Saturday, October 27, 2012

Making Monsters #24: Ghostbusters

Is there a movie in the past 30 years as unanimously loved as Ghostbusters? It's a movie that just about everyone who was born between 1970 and 1985 has a great deal of affection for, and there are almost no contrarian views on the subject (Pauline Kael was one - she preferred Ghostbusters 2). It's one of those movies that works like gangbusters for audiences across all age groups and demographics; I read an interview once with Rick Moranis where he mentioned that, when he was filming Club Paradise in the Caribbean, locals frequently asked him if he was still possessed by demons. A lot of the movie's appeal is due to it being the rare horror-comedy that actually works pretty well as a horror movie. The ghost in the library at the beginning, the reveal of the otherworldly portal in Dana Barrett's (Sigourney Weaver) fridge and the scene where Dana is attacked by demonic canine paws are effectively scary.

That these and the rest of the ghosts in the film are very believably brought to life by effects supervisor Richard Edlund and his company, Boss Films, makes Ghostbusters a very unique comedy. Usually, even with some of the funniest comedies, the production value, cinematography, effects and other elements become secondary to capturing the performances. It's a valid and often effective approach, but when a comedy like Ghostbusters actually puts the effort into making its fantastic scenario credible, Bill Murray's wisecracks actually become funnier in the context of a legitimately high-stakes story. Building on techniques Edlund developed on Poltergeist, the crew on Ghostbusters would combine multiple elements - miniatures, blue-screen photography, travelling mattes - in a single shot to make each scene work (this is before digital compositing, when composite shots had to be acheived directly on a photochemical negative). Even a ghost like Slimer (called "Onionhead" by the first film's cast and crew, he got his name from the Real Ghostbusters cartoon) that is meant to be purely comedic works better as a gag because of the effort Edlund and his crew put into selling the effect.

This is especially true in Ghostbusters' finest moment, the reveal of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Bringing the jolly-looking demonic manifestation of the Ghostbusters' certain doom to life required combining multiple effects techniques. A full-size Stay-Puft suit with animatronic facial expressions controlled by a team of puppeteers stomped model cars on a minature set of the city. Individual elements like cars and people running out of Stay-Puft's path were shot seperately and composited into the shot with the travelling matte techniques that Edlund and others developed on the original Star Wars trilogy. This was then combined, via matte, with shots of the Ghostbusters atop a skyscraper. The effect is both hilarious and jaw-dropping, almost unmatched in film for its sheer large-scale absurdity. It's funny, but if any of use ever saw Mr. Stay-Puft headed our way, we'd be as terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought as Dr. Spengler.

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