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Designing a Ghostbusters Ghost Is about Balancing 80s Nostalgia with 2016 Visual Effects

How to design a Ghostbusters ghost, according to the Australian VFX team behind the reboot.
July 20, 2016, 4:04am
Gertrude, one of the ghosts created by Australian VFX studio Iloura. All images courtesy of Iloura and Sony

What’s it like to work on production for the reboot of your favourite childhood movie? The team behind Australian animation studio Iloura know the answer. They were commissioned to work on the visual effects for Paul Feig’s 2016 re-imagining of 1984's Ghostbusters, starring Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon. It was somewhat of a dream come true.

Speaking to The Creators Project, Iloura’s General Manager Simon Rosenthal says that he was a huge fan of the original Ghostbusters, written by Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis. “I probably saw it 3-4 times when it was first released, and many times since.”

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As soon as he heard that Sony had greenlit a reboot, he made it his mission to work on the new film. “I took it as a personal challenge for Iloura to get involved,” Rosenthal explains. “Every time I traveled to the US I made a point of visiting Sony in order to understand the status of the project. In the end I nagged them into submission.”

The team ended up working on Ghostbusters for nine months, helping create two of the primary ghosts, Gertrude and Mayhem, as well as the ghouls behind the mirrors in the Mercato basement, and a few spooky dead rats to boot.

Ghost rats: it doesn't get much worse

Glenn Melenhorst, who supervised Iloura’s VFX contributions to the film, was also a devotee of the original franchise. “I was 18 at the time and that film for me was right in the golden age of great movies, along with Back to the Future. It’s been a long time since we’ve had this kind of great, broad appeal, goofy, visual effects movie to be entertained by,” he tells us.

Of course, the scope of visual effects possibilities has widened hugely since the 1980s. Which is what made working on such a nostalgic project so much fun.

“Special effects is hardly used at all for creature work these days, with most production companies deferring to VFX,” says Melenhorst. “I think particularly as VFX are so seamless these days and can be endlessly fiddled with. I started in VFX back in 1985 and believe me, you couldn’t make much other than a ball and a cube back then.”

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Creating the ghost of Gertrude, who ended up acting as a blueprint for all the other ghosts in the film—even those created by other VFX studios—was a matter of balancing new technology and nostalgia.

“Gertrude is the first ghost we see in the movie,” Melenhorst explains. So she had to be impressive. “We discussed levels of transparency and illumination, challenging the stereotypes of cinema ghosts while wanting to harken back to the fun of the ghosts from the first Ghostbusters movies.”

Gertrude, the first ghost viewers see in the new film

As you might expect for a movie predicated on fast moving spooky apparitions wreaking havoc on New York City, creating visual effects for the new Ghostbusters was challenging and complex.

“Films with a single character or an ensemble cast become easier once the characters are set up and all you need to do is put the same characters in shot after shot,” Melenhorst says. “But with Ghostbusters there wasn’t such replication, and every ghost required its own visual language while working within the context of the whole movie.”

“Movies with disparate effects like Ghostbusters really take over all aspects of our pipeline. We sculpted, textured, rigged and animated many characters, rotomated live action ghouls, cleaned up light rigs and sets, matte painted environments, simulated cloth and mist and emanations and fire and electricity and plasma bolts…really the list is endless. Then we lit and rendered and composited it all.”

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Working on Ghostbusters meant creating a seriously diverse folio of work. “Above all of there was a strong commitment to creatively visualising the effects, and running lots of tests and trying options in order to help the film find its voice,” Melenhorst says.

“Naturally as the film evolved and other vendors contributed their work, they stamped their aesthetic onto other characters and we then borrowed from them for some of our other work. It was a very collaborative show in that way.”

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