A look back at Boss Film’s end Heaven sequence.
Ghost was released 30 years ago; back in 1990, optical compositing with an optical printer was still the main way that effects would be composited. But video effects were fast becoming something used more and more. In TV, in particular, it was
When Richard Edlund was called upon in an incredibly short space of time to help craft the end sequence to Ghost – the moment when Patrick Swayze’s character ascends to heaven – video effects were deemed a suitable approach for the ethereal-looking shots.
In this excerpt from Masters of FX, Edlund explains how the sequence was put together, quickly.
Edlund says he noticed the first real major shift to digital effects when Boss Film’s commercial division began using Quantel’s “Harry” video-compositing system in the mid-1980s. “You could go into a Harry session with a sow’s ear and come out with a silk purse,” comments Edlund. “It was so facile and there were so many possibilities in the digital world. Then I would have to come back and wrestle with the optical printer, and I would consider that to be sumo wrestling. You get thrown out of the ring several times!”
Edlund would take advantage of this digital technology, and its ability to provide fast shot turnarounds, when he was asked to produce effects on the final ascending-to-heaven sequence in Ghost (1990) for the purposes of a test screening. “What they had cut into the movie at that time was Patrick Swayze kissing Demi Moore and then walking up a mylar platform toward a bluescreen with grips in the shot! You couldn’t have that scene at the end of the movie and expect the audience to be into it—it had to be ethereal and ghostly and powerful.”
“I got a piece of workprint,” recalls Edlund, “and went into a bay at the Post Group with Steve Price, who was a really great compositor. I brought some elements that had been shot on the Oxberry animation stand with an endoscope of Christmas tinsel and stuff like that. We brought these elements into the Harry and we put Patrick Swayze into this heaven environment, and were able to increase the resolution to make it work for film even though it was video.”
All this had to be completed in two weeks, which was unheard of at that time in the film world. “On Monday I got the gig,” says Edlund, “then Tuesday I went in and worked with Steve, and I think half a day on Wednesday. We then took the material and the guys did the up-res’ing on a film recorder. It came out great and on Friday I took the shot back over and they were dumbfounded! We did the whole sequence and— remember this was just on a workprint—we showed it to the studio and they all thought it was a final! So the movie tested extremely well and was an extreme hit.”
“That’s what really convinced me we were on the verge of greatness in the digital world,” adds Edlund. “The difference between the photochemical world and the digital world is a complete gulf in ingenuity. A different kind of ingenuity is required to do a digital movie than a photochemical movie. The photochemical process is an unwilling adversarial process—you can trick it, but it’s really difficult. For all effects though, you’ve really got to understand photography and treat it like a science and an art.”Sign up to the weekly b&a VFX newsletter