How Ghostbusters: Afterlife used VFX to bring everyone back

The nostalgia runs strong in Ghostbusters: Afterlife, filmmaker Jason Reitman’s sequel to the beloved franchise his father, Ivan, created with stars and co-writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis.

Directed and co-written by Jason and set 32 years after the events of 1989’s Ghostbusters IIAfterlife follows a pair of kids who move to a remote Oklahoma town after their mother inherits a dilapidated farm from her estranged father. They soon discover a familial link to the franchise’s once-famous (and now largely forgotten) paranormal investigators, and end up at the center of yet another apocalyptic threat from a sinister, supernatural villain.

Filled with nods to the past in both the story and the people both in front of the camera and behind it, Ghostbusters: Afterlife uses groundbreaking visual effects to bring its ghostly adventure to life, and also brought one of the franchise’s beloved characters back for a powerful, poignant final appearance.

spoke to the film’s visual effects supervisors, Sheena Duggal (who had to leave the project just before filming began) and Alessandro Ongaro, to learn more about the VFX magic that helped resurrect the Ghostbusters franchise and reunite the team.

Note: This interview includes discussion of various plot points from the film. Spoilers are ahead. 

A scene faturing the ecto-1 chasing a ghost in ghostbusters: afterlife.

: When you first joined Ghostbusters: Afterlife, what was the vibe like as far as the type of film Jason and the studio were going for?

Sheena Duggal: Jason calls this film a love letter to the 1984 film, and there is a lot of emotion and sensitivity in that. Technique was on our mind as we explored emulating a stop-motion animation style and [we] were mindful of how original elements were exposed on an optical printer to give it a specific look.

In our first conversation, Jason and I talked about the importance of using practical effects to create interaction and movement, [and how] the ghosts needed to have cause and effect on the environment, This was incorporated into how it was shot and echoed how it was done in ’84.

Alessandro Ongaro: I feel like Jason was really making it for people who were fans, who had a personal connection to Ghostbusters. I grew up in the ’80s, so joining the project and continuing that legacy was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But Jason didn’t want to make a big visual effects movie per se. It’s about the story and the family. The movie ends with a big hug, not a big explosion.

For every department, from the art department and production design and cinematography to visual effects, he really wanted to bring back the emotion and feeling of the ’84 film. And it’s funny, because to untrained eyes it might look like a simplistic approach to the visual effects — but it was actually more challenging because it’s tricky to give something that nostalgic look without looking cheap or cheesy, too.

Filmmaker jason reitman lines up a shot for ghostbusters: afterlife.

Films like this tend to change a lot early on as the concept art and conversations evolve. What did that early evolution look like, as far as visual effects and such?

Duggal: I worked together with the art department and production designer François Audrey to help design the film’s ghost characters. Jason knew how he wanted the main ghost characters to make him feel, but he didn’t have a visual language to articulate what they looked like initially. A large body of concept art was created by multiple artists and VFX vendor art departments, [and through that art] I was able to gain a greater understanding of what the director was looking for. A lot of that art tracked through to the final look of the film.

Ongaro: I joined the project right before principal photography, so I missed the whole prep phase. For me, the actual design of the characters didn’t really change much, but how we gave them that look did evolve over time.

You can go full-on visual effects, glowing with a fancy transparency treatment and effects, but that didn’t work for the movie we were making. The ’84 film used optical printing, basically putting element “A” over element “B,” with some tricks to affect the transparency. We couldn’t do something like that because it would feel out of place with the rest of the film, so we just kept that optical look in mind and kept reminding ourselves not to go crazy with the glow digitally and keep the limits of the ’84 film in mind. Don’t go crazy with the texture. Don’t go crazy with the transparency. That evolution happened while we shot the movie, too, once the characters were in there, giving us time to figure it all out.

An early vfx shot of a hydrant from ghostbusters: afterlife. An early vfx shot of a ghost eating a hydrant from ghostbusters: afterlife.

What went into creating some of the featured, nonhuman ghost characters?

Duggal: [The ghost] Muncher’s character was described to me by Jason as being like Chris Farley — he wanted him to go from cute to a monster in a heartbeat. I explored micro animals as reference, and when I showed Jason a tardigrade, he loved the idea, which became the basis for Muncher. We developed that character in detail, making sure you couldn’t access his feelings or predict if he was going to be cute or angry. We added little fluff on his head, and since he was an old ghost, the texture and material of his skin — like the wrinkles and folds — were important additions.

What about the Marshmallow Men and the rest?

Duggal: For the Mini Marshmallow Men, we referenced the original Stay-Puft Man, adjusting the design of the characters to make them more toddler-like. We adapted the legs so they became double-tiered and added creases to the arms as you might find in a baby. Things moved quickly once we turned the designs over to [VFX studio] DNEG, and motion tests were created with animators running amok in Xsens motion-capture suits, which were hilarious!

We continued to adjust the characters based on what they looked like in motion, selling their personality with movement and expressions as much as how they looked, until we had a fully approved character before shoot. We had great fun working with the artists to create little story beats for how mischievously the Mini Marshmallow Men behave, and I think these shine through in the finished result.

An early vfx shot of the miniature marshmallow men from ghostbusters: afterlife. The miniature marshmallow men from ghostbusters: afterlife.

How about the Terror Dogs, which make a great comeback in the film?

Ongaro: With the Terror Dog, we had a half-body puppet we used in a few shots. We didn’t go crazy and use it every time just to say we used a puppet, only to paint it out of 80 percent of the shots and put a CG version in, like often happens. In the specific moments we use it, you can see it’s a puppet and it’s right for that moment. The first time you see the Terror Dog in the Walmart, it’s perfect, because that is Ghostbusters.

The moments when the Terror Dog runs and chases [actor] Paul [Rudd] through the door, we made it CG because that was the best way to do it — and our CG character was based on the puppet. We scanned it and built it as a one-to-one match. And when Paul gets into the car and it jumps on top, we went back to the puppet, because it was right for that scene. We didn’t try to squeeze it in every time, though, because it just didn’t work in every scene. I like to say that every time we used the puppet, we really used it.

The terror dogs from ghostbusters: afterlife.

It’s time to talk about the film’s biggest surprise. How did you bring Egon Spengler back? It’s fascinating, because his look isn’t exactly Harold Ramis when he was older. It feels like an aged Egon Spengler, which is a subtle-but-important difference.

Ongaro: That was the biggest challenge for the film, I would say. You could do it wrong so easily. It was such an important moment for the film. And like you said, it’s not Harold Ramis aged — it’s Egon Spengler aged.

Duggal: We had to approach Egon with a great deal of sensitivity, because not only is Harold Ramis like a family member [to Jason], but Jason knew that if we weren’t able to capture the essence and emotion in the CG character, his scenes would never work. So a concept design was created together with prosthetic makeup artist Arjen Tuiten, in which we aged Egon 30 years from the 1984 film, adding physical attributes like sunspots to sell that he had been a dirt farmer for years.

Ongaro: We didn’t have any body scans or anything like that, so we had to start completely from scratch. [Studio] MPC was the VFX vendor on it, and we just took some frames from the ’84 film and started building a digital version of Egon Spengler.

I didn’t show anything to Jason, Ivan, or anybody else until we had a realistic copy of the ’84 Egon. We took a scene from the movie with Dan Aykroyd and replaced that Egon with our version. We put it in black-and-white and I called Jason and Ivan into the office, and played the shot. They looked at it and then looked at me like, “Why are you showing us the ’84 film?” That’s when I said, “This is a digital Egon.” They were blown away.

Dan aykroyd, harold ramis, and bill murray in an elevator in a scene from ghostbusters.

Duggal: In casting the stand-in performer to the play Egon, we knew it was important to find an actor who could not only play the emotional tones Egon needed to hit, but also to mimic Egon’s body language to create a believable body double and to give the original Ghostbusters actors an experience which emulated Harold.

MPC came on board based on the work they did for the character Rachel in Blade Runner 2049. We knew they could capture the emotional beats. We didn’t have the advantage of scanning the actor like they did for Rachel, but Harold Ramis’s estate was very kind in supplying us with photographic and video imagery of Harold that was integral to the creation of a believable likeness, too.

How did you blend the digitally aged Egon with the stand-in’s performance?

Ongaro: Bob Gunton gave us the body performance, and we actually kept the body all the way through, only replacing it from the neck up. He performed on set with the actors, so Jason was able to direct him and give him all the notes he wanted. We kept it very basic, without a headset or anything to capture the face exactly. We put a few dots on [his face] just to have some reference, and then we just went old school with it. There were some witness cameras, but we really relied on the skills and artistry of the animators at MPC.

Harold ramis as egon spengler in a scene from ghostbusters.

Given that Egon doesn’t actually speak, that’s a lot of pressure on the character’s expressions to tell the story …

Ongaro: It is! We had a lot of outtakes from Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II that MPC used as reference for his expressions. Usually, when you build a digital character, you create a library of expressions. There are 40-something faces and shapes you create that get you the whole range of emotions. You usually have an actor perform them, but in this case, a lot of it was done by the animators themselves. It was a lot of manual work, and it was really, really well done.

When you talk about human expressions and emotion, everybody is focused on the eyes. But especially now, during this pandemic, we’ve learned that it’s not just about the eyes. There were some subtle, nuanced movements we did with Egon’s facial expressions — on the mouth, the lips, and of course, the eyes — that we used to communicate emotions. One of my favorite shots is that little moment when you see Egon looking at his daughter, Callie [Carrie Coon], and he has a little reaction when he realizes that, yes, she forgave him. Then they hug, and there is so much relief on his face.

Every time I watch the movie, I still get goose bumps from that scene. It’s so emotional, so strong.

The ecto-1 drives down the street in an early vfx shot from ghostbusters: afterlife. An early vfx shot of a ghost being chased by the ecto-1 in ghostbusters: afterlife. A ghost being chased by the ecto-1 in ghostbusters: afterlife.

What sort of unique challenges did this film present, as far as visual effects go?

Duggal: I wanted to lean into the director’s vision of emulating the original ’80s films, so I asked the artists to consider how we would frame Muncher if he was a practically puppeteered character. When you have a practical character, you have happy accidents and hit limitations. With a physical puppet, you might reach a limit on how you can puppeteer, and then you need to find a different camera angle to get the shot. With a creature like Slimer, for example, there would have been cables coming down the back of the puppet that would control Slimer’s face, and the rest of the body was just floppy. In order to hide the puppeteer, they didn’t show the whole character.

The key thing I wanted to communicate is not to over-animate the characters just because we have no physical limitations in the CG world. It’s surprisingly difficult to not use all the tools we have in modern-day VFX and to restrain our work to what would have been possible practically back in ‘84

Mckenna grace in a scene from ghostbusters: afterlife.

Is there an element you’re particularly proud of in the film?

Duggal: Jason and I discussed the character of Phoebe in our first conversations, and I loved his ideas for this character. It’s a big reason why I wanted to do this film. Girls in particular, and especially ones on the spectrum, need good role models, and what better role model than a STEM girl as a lead character in Ghostbusters? I found this quite inspirational: To have a character who doesn’t fit in with the rest of her family, who discovers herself and finds that she shares traits with a grandfather she never met, and then meets his ghost. It was really beautiful and moving.

Ongaro: Again, this was a movie that was made for the fans, and I think it really succeeded in going where Jason wanted it to go. And for me, it’s been an honor working on it. It’s something that I am always going to remember.

Sony Pictures’ Ghostbusters: Afterlife is still in theaters, and is also available via on-demand digital streaming. It will also be available February 1 on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD. It will also be included in the Ghostbusters Ultimate Collection set available February 1.

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