The Portraits of Melanie Ravenswood (Phantom Manor)
On occasion, this article is critical of the storytelling implemented in Phantom Manor's 2018 refurbishment. I would like to note that I very much respect the imagineers from the refurbishment team, and the passion with which they approached the project. This article is simply analytical, and I do not analyse with the ill-will of any phantom. My words are only out of appreciation for the intricacies of this unique ride. Article originally published in October 2019.
When it opened in 1992, Disneyland Paris' Phantom Manor stood out as a truly unique attraction. To this day, it is perhaps the only family ride in the world based heavily upon a tale of tragedy and grief. With the Disneyland imagineers' talent for creating wonder and good humour, this heavy subject matter is translated into an emotive, theatrical and memorable experience for young and old to enjoy.
Portraiture plays a vital role in the storytelling at Phantom Manor, particularly by offering glimpses into the past of its fateful protagonist, the bride Melanie Ravenswood. This article will focus on Melanie's portraits, their creation and how their influence on the story changed after the 2018 refurbishment - for better and for worse.
Christian Hope's designs
When it opened, Phantom Manor's foyer was overlooked by a mirror, accompanied by enchanting music. Now and again, the face of Melanie would appear behind the glass, a narrator explaining how “beauty once lived in this house, and beauty lives here still ... Show yourself!” This was an elegantly haunting introduction to what promised to be a profound ghost story - certainly no fairground haunted house. The narrator continued: “Lovely, isn't she? Come. I have more beauty to show you....”
The illusion of Melanie appearing and disappearing behind the mirror was achieved with a light behind the glass; when it lit up, the outside reflections would be overpowered, giving a fleeting view of the portrait.
Concept art by Julie Svendsen to the left, beside the final portrait
From Christian Hope's initial drawings, Julie Svendsen was in charge of developing Melanie's final appearance in all of her portraits. Julie created designs with acrylic paints at her WED office in Glendale, around the late 1980s. The man in charge of the Phantom Manor project, Jeff Burke, explains how Julie's art was then taken by a company called Ackland-Snow:
“The Phantom Manor show sets and many of its furnishings were produced by a British company by the name of Ackland-Snow. They are located just outside of London and also produce sets for the BBC. Among the furnishings that they provided were the portraits and stretch paintings based on Julie Svendsen's original artwork. Ackland-Snow has a huge art department and many different artists worked on the Phantom Manor project.”
Some artists from this group, including Jeff Burke, are named on a gravestone outside of Phantom manor. For this article, Monica and Keith Ackland-Snow, who are also mentioned on the gravestone, provided the names the artists responsible for the final portraits of Melanie Ravenswood: Gerry Wilcox, Julie Noyce and Peter Gold.
Melanie's mirror portrait in the foyer was almost timeless in its traditional style. However, its aesthetic details, such as the red lips and thick eyelashes, slightly out-of-place on a Victorian woman, were suggestive of the time it was painted. Regardless, this was a mesmerising portrait to encounter, creating intrigue in the character who used to live in the house guests were standing in.
Melanie's mirror portrait was replaced during the 2018 refurbishment, and intrigue is now stimulated through different means.
The new portrait, before (left) and after (right) its transformation
Today, guests encounter a morose portrait of Melanie and the Phantom, surrounded by torn wallpaper. The mirror before the refurbishment was framed by elaborate drapery, making it a clear focal point, while this painting is more discreet. A clever detail in the image is the four hearts carved into a tree, foreshadowing the story to come. Mysteriously, the portrait and wallpaper transform to reveal their former vibrancy and happier times, accompanied by an audio narration. When these happier times appear, Melanie's singing begins to echo alongside the music, which is successfully atmospheric.
We can infer from this portrait that Melanie's father is the Phantom, recognisable later in the ride; this identity was a detail not revealed before the refurbishment. The Phantom's presence as a main character has become level with the prominence that Melanie always had, brought on by this portrait, his increased presence through animatronic figures and two new changing portraits in the boarding area. Notably, the addition of more pictures showing the ride's characters was a wish of Jeff Burke in 2017, prior to the upcoming refurbishment which introduced them (although this wish was based on the story as it was at the time).
The torn wallpaper in the foyer is printed on a translucent material (scrim), and the vibrant wallpaper is printed behind it. When the main lights go down, UV lights illuminate the vibrant wallpaper, making it visible through the outside scrim. The portrait's change is a digital illusion, like with the paintings in the loading area. The texture of the portrait screen's surface gives it a painterly appearance.
The above image shows the entrance room with its original portrait, the below image showing its new portrait and wallpaper.
Melanie in the new portraiture maintains the slightly cross-eyed look from her original foyer depiction.
The new portraiture is by Greg Pro, a concept designer and illustrator at Walt Disney Imagineering. The digitally-painted aesthetic is reflective of Chris Turner's portraits for Mystic Manor (see the portrait of Professor R. Blauerhimmel), creating a modern consistency between the Disneyland manors. However, having digital paintings on bright screens in the 1800s Phantom Manor, alongside blue lighting against green wallpaper, does weaken the sense of immersion somewhat. Despite this, an immediate feeling of awe and fascination are created by the new effects.
The Stretching Room (1992-2018)
Originally, guests would enter a room with a further four portraits of Melanie. As the room (an elaborate lift) 'stretched' and the bottoms of the picture frames lowered, it looked like the portraits were stretching too. Unfortunate scenarios were revealed at the bottoms of the paintings, and we realised that Melanie was a doomed soul. These hand-painted images were lit by low, flickering lights, creating a stirring ambience.
Julie Svendsen's acrylic concept portraits were, as she recalls, “approximately 20 inches tall, more or less.” These images are widely circulated by fans and are the most recognised versions of the stretching portraits, but the final pieces were produced by the artists at Ackland-Snow (see Svendsen's work and a similiar piece by Ackland-Snow to the right of that). As with the foyer's portrait, writer Craig Fleming and designer Christian Hope came up with the ideas for the stretching portraits' content. These were based on Marc Davis' original designs at the Haunted Mansion (below).
Christian Hope produced sketches for Svendsen to work with, following advice from project lead Jeff Burke to achieve “the right balance of innocence and macabre”. The final products by Ackland-Snow were never the most exquisite pieces of artwork, but they were designed to be viewed from a distance in a dark room. The most important aspect was for them to be clear in their storytelling.
Svendsen's concept is to the left, with two Ackland-Snow editions to the right of that (there were two identical stretching rooms, and therefore multiple versions of the paintings). Notice the subtle beauty and friendliness in Melanie's smiling expression. This innocent demeanour helped guests to feel sorry for her as fate revealed itself. Also notice the front parting in Melanie's hair; Svendsen designed a simplistic parting, and Ackland-Snow introduced more shape to it in some versions of their paintings. In the new stretching portraits for the 2019 refurbishment, the ringlets hang more naturally, but the shape of Melanie's parting remains consistent with the Ackland-Snow design. This parting is also consistent in the animatronic figures of Melanie later in the ride, as well as actors who have played her around the Disneyland Paris park.
As mentioned, the stretching portraits created an early sense of empathy for Melanie. In one painting, she was shown with her lover Jake, and in the ride, this same man was suggested to have perished at the hands of the Phantom, causing Melanie's life-long anguish. The storytelling wasn't rich in detail, but it was clear, and guests had all the information they needed to feel sympathetic towards the protagonist.
The Stretching Room (2019-present)
In the updated room, we see Melanie with four different suitors. She then disappears, before the portraits stretch and reveal the fates of these men.
Again, Greg Pro created this artwork digitally. The portraits consist of two scrims: the back sheets feature Melanie, and these are illuminated from behind. When these lights go down, the scrims are no longer visible. Melanie disappears. Lights come up in front of the portrait and we now only see the front scrim, which is the portrait without Melanie in it - the suitor is alone and soon meets his end. If they look closely, guests can tell that there are two scrims, because Melanie appears slightly translucent when compared to her suitors. When Melanie disappears, the suitors also seem to change position by about a centimetre, due to the two scrims being apart from each other. Despite these hardly-noticeable details, this illusion is incredibly impressive, and the necessary changing lighting, accompanied by the sounds of wind, create a mysterious atmosphere. Once more, the blue lighting and digital artwork, brightly lit from behind, isn't quite as captivating as the tangible, hand-painted artwork under flickering light from before.
There is a new reference to the Haunted Mansion in Ignatius Knight's portrait, as he stands on a pile of explosives like the 'dynamite man' in one of the Mansion's pictures; Ignatius resembles the artist Greg Pro himself, and the other suitors were based on Greg's colleagues. The original Phantom Manor waterfall portrait is also reflected in a new stretching picture: Rowan D. Falls sits in a boat soon to plummet.
Like in the foyer, it seems as though spectacle has taken favour over emotive storytelling with the new portraits. Melanie now stands rigid, barely smiling and less relatable. Whether guests are to feel sympathy for her is unclear. She has four different suitors, appearing a decade or two older than her, quite serious-looking and each supposedly wealthy. The sheer number of fiancés now involved in the story, their wealth, their stern expressions and their ages throw Melanie's intentions into question. Did she really love each of these men, or was she marrying for their wealth and status? Even if she did love them, the fact that she found new fiancés relatively soon after others died suggests that she may have been more excited by the thought of marriage than of true love. This cacophony of new plot details removes much of the pure emotional connection guests could feel for innocent Melanie in the old portraits, who was shown to be happy with a jolly, guitar-playing lover (a simple romance we could feel for). The emotional journey in the rest of the ride is weakened by the new questions raised - particularly the scene where we see our protagonist crying in her boudoir - because we no longer know what to feel about her, nor why she is sad that her suitors are dead. Is she simply a desperate, malicious bride obsessed with marriage, as suggested by her ghost who laughs “will you marry me?” to each guest by the exit, or is she honestly mourning multiple wealthy, older men? Emotive poignancy has been lost.
The imagineers working on the refurbishment seemed enthusiastic to introduce more Haunted Mansion similarities, especially evident in the controversial introduction of Haunted Mansion music during the soft opening. This enthusiasm was perhaps driven by their own nostalgia for the American Mansions and lack of familiarity with what made Phantom Manor such a moving, dramatic experience for European fans. It is worth noting that the possibly ill-meaning Melanie of today bears similarities to the Haunted Mansion's Constance Hatchaway, whose portraits imply that she murdered her multiple husbands. It is unclear as to whether imagineers intended for humour and illusion to trump the tragedy which once drove Phantom Manor's tale, but they were very vocal about their hopes to strengthen the storytelling. Ironically, while the new portraits are exciting and offer a clearer story, their details simultaneously make Melanie's motives more ambiguous than before, compromising the opportunities for empathy which were once present.
This said, new guests will probably not question the story as much as I am doing, and if they like the updated experience, it can only be a good thing. Perhaps they will even connect with the ride in new ways. Not considering Phantom Manor prior to 2018, the refurbished version and its portraits are incredibly well-executed and imaginative in their own respect.
Jeff Burke comments on the changes: “Honestly, I haven't yet made up my mind about the new portraiture in Phantom Manor, but if it helps the guests understand the storyline more clearly, then I respect their opinions. Overall, I feel the renovation of the Manor was extremely successful, particularly in the areas of show lighting, special effects and figure animation.” Other members of the original team politely refrained from sharing their opinions, suggesting mixed responses.
Melanie as a Bride (1992-present)
At the end of the gallery by the loading area and in the boudoir are hand-painted portraits of Melanie in her bridal gown. These are the only original pictures of her remaining after the refurbishment.
Fernando Tenedora produced concept art (above left) for the gallery by the loading area, including a portrait of Melanie as a bride. Julie Svendsen produced a more detailed concept (above right) for this picture.
The final portrait was created traditionally by Ackland-Snow (above). Before the refurbishment, there was an atmospheric spotlight over Melanie's face, but this lighting is now slightly broader, and Melanie's figure is illuminated in the dark by a glossy varnish. Mysteriously, as of the refurbishment, some guests have spotted dark brush strokes over Melanie's shoulder that resemble the Phantom. Perhaps these were intended for use in an illusion or are merely a subtle new detail for those who wish to take their time and explore the gallery thoroughly.
Sentimental fans can appreciate that this original piece, portraying the original Melanie, remains on display. Aesthetically, its presence is also beneficial for guests' sense of immersion, because this painting is now the first one they encounter which wasn't painted digitally and which isn't lit from behind like a computer screen.
More concept artwork by Tenedora introduced another version of the bridal portrait in Melanie's boudoir, and Ackland-Snow created it accordingly, again referencing Julie Svendsen's design. It is spotlit above a fireplace, offering a sense of times past, before we encounter Melanie in the present day (an animatronic figure sat by a mirror). Tenedora's art suggests that, as guests passed Melanie, they would have seen her skeletal reflection in the mirror, which is not dissimilar to the older version of Melanie who appeared in the final ride in 1992. With this, the portrait served to remind guests of her former beauty, before seeing how she has aged, still wearing her wedding dress. Today, Melanie's figure by the mirror maintains her youth, so the portrait no longer provides a contrast, but rather emphasises the woman's obsession with marriage.
Tenedora also proposed a similar portrait for the ballroom wedding party, prior to the boudoir scene, and this one seems to have come alive. It wouldn't have been necessary for storytelling, so a picture of the manor in its prime hangs there instead.
Phantom Manor's portraits play a dominant role in telling the tale of Melanie Ravenswood. They have hinted at her personality, explained her motivations and influenced our emotions as we witness her story. It will be intriguing to see what changes are made in the next few decades, whether the current plot perseveres or whether pre-refurbishment influences help to clear up new questions. Maybe our hero will be cut out entirely, as 'Phantom' is replaced by 'Iron' and 'Manor' has its 'or' removed. Assuming the ride remains, which it likely shall, we can be confident that portraits will continue to tell its story, in one way or another.