Claude Coats, the background artist who made the Haunted Mansion feel infinite

Long Forgotten, the world-beatingly insightful blog on the history and design of the Haunted Mansion rides at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and other parks, has a new lavishly illustrated post up, this one on the contribution of background artist Claude Coats. HBG2, the site's author, makes a compelling case for Coats' draftsmanship and sense of depth and detail being the clinching element of the Mansion's design, the thing that makes it seem so much bigger and realer than it has any right to be. I once read FoxxFur, the blogger at the equally awesome Passport2Dreams Old and New describe the Mansion as a series of scenes in a giant, empty box (contrasting with the Pirates of the Caribbean, which is really a series of towns and scenes that fill the whole ride-space -- but the Mansion feels like it goes on and on, like you could jump out of your vehicle and get lost in its depths.

Coats was one of the artists Walt pulled out of the studio to work on Disneyland as it neared completion. He had studied architecture as well as painting, and he seemed a natural pick for designing the interiors of dark rides, starting with Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Among other things, Coats had a knack for squeezing an amazing amount of ride into a ridiculously small space. He and Ken Anderson must be given the lion's share of credit for Toad. The precise extent of Coats's contributions to the other two 1955 originals, Snow White and Peter Pan, is less clear, but there seems to be little doubt that he participated. Later dark rides in which he was heavily involved include Alice in Wonderland and Adventure Thru Inner Space (which was practically all Coats; notice that there are no characters in ATIS)...

Besides the sheer scale, another difference in this work was the mixture of 2D and 3D. Coats was now doing background paintings with bulges, a sort of bas-relief. He quickly showed himself a master of this technique. This Peter Pan shot is modern (hat tip Daveland), but it preserves the illusioneering Coats and Anderson pioneered at Disney, layering shallow, three-dimensional models against flat paintings...

Every time you feel that strange urge to wander into the labyrinthian depths of the Haunted Mansion and be lost (the pull is especially strong in the first half), that's Claude Coats the background painter, leaving your very self to supply the missing character cell.

We tend to think of immersive environments (especially the Disney ones) as being all about the robotics, character design, sound and ride systems, but the backgrounds are what really make the experience.

Long-Forgotten: Claude Coats: The Art of Deception and the Deception of Art


  1. Amazing hand painted back grounds, models, and amusement sets being shown. Artisan craft has been replaced with CGI muck. Wheels of progress and all. 

    Most likely Disney continues to employs the leading edge optical illusionists in modern media.

Comments are closed.