‘Ghost’ Creators Breathe Life Into Animated Tale

From left: David Geffner, Jess Hall, John Dykstra, Michael Hatzer and Justin Wagman

Based on a Japanese manga comic that was animated in 1995 for theatrical release, the 2017 “Ghost in the Shell” update was destined to be a challenging and controversial project, according to the visual effects artists responsible for its creation.

A Monday afternoon NAB Show session, part of the Creative Master Series, brought together the team that helped translate a manga classic into a sci-fi thriller. Using film clips and personal recollections, the panel, moderated by ICG Magazine executive editor David Geffner, explored the epic task of paying homage to a well-loved fan favorite while fully realizing its visual potential with cutting-edge effects.

Cinematographer Jess Hall, BSC, recounted the process of realizing director Rupert Sanders’ vision, starting with early location scouting trips. “We work with a lot of natural light in England,” Hall said, “so for me it always starts with the natural environment, which in this case is Hong Kong.” Hall attempted to re-create the visual quality of the light he saw there, a quest that ultimately found him commissioning custom- made Panavision lenses for the project. He chose the ARRI Alexa 65 camera, noting that its native 1.85:1 aspect ratio most closely matched the aesthetic of the original print publications.

Hall’s vision included a very specific notion of the film’s color palette, a factor he found was integral to the production of manga art in Japan. “I was very aware that I’d have to push the boundaries,” Hall said. “What I did was identify 28 colors, which came out of my [scouting] stills from Hong Kong.… I wanted just to see those 28 colors in the film.” To achieve this vision, he turned to color-controllable LED lighting, developing systems that matched color outputs of diverse manufacturers’ models.

Eventually Hall’s cache of footage fell under the purview of post-production supervisor Justin Wagman, who trafficked the footage through the effects and digital intermediate processes on to completion. “Post was really, really late,” Wagman said. “The finishing process on this film didn’t take hold until the last month.”

Once the appropriate shots were ready for visual effects, it was time to enlist the skills of VFX designer and industry veteran John Dykstra, ASC. No stranger to fantasy and science fiction, Dykstra wasted no time in matching the style of the live-action film’s effects to its famous forerunner. “Both the anime and the film have this slightly surreal quality,” Dykstra explained.

For Dykstra to help tell the story of alternate identities, counterfeit copies and cloning, he turned away from high-quality rendering, deliberately introducing digital noise in key sequences. “The degradation of the image gives you a clue that it’s not the real thing,” he said.

The film’s fantastic cityscapes, too, were scrupulously managed regarding levels of detail, frequency of detail and overall coordination. Dykstra’s team, in turn, aided the colorist’s work by providing individual mattes to protect specific components in each complex scene.

After screening an extended clip from the film’s first scene, a high-action tour de force, Technicolor colorist Michael Hatzer described his own contribution to the storytelling process. “I thought it was very important to create a lot of visual impact in that [first] scene,” Hatzer said. He described adding mattes for actor Scarlett Johansson’s face and eyes, causing her character to glow and adding an unnatural tone.

Despite the team’s diverse talents and viewpoints, the panelists concurred that the resulting vision is clearly that of director Rupert Sanders. “I think everyone involved in this film agreed that Rupert had his paws on every single frame in this movie,” Hall said.