Ghostbusters - The Breakdown

How ZERO VFX tackled a new challenge for Paul Feig’s anticipated 2016 Ghostbusters reboot

2016 brought an exciting, engaging, and artfully done reboot of the 1980s classic Ghostbusters - this time with a new cast, in a new era, for a new generation of cinemagoers.

How did director Paul Feig and crew face the challenge? The trick was to realize and capture the essence of Ghostbusters - the story, characters, action, comedy, and cutting edge visual effects.

ZERO VFX was proud to be called upon for this task. The Boston- and LA-based VFX studio joined in the film’s production phase to develop one of the most memorable phantoms: a floating electric chair victim, wrapped in coils of phosphorescent blue energy.

It was up to ZERO to bring this ghost to life, combining just the right amount of expression, visual distinctiveness, and technology into his supernatural visage. ZERO successfully balanced all of these elements using their artistic vision and technology now three decades improved.

Bringing the dead to life

For ZERO, the task at hand was to create their biggest photorealistic CG character yet - a welcome challenge.

"We had to pull everything up by the bootstraps,” begins Robert Nederhorst, VFX supervisor at ZERO’s LA studio and an artist with over 18 years’ industry experience. “We had to build the entire character pipeline from nothing, while actively working on shots, and building the facility infrastructure. A CG character is one of the hardest things you can do even with that existing pipeline. Without it, you’ve got a major uphill battle."

The challenge originated from the technical complexity of the character, as well as from the narrative standpoint. ZERO wanted to convey the origins of the character they dubbed Fred, creating a look and feel that gave him a real sense of place in the story.

The film-makers sought a semi-translucent look that revealed his skeleton, gossamer skin, and writhing tendrils of blue energy. ZERO had a lot to consider, but thanks to the expertise of its team, they knew where to begin.

Haunted effects

"We asked ourselves about how we could make Fred feel ethereal, and how we could make the photography and performance and character all look real together with the smoke and electricity," chimes Mike Warner, CG and animation supervisor at ZERO LA. "We also thought a lot about who Fred was before he became a ghost, and built that visual identity into not just his character, but the character of the effects."

ZERO opted to fully keyframe the ghost, given that any motion capture work would make the character appear as though he were hanging from rig – as the original actor was on set.

The ZERO team completely replaced the actor in the plate photography, using the footage as reference material to create a terrifyingly accurate CG apparition. This allowed the team to add supernatural effects, like modeling Fred’s mouth after a snake’s and making his head spin around a full 360 degrees.

For the glowing emissions and electric bursts around the figure, ZERO built four different "ghost smoke system" simulations, each programmed to effect the others in unique ways. SideFX’s Houdini simulation toolset was tapped to blend the effects together. Mantra was used for rendering, Houdini and V-Ray to develop Fred's wiry beard, and nCloth and Maya to work on his tattered prison uniform.

"We cached that through an alembic to send to Houdini, and nCloth informed the motion of all the Houdini-based effects that were generated," says Warner. "It was a very complex path system, going from Maya out to Houdini and then back into Maya for V-Ray for the lighting. Thankfully we had a great comp team, who built some incredibly useful custom built tools to put it all together!"

The character’s translucent nature presented further complexity. The brief requested a semi-translucent quality, a “very interesting lighting challenge, to say the least,” says Warner.

"We accomplished this translucent effect via a combination of lighting passes and compositing," explains Nederhorst. "We knew that we had to see the skeleton from time to time, depending on the lighting interactions and gaps in the clothing, so we rendered a skeleton with fully textured displacement maps, and we rendered a 'photographically real' ghost with skin and full textures. We could then control the level of translucency during the compositing process, showing varying levels of the bone beneath the skin."

Living up to a legend

In addition to Fred, ZERO collaborated with Peter Travers, the film’s VFX supervisor, on a variety of other effects.

"We owned the entire (subway) sequence," says ZERO co-founder Brian Drewes - the animation of the proton pack beams, as well as face replacements, set extension work, and Houdini simulations for ectoplasm that covered actress, Kristen Wiig.

The team looked back to the original Ghostbusters film for inspiration on elements such as the proton guns, but drove each look further using new and enhanced tools.

"When working on the R&D of the plasma and proton beams, we did look backwards a great deal to the original film," explains Drewes. "We came on pretty early in the schedule and did a lot of the lookdev for the beam. We added modern FX, but made sure we captured the tone and feeling of the original's proton beams. We looked at their motion, and how frenetic the energy was. We wanted to stay true to that, while moving it into the look and feel of this century."

A similar approach was taken with the overall aesthetic of Fred: "A lot of what we took from the original films was the luminescent quality and the semi-transparency of a lot of the ghost characters," says Nederhorst. "We wanted to maintain that.”

It’s all in the details

ZERO was thrilled to be working on the same show as some of the world’s biggest and most prolific VFX vendors.

"Our work stands alongside MPC, Iloura, and Sony Pictures Imageworks – all really big companies with deeply ingrained pipelines," says Drewes. "I think that, from a peer review standpoint, our work is truly impressive, and we pulled it off efficiently thanks to our scale, business model, and the agility we’re afforded by virtue of being a smaller studio."

"In the end, it's about feeling rather than seeing; about making things feel that much more believable,'" says Warner. "Of course, nobody sitting in the cinema is going to be tricked into thinking they’re seeing a genuine ghost, but if they forget even for a moment that they’re watching a film, and they slip totally into the narrative of the moment, just because we poured that extra 5% into the displacement maps and delivered that greater sense of physical place within the environment: that’s when we’ve succeeded.

"For ZERO, if no one is thinking about the VFX work, and they’re just totally there in the moment," he concludes, "that’s when we’ve won.”

Check out the before and after reel here: