We Have a Ghost Interview with Andre Bustanoby, ReDefine VFX Supervisor – Part Two

Earlier this year, Netflix released ‘We Have a Ghost’, a supernatural adventure comedy with an all-star cast featuring Anthony Mackie, David Harbour, Jahi Winston, Tig Notaro, Jennifer Coolidge and more. We sat down with ReDefine VFX Supervisor Andre Bustanoby to discuss the team’s creative process in bringing the project – and a ghost named Ernest – to life and there were so many insights, it became a two-parter. If you missed the first half of our chat with Andre, check it out here before diving into the second half of our interview below. 

Can you describe the one ‘key shot’ that was the most important/critical one from a creative and/or technical standpoint?
There were some key moments in the film, one of which was what we called the ‘FR sequence’ (the family reunion).  Ernest is on the beach with Kevin, Kevin’s dad and Joy. They’re out in the middle of nature, next to a lake and a mountain, and the sun is out. It’s a beautiful scene. It is also when Ernest finally gets back in contact with his daughter, which was a huge moment in the movie. When this meeting happens, she’s an adult and he’s a disembodied ghost but it’s a very touching moment.

With this particular scene, we needed to figure out how we could visually support this father-daughter moment during the daytime due to the transparency, his glow and the interaction with the sun, his skin, and the contact and touch between these elements. And then there’s the sunset. Ernest and Kevin are skipping stones out into the water, and Ernest slowly starts to feel a little bit different. He looks down at his hand and his fingers start to disintegrate and turn into these sort of glowing particle bits of energy. This needed to communicate visually that he has volume and that there are these layers of energy within him that are his soul, if you will. The challenge there was not to have this look horrific but visually tell the story of someone friendly and sensitive coming apart in a way that’s tasteful, organic, emotional, hopeful and beautiful. This was a huge design challenge, because there is a lot to tackle so how do you visually start to execute that?

Peter Dimitrov served as the other ReDefine VFX Supervisor on the show and his team in Bulgaria did an excellent job with concept art. They started with a couple of keyframes, working out the different stages of the disintegration and how he layers up. Peter pitched that Ernest was not just one level of being but that he’s got core energy. Even the clothing was sort of a layer that also disintegrated, as if it was not literally clothing, but an image of him from when he was alive. But it’s all energy – it’s active, almost nebulous, but it’s wafting, floating and coming apart. It was very important to Chris and Robert to collaborate with the lighting set-up.

It was all shot in Louisiana, but we had to double it as a lake in Montana. It was a stunning location. We had a lot of digital matte painting work, environment enhancement and compositing as well. They were mainly on blue screens. We decided to split them out of that and drop them into this sunset lakefront location. This was a difficult but incredibly important scene to get right. It was one of the last ones we finished actually, and it took a while to get as we needed some progression: starting with the fingertips, then up the hand, along the lower arm, shoulder, parts of his head, but not too much since we didn’t want to cover his face. Eventually he just becomes nothing but this energy as he floats off over the water and disappears into the sunset.

There were also two chase sequences, both on-foot and also in cars. We see Ernest jumping from car-to-car to try to get the police off their back as they’re being chased because they’re trying to get away in this red and orange Dodge Charger, which is his brother’s car, so huge effects were used there. While Ernest is in the car trying to get the steering wheel away from the deputy, we had to deal with the interaction there, where he’s touching the deputy, the steering wheel and then the gun at one point. There was just a bunch of complexity and it involved fast editing.

We had to deal with some double heads here and there because there were stunt people in the cars wearing helmets, which meant we had to do some head and face replacement. It was intercut with the first unit also, which is all the close-ups and dialogue, so it was all very seamless.

There was a huge semi-truck crash towards the end, and that’s what stops the sheriff cold. He can’t chase them anymore because he runs into the back of a semi. But then the on-foot chase sees Ernest running away from angry, protesting neighbours. And Ernest at one point runs through an office building, and he’s going through the wall to the insurance office, running through people, desks, chairs, and flying coffees and papers. He’s going from office-to-office and finally meets up with Kevin and Joy, and they go to get the car and thus the car chase begins. Yeah, it was pretty much the whole broad range: extremely intimate, quiet scenes, to extreme car chase stunts and everything in between. It was a lot to chew on, but we had a ton of fun.

Can you tell us a bit more about your two favourite shots?
There was one in the attic where Kevin (who has already met Ernest) is introducing his friend Joy, to Ernest. And she’s just like,  “I don’t believe this. He’s a ghost and he’s on YouTube.” I don’t remember the sequence name, but the way it was staged and lit by the DP was the sun coming through the stained glass window behind them – warm, very inviting, very intimate. And our work was to introduce almost a sense of just quiet beauty in a way, that he’s there, but he’s a ghost, but he’s got an ethereal glow about him, given the lighting and just how it was lit and shot. There were several shots in those sequences where we really tried hard to give him this signature look that had a certain warm glow about it – I think those worked out quite well.

There were the shots in the insurance office and tattoo parlour that were also quite fun. It was all shot at high speed – nearly 1000 frames a second, if memory serves, so that we could speed ramp in and out of that based on the editorial pacing of the music. So we do these extreme speed ramps from real-time to slow motion as Ernest is going through and interacting with things, they do repeat passes on that. Not much control for those shots, but pretty repeatable. Basically, the camera was on a motorcycle on the stage. We just go back and back and back dozens of times to get each layer. Ernest on green, office people on green, background plate, clean pass elements, all that kind of stuff. And it all tied in nicely. Ghostly look on top of that, and then, of course, the interactive effect simulations that our effects teams did throughout the entire movie. We didn’t think we’d be doing a lot of effects, just given the look that we started out with, but it became clear very quickly in post that there’s a lot of interaction happening, and we’re going to need control of how hands, bodies, parts of bodies, and how things go through the volume of Ernest or vice versa. So there’s got to be some interaction, some kind of residual wafting energy that comes off his skin, or he reconstitutes from this energy as he’s going through a wall. So, that work grew quite a bit throughout our post-production work, and it was throughout the entire movie, as it turned out, whether he’s shaking somebody’s hand, going through a wall or disintegrating, which, of course, clearly was going to need effect sims and many, many layers of that, ultimately, to give it the organic volume and visual complexity that his look required.

Do you have anything you’d like to say to the ReDefine team who worked on We Have a Ghost?
I do. I wanted to thank everyone again. It was a long show and it was a show that grew quite a bit in complexity, in shot count, in the variation of the work, and it was a bit of a marathon, but at the end of the day, it’s a beautiful movie. I knew it the first time I saw it in a screening with a test audience early on in our work, and it just got better and better.

The success of the movie was a result of everyone’s hard work, dedication, passion, artistry, technical and scientific acumen. There’s a lot of science underneath the hood on this film. Also, I can tell you from having heard it, both Robert, the client-side VFX Supervisor and, of course, Chris, the Director, and everyone on the production side, really loved the work. They thought it was beautiful and well-executed so thank you very much – your work is appreciated and you all should be very proud.

Last question: what are you up to next?
Well, we just finished up with Scream VI which has been out in the theatres for a few months now. It’s doing very well and seems to be a big hit with the audience, especially those who have been fans of the films since 1996 when the first one came out. I can’t say too much about my next project but check back soon to learn more!

ReDefine is definitely a great place to be. I have enjoyed every single day here, the work is truly rewarding. The teams share a great bond and that’s what makes it a great place to work.

Shilpa Bhanushali Head of Production (Animation)

We have top-of-line professionals who are not only creative, but also fun to work with. It has created a lot of possibilities for reinventing workflows.

François Schneider Global Creative Supervisor, North America

The people who form ReDefine have come from varied experiences and all have the potential to develop and deliver world-class projects.

Viral Thakkar Creative Director and VFX Supervisor India