Putting Together Ghostbusters' Special Effects

By David Konow

Richard Edlund and producers on the film remember the task of shooting such an ambitious project.

It's another anniversary that makes us feel old. Not only did The Terminator hit 30 last year, but so did Ghostbusters, which was a ginormous hit in the summer of 1984. Ghostbusters was a unique comedic vision that only could have been dreamed up by Dan Aykroyd, but he also had a great team behind him with Ivan Reitman, Bill Murray, the late Harold Ramis, and effects master Richard Edlund. But putting the film together wasn't easy, especially with the fantastic elements called for in the script.

Aykroyd's first draft of the Ghostbusters script was large and unwieldy, and it needed to be broken down into a shootable movie. Edlund remembered the script was 175 pages, which would have made a three-hour film. Joe Medjuck, who was the movie's associate producer, remembered, "The script just seemed impossible to make. That version was set in outer space and other dimensions. It didn't have the focus that eventually came." Once Ivan Reitman came aboard, the project finally got into shape.

After leaving ILM, Edlund set up Boss Films Company. Edlund started working on the effects of the film when the final script was being hammered out. Having a comedy with this much extensive FX work "actually freed us up," Edlund recalls. "It was fantasy stuff, which you can do in a comedy. You can have an eighty-foot Marshmallow man stomping down Broadway. We never did actually figure out exactly how tall the Marshmallow Man was! It's sort of like, how big is the Death Star? With the wand, the wobbly, multicolored rubberized light was comedic in itself."

The optical effects for Ghostbusters were shot on 65mm, which started the joke that BFC stood for Big Fuckin' Camera. In a number of FX intensive films, the opticals are often shot on 65mm so when they're brought down to 35mm there isn't any degeneration of the image, much like a Xerox copy losing a generation.

Even though Star Wars had reinvented the wheel for special effects, on Ghostbusters Edlund said they "always had to invent our way out of a corner. We had to build an optical printer, and we had to build a lens from scratch with seventeen elements for the printer."

The schedule to get the effects done on Ghostbusters was ten months, and Edlund recalled the FX budget was $5 million. "We came in at $700,000 over, but it worked out."

"That kind of ingenuity has largely disappeared," Edlund adds. "There's a different kind of ingenuity in the digital world. In the film world you're shooting miniatures with a high speed camera to make them look large, you're using animation, underwater effects, cel animation, rotoscoping, blue screen…it was a very complicated deal."

Edlund says that the effects in the film aren't perfect, there are some matte lines visible in the movie, "but we didn't have time for take two. I would say that 70-80% of the composites in Ghostbusters are first takes."

With Ghostbusters combining comedy and special effects on a level that hadn't been done before, it was a hard adjustment for Reitman to make. Comedy often relies on spontaneity, and Reitman felt restricted by the rigors of putting the FX together.

"As any film editor knows, you shoot coverage," Michael Gross, an Associate Producer on the film, says. "You shoot coverage, you wide shot, you try different jokes, you try different takes. Well, with Ghostbusters, we were doing an effects film. I told Ivan, 'Here's the problem with an effects film. You storyboard in advance, that's like editing in advance. You've got a scene, they're going to approve that scene, and we're going to spend nine months doing that cut. There's no second takes, no outtakes, there's no coverage. You can cut stuff, but you can't add stuff.' It made him so confined that it really bothered him."

When Aykroyd was writing the script, he wanted John Belushi to play Venkman, and it's incredible to think what Ghostbusters would have been like with the late comedian as part of the team. It's also been said that Slimer was the ghost of Belushi, but Gross downplayed this. "One of us at the FX house said, 'Think of John Belushi as far as how he would act,' and that's as far as it went."

Keeping the movie grounded in some semblance of reality was another reason why Reitman had Elmer Bernstein compose the music for the film, much like he created a serious score for Animal House that made the movie even funnier. With the Ghostbusters music, "Ivan didn't want the score telling you it's funny," Gross says.

Medjuck recalled that the Ghostbusters shoot went fifty-five days, and the post-production process "went fast because we finished shooting in January / February, and the movie came out in June." While Reitman and the gang had a great time making the movie, Gross recalled the director having a moment of self-doubt, asking, "Have I made a huge mistake here? The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, is this going to be a disaster?"

Three weeks after Ghostbusters wrapped, it was screened for an audience in Burbank. There was only one effects shot finished, but the audience loved the movie. Realizing the film worked without special effects, the Ghostbusters gang knew they had a hit. For all the worry about the production and effects, it ended up being the comedy and chemistry of all the players that made the film a classic.