‘Ghostbusters’ VFX: Proton streams and monster Rowan

By Christine Holmes

While Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters might not have been the box office blockbuster some had hoped, no one can deny the quality of visual effects featured in the film.

While a number of studios contributed to Ghostbuster’s VFX — including Sony Imageworks and Iloura — we recently reached out to MPC VFX supervisor Dave Seager to discuss his studio’s work on the film. Seager joined Ghostbusters almost a full year before its delivery in the spring 2016.

Dave Seager

Seager and his team at MPC started visual effects pitch work that ultimately led to the creation of the proton streams and the villain in the film’s climax scenes. Read on to find out more about their process, how drones were used in the making of ghosts, and the best part about working on a Ghostbusters

What kind of early development work, if any, was MPC involved with on Ghostbusters?
Pete Travers, the visual effects supervisor from Sony Studios, had approached MPC about doing some pitch work. More specifically, a ghost test to help evaluate the lighting rig that they attached to a drone.

Using a drone operator, they flew lights around the set to capture the interactive lighting. Pete was looking for our pitch to help show everyone why it was worth doing. He sent us a really quick test with [the lighting rig], we mocked up a ghost really quick and put that in.

In addition, our art department created a bunch of concept work on the proton stream. Obviously, from the first film, people know what those proton streams look like, but then we had to figure out how to stay true to those while bringing them into modern-day filmmaking and visual effects.

After the art, we then transitioned to doing the actual test shot. That one, also, was to help establish a look for them. The client built the rig that attached to the front of the props the actors used on set. When the actors activated a trigger, a light would turn on. The interactive lighting on the actors was real and in place, and then we only had to paint out the rig out for them.

Pete and the director Paul Feig responded very positively to those tests, and we offered to do more pitch work. They said, “The final Rowan, what we called the final monster in the film, is still somewhat vague. Would you be willing to do a test on that?”

After the development work for the monster version of Rowan, what were the biggest challenges while working on shots with that character?
Probably the most challenging shots were the scenes where Rowan was taking his form of a realized cartoon character — based on the No Ghost logo — and he grows inside the Mercado building. He then breaks out of it almost like a shell. Very typical of what we do in visual effects, the shots that tick all the boxes for those elements tend to be the most complex.

In addition to that, the perfect example of the silly, fun, whimsical nature of Ghostbusters is that Rowan couldn’t fit in the building. (laughs) But you had to make it look like he could. Paul really wanted this kind of over-the-top look, an almost cartoonish quality to over-reacting as [various parts start to break through the building]. An arm comes out, then a leg punches out and steps on the ground. Then his stomach breaks out, and all these different types of events had to take place. It caused us to have to do a significant amount of custom animation.

Normally, with a character walking down the street, or doing something like the rest of the shots of Rowan, it’s more of a typical animation shot. That one, however, we had to hit those same kind of creative notes, but shove a square peg into a round hole. Luckily, Rowan is meant to be this malleable, squishy inflated ghosty thing, so that played into it.

Did that present some more technical challenges?
There were a number of technical challenges, as far as how does he fit in there, and then simulating both Rowan and the building destruction. We had muscle systems on him, and then cloth simulations on top of him. Then as he breaks through the building, and the debris starts to fly out, the debris needs to be affected by the cloth sim. It’s all the interdependencies. They’re some of my favorite shots in the film.

That group of shots was definitely the most challenging, and I think the most alive shots as far as 3D projection, as well. Those types of shots tend to be easier to dig your teeth into stereoscopically, because you’re not limited by the plates… to a degree.

Were you involved in the conversations and creative decisions made that related to the 3D projections?
Yes, but not a great deal. Ed Marsh was the stereographer on the client side. That was his creative realm. Pete would work with myself, Dan Cramer or any of the other visual effects supervisors at the various facilities. Typically, our primary concern is the mono delivery, because they’re just getting creatives down, what the timing is… the basics. Then as we get closer and the shots started to take hold, that’s where Ed would start to got involved and we began to send versions of the shots to Ed to review. In one of the shots of Rowan breaking down the building, Ed had a bunch of great ideas that weren’t in the original mono, or flat, delivery.

He would approach myself and Pete and we’d talk about it. He’d say, “I think it would be really great if we did this.” We went back and added little things here and there, or made those types of changes to help realize his notes and really amplify the 3D aspect of the shot.

What was your favorite part about working on this film?
There are certain types of films where maybe the whimsical, silly or over-the-top idea would be taboo because they’re trying to be very serious and real. Those things were fair game on Ghostbusters and embraced by Paul and Pete, both of whom have a great sense of humor. It becomes fun when trying these really crazy ideas. We had to make Mrs. Slimer, with her crazy makeup, so we looked at photos of big bouffant hairdos and thought, “Hey, how about we put that on Slimer?” That kind of thing.

It’s silly when you sit there and look at it from afar, but it makes the work more enjoyable. So much of the visual effects work that we tend to do is very serious, or trying to be invisible. I’d say that’s the thing that really resonates with me — the levity that that brought, and it was palpable to the team. Everyone was infected by it, and it was a great deal of fun. My job is easier when my team’s having fun.

Are there any movies that you used as a reference?
Probably, top of the list from Paul was Poltergeist. Obviously, we spent a great deal of time looking at the first two Ghostbusters films, and even the Ghostbusters media that has been generated since then. It’s always good to look through to see how a different group of artists interpreted things.

There was a lot of care taken to pay tribute to the original film that I think is very evident in this one. Paul did a wonderful job from the cameos to little bits of dialogue. We were able to leverage that creatively, as well. Even to the point where we hid, in one of the shots, the statue of the gargoyle that Rick Moranis’ character and Sigourney Weaver’s character break out of in the first film. It’s one of our little Easter eggs that we tossed in there when the building is destroyed and there’s giant debris flying around.

It’s fun and it energizes the crew and, I think, the fans.

Christine Holmes is a freelance artist and manager of animated content. She has worked in the film industry for the last six years.

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