (directly or by adapter) and compatibility with the source material (which, in the case of the AtmosfearFX, is either standard DVD format or the digital downloads that come in an equally as standard MP4 format).

When selecting a device for playback, the most important feature is the ability to repeat a given track on the DVD or loop a file. Strange as it may sound, some DVD players don’t have a track repeat function, so make sure yours does before committing it to the project. Common media software like VLC typically supports file looping (or, in the rare case it doesn’t, look for a playlist feature and just create a several hour playlist of the same file).

For our purposes, we simply hooked an old laptop up to the projector. While the old laptop might not have the get up and go to run a modern operating system very well or play video games, it’s more than powerful enough to loop a simple video.

Regardless of whether you use a DVD player, an old laptop, a Chromecast stuck in the HDMI port of the projector, or a Raspberry Pi running media center software, the most important thing is that you test the setup in your house ahead of show time. If you need the loop to run smoothly for a few hours on Halloween night, hook it up in advance in your living room and ensure that the setup you’ve selected can run the material for a good long while without timing out, disconnecting, or otherwise ruining the show—because nobody thinks the DVD screensaver icon bouncing around is spooky.

Projecting on Different Surfaces for Different Effects

The beauty of using a projector is the versatility with which you can deploy it. Outside of Halloween, a digital projector is just a way to create a large screen viewing experience at home. But on Halloween, it’s a perfect way to project on just about anything (and that anything hardly has to be flat, white, and mounted at a 90 degree angle to the projector).

Below, we’ll be highlighting different surfaces you can use to various effect with your projector. Don’t worry, if we mention a particular theme pack that you like, that it isn’t available on all projection surfaces in some capacity. Unless otherwise noted, all theme packs have loops for TVs, front projection (for walls and other opaque surfaces), and rear projection (for sheer and semi-opaque surfaces).

Projecting on Pumpkins

We’re going to start with our favorite trick. As we mentioned earlier, when you’ve got a neighborhood full of kids, it’s best to stick to family-friendly content. Among all the AtmosfearFX loops, the most family-friendly by far is the Jack-O-Lantern Jamboree (DVD/Digital Download). With small children of our own, and a desire not to be that guy with the display that ensures the neighborhood kids don’t sleep in their own beds until after Christmas, we’re all about this particular theme pack.

While the theme pack has variety of projection loops for multiple surfaces, our favorite loops by far are those intended to be projected directly onto actual pumpkins. The pumpkin projection loops include story telling, spooky songs and, our favorite, the pumpkins making funny faces loop.

The way the pumpkin projection loops work is pretty simple. You set up one or three uncarved pumpkins (depending on the loop you select) and project the loop onto them. The pumpkin loops are completely black except for the orange of the pumpkin face. Here’s what a still frame from the loop looks like when viewed on screen:

Here’s a snapshot of what the loop looks like projected onto actual pumpkins out on display. The pumpkins are sitting on a small wooden bench draped with a cheap black fleece blanket; the soft texture of the black blanket does a great job soaking up the darker light spill from the projector. Remember, even though the projector is projecting “black” where the pumpkin faces aren’t, there’s still going to be actual light with a dark gray cast as the projector doesn’t employ a true blackout mask of any sort.

It’s hard to capture the effect with a camera (for all of these loops, for that matter) but the effect in-person is fantastic. The oranges are rich and warm, the animation is smooth, and the light is bright enough that it looks like the pumpkins are actually carved and in motion.

Although we were impressed with the quality of all the loops we tried out for this tutorial, this is definitely the one we’re going to deploy on Halloween night as it offers the most wow factor, with the least probability of nightmares for the hundreds of wee trick ‘o treaters that haunt our neighborhood every Halloween.

Projecting on Windows and Doorways

Our second favorite technique, after the novelty of the animated pumpkins, is definitely using rear projection on windows and doorways. There are a variety of loops well suited for this task, and depending on what material and lighting scheme you use you can create all sorts of effects.

Several of the AtmosfearFX loops rely on using a semi-opaque white surface in your windows to create a shadow puppet-like illusion with rear projection. To create the effect, you need a white material the the light can pass through—like lightweight white shower curtain liners, cheap white plastic table cloths (thin PVC plastic, not the heavier opaque vinyl kind), or a white sheet ironed well and stretch over the window.

The above image is from the Zombie Swarm loop in the Zombie Invasion theme pack (DVD/Digital Download) and does a good job highlighting the shadow effect. When projected on a white semi-opaque window covering or other rear-projection surface it does a fantastic job creating the illusion that the room within is packed with zombies clawing to get out (there’s a related loop that makes it look like a horde of zombies is shuffling past).

Rear projection is also great for ghosts and other undead loops, too. The two photos below showcase two separate loops (the ghost and the skeletons don’t appear together).

The left hand ghost is from the Ghostly Apparitions theme pack (DVD/Digital Downloads) and the skeletons are from the Bone Chillers theme pack (DVD/Digital Download). Again, we were quite pleased with how the simple setup, this time a white sheet pulled tight over a window frame, turned out.

While we were happy with projecting the ghosts onto a semi-opaque surface the whole process really shines when you use a sheer screen made from a dark mesh fabric. Here’s a demonstration video showing how even with ambient light a black/gray mesh combined a bright projection creates a ghost-in-the-door effect:

If anything, having a little ambient light around makes the illusion even more convincing as the ambient light cancels out the very faint glow of the projected “black” around the ghost. This is also where having a projector with good keystone adjustments is critical, as you can’t put the projector directly behind the mesh screen or the bright bulb is visible and the illusion is ruined. You need to place the projector to the side, above, or below the projection surface and use the keystone adjustments to tweak the image to appear proportionate and planar despite being cast at a rather severe angle.

Projecting onto Walls

“But How-To Geek”, you say, “I don’t have a front yard, and I live in a windowless bunker!” Fair enough. Although projecting onto pumpkins and through windows and mesh is definitely the most wow-factor producing theatrical effect, there are lots of animations suited for wall projection. All the theme packs have wall and TV-friendly loops, but some of them are a better fit than others.

Several of the theme packs include white-wall loops that include a strobe effect which makes the presence of the animals and creatures in the loop more realistic (the flashing distracts you and keeps you from focusing on the two-dimensionality of the image).

The Creepy Crawlie theme pack (DVD/Digital Download) is full of snakes, roaches, and spiders to send scurrying over your walls. There’s several variations of each loop on the DVD, including a full white wall with creatures crawling as well as the spotlight view seen above, the strobe view, and a searching-flashlight view.

In the category of wall art, there’s actually a full out portrait collection that’s quintessentially Halloween in every regard.

The Unliving Portraits collection (DVD/Digital Download) puts animated paintings on your wall that stalk each other, snarl, follow you with their eyes, and even creep from frame to frame to murder their next of kin.

Success with wall projection is just like success in setting up a home movie theater: you want low light near the projection surface, and a white or color-neutral and pattern free surface to project on. You don’t need to keep it dim near the actual projector, however, so feel free to hide the projector in a relatively well lit area of your Halloween party and project into a shadowy corner.

Constructing Custom Props

If you want to take things to a whole new level of projection and spookiness, you’ll need to do a little creative prop building. Before we leave our treatment of Halloween projectors today, we wanted to highlight one of our favorite examples of creative deployment of projection loops we found while researching and testing the techniques in this tutorial.

Over at HalloweenForum.com, user CaptPete shared a really awesome haunted house setup he created that included more than a few of the AtmosfearFX projection loops. Our favorite use of the loops was a custom wall he built in order to rear-project the aforementioned Unliving Portraits theme pack loops into real picture frames.

We’re not going to lie: if we had time before the nearly-here Halloween night, we’d absolutely go nuts in our workshop building a fake wall like this. The combination of real surfaces and the animated portraits adds a degree of realism to the effect that’s pretty fantastic. Just seeing setups like this makes us wish we had more than one projector to play with this Halloween so we could use more than one projector loop at a time.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 10/28/16
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