Laszlo Kovacs, ASC and Ghostbusters

The cinematographer details some of the challenges of working on his first massive special-effects laden movie.

At top, the Ghostbusters assemble to save the world.

By Randy Lofficier

Ghostbusters had its beginnings in the fertile mind of comedian/ writer Dan Aykroyd. One of the original stars of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Aykroyd’s film career includes 1941 (1979), The Blues Brothers (1980), and, in 1983, Trading Places. Aykroyd reportedly wrote a first draft screenplay and showed it to longtime friend and fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus, Bill Murray. Murray and Aykroyd, in turn, took the idea to director Ivan Reitman, who was instrumental in shifting the emphasis from pure fantasy to wilder comedy. 

The story, as developed, concerns a trio of Columbia University scientists, the womanizing Venkman (Murray), the money-hungry Stantz (Aykroyd), and the maniacal Spengler (Ramis), who are expelled from academia and set out to open their own business — hunting ghosts in New York City. The script includes a plethora of special effects, such as the representations of the various specters and demons, the sophisticated weaponry used by the Ghostbusters, and a climactic battle with an extra-dimensional demon named Gozer, who turns into a 112 ½ foot tall marshmallow man!

This article originally ran in AC, June 1984. Some pictures are additional or alternate.

Director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, was chosen to shoot the picture. His credits include Easy Rider (1969), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Paper Moon (1973), Nickelodeon (1976), New York, New York (1977), and, more recently, Frances and Crackers. Kovacs describes his involvement with the film: “I had never done anything like this before. That’s why I was very excited when Ivan asked me to do this film. It was such a challenge because there were so many different facets to it, the magnitude of the visual effects, the 65mm format, and so forth.

“We had a pretty close communication between Ivan, Richard Edlund, ASC, supervisor of visual effects, some of his matte painters and artists, and myself. We had actual sketches available to all of us to give us a very strong idea of what to expect and create. Everybody has to have an idea of what is going on in the scenes, especially the gaffer. Certain things had to be pre-planned and set up, lighting-wise. Without the storyboards, we couldn’t have done that because, for certain things, you can’t wait until the day of production. A lot of things have to be prepared before then. For example, I used the largest arcs ever built in Hollywood. They built 16 of them, and I used 14! I had specially built shutters for these arcs, because we needed to simulate a lightning effect. So every shot had to be very carefully designed.”

Refugees from academia, Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Spengler (Harold Ramis) and Venkman (Bill Murray) on their first real job.

Photographing Ghostbusters indeed presented its own set of problems. The situations which arise in the film, and which are humorous to the viewer, are taken very seriously by the characters. Therefore, the filming was done as if the film were a drama and not a comedy:  “Ivan wanted it to look just like a dramatic piece of film. Afterward, I thought about it and realized it was really a great approach. It really made tremendous sense.

“I can be grateful to Ivan because the first thing he told me — and I love him for that! —
was that he didn’t want this film to
look like a comedy.”
— Laszlo Kovacs, ASC

The team makes their first catch, at the posh Sedgewick Hotel (staged on location in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles).
The team makes their first catch, at the posh Sedgewick Hotel (staged on location in the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles).

“Automatically, everybody shoots comedy in the traditional approach. Very high-key photography, bright, cheerful, and all that. I’ve done other comedies before and, for various reasons, I have always followed the old, traditional way of lighting comedy films. But, when you think of it, comedy is really a piece of drama. It’s in fact, harder to do than a drama. Especially a film with this subject matter — ghosts getting loose in New York, which is kind of a silly idea. So, if you don’t treat it seriously visually, as you would a drama, it’s not going to have any credibility.”

Laszlo Kovacs, ASC

Reitman had approached Columbia with the project in May of 1983. By June, the film was set to go, the only problem being that the studio insisted the film be ready for an early summer 1984 release in order to be in theaters well before the Olympic games. This was especially difficult in light of the large quantity of special effects — almost 200 shots. Fortunately, the production was able to enlist the skills of Richard Edlund’s newly-established Boss Film Corporation (BFC) effects house, where most people, including visual effects arts director John Bruno, had previously worked on Poltergeist, giving them prior experience in handling ghosts.

Unlike live-action, which was shot in the normal 35mm format, special effects were shot using 65mm. This, in turn, confronted Kovacs with new problems. “At times, it was like a horror story!” he recalls. “It was really difficult because of the amount of light required by the 65mm format. Not only that, but the BFC people needed as much depth of field as I could give them. This way, it’s more believable to create the unseen third dimension later on in their work. And for them to be able to match my work, I had to establish a certain light level and keep with it. I really tried to understand their problems. There were some really brilliant people there. I hadn’t had this kind of experience before, and I learned a lot from them. 

“There was always a problem of compromising, since ideally speaking, you light for one angle. But, when you have two or three angles, and especially closeups, it is very difficult, because you have to make a multiple choice. In a long shot, the face is fully lit, but you create all kinds of other shadow areas in a frame. Then, when you cut to the close-up, you have to create the same shadows and the same kind of a feeling. If it’s a fully lit face, it doesn’t work and wouldn’t match with the intercuts. Hence, the necessity of creating a compromise. You really have to light the close-up in the long shot, as refined as if you were doing the close-up separately. I figured out a way, which was to do the close-ups at the very end. That way, we could really refine it and change it. It was very interesting and, at times, it was really a problem.”

Another problem faced by Kovacs, was that the 65mm cameras always had to be locked off, due to the registration problem. That made the coverage very difficult, says the cinematographer, “Ivan asked me to utilize two 35mm cameras and, whenever I could, cover the scene at the same time in a close-up and a medium shot, or a full shot and medium shot, depending on how he wanted to present the action. The 35mm cameras had to exclude the angle that the 65mm cameras saw, where the ghost would eventually be, otherwise it would show up in the 35mm angle. The coverage was very difficult, although, after a while, we got it down almost to a science.” 

The founding trio encounters their first apparition in the NYC Public Library.

In addition to the skills of Edlund, Bruno, and the other BFC people, Ghostbusters was fortunate to enlist the talents of John DeCuir as production designer. DeCuir has been in the business since the 1940s, and his credits include The King and I (1956), Cleopatra (1963) and Hello Dolly (1969). DeCuir’s most difficult task on Ghostbusters was the designing of the “Gozer Temple” set on Sound Stage 16 at the Burbank Studios. This set, which was 60 feet tall, covered the entire stage. It represented the top of a New York apartment building and was surrounded by a back-lit, 360 degree, panoramic, New York skyline backdrop.

“It was especially difficult on Stage 16, where a lot of 65mm effects had to be shot,” Kovacs continues. “One day, we had two or three 65mm cameras and three 35mm cameras lined up, doing the same setup. I had to light basically for the 65mm, in order to achieve the certain stop — f/5.6 — that they preferred. But, in certain situations, I wasn’t able to give them more than f/4 due to physical conditions.

Shooting on the rooftop temple set designed by John DeCuir.
Shooting on the rooftop temple set designed by John DeCuir.

“The set presented an enormous logistics problem. For instance, Colin Campbell, my gaffer, built light racks behind the painted New York backing, which was over 400 feet long and 60 feet high. There were 7500 pieces of 300-watt mushroom globes, strategically located behind windows, skylines, etc. Even the park lamps were little Christmas lights. That created depth and life in a basically immobile backing. The rigging of that stage alone took six weeks. Just the rigging — without the labor — such as equipment rentals, cables, generators, etc. cost $300,000. Again, that created a problem because it was supposed to look real. We had a lot of tests made with different degrees of light intensity coming through the windows, the skylight, etcetera. And, for a while, nothing worked! But, miraculously, the day before shooting, on the last test, we came up with something that we thought was really believable.”

According to Kovacs, Ghostbusters shot on Stage 16 for 21 days. Both he and assistant producer Michael Gross remember the period as the most difficult part of the production, because of the size of the set, and the technical nature of the visual effects required. “It required so many big lighting units. I hardly had anything smaller than 10Ks. I only had a few 5Ks, which I used on the foreground action. We had 14 Titans, regular 10K arcs, plus we had huge, old-fashioned big-eye 10Ks. The whole studio has the capacity to supply 80,000 amps, and we needed 50,000. They could only give us 15,000 amps, even when the neighboring productions gave all their power to us. So, Stage 16 was surrounded by huge generators which were rented from Walt Disney, Fox, Paramount, independent rental companies — whoever had generators. We had 12 separate vehicles generating power whenever we turned on the lights.

“This is a good example of why a close relationship with the gaffer is very important in a film like this because you have to request, months ahead of time, that in certain areas you will need so-called hot 10Ks. They have hot lenses that refocus and collect the light, giving off a smaller, narrower beam, but you have a bigger intensity from the same distance. In this case, we had to mix, because we needed both the wide coverage and also the high intensity. So we mixed one hot lens and one wide lens.

“The reason we had to use these huge units was that due to the largeness of the sets, the light had to travel more distance, and it had to be of overpowering intensity. It was a struggle. Plus, sometimes you had to put a green gel in front of it, or a red gel or an orange, or a pink, depending on what was happening at that moment in the sky with the ghosts.”

Kovacs is very complimentary about John DeCuir’s efforts. “He’s a great, brilliant artist,” he says. “All of our lights were 60 feet above ground. At the end of the stairway on the set is Gozer’s pyramid. Its peak was right at the rafters. Then, on top of the pyramid, I needed another Titan. We figured that the only way we could do it would be to take out the rafters and put in a bed which is hung from the ceiling — which is, of course, higher than the rafters — and put the Titan there. But we only had to do that for that one light. John DeCuir went over things very carefully with my gaffer and myself, to leave us places for the lights. He always creates every set keeping in mind how it should be lit. He provides little architectural elements where you can hide lights, and a little visual interest which would catch a little more light or some kind of a texture.

“The idea was to use a strong backlight on the whole stairway, and also use cross light. First of all, I had to build the stop up to about f/16 because, when the ghost appears, we wanted to create this overexposed effect with everything bathed in light. I had to give the 65mm camera an f/8 stop. I used the same f/8 stop on my camera, but it needed two more stops overexposure. That’s why I needed all this tremendous amount of power. Also, creating the backlight effect is really not using the full extent of the lights. If you front-light you’ve got overexposure much sooner. It’s very difficult to overexpose with cross light and backlight.”

Portions of Ghostbusters were shot on location in New York City, where the production used an actual building to represent the locale of the Gozer temple. The building was later enhanced in several shots through the use of mattes and other opticals. Lighting differences between Los Angeles and New York were another problem Kovacs had to face. “I had three lighting crews for this picture. I had a New York gaffer, Billy Ward, who was wonderful. I had a California gaffer, Colin Campbell, plus we had a rigging crew which was actually larger than the two shooting crews combined.

Director Ivan Reitman looking on from left, Sigourney Weaver is attacked by the terror dog with the help of a little movie magic.

“Shooting at night is no trouble because you create your own atmospheric conditions with smoke and backlight. But, during the daytime, the light looks different. New York, first of all, is very far north, and during wintertime, the arc of the sun is much lower, so you have a much more pleasing light, as opposed to even winter light in California. And the higher the light is, the uglier it is, especially on the face. The low arc sun gives you wonderful backlight situations. So, what I try to do is stage it, if I have a chance, or see if the director can stage it for backlight, or shoot from a certain direction. Ivan was always very helpful.

“There are situations, however, when I had trouble making an exact match, and where we had to drop a few shots and redo them here in Los Angeles. On the close shots, you can silk it and control the sunlight, if not too huge an area is involved. There were quite a few scenes that took place in front of the Gozer building that we didn’t shoot in New York, but here on the Columbia backlot. The actual building was built to the second floor, and wide enough so that we could do some smaller scenes, and I had to silk the whole area.”

In the case of Ghostbusters, Kovacs’ first real brush with a giant, special effects-laden production, the challenges were met with considerable success in spite of the pressures of a very short schedule. The difficulties encountered once again prove the necessity of collaboration between cinematographer and director.

Reitman, Kovacs (center) and the production team watch as actor Rick Moranis plays off his creepy “canine” co-star.

This insightful essay from Overthinking Ghostbusters offers more detail on the cinematographer’s work in the picture.

You’ll find our complete story on the film’s Academy Award-nominated visual effects work here.

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