Ghostbusters: saluting the effects of the original movie

The effects of the original Ghostbusters relied on practical magic, and sheer ingenuity. We take a look back...

“It’s amazing, sometimes the most simple and most practical stuff is the most effective.” Ivan Reitman, director

It goes without saying that Ghostbusters is an enduring classic. From the effortlessly quotable script, to the pitch-perfect performances of the ensemble cast, to that theme song, this was a film that was built to last. Part of this was also down to how it looked. In a world where literally anything can be imagined through the use of CGI, it is easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that pretty much everything either had to be physically made, or literally hand-drawn. Indeed, had this film been made just a few years later, it likely would have looked completely different (the transfer from physical effects to computer generated was, much to the surprise of most involved, practically overnight). When we think of iconic looking movies, classics like Star WarsJurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day spring to mind. But Ghostbusters was also an immense visual undertaking for an 80s action comedy movie. So, how did they do it?

The team

Headed by Richard Edlund (after being contacted by director Ivan Reitman), the effects were undertaken by Boss Films, which put together a great team, including those who had worked on Poltergeist and Return Of The Jedi. Reitman himself also brought some specialist knowledge to the table. Having produced and directed a Broadway show called, fittingly enough, Murder On Broadway, he was familiar with a lot of the visual tricks that Ghostbusters would lean on. Amongst these were the 360 degree turn, which was utilised in the iconic scene where Dana Barrett (played, of course, by Sigourney Weaver), possessed by the demon, Zuul, floats and revolves several feet in the air. Remarkably, this was all done live, with no optical effects. It required Weaver to wear a full body cast to take her weight as she starts to rise. To get her to turn, it was attached to a steel arm that pivots around, which was hidden in the drapery. 

Production/Budget

According to Edlund, the effects budget for the film was about $5 million, though they ended up around $700,000 over by the time the film was locked. However, if Dan Aykroyd’s original script been filmed, according to associate producer Joe Medjuck, it would have had “50 large scale monsters”.

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The Marshmallow Man, for example, was originally supposed to emerge from the East River and appear about 20 minutes into the movie. However, such a version “would have cost $300 million in 1984.” So, it was no surprised they scaled it back a tad. The whole film took about ten months to make, which is a very quick turnaround time. The movie itself was shot in 55 days, and the post-production was very fast because “we finished shooting in January/February, and the movie came out in June.” Indeed, in terms of effects, most of the time, there wasn’t even time for a second take. Edlund estimates “about 70-80%” of the composites in Ghostbusters are the first take.

He slimed me…

For those you us who were fortunate to grow up (I use the term, loosely) with the Ghostbusters Fire House replica (with working pole), we know that the slime came in little pots bought from Toys R Us. However, this was not where the film crew got their slime from! For the movie, they used methyl silos, which is otherwise known as Chinese food starch. Furthermore, the melted marshmallow at the end of the film wasn’t actually marshmallow! It was actually barrels and barrels of shaving foam, a considerable portion of which was memorably dumped on EPA lawyer Walter Peck (played by William Atherton), without his knowledge. 

Practical effects

Part of what made the effects so, well, effective, was their practical nature. That they were tangible really adds a level of texture. One of the scariest scenes in the movie is undoubtedly where Dana gets pinned to a chair by the legs of the dogs, and dragged through the door. This scene was achieved in a few ways. Firstly, there was the light behind the door, creating a sense of impending doom, which Reitman claimed was influenced by (or ripped off from) Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The distorting effect on the door, which bends as if some creature is trying to pass through from another realm, was achieved through a highly technical process using a ‘rubber door’. But this element was largely a misdirect, to draw the audience’s attention away from the character, before the arms and legs of the dog burst through the sofa and pin her down. This was done by grips hiding in a trapdoor underneath the chair, wearing dog-leg gloves. It’s truly simple when you know how!

The technology

Dan Aykroyd had designed a lot of the Ghostbusters’ equipment (with a biker friend of his) before the script was actually written, as well as the ‘no ghost’ symbol. The symbol had to be slightly redesigned however, because according to Ramis, “we had to stay away from Casper” (the friendly ghost). The neutrino wands (aka ‘the thrower’) had a flash bulb at the end so the special effects guys had something to queue the start of the stream from. The streams (important safety tip: never cross them) were a mixture of explosions that were shot off stage, and mixed with classical animation. The idea behind this was the concept of ‘rubberising light’. The proton packs weighed 30lb ‘fully loaded’, but there were a few different versions. For stunts, some were made of rubber, whilst others didn’t have batteries, for when they weren’t firing the guns. 

The ghosts

As CGI was not yet being used in movies, those ghosts that appeared on screen that were not puppets needed to be animated frame by frame. This meant that one second of ghostly footage took up to full three weeks to complete.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

The Marshmallow Man (trivia: he was supposed to be 112 ½ feet tall) was basically a guy in a costume, each one of which cost approximately $25-30,000, in 1984 money. Yet despite the extravagant cost, they weren’t particularly pleasant to be in, not least because the guy in the suit was on supplied air, as the foam itself was said to be toxic. The scale models when filming these scenes was not a standard size. Therefore, they had quite a struggle finding model cars at the appropriate scale for their purposes. In the end, they managed to find one particular type of model police car that met their needs, bought about a hundred of them, and chopped them all up to make different vehicles. You may recall in this scene, a car (remote controlled) crashes into a fire hydrant, sending water shooting up to the air. But even this was a special effect. The water was actually sand, because, according to Ramis, water doesn’t miniaturise. 

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New York Public Library

Whilst the exterior buildings were inevitably a mixture of real locations, sets, and optical effects, the early scenes in the Rose Reading Room were actually shot in the real New York Public Library. That said, the cast and crew had to shoot very early in the morning, and be out of there by 10am. However, the scenes in the back room were shot in the Los Angeles Public Library. It was here some of the most memorable scenes were shot. Remember the books floating from shelf to shelf? Again, a simple idea was behind that, with the books on wires (at a cost of $250,000, joked Ramis). The card catalogue drawer scene was very technical. This required a bunch of technicians to stand behind a fake wall and blow through some copper pipes to make the cards swirl around. Picking up the cards afterwards was also done without the use of CGI, much to the chagrin of everyone involved! 

Dana’s building

Whilst the building itself was real, the roof was actually an optical effect, and was based on a design on table book Rooftops Of New York. Of course, for the final scenes they had to build a real, massive set. It was built approximately three storeys off the ground, so Reitman could shoot the low angles he wanted. This was designed by legendary production designer John Decuir. Decuir earned 11 Oscar nominations during his career, including three wins (for The King & I, Cleopatra, and Hello, Dolly!) Once the ghosts are freed in the move, the posessed Dana Barrett stands in a window, which explodes out at the camera. Though the scene was (obviously) done on set, Sigourney Weaver was actually standing there through the actual explosion. Later again, when the Ghostbusters arrive at the destroyed apartment, there is an aerial shot of the building. If you look closely you can see the Ghostbusters are actually there, superimposed as to give the image some movement.

The firehouse

The iconic firehouse is actually two firehouses. The exterior was of the-now famous firehouse in New York, whilst the interiors were shot in Los Angeles. Coincidentally, both were built in 1912, which helped naturally match the interior and the exterior. 

The ugly

Of course, such a visually ambitious film on such a tight schedule (and budget), not everything stands the test of time. Indeed, some of the optical effects with the dog don’t work so well. They even raised eyebrows 30 years ago. Indeed, according to Reitman, they “really caused some of the movie critics to wonder whether it was a deliberate style choice.” But ultimately, he conceded, “it didn’t seem to matter”. Somewhat ironically, it is the puppet-versions of the dogs that are some of the best looking effects. Slimer around the chandelier was also one of the least favourite, which was dismissed as both a “really lousy effect”, It was also derided by one of the effects team as “a peanut painted green”.

If some films age like a fine wine and some turn to vinegar, Ghostbusters is definitely in the former category. Not all of the effects are perfect, but the film really does hold up, and the visuals are a fascinating snapshot of what can be done by very clever people – even if they don’t own a computer.

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