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Ghoulishly goofy and visually noteworthy: ReDefine’s Peter Dimitrov unravels the VFX wizardry done in ‘We Have a Ghost

Since its inception, ReDefine studio, a part of DNEG group, has been working on varied projects and one of its most recent projects is Christopher Landon’s Netflix original movie We have a Ghost starring David Harbour, Anthony Mackie and others.

The synopsis of this horror-comedy reads: After finding a ghost (Ernest) with a murky past haunting their new house, a family (Presleys) becomes an internet sensation – and the targets of a shadowy government agency.

To deliver the comically spooky scenes, ReDefine worked on 851 shots with hundreds of artists from India, Canada, Bulgaria and the US. In an interaction with Animation Xpress, ReDefine’s VFX supervisor for We Have a Ghost, Peter Dimitrov, shared details about the studio’s work on the movie. 

Creation of Ernest’s spectral presence

To create the main character Ernest – who is a ghost – a great deal of testing was done based on director Landon’s brief. Dimitrov said, “We came up with an old concept – called Pepper’s Ghost – which was developed towards the end of the 19th century. It is a special effects technique that creates transparent ghostly visuals.” Talking about Ernest’s creation, he said, “The effect works by reflecting a well-illuminated subject onto a refractive surface which is positioned at a 45-degree angle towards the audience. The projected image looks quite interesting because it turns semi-transparent, especially in the dark.” He also said that depending on the scenes, the team maintained the transparency of the ghost in tandem with the background behind Ernest. For some scenes, Ernest’s digi-double was also created. 


Achieving Ernest’s eerie antics

For one scene in particular, a full digi-double was used to show Ernest’s character. It is the scene where Judy Romano (Jennifer Coolidge) comes to interview the Presley family living in the haunted house. A complex bit in this scene is when Ernest tries to scare Judy by grabbing her throat via a dead zombie arm coming out of his mouth. “To do that, we needed to do a blend of the CG part of Ernest’s face and the practical one, which meant we needed a very accurate model with a rig that allowed us to do the wacky mouth opening,” said Dimitrov. 

This scene is followed by a scene where Ernest’s face completely melts off revealing the bones. “The difficulty here was that we were given Raiders of the Lost Ark as a reference. However, the effect was practically done and played as a single shot in Lost Ark. Over here, we had multiple shots playing in continuity which meant that we had to be very accurate with the velocity we were going to do the actual melt. That on its own played a big role in terms of the viscosity properties of the skin as it was melting.” The team did fine-tuning to get Ernest’s right look for the scene.

The hilarious chase

In the film, Kevin (the Presley family member who has always been in support of Ernest) and Ernest decide to dig out Ernest’s past and step out of the haunted house in search of more information. This search soon becomes a goofy chase sequence as a shadow government agency with the help of local police, tries to hunt them down. Adding about this scene, Dimitrov said, “Initially, this was planned to be a 2D work with elements shot by the production team to assist with those particular angles. However, in many shots, the perspective didn’t match. Then, the idea that Ernest would emit particles coming off of him as he was hanging from the rear spoiler of the car came about. This meant that we had to use a digi-double to emit the particles from him, and we ended up using full VFX shots for most parts of the scene.” 


Ernest’s ethereal farewell

This is the final sequence in the movie where the Presley family see Ernest for the last time before he disintegrates into particles and vanishes in the air. “This scene was changed multiple times as we were trying to discover the right look for it. We created numerous concepts, FX setups and comp drafts trying to figure out how much of Ernest should disintegrate in each shot and what the matter remaining underneath the surface should look like,” Dimitrov explained. The scene turned out to be the most challenging one in terms of execution because the creators kept requesting changes, which for the VFX team meant reworking on the entire sequence. 


Talking about his experience working with director Christopher Landon, Dimitrov said, “I think we learned a good deal from and about each other in the process and I am hoping we get to work together again in the future.”

Dimitrov and his team at ReDefine are currently working on several projects.