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.
1.) Hi Andre! Can you start by introducing yourself and your role on the ‘We Have a Ghost’ VFX team at ReDefine?
Hello! My name is Andre Bustanoby and I work for ReDefine. I was the North American Visual Effects Supervisor on ‘We have Ghost’ for Netflix.
2.) How did you approach the design of the protagonist of the movie, the ghost Ernest?
It was important that we tackled Ernest first, especially given the scale of the project, the number of shots and the design challenges that we had. There have been so many ghost movies over the years and they’ve been done in many different ways, so we wanted to do something unique that hadn’t really been seen before, but that would still be identifiable as a ghost.
We wanted Ernest to have a certain level of transparency, a kind of otherworldliness about him, some glow, some kind of inner energy – yet he needed to feel present as he was affecting his environment and vice versa. Due to his interaction with people, walls and objects, there had to be a certain organic groundedness about him.
3.) How did you decode the creative brief for the show and how did you collaborate with the client team to create Ernest?
It started with conversations with both Robert Stott, the client-side visual effects supervisor, and Director Chris Landon regarding Ernest’s character and look. The main thing they didn’t want was any digidoubles. David Harbour, who played Ernest, would perform on-set with his fellow actors in costume, hair and makeup. We would then have to use what we call ‘ghost reference’ in post-production. It’s sort of a recipe of passes and elements that came together in a composite to give him his innate look. It varies in function of whether he’s sitting still, touching something, running, jumping through walls or any other actions. It took a lot of conversations to determine the rules of Ernest as a ghost. They had to be consistent and connected from the first shot to the last, but they also had to progress, especially in one of the final sequences where Ernest is transitioning to another plane of existence.
An important question that we had to ask ourselves was: what happens when he touches someone’s face or someone would touch his leg? We did a lot of visual development and concept art, and tried out different approaches to get feedback from the client. We did movement and look tests based on what was being shot on-location and set because the context of where Ernest is was also very important.
Some other questions we had to consider were the time of day or the location, such as the attic, kitchen or outside. If so, was the sun shining directly on him or was he in the shade? What happens at sunset or early in the morning? There were a whole spectrum of contexts that we had to creatively work through with the filmmakers.
Another thing we had to consider for his character was whether his look and costume would work with our ghost look recipe. It was very graphic. He wears a bowling shirt (circa the 1950s) and his hair is combed over. There were some definite artistic choices that they were making with David, specifically as an actor, which all fed into the creative brief that we initiated very early on. It evolved as certain things often change during production, with editorial getting on-board in post-production, and further refining things. New decisions were made, and it became an organic back and forth from day one to the very end, because it was such a huge scope of work, and the shot variations were very complex, ranging from simple and quiet, to some kind of conversation between two people, or sometimes just looks because Ernest can’t speak. It was all about facial expression, his gestures, and the position of his body. The primary communication tools of any human being are the face and the fingers. We had to be very careful with how much of a ghost look we did on his face, because if we started covering up his face with stuff, we would have lost it. It was a bit of a journey and a very exciting one.
4.) What creative challenges did you face while working on the show?
The primary challenge was working out the rules of Ernest, giving him a unique ghost look that was appropriate for the story. We didn’t want to get in David’s way or lose something in translation from what Chris ultimately wanted him to be as a ghost. We were always supporting that visually.
Other challenges included the chase sequence where Ernest is running away from angry neighbors, moving through walls and jumping from car-to-car.
Stay tuned for part two of our conversation with Andre – coming soon!
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.
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.
The people who form ReDefine have come from varied experiences and all have the potential to develop and deliver world-class projects.