Clear your mind! Try not to think of anything! Uh oh, it’s too late – look what popped in there … it’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man from Ivan Reitman’s 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters. It’s a fine image of one of the unlikeliest bad guys in movie history, and it’s on the front cover of issue #17 of the visual effects journal Cinefex. Gracing the back cover is a still from The Last Starfighter, Nick Castle’s sci-fi adventure from the same year. The picture shows the film’s Gun Star spaceship in all its computer-generated glory. Inside we find two articles spanning 72 pages.
- Ghostbusters (article by Adam Eisenberg)
- The Last Starfighter – Imagery Wrought in the Total Forge (article by Peter Sørensen)
When I first saw Ghostbusters in the cinema, back in 1984, I didn’t ‘get’ it. There’s a particular flavour of American SNL humour that doesn’t always survive the journey across the pond to the UK. Plus, the movie had been so hyped, with that infectious Ray Parker Jr song playing endlessly over the radio, that maybe anything was going to be a disappointment.
Or perhaps it was just me because, second time round, I loved Ghostbusters unreservedly, and I’ve loved it ever since. How deliciously spine-chilling, then, to read up afresh on the miracles wrought by visual effects maestro Richard Edlund and his team during the making of this classic supernatural comedy.
Ghostbusters was Edlund’s first assignment after leaving Industrial Light and Magic to take over EEG, formerly operated by Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich. Edlund tells how, after he’d taken hold of the reins, initial negotiations to work on first Dune, then Ridley Scott’s Legend of Darkness (sic) fell through. ‘I was depressed for a week,’ he says. Then, proving the old adage about feast or famine, he ‘was approached to do both 2010 and Ghostbusters just days apart from each other.’
Eisenberg’s coverage of Ghostbusters is a full-featured affair, embracing everything from Edlund’s initial restructuring of EEG – ‘Basically we had to totally change the place’ – through preproduction, location and studio shoots all the way to post and optical. As usual, the article is based on first-hand accounts, but there’s an added breadth here as we get to hear not only from the key effects personnel, but also from a range of other folk including writer/star Dan Aykroyd and producer Michael Gross.
While Aykroyd tells us a little about the origins of the name Gozer, and why he chose to feature a villain made of marshmallow, Gross confesses that ‘the concept of the Stay-Puft man made everyone a little nervous going in.’ We don’t always hear from producers in Cinefex, and Gross’s voice is an especially interesting one here, giving us a wide-angle view on the production as a whole, while still zooming in on the little details.
Another good voice is that of John Bruno, the EEG art director who also storyboarded all the effects scenes. The storyboard artist is something of an unsung hero, so it’s nice to hear Bruno talk in detail about his process. Gross compliments him on the way he ‘created specific illustrations that took into account … what angles were best for the effects,’ and remarks that ‘when the set was finished … we realised that what [John] had boarded many months before was exactly what we were seeing through the camera.’
Ghostbusters might be a hip comedy, but you only have to read Eisenberg’s article to be reminded that it’s also a major effects picture. We get the goods on everything from stop-motion animation to cloud tank photography, animatronics and puppetry to matte paintings. Matthew Yuricich, assisted by Michelle Moen, produced over forty of the latter for the movie. According to Gross, ‘They’re so good I can find only about half of them myself.’
There’s a lot about special effects too: those on-set physical illusions like exploding walls and hydraulically-operated earthquakes. My particular favourite is the eggs that pop out of the box and start frying on Dana Barrett’s kitchen worktop, a live stage effect that involved pre-scoring the shells of real eggs and using compressed air to fire their contents out on to steel tiles preheated with hidden burners.
Every page turn of this article reveals a new effect and a new challenge for the film-makers, so it’s all the more extraordinary to remember that the entire Ghostbusters production was turned around in just a year … and that it still looks amazing. Here’s Richard Edlund’s summary of the experience: ‘Making a big picture like Ghostbusters is like fighting a war … it really is like battlefield conditions.’
Reading old issues of Cinefex in sequence as I am reveals a kind of background story arc to these major effects films – particularly when it comes to the characters involved. By tracking the careers of people like Edlund and Trumbull, we get an insight into how things are constantly changing in this ever-volatile industry.
With Edlund specifically (and I realise this could just be me reading between the lines), I get the impression he was much more content after the move to EEG/Los Angeles than he’d been in the latter years at San Francisco-based ILM. ‘I’m a naturalised Angelino,’ he says. ‘I knew I just wasn’t a Marin County person.’ Moreover, he seems very happy with his work on Ghostbusters, concluding that, even though the film ‘was like doing Poltergeist and Raiders together, in half the time … ultimately, I think, we pulled it off.’ Upbeat words from a man who, back in Cinefex #2, rated his work on The Empire Strikes Back at a rather disappointing 6.5 out of 10.
On the subject of story arcs, by far the most significant one in the 80s and 90s is, of course, the steady emergence of digital technology. If Ghostbusters is a hectic lightning storm spewing out the very best in optical and mechanical effects, The Last Starfighter shines with the pure, clean light of the laser-sharp cutting edge. At the same time, it’s worth noting that, like Tron before it, The Last Starfighter has a storyline in which video games play a key role, in part justifying the use of CG effects … and perhaps excusing any shortcomings those effects might have.
The Starfighter article is written by Peter Sørensen, the man responsible for several previous Cinefex pieces on computer generated imagery. Once again, he offers us what is now a fascinating snapshot of the state of the art circa 1984. Back then there were no desktop PCs, and an outfit that wanted to crunch the kinds of numbers needed to make photo-real images had only one option: buy themselves a Cray X-MP supercomputer.
The outfit in question was Digital Productions, a breakaway from Triple-I, operated by John Whitney Jr and Gary Demos. Sørensen is in his elements as he reels off the specifications of their monstrous number-cruncher, which was ‘absolutely jam-packed with 200,000 special microchips’ and needed a liquid freon cooling system to keep the temperature down on its monumental 100,000 watts of power.
In modern-day parlance, the Cray was to all intents and purposes a self-contained render farm, running software that took its instructions from a lesser VAX 11/780 workstation and churned the necessary thousands of individual movie frame images. The VAX, by all accounts, wasn’t as user-friendly as a modern system, especially when it came to creating the model spacecraft needed for The Last Starfighter.
‘Objects are first drawn on paper in a manner similar to that of engineering blueprints,’ Sørensen explains. ‘The drawing is then placed on an “encoding table” to be “digitized”.’ A lot of this article is devoted to the intricacies of these and other processes, many of which seem quaint and clunky today. All the same, it’s clear they form the basis of everything that’s happened in the discipline since. The only thing that’s really changed is the processing power available and the sophistication of the computer interfaces. Even by 1984, the basics of geometric manipulation, mapping and rendering were all well and truly in place.
When all the technological jargon gets too much, concept artist Ron Cobb is on hand to give it that human touch. Talking about his inspirations for the various vehicle designs, Cobb tells how he combined what he describes as ‘Spitfires in space … a kind of Star Wars thing that’s becoming a bit of a cliche’ with ‘some of the crazy faddishness from the attack of the killer helicopters – Blue Thunder.’ I was interested to read how Cobb drew inspiration from real-world developments reported in Aviation Week and NASA reports, and amazed to learn that he was ‘able to envision designs so clearly in his head that he skips the sketching stage … and confidently makes blueprint-like drawings right off the bat.’
It’s fun to read about the various glitches all these new techniques, including the moment when the operators forgot to use the appropriate computer commands, resulting in a randomly-coloured Gun Star that ‘came out looking like a black-light “flower power” spaceship.’
You can also sense the excitement – and frustration – that came from working with systems that promised so much, but were not yet perfected. Director Nick Castle cites the big advantage of working digitally as the ability ‘to do everything in one pass … that saves you the loss of several generations, which is great in terms of look.’ But some of the new tricks he wanted to try, like scanning the face of actor Lance Guest on to his computer-generated counterpart, remained tantalisingly out of reach. ‘There were time problems,’ Castle laments.
This frustration is evident in Sørensen’s somewhat evangelical text as he lapses something that occurs only rarely in Cinefex: editorial comment. ‘Perhaps the major problem with The Last Starfighter,’ he states, ‘is the fact that the imagery still suffers at times from the overly clean, surrealistic-reality problem.’ But he ends on a positive note, asserting that, ‘Those problems could have been overcome if there had been a little more time to dote on details.’
More interesting to me were Ron Cobb’s closing remarks about the impact of computers on, well, everything … and in particular the uncertainy that still surrounded the new technology. ‘I think there’s a real need for the culture to grab ahold of this technology,’ he says. ‘To most people, computer graphics is a detached, alien technology … It’s a shame if that persists.’
It’s worth noting, however, that Cobb was clearly in awe of the Cray, saying that it ‘reminded him of the monolith in 2001.’ His remarks remind us that these were the frontier days when computers, in the minds of most people, were still magical things. What better place then than Hollywood, that fabled western land of the American Dream, to make the magic real?
There are oodles of behind-the-scenes photos in the Ghostbusters article, including some hilarious shots of Mark Wilson and a team of puppeteers performing Onionhead (AKA Slimer) on the EEG stage. My favourite image, however, shows Bill Bryan’s head and shoulders poking out of the top of the Stay-Puft suit, while the marshmallow man’s detached foam rubber face sits grinning in the foreground.
When it comes to The Last Starfighter, there are plenty of frame blow-ups demonstrating the slick quality of the Digital Productions CGI images. To the modern eye, they have that pristine computer-game look that betrays their origins, but there’s no doubt that, for the time, they were damned impressive. In a photograph that shows the reality of working with 1980s computer technology, Kevin Rafferty is shown poring over his encoding table with a pair of hand-held cursor devices, painstakingly converting detailed blueprints into digital assets.